By Alemayehu G. Mariam / November 1, 2010
Last week, it was quietly announced that the official wholesale ban on distance learning educational programs in Ethiopia has been lifted. In August 2010, the ban was imposed out of the blue "because of quality concerns". According to one report, following six-weeks of "negotiations" between education officials and distance learning service providers a settlement was reached in which providers reportedly agreed to create a curriculum that places more emphasis on science and technology and establish a trade association to oversee quality assurance. Education officials are expected to undertake stricter supervision and monitoring of distance learning institutions. The training of teachers and health care workers, and apparently legal education, will be reserved exclusively for public higher education institutions under the political control of the regime.
Doing the Right Thing
When I wrote my commentary "Ethiopia: Indoctri-Nation," I argued that the wholesale ban of private distance learning programs by "directive", or more accurately by bureaucratic fiat, was a flagrant violation of the governing law known as the "Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009" ['Proclamation'] and the constitutional property rights of the providers. I demonstrated that the responsible regulatory agency known as the "Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency" (HERQA) could only "revoke accreditation" of private distance learning institutions which fails to meet "minimum standards" on a case-by-case basis following a fact-finding and appeals process. It does not have the legal authority to impose a wholesale ban.
The reasons reported publicly for the "negotiated agreement" lifting the ban are not convincing in light of the provisions of the Proclamation. HERQA has broad regulatory authority to "ensure the minimum curricula quality standards". It does not need to "negotiate" its own legal authority to demand accountability and observance of standards from substandard providers; it could simply commence de-accreditation procedures against them. Instead of imposing a wholesale ban, the prudent and sensible thing for HERQA would have been to notify distance learning stakeholders of deficiencies, consulted with them on remedies and instituted stricter accountability and quality control measures with increased oversight and monitoring. Those who fail to cure deficiencies within a reasonable time could be set for a "de-accreditation" hearing. Inexplicably, HERQA officials and the political bosses in charge of education acted rashly and arbitrarily in August; now they have been forced to turn back the clock because the total ban has proven to be impractical and irrational to implement and has made the ruling regime in Ethiopia the laughing stock of higher education throughout the world.
As I have demonstrated in my commentary referenced above, the blanket ban on distance learning was wrong because it imposed collective punishment on all members of a group without an opportunity to be heard and a fair determination of the facts. The ban also unfairly smeared all distance program providers in the country as sub-standard, and maligned the leaders of these institutions as scammers in light of comments by officials which insinuated that the "purpose [of the providers] was to collect money" and not provide legitimate educational services. It is impossible to imagine that all distance learning providers in the country are so deficient in quality that they needed to be shut down at once. If that were true, it would be a sad commentary on those officials responsible for education in the country for allowing such institutions to function as they have for so many years. Imposing the ban in August was wrong; righting that wrong by lifting the ban now (assuming that it is actually lifted and is not merely a public relations gimmick) is a testament to education itself: "All humans make mistakes, but only the wise ones learn from them."
Educational bureaucrats and their political bosses in Ethiopia could learn a few lessons from the blanket ban fiasco. First, it is important for them to incorporate the principle of the rule of law in their official actions. Simply stated, they could act only to the extent that they have constitutional and statutory authority. They cannot act arbitrarily or abuse their power because they occupy a political position. The ban was manifestly the result of lack of knowledge or willful ignorance of the applicable law by officials in charge of educational policy-making and implementation. Had these officials familiarized themselves with their governing Proclamation, it would have been self-evident to them that they have to follow the prescribed de-accreditations procedures and could not impose a total ban. They need to institutionalize and practice the principle of the rule of law as part of their bureaucratic culture which will help them perform their duties with high degree of accountability, transparency and efficiency.
The second lesson to be learned is that to avoid the type of mindless and irrational policymaking, the political bosses in charge of education should establish a standardized notice-and-comment process before proposed regulations are implemented. By publicly announcing a proposed rule change in advance, impacted institutions, groups, communities and members of the general public would be given an opportunity to provide input and share their views on their special circumstances. They could also provide policymakers data and analysis to help in the formulation of policies that are balanced, efficacious and likely to be implemented successfully. Such a process avoids hasty consideration of issues, premature and uninformed judgments, embarrassing decisions and obviates the need for the futile pursuit of impractical policies as evidenced in this ban.
