The wrong policy prescription on student placements

The wrong policy prescription on student placements

By: Girma Gutema

In 2012 when I was working as a director of quality assurance (QA) office in a health sciences college at a better established and well-resourced Ethiopian public University [my college had, respectively, Br 68 million and 100 million as recurrent and capital budgets by the time] , I had the chance to participate on a conference aimed to chart strategic directions for the Ethiopian higher education institutions. It was organized by the then Ethiopian Higher Education Strategic Center (EHSC); not sure if that center still exists anyway. Among the strategic issues on which the national conference was set to deliberate was the contentious issues of student placements.

With the massive expansion of the country’s higher education systems as public Universities were rapidly built across different geographic boundaries in the various regional states [yet all funded solely by the federal gov’t], and with the visibly dwindling quality of education as a natural byproduct of this massification approach, the student placement policy became even more contentious than ever before. The policy presupposes the need to employ the very technical idea of student-placement in public Universities as a strategic tool for the serious political project of “nation building” in Ethiopia, thereby limiting Universities’ intake ratios from the home region to not more than thirty or so percent. Seen at the face value, the policy might seem okey, but it really isn’t.

Yes of course, frameworks of student placement practices have been systematically applied to support the grand political project of “nation building” in other parts of the world, as exemplified by student exchange programs in European (esp among the so called ‘Eurozone’) and North American countries. But in these countries, the concept hasn’t been that corrupted and all the costs needed to effectively run such student placement programs are born by the state/s and their agencies which attach as serious political string as “nation building” to such student mobility schemes.

Yet, given that the grand political project of “nation building” is primarily the job of the govt on power, at whose disposal exist all the resources needed to accomplish this job, it’s wrong and hence unacceptable that the Ethiopian govt exploits the poor families of college students for this state-sanctioned political project.

I explain my point here under:

Trying to rationalize my argument squarely on the basis of the economic burden that such a student placement policy automatically entailed on students and their families living in abject poverty [as a lecturer at the University by then, I had seen first hand that some students get it difficult to go back home even at the end of the academic year for lack of transport money, and I recall to have contributed for fund raising campaigns organized by colleagues to help such needy students be able to go home], I boldly and publicly attacked (criticized) the student placement policy that forces public Universities in Ethiopia to enroll students predominately from other regions and faraway places as a wrong policy prescription and hence totally unacceptable.

I tried to substantiate my point by taking a practical case study on a poor single mother living in Aksum who had to be forced, by this govt-imposed student placement policy, to send her hard-raised sole daughter to a University in Jigjiga. By then, the single mom lived on a monthly salary of 600 Br, working as a bed-maker at a small hotel in Axum and she got type-II diabetes mellitus and also recurrent seizure — chronic illnesses that forced her live on cocktails of drugs since she lost her husband on the senseless Ethio-Eritrean border war. There is a fairly good public University in Axum itself but because of the said govt-imposed student placement policy, the daughter of this single poor mother had to travel more than 3500km, round trip if she doesn’t had to visit her mother during the semester breaks, or more than 7000km, round trips if she had to visit her mom during semester breaks, every year until she completes her studies.

By the time, I researched out my own way to find out that the said girl from Axum needed about two months of her mother’s salary to cover her round trip transport costs to Jigjiga, by benchmarking the cheapest available modalities for road transport and hotel accommodation. If a schedule for semester break visit to her mother in Axum had to be included, she needed a whole four months salary of her poor mother — even all that at a pretty much economically restricted student travel mode. All these costs had to be painfully born by this single poor mother struggling to make ends meet against all odds. Well, she had to squarely bear all these costs for a certain political project that the Ethiopian govt did impose on her. Absolutely unfair, right?

What’s more, it was a luxury for the “unionist” advocates of the said ill-advised policy to talk about the other incalculable costs (i.e., negative impacts) that come as a result of the sudden dry-up of social and family supports as students get completely dislodged from their social base within their communities. As a participant on the conference I mentioned earlier, making these honest points in those days came only to put you under fire by getting you labeled with all sorts of stuff including “Onag”, “xabbaab” and what have you…

But even worse now, the ill-advised policy on student placement has faced a more serious challenge than the economy that I pinned on in those days. What is at stake now is the very security of students across University campuses in the country. Honestly speaking, it just gives me a heartache to have witnessed all these messes happening as a result of such a wrong policy prescription. Alas!