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Politics of Meaning about Quality of Education in Ethiopia :Observations from a recent Diaspora discourse in a Twitter space 

Ethiopia _ Quality of Education _ Solomon Abedom article

By Dr. Solomon Abedom 

In a Twitter space arranged by the group ETHub (https://twitter.com/ethiohub), the diaspora community held interesting discussions on the topic of Ethiopia’s Education. During this space, many vital issues were raised. The notion of quality was especially implied in many different contexts. There seems to exist confusion about the meaning of quality of education (QoE) among the participants. It springs out from the multiple perspectives the participants have. Undoubtedly, it is a more appealing issue right now for the general public in Ethiopia. What does it mean that an education system has high or low quality? Is it possible to measure QoE? If yes, what are the units and standards? These questions cannot be answered without having some kind of meaning for QoE. 

According to Ole Skovsmose, a Danish philosopher in mathematics education, the meaning of something is connected to some references, or its uses or foregrounds. Hence there exists different perspectives on the meaning of that particular thing. That is what is called politics of meaning.  In this piece, we consider the different perspectives about the quality of the education system and reflect on the politics of the meaning of QoE to raise a constructive public debate and discourse about it in the country. By a public debate, we mean to include every citizen in the country to participate in the discourse about QoE. That means we need to reduce many scholarly jargons and stay on the general aspects of QoE to include the wider public in the discourse. Of course, it is possible to limit the debate and discourse within the scholarly world for the future. But for now, please indulge us to make it open to the whole society. 

What is Quality of Education (QoE)?

So, what do we mean by Quality of Education (QoE)? To answer this question, we approach it from the stakeholders’ perspectives. Since education has many different stakeholders and these stakeholders have different perspectives. Note that by stakeholders we mean those who are investing in education. Those who have a concern about the status of education and care for it. These can be teachers, educators, students, parents, families, associations, business communities, elected officials, organizations (local and international), and so on. 

Those diasporas who participated in the Twitter space on ETHub were not uniform stakeholders, but they represented several of these: teachers, educators, parents, technologists, researchers, former policymakers and NGO workers, and so on. These stakeholders have different meanings as well as priorities about the conceptualization of QoE. It was reflected during the participation in the Twitter space. For the sake of including the general public in the debate, we take out seven meanings attributed to QOE, what we call Politics of Meaning about Quality of Education in this piece.

1. The best quality of education was in the past- the good old days meaning

That every generation complains about the new generation is not a new phenomenon. Studies have shown that even the ancient Greeks were complaining about the young generation. As this piece is not meant to be an academic article we will not dwell on this subject for now. In the mentioned Twitter space, some people had had a good understanding of the old education system during the Emperor’s time (Zewditu, Haileselasie). They reflected that the education system during the emperors’ time was better than the Derg time. Even those who finished grade 4 are superior to those who finished 8 grade during the Derg regime and even better than those who finished high school in the present education system. They meant that the pupil had better reading and language proficiency, mathematics and numeracy proficiency as well as scientific knowledge and understanding literacy at that time than in the past 50 years. 

Given those criteria, this might appear to be true at the surface. But we need to be critical to such conclusions. One of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), education is one very important focus area. And Quality education accordingly means: ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. How inclusive was the education system during the emperor’s time? What about the access parameter? How many students were in urban and rural areas who got access to that education system? In our view, it was an education system for very few lucky ones. One can not brag too much about it if the access was skewed to the few nobility and the dignitaries, with little or no access to the society at large including the laborers and farmers.

Even those of us who attended school during the Derg regime had a higher regard for the QoE during Derg compared to the one present during the TPLF. In particular, we complain about the education policy implemented by TPLF in 1994 and 1999 which is still functional. We complain that the education policy has degraded the quality of education tremendously in the past 30 years. The introduction of regional education systems that are based on ethnic cleavages was an abomination to the country, in our view. We think that the introduction of self-contained classes, as well as different languages at an early age has weakened the QoE. However, research shows that if kids first learn with their mother tongue, it leads to a better understanding of the curriculum as well as a more positive attitude towards school, which may lead to success in life too. So the complaint should not be about the introduction of more mother tongues in the education system,  but the way it is implemented. Since it was different from region to region. That should have been the main issue. 

