1. Summative vs. Diagnostic Assessment
For many years before the advent of the preparatory schools the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Exam (ESLCE) was used both for the certification of secondary school completion as well as a university entrance exam (UEE). The ESLCE was meant to verify how well students have grasped what they learned in grades 9 to 12. Using the ESLCE as a university entrance exam was inappropriate to say the least. University entrance exams should be separate from school leaving exams. The ESLCE is a form of summative assessment to evaluate students at the end of a certain level of learning (secondary school in this case). It is past oriented rather than future oriented. UEE are diagnostic assessments that allow determination of the students’ prior knowledge (general and specific) that could enable them to start university level education, in particular fields without facing serious difficulties.
2. In-situ and Ex-situ preparation of students for university education
In the past, there was the freshman programme in universities which prepared students in-situ. The ESLCE was used as a UEE and students were admitted to universities and colleges. The first year programme helped to prepare students for majoring in specific areas of study in their second year. It was fun to be a freshman. The Freshman year helped the novice to familiarize themselves with the academic and administrative environment in the universities and colleges before they plunged into the rigorous studies of their major areas in the following year. They were informally coached by the senior students on how to use the university facilities and resources, acquire the discipline required for timing and running around to meet the complex course schedules, get used to unfamiliar teaching methods away from spoon feeding and harmonize with a new environment.
The freshman programme was moved away from university and college campuses to ex-situ locations all over Ethiopia, wherever there were senior secondary schools. Preparing students for university education away from universities is a futile capacity building attempt. To be eligible for attending preparatory schools, students are required to take a general exam at the end of grade 10. This exam marks the end of compulsory education in Ethiopia. The exam assesses how much general knowledge one has acquired to be a good citizen, not to be a good beginner for university education in preparatory schools.
Unlike the freshman programme, the students in the preparatory schools are not yet university students. They are senior secondary students who may or may not pass the national exam to join universities. The budget allotted, and all the effort made is not strictly for students who are sure to be in the university, but includes a large proportion of the preparatory school students who may never set foot on university campuses. So, the preparatory schools are not substitutes for the freshman programme but just schemes to prepare students for the final National exam. Like the ESLCE the exam at the end of the preparatory years is not valid enough to serve as a diagnostic assessment of the students for university education.
3. Ineffective national exams
The national exam administered at the end of preparatory schooling is ineffective. It does not adequately measure the level of intelligence of the students. In the world of assessment you cannot sufficiently measure knowledge and ability without a diversity of assessment types. Multiple-choice (recognition) questions and their blackened-circle answers are easy to correct by machine but not as easy to determine knowledge. It is impossible to know that circle A is correctly blackened on the answer-sheet by a student who knew on his own that it was the right answer, or the student has guessed it as an answer by ‘snatching hair from eyebrows,’ or a friend sitting next to him/her has whispered the answer to him/her. Higher education officials have been busy appealing, warning, condemning, cursing copying answers in exams-“kureja.” They have become too busy with the symptom rather than with the cause. Effective assessment system does not allow these kinds misdeeds by its very nature.
4. Inadequate English language skills of students at university admission
The former British colonial language has become everybody’s own language without involving any coercion. No other language can compete with the English language in the wealth of natural science, social science, and technological vocabulary. The medium of instruction in the institutions of higher education in Ethiopia is English. We have to make up our minds to live with this fact forever! A working ability of speaking, listening, writing in English is mandatory at university level. It is not a matter of choice. It is possible to learn Basic English in three months in intensive language training sessions. However, the level of fluency needed for attending higher education requires not a few weeks of lecturing but lifetime nurturing in the English language. I argue that English has to literally be breast-fed if the required level of rigor in higher education is to be endured by students effectively at international standards.
We have two poles to choose from. One is the right to learn in one’s own local language for eight years and risk under-performance in secondary and university education. The other is a more pragmatic move to use English as a medium of instruction beginning from early primary school and perform best in secondary and tertiary levels. The latter could enable Ethiopian graduates to be competitive at international levels. This is the mystery behind why Kenyans, Nigerians, Ghanaians have dominated international organizations.
5. University academic programmes opened like garment shops
One of the easiest things to do in the higher institutions of learning in Ethiopia today is to open an academic programme in all three levels. Just name it, it will be an academic programme! The degree of liberty to open academic programmes by individuals, groups and donors is astounding. No one seems to raise serious questions about standards, teaching staff adequacy, the quality of knowledge imparted at each level, facilities, above all, the Country’s development needs. It does not matter how much experience the university has to be capable of handling masters and PhD programmes. Some universities, still under construction and not yet graduated their first batch of students, are heard to be planning or implementing graduate programmes.
