For many young Ethiopians, acceding to university is seen as a unique reward and great privilege which will be useful for the rest of their lives.
Going to university in Ethiopia is undeniably an incredible opportunity: only approximately 2 % of all Ethiopian children will enter university, one of the lowest higher education enrolment rates in the world.
The University College of Addis Ababa was established in 1951 by the former government, making it one of the oldest universities on the African continent. Initially known as the ”Haile-Selassie I University” as of December 1961, it was later given the Addis Ababa University (AAU) name by the Derg – a name which is still used nowadays. In 1975, the growth of the university temporarily came to a halt when
the Derg decided to send students out of the city to employ them as agents of rural reawakening and development. Today, the university is composed of six campuses within Addis Ababa and a seventh one in the nearby town of Debre Zeit. It also has many other branches throughout the country, in most major cities of Ethiopia. Educating over 400 000 students, the university is one of the largest universities in Africa, if not the biggest of its kind. In Addis Ababa alone, AAU has over 25 different departments.
Dereje Chemere, an undergraduate student of economics at the Faculty of Business and Economics, told me that the university campus was appreciated by students and that facilities within the university were generally of good quality. Due to an increasing number of students, new buildings have also been added to the campus in the past couple of years. This gives students an opportunity to enjoy fresh classrooms and new services. Dereje even told me that in one of the newest buildings, some of the students would abuse the elevators which had recently been installed as some of them had never seen one of these – let alone use them – before. Thus, the elevators are often in service only at specific intervals to prevent them from permanent damage.
Any respected university must have sufficient teaching quality. In Addis Ababa University, this issue has been at the centre of discussions over the last few years. Various members of the university and students have been complaining that the level of teaching has been falling over the years. This can be explained by the growing number of students and perhaps insufficient or inappropriate training of professors. However, teachers remained very focused on their subject and will give lots of advice and many reading suggestions for upcoming exams.
Students will often have between 23 to 27 hours of courses every week, and will usually attend four to five of them each day. This varies according to the level of students, the nature of courses and the level of students. Dereje told me that lecturers seem to have the right to call their students at any day and time they want – meaning some students may have courses on Sunday – though there still are permanent schedules for each course given every day of the week.
Depending on the department, out of 100 undergraduate students, about only half will successfully fully complete their studies. This low rate is due to insufficient student motivation on one hand, but also in some respect difficulties for some students to fully complete the course because of external factors. Departments related to science; such as those dealing with medicine, physics or maths; witness some of the lowest completion rates. Inversely, departments such as those of literature and social studies boast some of the highest student completion rates.
Once students have obtained their precious diplomas, life is not always a bed of roses – it is generally quite difficult for them to find jobs, though work prospects vary significantly according to the sector. This is one of the consequences of the actual fragile economic situation which makes job opportunities quite rare. And for some cases, it is not how high a grade you obtain which will help, but rather the people you know. Nonetheless, acquiring a diploma from the Addis Ababa University is highly recognised as it is seen as the best university in Ethiopia and indeed one of the best on the continent.
Continuing education up to a university level is not given to everyone. The Ministry of Education selects specific students according to the grades they have obtained upon completing secondary school. The minimum grade required for university entrance is 275 / 500 for boys and 225 / 500 for girls, though it is subject to change. The selection process is the same whether students come from Addis or other regions of Ethiopia. Girls are required to have a lower minimum grade than the boys as in the past, a large majority of boys would study at the university. Therefore, the government tries to encourage more girls to come to the university by granting them slightly easier access. This incentive has helped to attract more and more girls and boys now only slightly overpopulate them. Looking back some fifty years, when girls were pretty much reduced to manual work at home and would not even dream about receiving proper education, it is very encouraging for the future to see how competent they are becoming.
Student accommodation is provided on campus in separate dormitories for boys and girls. Priority for housing is given to students who come from places outside of Addis, as they do not have any home in the town. Although accommodation is not exactly a luxury, it is generally of good quality and repairs have been made to improve hygiene and expand all services. Within the accommodation, Dereje told me that there generally is peaceful coexistence amongst students and that incidents are rare. What makes accommodation even more appreciable for many regular or full-time undergraduate students is that throughout their university years, there is not the slightest financial cost. They will only have to pay the government once they have graduated from the university. Additionally, for students living off campus, the government extends to them a grant of 300 birr per month to compensate for the cost of housing in Addis and cafeteria services. This grant will have to be paid back once the student has found a job with enough income to reimburse the government the loan he had taken. For students who have a dormitory on the campus and eat at the cafeteria, there is no aid provided by the government. Postgraduates, however, have to pay a fixed price of 35,000 to 40,000 birr a year to complete their education.
Life in the university can be challenging for newcomers as there are enormous disparities amongst the students. Some will be coming from the countryside, with virtually no money, whilst others come from rich families in Addis. Dereje told me that freshman students always work hard during their first year, and then progressively, as they get used to the university, the amount of work by students and concentration often goes down. There is a well-organized student union (or dean of students office) which organises parties and many other events for students. Any student can come and notify them of a particular problem, as they are responsible for solving any issue which is linked directly or indirectly to the campus.
Over the past few years, Dereje said that there have been evolutions that were generally welcomed. Communication between students and teachers has become more frequent than in the past. There has been a general increase in the closeness between university staff and students, making it easier for students to claim their rights. Furthermore, the university is not as strict as it used to be. Students dismissed because of low grades or behaviour problems are now sometimes given a second chance – something which would never have been allowed a few years ago. The government has decreased disciplinary procedures and minimum entry requirements in what is part of a recent strategy to promote higher education to a wider population and encourage young students to continue their studies through to university. Having undergone these changes and increasing communication within the campus has effectively increased the number of students at Addis Ababa University. But a growing number of students has unfortunately also affected the quality of teaching, which has been slowly decreasing – contrasting with the many positive changes which have been brought to the university. The government has prioritised the number of people who are educated rather than the quality of the education, though it has promised to improve the quality of education over a short period of time.
Asked how he felt to be a student in a university in Ethiopia, Dereje said that he felt “proud, respected by others”. For many young Ethiopians, going to university is considered a dream: many of them think that entering university will secure their future and ensure a suitable job and a good quality of life. It is no surprise that coming home, families and neighbours will highly respect anyone who has been admitted to the university. Dereje also told me that some students see it as an opportunity to help society, and do something useful for Ethiopia. Going to Addis Ababa University, or indeed other universities in Ethiopia, is certainly a wonderful opportunity for young Ethiopians to achieve a high level of education, and thus better understand their country, their continent, and, to some extent, the wider world. The increasing number of students at Addis Ababa University should be seen as a very encouraging sign and, for the Ethiopian youth who dreams of a brighter future, should be thought of a way to start making it possible for the dream to become reality.