Those educated at the emperor’s time claim that their proficiency in the English language both in writing and speaking was high. But the question was who were their teachers? In the Twitter space, several have mentioned the involvement of foreign teachers at all school levels, including an elementary school. Especially, like those scouts and peace corps from Canada and USA. Interesting! That is why one who speaks English was taken as a highly educated person. On the other hand, one might have mastered reading and writing in Amharic and Geez literacy including writing poems, idioms, and complex essays, but it is considered inferior to those who learned how to write and speak fluent English. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly led them to the temptation of introducing a dichotomized belief of the inferior and superior educational system using the pretext of modern and traditional education. This takes us to our second meaning about the QoE. 

2. The indigenous knowledge is ignored- decolonize meaning 

Many have mentioned that the education policy in Ethiopia has abandoned the indigenous knowledge and wisdom from the school system for too long. Hmmm, how come we complain about this now,  after we have allowed the introduction of modern education as superior, and foreign educators are superior to the educators within the country? Instead of introducing and integrating the so-called modern education within the indigenous education system, it was presented as the superior one. One participant in the Twitter Space mentioned a similar event in Europe. The monasteries and churches were the foundations of the present education systems in Europe. In 2014, while visiting Cambridge University in England, I came across two colleges which were monasteries, Emanuel college and Christ College. These religious centers were not abandoned from the outset. But they become the foundation of one of the best educational institutions in the world. Progressively, they develop to the status where they are now. However, in Ethiopia, the monasteries are detached from modern education for too long and failed to evolve with the pace of time. They are neglected and undermined. The knowledge, skills, and wisdom from most of the communities in the land are treated as inferior to the imported western ‘modern’ education. 

We always say that we are not colonized, people. But when it comes to education, we need to admit that we are colonized. The curriculums and policies are copied from UK, Germany, and USA. Even today, international organizations like World bank, IMF, UNICEF, and so on are actively shaping our education system. The developed countries are allotting approximately 20% of their annual budgets to their education systems. But in developing countries like Ethiopia, the budget for the education system may be below 5%. Hence these international organizations get their way to shape our education using the pretext of economical support. Many million dollars are donated to us every year, but remember that there is no free lunch. This gives them the chance to shape our education system the way they want it to be. No one is critical of this trend, not even those at the top of the government. 

Education has both global and local aspects. We can learn from the global community. But education should be meaningful locally. The local context matters. If we intend for our kids to develop problem-solving skills, be critical thinkers, innovators, and those who can model their environment, then the local aspect should be given due attention. We need to apply what we call a local approach in the education system. An amalgam of global and local wisdom where the local takes the leadership. So there is a need to be critical to strike the balance between these two conflicts of interests, seeking budget assistance vs. inclusion of indigenous knowledge and wisdom in our curriculums. 

3. The higher education graduates are incompetent – Expectation meaning

The third aspect that was connected to the education policy during the discussion among diaspora members was the deterioration of education quality in higher institutes. Many former university staff members shared the experience of dealing with very weak students who showed up at universities in huge numbers after passing through the new education system, the 10 +2 school program. Some even say some of these college and university students are not able to write their names correctly. They are not able to answer short answer tasks. Their literacy and numeracy level is very low. 

These former university staff members who are now residing in the western countries compared their high school study under the education system of the Derg or Emperor Haile Selassie with that of the EPDRF one. They mean that the QoE is measured by the quality of students who were admitted to the universities in the country. And they were scared that these are the future teachers, engineers, bankers, lawyers, etc. not least to mention, politicians who will decide on national policies who are incompetent to carry their obligation. They have credible concerns. But let us raise a few points in line with this concern. 

