By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / September 6, 2010
This past week Ethiopia's Ministry of Education issued a "directive" effectively outlawing distance learning (or education programs that are not delivered in the traditional university classroom or campus) throughout the country. According to reports, the directive of the Ministry's Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) prohibits enrollment of new students in all distance education programs. It also creates a monopoly for state-controlled universities to administer the disciplines of law and teaching. There are said to be 64 private institutions serving some 75,000 students throughout the country that are impacted by the directive.
The reason for the sudden and radical change in policy is said to be concern for educational quality. Ministry spokesman Abera Abate painted all private distance learning institutions in the country with a broad brush by categorically condemning them as scams and diploma mills. "When the purpose is collecting money, it is not a good purpose. The only issue some universities have is collecting money." Of course, the directive does not apply just to "some" universities whose "purpose is collecting money"; it applies to all distance education providers in the country.
The response from the various private educational service providers was swift. Wondwosen Tamrat, president of St Mary's College and former chairman of the General Assembly of the Ethiopian Private Higher Education Institutions Association (EPHEIA) described the directive as "ridiculous. The [regime's] inability to enforce the quality standards already set should not lead to these kind of measures... We have participated in the legal education reform programs, and our college issues a biannual law journal...In fact, in this area, it is public institutions that are suffering from a shortage of human resources, rather than the private sector." According to Tamrat, "two-thirds of the students [in his university] are in the distance education division...If you are not offering this program, it would mean we would be losing what we have been working for the last 11 years. We have 140 distance education centers all around the country. We have people in all of these centers. We would be losing these." Tamrat expects to layoff of more than 800 of his 1,200 employees.
Molla Tsegaye, president of Admas University College, expressed surprise and dismay for the complete lack of consultations in drafting the directive: "We did not expect this. As stakeholders in the sector, we should have been consulted before all this." Mihreteab Workineh, vice chairman of the 50-member EPHEIA was outraged: "Our association sternly objects to this. It is not about public or private institutions, the concern for quality is our concern too. That is why we have already devised an audit mechanism to ensure quality education by private institutions."
It may be recalled that in August 2009, the regime issued a directive which prohibited university "students graduating in the year 2008-2009 from all governmental higher learning institutions from collecting their academic credentials including the student copy until they find jobs which enable them to refund the cost sharing expenses utilized at the universities." The Ministry of Education described that effort as a "new scheme the government might be able to raise back those expenses and handle human resources going abroad."
Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009
Wholesale elimination of private distance learning programs by "directive", or more accurately bureaucratic fiat, is a flagrant violation of Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009. Under this Proclamation, the Ministry of Education and its sub-agencies have the authority to regulate and "revoke accreditation" of a private institution which fails to meet statutory criteria on a case-by-case basis following a fact-finding and appeals process. They have no legal authority to impose a summary wholesale ban of distance learning or other educational programs provided by private institutions. The Proclamation requires the Ministry to give such institutions a notice of deficiency and adequate time to correct the deficiency before taking de-accreditation action. The Ministry bears the burden of proof in showing that a particular private institution is in violation of the Proclamation in a fact-finding process that comports with standards of due process. A private institution has the right to appeal an adverse decision by the Ministry before it becomes final.
Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009, section 71 et seq., provides the statutory basis for the regulation and governance of higher education in Ethiopia. The Proclamation aims to ensure "accountability" and requires private institutions to "ensure the minimum curricula quality standards,... maintain a readily accessible list of accredited study programmes... and submit detailed plans on education, research and training on a five-yearly basis,..."
Section 77 of the Proclamation provides that accreditation issued to a private institution "shall be valid for three years from the date of its issuance," subject to renewal unless there is good cause for denying or withdrawing accreditation. A private institution may lose its accreditation and be legally prevented from providing educational services under section 81 of the Proclamation for three reasons:
The Agency may revoke the accreditation of a private institution on any one of the following grounds: a) where it is found that the accreditation has been given on the basis of false information; b) where the institution fails to rectify defects within the time fixed in the warning given by the Agency for failure to satisfy the required standards or for contravening the provisions of this Proclamation, any other relevant law or regulations or directives issued for the implementation of this Proclamation. c) where the institution is dissolved or ceases its operations.
Section 82 of the Proclamation further provides appellate procedures to review "revocation of accreditation":
1) Any institution may appeal to the Ministry for a review of the Agency's decision on rejection of an application for accreditation or renewal of accreditation or on the revocation of accreditation, within 30 days of the receipt of the decision. 2) The Ministry shall establish an appeal committee to review the decision of the Agency and to make recommendations. 3) The Ministry shall grant the applicant the right to be heard before the final decision is given on the appeal.
