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Education in Ethiopia has been dominated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for many centuries until secular education was adopted in the early 1900s. Prior to 1974, Ethiopia had an estimated illiteracy rate well above 90% and compared poorly with the rest of Africa in the provision of schools and universities. After 1974 revolution, emphasis was placed on increasing literacy in rural areas. Practical subjects were stressed, as was the teaching of socialism. Education received roughly 13% of the national budget in 1992. By 1995 the rate of illiteracy had dropped substantially to 64.5%. Projected adult illiteracy rates for the year 2003 even lower at 61.3% (males, 56.1%; females, 66.6%). As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 4.3% of GDP.The current system follows very similar school expansion schemes to the rural areas as the previous 1980s system with an addition of deeper renationalisation giving rural education in their own languages starting at the elementary level. The sequence of general education in Ethiopia is eight years of primary school, two years of lower secondary school and two years of higher secondary school.
Although the existence of inscriptions prove that literacy preceded the adoption of Christianity as the recognized religion in Ethiopia, by the time of the earliest surviving records formal education was controlled by the church. Educational opportunities were seen as the preserve of Ethiopia's ruling Amhara class. However, these efforts provided educational opportunities to only a few; Samuel Gobat estimated that "where Amharic is spoken, about one-fifth of the male population can read a little, and in Tigre about one twelfth."
According to Richard Pankhurst, the traditional education provided by the church
The higher education the Ethiopian Church provided involved Church music (divided into digua, zemare and mawaset, and qidasse), poetry, mathematics, history, philosophy and manuscript writing. Another field of study was aquaquam or the religious dance performed as part of church services.
Until the early 1900s, formal education was confined to a system of religious instruction organized and presented under the aegis of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Church schools prepared individuals for the clergy and for other religious duties and positions. In the process, these schools also provided religious education to the children of the nobility and to the sons of limited numbers of tenant farmers and servants associated with elite families. Such schools mainly served the Amhara and Tigray inhabitants of the Ethiopian highlands. Misguided policies caused very few children to receive an education. As a result Ethiopia did not meet the Educational standards of other African countries in the early 1900s.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century Menelik II had also permitted the establishment of European missionary schools. At the same time, Islamic schools provided some education for a small part of the Muslim population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the education system's failure to meet the needs of people involved in statecraft, diplomacy, commerce, and industry led to the introduction of government-sponsored secular education. The first public school to provide a western style education was the Ecole Imperiale Menelik II, which was opened in October 1908 under the guidance of Hanna Salib and a number of Copt teachers. By 1924, Pankhurst notes that "no fewer than 3,000 students had passed through the school", and states that in 1935 the school had 150 pupils. That same year, Emperor Menelik II established a primary school in Harar.
In 1925 the government adopted a plan to expand secular education, but ten years later there were only 8,000 students enrolled in twenty public schools. A few students also studied abroad on government scholarships; Pankhurst provides minimum numbers for several countries: at least 20 studied in Lebanon, 19 in Egypt, 12 in Sudan, 63 in France, 25 in England, 8 in the United States, 10 in Switzerland, 10 in Italy, and smaller numbers in Germany, Belgium and Spain.
After their conquest of Ethiopia, the Italians acted quickly to reorganize the educational system in Ethiopia. An ordinance issued 24 July 1936 reiterated the principle that the newly conquered country, as in the older colonies, would have two different types of educational institutions, namely "Italian type schools" and schools for "colonial subjects." The existing Tafari Makonnen School was converted into two "Italian type" schools, the Liceo-Ginnasio Vittorio Emanuele III and the Istituto Tecnico Benito Mussolini, both reserved for European children, while the prewar Empress Menen School for girls was converted into the Regina Elena military hospital. Many other existing schools were converted to Italian-only schools, while new schools created for the native population, in the words of Patrick Roberts, were "not schools in reality, but have been established for propaganda purposes." Although the Italian government boasted in 1939 that there were thirteen primary schools in the province of Shewa staffed by over sixty teachers and having an enrollment of 1481, actual attendance fluctuated greatly, as the official statement admitted that many students were said to be absent from class in order to follow Italian lorries, or to spend their time "idly in their tukuls."
Following the Italian defeat, the country started to build up the sector, but the system faced shortages of teachers, textbooks, and facilities. The government recruited foreign teachers for primary and secondary schools to offset the teacher shortage. By 1952 a total of 60,000 students were enrolled in 400 primary schools, eleven secondary schools, and three institutions offering college-level courses. In the 1960s, 310 mission and privately operated schools with an enrollment of 52,000 supplemented the country's public school system. While reforms have been made in the aims of education, the actual structure of the Ethiopian school system has remained unchanged from that established in the 1950s.