To be sure, if the education officials had followed a notice-and-comment process, not only would distance learning service providers, teachers, students and their parents and others have had the opportunity to contribute positively to the policy process, the officials themselves could have spared themselves public embarrassment, avoided wasting time negotiating something the needed no negotiation and quite possibly avoid legal challenges to the ban. A notice-and-comment process also promotes accountability, transparency and public engagement in the policy process consistent with the prescription in Article 12 of the Ethiopian Constitution (Functions and Accountability of Government) which provides: "The activities of government shall be undertaken in a manner which is open and transparent to the public." What better way to practically implement Article 12 than instituting an open notice-and-comment process?
A third lesson to be learned is that in higher education it is vital to maintain ongoing consultations with the stakeholders. Higher education is not the military high command where random and arbitrary orders are given to be followed unquestioningly. Having served in a leadership position in higher education strategic planning and implementation and overseen the development of a specialized distance learning program, I know it is counter-productive to even consider imposing bureaucratic control on curriculum, faculty, staff, students and administrators. Systematic and ongoing consultations with stakeholders are essential for a successful distance learning program design, planning, implementation, evaluation, maintenance and improvement. Quality concerns in distance learning are not limited to "ensuring minimum standards" as it seems to be the concern of educational officials in Ethiopia; there is the whole other area of student achievement and learning outcomes which can be tackled only by identifying student needs, problems and barriers students encounter in obtaining educational services. Without a comprehensive approach, the efforts to ensure minimum standards in the long run will amount to nothing more than window dressing.
The need for ongoing consultations with stakeholders needs emphasis. When HERQA suddenly announced the ban, distance learning providers, teachers and students at these institutions were shocked to find out that such a catastrophic policy had been made without even the courtesy of notice, let alone consultations with them as stakeholders. Molla Tsegaye, president of Admas University College, expressed shock and dismay when he learned about the ban: "We did not expect this. As stakeholders in the sector, we should have been consulted before all this." Consultation is a process in which the concerned parties confer to share views, exchange ideas and give advice. Negotiation is a process in which the parties have issues which they seek to settle in a formal agreement. Both the providers and the educational bureaucrats and their political bosses are presumably on the same side. They are both manifestly interested and committed to educational quality and student learning. Consultations, not negotiations, are more appropriate and efficacious to increase program quality and student achievement. If Ethiopia's distance education providers are collectively failing in providing quality instruction, they should be presented with the data of sub-par performance and engaged as stakeholders to develop guidelines for best practices.
The fourth lesson to be learned is the need to de-politicize education. Education bureaucrats and their political bosses should respect principles of academic freedom in higher education and let students, faculty members, scholars and researchers have the freedom to teach, learn or communicate ideas without being targeted for repression, job loss and other retribution. Higher educational institutions, and schools in general, should not be places of indoctrination for the ruling party's true believers. The legal, teaching and health professions should not be the exclusive domain of public institutions that are funded and completely controlled by the regime and its top leaders. Academic merit and freedom, and excellence in instructional quality should be the governing principles for higher education in Ethiopia, not party membership, party loyalty or party influence.
The fifth and most important lesson for the political bosses that orchestrated this fiasco is to publicly come out and say, "We made a mistake. We messed up. We acted rashly and without forethought when we imposed a wholesale ban! We will consult stakeholders in the future and solicit input from the public to ensure a transparent process; and we will act only to the extent that we have authority under the law." There is nothing more important for the public than to have officials taking ownership of their mistakes. No reasonable person would disagree with efforts aimed at weeding out diploma mills and fly-by-night operations. No one would protest efforts aimed at protecting the public from educational fraud. The solution to these problem is not to throw out the baby with the bath water by imposing a total ban on distance learning, but to remove the rotten apples from the barrel. With the un-banning of distance learning, stakeholders, bureaucrats and their political bosses could begin a new chapter and go beyond setting "minimum standards" to setting a "gold standard" of best practices in distance learning not only for Ethiopia but also the African continent.