The HERQA "directive" which de-accredits and bans all distance education programs provided by private institutions is demonstrably violative of the process specified in the Proclamation. First, section 81 authorizes HERQA to act against private institutions on a case-by-case basis. Second, HERQA can act against a particular institution only after it has made specific factual findings of violations of the Proclamation or other law and "given a warning" to the institution. Third, if HERQA does find specific deficiencies, it can only act to de-accredit only if the institution "fails to rectify defects within the time fixed in the warning given by the Agency..." Fourth, any HERQA's de-accreditation decision is stayed or suspended until the particular institution is given the "the right to be heard before the final decision is given on the appeal (Section 82)." All of these mandatory requirements of the Proclamation were ignored or disregarded by HERQA when the directive was issued.
By summarily mandating a ban on all private distance education, HERQA has acted ultra vires (beyond their legal powers and authority) in flagrant violation of Proclamation 650. Article 40 of the Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the "right of every Ethiopian citizen to own private property," which it defines it as "any property, both corporeal and incorporeal, produced by the labour, creativity or capital of an Ethiopian citizen, associations of Ethiopian nationals endowed with legal personality by law..." To enforce the arbitrary and capricious "directive" unconstitutionally deprives the property rights of the owners and operators of private distance education programs without due process of law.
The Politicization of Higher Education in Ethiopia
Many of my regular readers are aware of my interest in Ethiopian higher education. In February 2008, I wrote a commentary entitled "Tyranny in the Academy" on the state of academic freedom at the Mekelle Law School following the dismissal of Professor Abigail Salisbury. She had published a commentary which painted a chilling portrait of fear and loathing at that law school. I observed: "The recent history of academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry in Ethiopian higher education is deeply scarred by political interference, political correctness, arbitrary purges of professors, harassment and persecution of faculty and students, and general intellectual repression."
The Salisbury episode, the regime's "new scheme" introduced last August to hold the diplomas of university graduates hostage, and the current directive and other facts reinforce my belief that higher education is overly politicized and manipulated in Ethiopia to ensure the domination and control of the dictatorship. The regime's approach to higher education reminds me of a passage in Dr. Carter G. Woodson book, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). Dr. Woodson argued that the greatest danger and challenge for the African-Americans of his day was the risk of indoctrination in the form of education:
When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.
The ruling regime in Ethiopia today is hell-bent to use higher education as a tool of indoctrination for a new breed of ideologues and party hacks that will support it blindly and unquestioningly.
Throwing Out the Baby With the Bath Water
For the past three decades, distance learning has been a valuable educational delivery form even in the most industrialized countries. Today many of the most prestigious universities in the world, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley and Oxford, offer diverse distance learning courses and programs in a variety of settings. They maintain educational quality, program integrity and legitimacy through regional and national accreditation agencies that maintain and enforce rigorous pedagogical standards. High quality standards make the issue of "on site" versus distance learning unimportant. The question is no longer how students learn but what they actually do learn from their courses and programs. In quality distance programs, the course work and requirements are the same as the campus-based programs; the only difference is the method of content delivery.
If the aim of the regime in Ethiopia is to ensure high quality of educational content, the proper remedy is to enforce rigorous quality standards as mandated by Proclamation 650, and not to shut down each and every distance learning program in the country. By express declaration, the fundamental purpose of the Proclamation is to ensure "accountability" and "quality" and weed out the diploma mills and flight-by-night operations from the educational marketplace so that they will not victimize students with phony "degrees". But the problem of quality control is entirely the regime's. In a piece entitled, "Internal Quality Care Policy in Ethiopian Universities: Opportunities and Challenges," Zenawi Zerihun W. Yohannes of Mekelle University in Ethiopia observed: "What is commonly employed in the higher learning institutions in Ethiopia as a way of checking quality is setting minimum standards on the educational process, such as the qualification of the academic staff, the organization of the curriculum, and other resources although differences in implementation and utilization are reported."
It defies reason to argue that all private distance education providers in Ethiopia are diploma mills only "interested in money" and therefore deserve to be shut down collectively by disallowing them from enrolling new students. If these institutions are providing education and training to 75,000 students, they must be doing something right. Otherwise, they would have gone bankrupt for lack of students long before a directive is issued to wipe them out. The real question is why the regime has now decided to throw the baby out with the bath water.
What is Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander
It is ironic that the very people who now have decided to throw out the baby with the bath water are themselves graduates of distance learning programs. Dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi reportedly obtained a graduate degree from The Open University (OU) in England, a reputable distance learning institution founded and funded by the British Government, while presumably carrying on the affairs of state. OU has an "open entry policy" where traditional admissions requirements are suspended for students to take undergraduate and graduate courses. It is also said that many of the top leaders of the dictatorship obtained degrees and certification from various distance learning programs in academic and non-academic areas such as "transformational leadership".