If an education system produces the best doctors, best lawyers, best bankers, and so on academically who are unable to transform their knowledge and skills into practice in their own community and country, can we say that the QoE is of good quality? For example, if it produces the best technological geniuses that can work in Silicon Valley,  is the education system of the best quality? Maybe it is from the perspective of producing highly competent skilled workers. The critics of the education system are that it is too theoretical and is too detached from the very local context and it was unable to bring meaningful change and development in the country. As they say “ጉራ ብቻ አይሆንም ወይ?” 

Not to leave a stone unturned, we can ask the university academic staff, what did you do if you get ‘weak’ students in your class? How can you help these ‘weak’ students be successful in their studies and future careers? Do you continue to use your older assessment ways to show that your status is of high quality, way above the students, or humble yourselves and try to solve the problem you are given to solve? Studies have shown that academic transition from one school level to another is problematic to many, cognitively, socially, and so on, let alone to transit from one system of education to another one in a short span of time. 

Another aspect,  can all be best in this and that field in any educational system? We do not think so. The education system has to be measured from the sum of many other parameters that are complex to describe in detail in a piece of this kind.   What about an education system that focuses on social competencies, ethics, and morals rather than professional skills? This will take to the next meaning of QoE raised in the discussion. 

4. The ethics of the present students are inferior – moral meaning

The ethics and morals of present-day students and graduates were used as a measure of QoE in the discussion. Those who refer to the emperor’s time and Derg’s time education are more superior to the ones from the recent ones. Many private universities are created just to give degrees and diplomas to many without real commitment in their studies. Health professionals abandon the public sector go to economically appealing private practices, Engineers learn how to steal from the public budgeted projects, bankers cooperate with illegal business people,  and so on. 

However, what can be expected if civic education is changed to a political party agenda platform? What can be expected from a school system that has undermined and belittled its roots and indigenous knowledge and wisdom as backward? The emperors have started the game by bringing the foreign education system as superior to the country’s literacy, numeracy, and social competency. The 1950s and 1960s generations forcefully imposed the Marxist–Leninist theory onto society. Now after the generation is detached from its roots, The God-fearing, elder respecting, community-serving, law-abiding and decent generation is declining day by day. What do we expect if a tree is cut from its roots? The generation is forced to look like others to whom he does not belong in the first place. Remember, it is always possible to learn from others, but it should not be at the expense of losing yourself. What you saw comes around. 

5. Early childhood education is not appropriate- foundation meaning

This was the other aspect that was suggested as to why QoE in Ethiopia has something to do with the pre-school education system in the country. Some reflected that kids waste their best time in life in vain. They refer to the fact that 80% of brain development takes place during the first  5 years of life. They blame the failure of the education system to equip and prepare children for life as one of the culprits. 

In pre-school years,  kids should be allowed to play. While they play various developments (social, cognitive, physical, ethical, language, numeracy) happen if they are exposed to a well-designed education system. In elementary school, they should be trained to develop skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, creativity, social skills, innovation skills as well as be able to explore their environments adequately, not just putting them in the classroom to memorize facts and figures. However, training children for life is less emphasized in the Ethiopian education system contributing to the lower QoE in the country. 

6. Unpopular, unequipped, and insufficient vocational schools – Opportunity meaning

In the discussion, a tendency in romanticizing the old vocational schools especially the ones in the Derg time were reflected as well. Many complain that the present-day vocational schools are highly ineffective and hence unpopular since those who are trained there fail to enter into job life. One of the purposes of vocational education is to give opportunities to those students who have less interest or motivation in academia to work-life by training them in practical things.

“Learning by doing” is the main motto and they should have a tangible skill at the end of their study.  But what happens is that majority of those who join the vocational stream fail in life, except very few who materialize what they want to do in life. This might be due to the lack of opportunity: training materials, properly equipped laboratories, and workshops, practice places in the job market, lack of economic incentives to start their business, entrepreneurship training, and so on. 

7. Nation-building as a goal of education- Vision meaning

We need to agree first on one thing:  the notion of nation-building. If our meaning about nation-building is different, then it is difficult to agree on many issues. Yes, low QoE can indeed be attributed to many things including a shortage of qualified teachers, overcrowded classrooms, poor-quality curricula, a lack of teaching materials, workshops, and laboratories, lack of motivation of teacher profession due to low salary, plagiarism at the higher education system, and so on. But there is one meaning that came out very clear about QoE, the colossal importance of generational consensus of nation-building!