In May 1961, Ethiopia hosted the United Nations-sponsored Conference of African States on the Development of Education. Among other things, the conference highlighted Ethiopia's educational deficiencies. The Ethiopian education system, especially in primary and secondary education, was ranked the bottom among African nations. There were school and teacher shortages, a high dropout rate, and low overall attendance rates; especially among females, non-Christians and rural children. Embarrassed by this record, the Ministry of Education developed a new education policy, which was in effect until 1974. Designed in conjunction with the objectives of the government's second and third five-year development plans, extending from 1962 to 1973, the policy gave precedence to the establishment of technical training schools, although academic education also was expanded. Curriculum revisions introduced a mix of academic and nonacademic subjects. But Amharic became the language of instruction for the entire primary cycle, which handicapped any child who had a different primary language.
There were two institutions of higher education: Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, formed by imperial charter in 1961, and the private University of Asmara, founded by a Roman Catholic religious order based in Italy. The government expanded the public school system and in 1971 there were 1,300 primary and secondary schools and 13,000 teachers. But the system suffered from a shortage of qualified personnel, a lack of funds, and overcrowded facilities. Often financed with foreign aid, school construction usually proceeded faster than the training and certification of teachers. In addition, most schools were in the major towns. Crowded and understaffed, those schools in small towns and rural areas provided a poor education. The inadequacies of public education before the mid-1970s resulted partly from the school financing system. To finance primary education, the government levied a special tax on agricultural land. Local boards of education supervised the disbursement of tax receipts. The system's inequities fostered the expansion of primary education in wealthier regions rather than in poorer ones. Moreover, urban inhabitants, who did not have to pay the tax but who were predominantly represented in the schools, sent their children at the expense of the taxpaying rural landowners and poor peasants. The government attempted to rectify this imbalance in 1970 by imposing an education tax on urban landowners and a 2 percent tax on the personal income of urban residents. But the Ministry of Finance treated the funds collected as part of the general revenue and never spent the money for its intended purpose. Expenditure on education was only 1.4 to 3 percent of the gross national product (GNP) between 1968 and 1974, compared with 2.5 to 6 percent for other African countries during the same period. Under the pressure of growing public dissatisfaction and mounting student activism in the university and secondary schools, the imperial government initiated a comprehensive study of the education system. Completed in July 1972, the Education Sector Review (ESR) recommended attaining universal primary education as quickly and inexpensively as possible, ruralizing the curricula through the inclusion of informal training, equalizing educational opportunities, and relating the entire system to the national development process.
The ESR criticized the education system's focus on preparing students for the next level of academic study and on the completion of rigid qualifying examinations. Also criticized was the government's lack of concern for the young people who dropped out before learning marketable skills, a situation that contributed to unemployment. The report stated that, by contrast, "The recommended system would provide a self-contained program at each level that would be terminal for most students." The report was not published until February 1974, which gave time for rumors to generate opposition among students, parents, and the teachers' union to the ESR recommendations. Most resented what they considered the removal of education from its elite position. Many teachers also feared salary reductions. Strikes and widespread disturbances ensued, and the education crisis became a contributing factor in the imperial regime's fall later that year.
With the beginning of the Ethiopian Revolution in 1974, the name of the university was changed to Addis Ababa University (AAU). By 1974, despite efforts by the government to improve the situation, less than 10 percent of the total population was literate. The national literacy campaign began in early 1975 when the government mobilized more than 60,000 students and teachers, sending them all over the country for two-year terms of service. Most critics however saw this as the government's way to silence rising opposition while at the same time creating a network of government spys in the rural areas. Generally the campaign to increase literacy remained illusive even though government reports showed improvements.
The Higher Education Institutions Board reviews and adapts the plans and budgets of each institution. The universities have senates, which fall in between the boards and the academic commissions in their powers and duties. Each of these administrative bodies creates various committees to assist their duties. The academic commission (AC) of each college faculty deliberates on and submits proposals about programs, plans, courses, certification, promotions, and students' status. The department councils are composed of all full-time academic staff and chaired by the department heads. The council prepares and submits recommendations to the AC concerning programs of study, curricula, courses, staff promotion, research projects, teaching materials, and examinations.
Higher education institutions recruit their own staff based on certain criteria. Once employed, the teachers are assessed at the end of every semester (twice a year) by their students, colleagues, and the department head. The teacher must receive an above average rating to continue their employment. Contracts are renewed every 2 years. Those teachers whose performance falls below average for 2 consecutive semesters will not have their contracts renewed. In the past 5 years, a few contracts have been terminated due to low evaluations by students at the AAU.
Salaries of faculty are based on their ranks. There are six salary scales and after two years of service a teacher will go up to the next rank. Previously all were paid the same and there was no incentive. Thus the new plan was every two years teachers receive a pay increase. A good teacher can be promoted every 2 or 3 years and has pay increments every year. As a consequence teachers are now highly motivated, although many instructors still complain that their salaries are too low.
As of 2008[update], there are 16,161,528 children enrolled in grades 1 through 12 in Ethiopia; 13,476,104 are in government schools and 2,685,424 in non-government schools, while are 8,760.958 are boys and 7,380,570 are girls. These were taught by 267,191 teachers in 23,516 schools, which had a total of over 161,796 classrooms.