It was reported five years ago in Addis Ababa University that the proliferation of graduate programmes hit 208. A programme review committee was setup to instil order. While the Committee was squabbling about how to approach the problem, new academic programmes were opening disregarding the “please wait” instruction from University authorities. Of course, it was the university senate that was approving the opening of the new programmes while a review to restructure the programmes was in full swing. The reason why this kind of transgression was taking place is those opening the new programmes during the programme review and before are those considered to be “more equal than others.” Such people have little regard for authority, legislation, and normal working traditions in other academic and administrative matters as well: “Their wish is the university’s command.”
6. The deleterious speed of opening new universities
Expanding access for citizens of higher education is a commendable action. Ethiopia has had a visible deficiency in this regard. There is no limit to the number of universities a nation should have. It all depends on how many young people there are that must get a deserved access to higher education. In less than two decades the government of Ethiopia opened over forty universities in almost all parts of Ethiopia. What was at the disposal of the government was the finance for construction of buildings, the purchase of furniture and equipment, and for hiring qualified teaching staff. Unfortunately, the latter was not easy to come by. Most of the universities were located far away from Addis Ababa and considered inconvenient and unsafe to live and work in. Inconvenience, safety and security concerns arose due to weather, language and culture, conflicts and alleged xenophobia in the localities where the universities are established. In the absence of alternative for the lack of sufficiently qualified applicants for academic staff positions the new universities had to downgrade the stringency of their criteria for recruitment.
It was customary, though in several cases violated by ethnic and political affiliations, for the highest achievers to be hired as graduate assistants in universities departments. Addis Ababa University had for long maintained the minimum GPA of 3.00 for recruitment. In other colleges minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 and a major GPA of 2.75 was the minimum requirement. This was also the minimum requirement for graduate admission. The budding universities could not afford such a luxury. Whoever was willing to be hired with a minimum graduating GPA of 2.00 was welcome.
Graduates with the history of poor performance found themselves in university teaching positions (normally and beneficially reserved for the brightest). Those who were willing to be hired in the “remote” universities were mostly natives of the respective localities or regions. This was not limited to the teaching staff, the management of the universities also turned out to be predominantly native to the localities. There was a scant opportunity for check and balance. The universities became de-jure federal, but de-facto regional or zonal. There prevailed ‘frontier-mentality’ in handling university resources and the teaching and learning process.
The next step, triggered by the recruitment of academic staff with poor academic record, was the start of the vicious cycle, which could run for generations to come. The new recruits decide to go to the “peripheral” universities with the chance to join graduate school in mind. University teaching requires higher degrees. Thus the universities would as a matter of rule require their graduate assistants to join graduate school.
In the meantime Addis Ababa University promised to open masters and PhD programmes in almost all fields and train 10,000 and 5000 prospective graduates respectively as capacity building effort for the new universities. The poor performers join masters’ programmes and graduate as a “matter of right” and come back again for their PhD to finish this too anyway. There seems to be an unwritten law that everyone that got admission (BA, MA, PhD) in an institution of higher learning graduates.
University teachers who award D, or F or even C to poorly performing students are eyed badly as obstacles to the objectives of higher education. One professor put my observation in beautiful language: “Thesis submission is graduation; students who submit their thesis but have not yet sat for defense, invite their families for the graduation ceremony out of perfect certainty to graduate!”
7. Informal interest group networks in universities
The only interest grouping expected and encouraged in higher institutions of learning, because it helps to enhance the quality of education, is grouping around research ideas, around common national issues, and to help student learning through group coaching. What is tragically being experienced in Ethiopian universities, particularly in Addis Ababa University, revered as the mother of all other Ethiopian universities, is the proliferation of interest groups based on ethnic and political affiliations. It is not the grouping based on such criteria per-se that is troubling, it is the adverse impact such kind of grouping is having on the teaching and learning process. The informal grouping has become a more potent basis for decision making in all spheres of university life than senate legislations. It is easy for an academic or administrative staff to fall out of favour regardless of merit or suffer from mal-administration with impunity. The doors are tightly closed for complaints and the offenders easily get away unscathed. All other universities seem to be emulating Addis Ababa University in this regard as if this is a virtue to live happily for.
By Dr.Yohannes Aberra Ayele