It has been argued by some that the ban on distance learning in the country is motivated by petty concerns of the regime leaders that wide access to such programs could somehow cheapen their own distance learning diplomas and degrees. I have seen no evidence to support this view. But the real question for me is a much simpler one: If distance education is good enough for Zenawi and Company, should it not be good enough for the average Ethiopian seeking to improve his/her lot in life? It seems only fair that what is good for the goose should be good for the gander. It is also wise to remember that those who live in glass houses should be careful not to throw stones. Blanket condemnation of the country's private distance education could invite unwanted attention and scrutiny on the distance education programs the regime leaders claim to have attended to obtain their diplomas and certifications.
The World Bank Says More Distance Learning Institutions for Ethiopia
The World Bank has emphasized the great need for a network of "tertiary educational" institutions (e.g. private colleges, technical and vocational training institutes, distance learning centers, etc.,) to help support the "production of the higher-order capacity" necessary for Ethiopia's development. In a 2003 sector study entitled "Higher Education Development for Ethiopia", the World Bank recommended
expansion of private tertiary institutions be more actively encouraged in order to make the burden of higher education expansion borne by government more bearable. A near term goal might be to double the share of private enrollments from the current 21% to 40% by 2010. To help achieve this goal, the Bank team recommends that Government provide stronger incentives for the expansion of private tertiary education (e.g., access to land, more generous customs exemptions for the importation of educational materials) and also extend quality-enhancing support to private institutions identified as needing improvement (e.g., participation in the National Pedagogical Resources Center, leadership and management training, creation of a fund for remedial actions). Consistent with the recent Higher Education Proclamation, the Bank team recommends that structured quality assurance and accreditation activities be put in place to protect the public from fraudulent and questionable quality providers that may emerge in the midst of rapid private expansion. (Italics added.)
Seven years ago the World Bank recommended, "A near term goal might be to double the share of private enrollments from the current 21% to 40% by 2010." In 2010, Zenawi has decided to reduce private enrollments to zero!
The solution for any educational quality problems that may exist in the distance educational sector in Ethiopia is not to drop a blanket ban on all private institutions, but to create a rigorous quality control process that will ensure the weeding out of diploma mills and fly-by-night operations. As Yohannes of Mekele University noted, the problem is that the regime's notions of educational quality do not go beyond "setting minimum standards on the educational process, such as the qualification of the academic staff, the organization of the curriculum, and other resources." It is unfair and a violation of Proclamation 650 to impose collective punishment on all private institutions providing distance learning services for the regulatory failures of the regime or to presumably weed out a few bad operators.
Indoctri-Nation, Not Education
One of the largest operators of private distance learning programs has argued that "the growth of private universities in Ethiopia has contributed to a five-fold increase in the country's gross higher education enrollment ratio" and has increased the college enrollment rate from "one percent of Ethiopians a decade ago to 5.1 percent today". If these data are accurate, the private institutions deserve praise not condemnation and excommunication from the field of higher education.
I believe the regime has a long term strategy to use the universities as breeding grounds for its ideologues and hatcheries for the thousands of loyal and dependent bureaucrats they need to sustain their domination and rule. The monopoly created for the state in the disciplines of law and teaching (which I will predict will gradually include other disciplines in the future) is a clear indication of the trend to gradually create a cadre of "educated" elites to serve the next generation of dictators to come. It is a well-established fact that the regime has used teachers, particularly in the rural areas, extensively as party recruiters, enforcers and representatives by providing them financial and other incentives. By ensuring access to these disciplines only to ruling party members and supporters, the regime hopes to extend its tentacles to every part of the country. 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. The fact that teachers are viewed respectfully in rural areas as "educated" persons gives them special advantages in influencing and manipulating not only the young at an early age but also in playing a far larger political role in the community. The politicized role of teachers in the May 2010 election amply testifies to that fact.
Similarly, by monopolizing the law discipline, the regime could regulate the training of lawyers and judges who will administer "justice" in the country. Instead of training lawyers committed to the Constitution, the rule of law, principles of universal justice and ethical standards, graduates of state-monopoly law schools will largely be party hacks, hirelings and lackeys with ultimate loyalty to the dictator-in-chief. Simply stated, the regime will be able to control two of the most important professions that have the greatest impact on the lives of the people. I will predict that the current trend in tightening control over higher education will continue because it is a central element of the regime's strategy to use higher education as a way of transforming the decades-old bureaucracy and re-creating government in its own image. The regime believes that the only way it can continue to rule indefinitely is by creating its own robotic jackbooted-army of "educated" elites marching in lockstep throughout the bureaucracy to the orders of the dictator-in-chief. It is an exquisitely diabolical strategy, but unlikely to work.
The regime's thinking on higher education is simple: Indoctrinate, indoctrinate and indoctrinate some more until you forge an Indoctri-Nation. It is wise to remember Dr. Woodson's words:
When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary...
That's why I would recommend to anyone concerned about educational injustice in Ethiopia to read Paulo Freire's Pedagogy (teaching) of the Oppressed.