There were 2,228 teachers in higher education institutions in 1989-99. The professors and associate professors were only 2.29% and 6.78% respectively. Over 66% of the instructors had a master's or a PhD degree, with the rest hold a bachelor's or the equivalent. There were 5,169 support staff working in higher education institutions in Ethiopia in 1998-99. In 1999, 48.36% of the supportive staff were females. The academic staff of Ethiopian higher education institutions spend 75% of their time in teaching and 25% in research activities. Those working in research institutes spend 25% in teaching and 75% in research work.
The Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES), the first research unit in the country, was established in 1963. In 1999, there were six well-established research units within HEIs; the IES, the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center (under the Alemaya University of Agriculture), Geophysical Observatory, Institute of Development Research, Institute of Educational Research, and Institute of Pathobiology. The scientific and professional journals published by research institutes, professional associations, or colleges include: Bulletin of Chemistry, Ethiopian Journal of Agriculture, Ethiopian Journal of Development Research, Ethiopian Journal of Education, Ethiopian Journal of Health Development, Ethiopian Medical Journal, Ethiopian Pharmaceutical Journal, Journal of Ethiopian Law, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, SINET: Ethiopian Journal of Science, and ZEDE: Journal of the Association of Ethiopian Engineers and Architects.
The journals associated with the AAU are assessed every 2–3 years by a committee composed of 7 members from various disciplines. The funds for the research work come from the government budget and donors. Higher education in Ethiopia has been financed mainly by the government. The funds for the capital and recurrent expenses are provided to institutions through the Ministry of Finance. About 12% of the education budget is set aside for higher education. Out of the recurrent budget, about 50% is allocated for salaries. Ethiopian tuition fees have been increasing over the years. The fees for foreign students are about double. The admission rate for women has been only about 15% for the past several years up to 1999. Some efforts have been made to improve the rate of admission by lowering the admission cut-off grade point by 0.2 (for example, admitting boys with 3.0 and girls with 2.8 GPA to the same program). This affirmative action has improved women's admission rate, but has not resulted in significant changes; the attrition rate of this group is higher than average.
Most women are also enrolled in social and pedagogical sciences and in diploma programs. Out of the total of 864 graduate students, only 62 (7.18%) were women. Engineering, agriculture, and pharmacy had the least female enrollment. In the past several years, new private colleges have been accredited by the Ministry of Education. There are various officially recognized colleges including: Unity University in Addis Ababa, St. Mary's University College, Alpha University College, Admas University College, People to People College in Harar, and Awassa Adventist College, and others. The total government budget for education has increased by 84%. In attempt to provide education for all, huge expansion of education through the construction of new schools was initiated close to the communities they serve. After regionalisation was introduced in 1993, almost all Ethiopians had the right to education in their own languages, texts, although vetted by the Ministry of Education, are devised by the educational bureaus in regional states in order to ensure their appropriateness to the diverse cultures of Ethiopia. Social awareness programs to teach that education is vital was set up to combat cultural and historical barriers. Regional government has had a role to play in reviewing and reinvigorating education in the primary and secondary sectors, but higher education remains the responsibility of central government. The government set up a new plan to establish one new university per regional state and one education college, one technology college and one medical college. The number of girls enrolled has doubled from 1996 to 2000. Most still do not have equal status with boys, but there are measures such as "positive discrimination," which are helping to right this imbalance. In 2004 UNESCO Institute for Statistics showed percentage of female teachers in primary education reaching 44.6 percent and primary gross enrollment rate to 93.4 percent. There are a growing number of private and public Universities and colleges in Ethiopia. As of 2007, the University Capacity Building Program (UCBP) to build 13 new universities is undergoing nationwide.
There are education facilities for foreign residents, though foreign nationals are not accepted in the public schools of Ethiopia. However, there are quite a few private schools in Addis Ababa specifically for the children of foreign residents. Among them are Swedish Community School, Indian Community School, Bingham Academy, International Community School and others.
Ethiopia faces many historical, cultural, social and political obstacles that have restricted progress in education for many centuries. According to UNESCO reviews, most people in Ethiopia feel that work is more important than education, so they start at a very early age with little to no education. Children in rural areas are less likely to go to school than children in urban areas. Though gradually improving, most rural families cannot afford to send their children to school because parents believe that while their children are in school they cannot contribute to the household chores and income. Social awareness that education is important is something that Ethiopia lacks but has improved gradually. There is a need to change the importance of education in the country's social structure, and children should be encouraged and required to attend school and become educated. The society of Ethiopia expects teachers and parents to use corporal punishment to maintain order and discipline. Most believe that through punishing children for bad habits they in turn learn good ones. Also since the mid-1970s there have been a drastic loss of professionals who leave the country, mostly for economical reasons. Many educated Ethiopians seek higher salaries in foreign countries thus many of those who manage to finish higher education emigrate from Ethiopia creating an endless shortage of qualified professionals in every sector of the country. As of 2006, there are more Ethiopia-trained doctors living in Chicago than in the entire country.