The different stakeholders attribute low QoE to their lack of trust in the policymakers and the political leaders of the country. The vision of those at the helm of government is not trustable. Many are not convinced that their leaders are committed to the true sense of nation-building and claim that they are engaged in empowering regional governments, and in that way, they are constructing many nations within a nation. That is, they have been deliberately engaged in deconstructing the nation-state Ethiopia while fostering the formation of new nationhood arising within the country.  There were no same doubts about the ambitions of the Derg and the previous emperors when it comes to education. Their education policies were to a larger extent taken well by the people. 

In Conclusion. 

Politics of meaning is the approach used here to reflect on the discussion made by the diaspora community on a Twitter space arranged byETHub. The participants represent different stakeholders in education. Their meanings about QoE in Ethiopia are not only shaped by their first-hand experience and involvement while they were in Ethiopia, but also by the exposure they have got from different educational systems as they reside in different parts of the world. They have both the global and local context in their discussion. Among the seven meanings about QoE in Ethiopia, in our view, the seventh meaning has to be debated and discussed in the open first if we want to see real progress. There should be a clear consensus agreement on nationhood vision. The rest will fall in its place if the people agree on this very issue of nation-building. If we agree on the terms of nationhood, then the different perspectives and meanings that we deliberated on will be much easier to address. This matters!  As they say “ሳይስማሙ ወደ ወንዝ አይወረድም!” We hope the present reform is considerate of this crucial point. There is a sign that the leadership at the helm is regaining trust in the vision of nationhood though much more remains to be done. Time will reveal what the true intentions of the current leadership are. But the stakeholders of education and the Ethiopian people have to engage constructively and with perseverance to address the lingering hurdles and bottlenecks of  QoE in Ethiopia. The need to consider all the aforementioned meanings about QoE and strike the balance among them is highly needed. Maybe this could be one of the agendas of the newly established National Dialog Commission. Who knows! Time will show.

The author acknowledges Dr. Desalegn Chala and Dr. Liyew Desta for their contribution to the discussion as well as in editing this text. In addition, we thank Mrs. Kedija Negash for inviting us to the Twitter space discussions. 

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  1. The quality of education during Emperor Haile Selassie’s era was far more superior than that of Derg’s or EPRDF’s time. The quantity was limited. It did not reach everyone, The claim it was only for the privileged few is erroneous. In fact, it is the Emperors own educated student body that probated the revolution against the Emperor. To expand access to more people, the Derg sacrificed the carefully planned high quality education system for quantity. Instead of building more schools, the dregs introduced the shift system, cut public school attendance hours by about 2/3 and tripled the access, producing the first batch of rather semi educated generation. However, by maintaining the extremely selective and very competitive university admissions and graduations standards, it weeded out as much incompetence as possible. However, after EpRDF came to power, it started shameful practice of buying credentials, every buffoon became a Doctor. Now it is almost cringing to watch an OLF or TPLF thug speaking in English before the international organizations or audience, the thugs not only butcher the language, they actually murder it on live tv. Fifty years ago,, the Mayor of Addis Ababa was Dr. HaileGiorgis Workeneh, a real doctor who earned his doctorate in engineering the old fashioned way, by going to school. A graduate of the Carnegie Mellon, Dr. HaileGiorgis was a civil engineer educated in the US, registered as a civil engineer in the US. Among his achievements, his supervision of the Assab Petroleum Refinery. Fifty years later, the mayor of Addis is Adanech Abebe, among her achievements, spending 2, 500, 000, 000 birr on City Hall renovation, with no renovation at all and a clock that tells the time correctly only twice in 24 hours, and the ordering of the executions of unarmed civilians participating as parishioners in Timket ceremony. Oh how much Ethiopia and Ethiopians have fallen from grace!!!!!!!!!


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