Reflections of an Education "Neo-Liberal"
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess my own predilections and preferences in higher education having spent much of my professional life in the university environment. I proudly advocate a laissez faire approach to higher education. That makes me an educational "neoliberal" (a word often used pejoratively by some benighted dogmatists, which I simply define as one who believes in a totally free marketplace of ideas undefiled by bureaucratic and regulatory vulgarity) who upholds the individual's right to choose his/her own educational program and professional career. Well, get a load of this: "Hell, Yeah! I am an Educational Neo-Liberal and Damn Proud it!" As a "neo-liberal", I believe in freedom of inquiry and thought. I am always willing to entertain new ideas with inquisitiveness and fascination, not fear and anxiety.
There are those destined to the dustbin of history who have argued that "the neo-liberal paradigm is a dead end, is incapable of bringing about the African renaissance, and that a fundamental shift in paradigm is required to bring about the African renaissance." I say the only paradigm shift self-serving, pretentious, narcissistic and megalomaniacal dictators could bring is to march the "Dark Continent" backwards to the Dark Ages. It was the Renaissance European universities that led the scientific revolution and became the incubators of new ideas in science, literature, philosophy, art, politics, science and religion. Closing institutions of higher learning and banning fields of scientific and philosophical inquiry were the hallmarks of the Dark Ages, not the Renaissance.
My belief is that government regulation of education rarely results in quality improvement or student achievement. The maze of bureaucratic rules and regulations imposed by governments often stifle creativity, learning and the expansion of knowledge. Africa's "renaissance" or rebirth is in the hands of its young people yearning to breathe free and struggling to exert their creative impulses to lift the continent out of poverty and dictatorship. There can be no renaissance when an official orthodoxy is forced upon citizens and the state mindlessly meddles in the marketplace of ideas and knowledge with a heavy hand. Suffice it to say that I believe in a free marketplace of ideas (universities) where students, teachers, researchers and scholars do not have to seek knowledge under the long shadow of official censors or look over their shoulders for the thought police lurking behind every bush on campus. As to the cultural role played by private higher educational institutions, could anyone doubt the enormous contributions of private universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and dozens more in America's "renaissance"?
In the marketplace of ideas and knowledge, I say keep government out. Let individuals decide what they want and need. If students feel a private distance education program meets their needs, it should be their choice and not the decision of faceless, nameless and capricious bureaucrats. It is all about freedom of choice. In a free society, every citizen can choose his/her educational destiny. If one chooses to become an educator, a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a chemist or train to join any other profession, it is their right to pursue it particularly when they are paying for it out of their own pockets. Only totalitarian states mandate what each citizen will learn and become.
The whole idea of state monopoly in teacher education, health and the law is deeply offensive to anyone who believes in freedom of learning and education. In my September commentary referenced above, I noted: "State-certified teachers who are ruling party members could be used to play a decisive role in legitimizing the regime and in indoctrinating the youth in the regime's ideology." Human Rights Watch two weeks ago supported my observation with evidence that the ruling regime in Ethiopia had misused state educational facilities for political purposes and engaged in systematic political indoctrination of students and repression of teachers. 
As a lawyer and educator, I am particularly concerned about state monopoly over legal education. By monopolizing the law discipline, the ruling regime manifestly intends to regulate the admission of law students and the training of lawyers and judges who will administer "justice" in the country. Such a monopoly will produce not lawyers and legal professionals who are committed to the Constitution, the rule of law, principles of universal justice and ethical standards, but robotic legal cadres committed to the ruling regime and its policies. In other words, justice will be administered by party hacks, hirelings, flunkies and lackeys with ultimate loyalty to the dictator-in-chief. I am a proud "neoliberal" in education because I believe "education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army"; better yet, the best defense against an army of ignoramuses.
FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.