Mismatch Troubles: Access to Higher Education vs. Student Placements in Ethiopia

Published by Ayele Gelan on

News regarding yet another tragic event on a university campus sends shiver down my spine.  It takes me down the memory lane, a flash back of scenes during my university days.  My empathy is related not so much to my own life but I keep imagining the anguish my mother would have been subjected to had anything happened to me on campus. 

I still have vivid memory of tears in the eyes of my mother as she was seeing me off when I was departing to return to my campus in the months of September.  She had a somewhat poetic way of expressing her intense feelings during those moments: “Anaaf ganni hifaa, birraan dukkana! ” she would say, meaning “I am used to having brighter winters but darker Septembers!”. Those scenes and expressions live fresh in my memory till end of my day.

Every mother goes through a similar emotional turmoil when she sees her son or daughter off to a faraway university campus. If separation from one’s child sends a mother to such state of agony, then I would not even try to find words to capture the depth of sorrow and the extents of shattering blow occurring to her when she receives a dead body of her beloved child.   It is not just a family loss, but a national tragedy at a colossal scale.  This epitomizes hope shattering, literally in the most vivid way.

I do not want to entertain the temptation to delve into seeking answer to the question why these tragedies are recurring.  It would amount to spending time trying to define an elephant, when we know what animal we are referring to. 

Besides, discussing such a national and traumatic issue by trying to answer such questions would throw us deep into a barren argument in a futile problem identification exercise, in the process of which we would end up creating more and more problems on top of the ones we started with. The burning issue would suddenly become another venue for political football. Everyone would blame everyone else.

It would prove useful to adopt a solution-oriented approach. We are where we are, regardless of how we arrived. But what needs to be done to avert more tragedies in the coming years?

I feel intensely about this issues not only because precious human life is involved in every tragedy, but because I passionately believe the tragedies are avoidable. In a large majority of the reported tragedies, victims of campus murders are students placed to those universities from elsewhere.  In that case, the solution lies in doing something to the existing student placement practice.

For quite long time and even before the tragedies began to happen, I have always been puzzled by the student placements being practiced in Ethiopia’s higher education. I have a long held view that the costs associated with existing student placement by far outweigh envisaged and somewhat elusive benefits. As a matter of fact, Ethiopia’s student placement to universities is nothing short of an experiment with chaos theory. 

On the one hand, literally every zone, the third administrative tier in Ethiopia’s regional hierarchy, has a university.  This indicates enormously improvements in access to higher education, bringing higher education closer and closer to communities.  On the other hand, more often than not, students are allocated to faraway universities, rather than the one nearest to them.  The potential benefits gained by improving access to higher education seems to have been nullified by the student placement practices.

It seems the definition of access to higher education somewhat got muddled in the head of the authorities. To begin with, scare resources have been allocated to build universities everywhere, up and down the country.  This was done with the primary objective of improving access to universities. 

Critically, when we talk about access to university education, there is an implicit understanding that two notions of access are involved. 

The first one is opportunity to attend Universities, creating enough number of university places, so that whoever qualified would be able to attend university education.  The second one  refers to geographical access or proximity, that is to say getting university establishments closer to the communities so that students would travel minimal distances to attend higher education. 

I think these two notions are thoroughly confused, the authorities apply one notion at one time and the other at another time.  If it is a must to pursue the current student placement strategy, then it was a totally meaningless exercise to build universities in every zone of the country.  What is the point in building university campuses in Dambii Doolloo and Jigiga, if the two communities end up swapping students?

Perhaps the optimal strategy would have been to build few large universities at some central location, say Addis Ababa and its surroundings, and then send all students there. At the very least, students would have saved on their costs of traveling back and forth during the four or five years of their university educations. 

On the other hand, if the objective is to maximize welfare of students and their families, then students should be assigned to a university nearest to their family homes. This would mean the two notions of access to higher education would overlap as they should.

There are considerable advantages from placing students to the nearest university establishment.   To begin with, a good proportion of students would attend classes from their own family homes.  That reduces government budget required to finance student accommodation and subsistence.

Similarly, students who attend from their homes would not get into any debts that they would be required to repay to the government after graduation.  Costs of travels and supplementary subsistence needs of students would undoubtedly be lower, family budgets would not unnecessarily be strained. 

It is not difficult to calculate the differential public and private economic costs from the current student placement strategy.  These figures can very quickly add up; eating into scare education budget, apart from adverse effects on the welfare of students and their families.  So far I have discussed only quantifiable economic and welfare costs and benefits. 

However, there are non-quantifiable costs, particularly student separation from their families years, and the anguish involved in the process.  Nowadays the placement practice seems have been fueling the political turmoils as well.

This is aggravating inter-ethnic tensions, making an already bad situation worse.  By far the most incalculable cost is the loss of precious human life, which these days is happening at frequent intervals. 

Ethiopia’s higher education policy has to throw away the current mismatch between access and placement.  Students should be assigned to a university nearest to their communities. This ensures that both notions of access,  geographical and  opportunity, would overlap.

I am aware that there has always been an elusive objective that Ethiopia’s education authorities have persistently been pursuing, staring from the Imperial days. This has to do with using education as a tool to encourage intermingling among Ethiopians and enhancing assimilation. 

It used to be the case that earlier this objective was pursued most commonly through the assignments of elementary and secondary school teachers outside their communities.

Long before the ugly murder scenes on university campuses started to occur, even during the imperial and Dergue days that strategy had become the butt of jokes in the communities. 

We are familiar with one of them: gud fella Gonder, ye-Amarigna astermari ke-Welega meta! I do not think the strategy of using education as a tool to achieve some sociological intermingling objectives has ever worked. 

The current student placement seems to be part of some dogged determination to persist with the old methods, still pursuing that elusive objective, this time using university student placement as a tool.

The desired objective of inter-community exchanges can be encouraged and then achieved by other means. For varieties of reasons, as time goes by, students would naturally tend choose a university outside their own communities.

Human curiosity would play a part, young souls would choose to explore elsewhere and attend their university education at the same time. Universities would evolve at different paces.

Students would begin to choose and join place of learning higher up in the ranking of the national league, regardless of their locations.

In the modern world, it is commonplace to practice student exchanges between universities, a process through which students and universities would be incentivized to attract or attend classes outside their communities for certain period of time.

It would be realistic for authorities to progressively achieve the objectives of inter-community flows of students, based on the free will of students and those of their families.

This is the way it is supposed to be done in a civilized and modern world.  The current practice with student placement is nothing short of force feeding. The sooner this practice is abandoned the better.    


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