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Ethiopian education plan: Revolutionary move or band-aid?

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA) – In a break from past practice, grade 12 students sitting the 2022 final national examinations in Ethiopia are writing papers at university campuses instead of as per the norm at their schools. Federal authorities have run the examinations, and the regional officials allegedly responsible for cheating have no role in the examinations.

By Edwin Naidu

Once known for its devastating famine, Ethiopia is bucking the trend in its quest to stamp out cheating during the final examinations for grade 12 pupils.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education has launched a new system for one-million learners in grade 12 national high school leaving examination.

But is it a revolutionary move or just a band-aid?

In a break from past practice and one still currently in use throughout the Continent, grade 12 students sitting the 2022 final national examinations in Ethiopia, which began on 10 October, are writing papers at university campuses instead of as per the norm at their schools.

Federal authorities have run the examinations, and the regional officials allegedly responsible for cheating have no role in the examinations.

While this gives pupils writing their final examinations a taste of what it is like to walk through the ivory towers of learning, the initiative aims to beat cheating or stealing of exam papers.

This is a problem that has been reported in parts of South Africa every year. In Ethiopia, there are widespread claims that regional-level authorities have been involved in exam paper theft, resulting in the poor quality of education in the country. The move also aims to ensure that more students end up at universities in Ethiopia after completing their examinations.

For his efforts, Dr Berhanu Nega has been lauded, well at least on social media, as the best minister of education in Africa, because he comes from an opposition party and has managed to convince the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, that his grand plan will shake up the education sector and make a tangible difference for learners, notably, however, bringing down incidents of cheating.

However, removing the regional-level authorities from taking part in examinations is not the answer. Indeed, dealing decisively with their dishonesty is a measurable sign of positive action. Would such a step show that Nega means business?

His actions seem proof enough, but one has to ensure that he follows through. At least Nega, a former student activist who has challenged previous governments in pursuit of a free and democratic Ethiopia, has acted on a severe problem. He also shows the importance of finding the right person for the job rather than the politics of patronage and employment for pals. A trend that is evident throughout the Continent – if not the world.

As the leader of the three-year-old opposition party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, Nega has his work cut out. But he seems to be justifying the faith placed in him by Ahmed.

However, calling him the best in Africa, as some have done on social media, maybe a stretch until he produces results.

Furthermore, South Africa’s long-serving Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, since 11 May 2009, four years into the job, George Magoha of Kenya and Ghana’s Matthew Opoku Prempeh, appointed five years ago, or Nigeria’s Mallam Adamu Adamu appointed in 2015, may challenge the claim.

When talking about the best, it would be unfair not to include on this list South Africa’s first post-apartheid education minister, Sibusiso Bengu, who oversaw the amalgamation of multiple apartheid ministries into a single one, laying the foundation for what currently exists. South Africa would not be where it is without Bengu, 88, the former teacher, principal and diplomat.

One cannot deny that Nega has acted boldly. And he also concedes that this move would not stamp out cheating entirely. And if it does not work, he is clear that the system will be reassessed to further clampdown on any cheating in the final examinations. That is more refreshing than waiting for things to get out of hand before acting, which is pretty much the norm in most places.

The education ministry has bolstered security in all the universities to ensure the safety of 976,018 students writing exams this year. Students unable to write the examinations will be allowed to do so next month.

Depending on one’s age, when Ethiopia comes to mind, one remembers little about its education system. Still, the jarring images of starving children in the eighties with former Boomtown Rat, Sir Bob Geldof, and Midge Ure rallying the musical troops for Band-Aid’s ‘Do They Know its Christmas’ to raise funds for famine relief?

Sadly, famine devastated Ethiopia between 1983 and 1985, and remains a challenge in many parts of Africa. The food crisis was a devastating drought, and a bloody war as Eritreans fought for their independence and Tigrayans for their rights.

According to the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises Mid-Year Update, food security says at least one in five Africans goes to bed hungry, and an estimated 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity.

For many, Ethiopia is synonymous with Ras Tafari Makonnen, who became Emperor Haile Selassie and is regarded by some as a symbol of a proud and independent Africa. Whatever one thinks of him, the education system in Ethiopia has struggled through famine and war.

One hopes that the different approach by Nega would kickstart more change, focusing on improvements within the system, training of teachers, and resources for schools so that Ethiopia can fulfil its potential.

Before the exams began, Prime Minister Ahmed, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending the war with Eritrea, shared a special message for students in Amharic and Oromigna: “Ethiopia sees hope. I hope you will prove that the exam you are writing is proof that you are true of Ethiopia….”

Ahmed’s Mandela-Esque appointment of Nega, an opposition party leader, looks to summon that missing spirit that will unite Ethiopians in song for the right reasons.

Naidu is a journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education and the socio-economic, environmental, and political factors it influences in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.