Addis Ababa University: What do students say about Ethiopia’s premier institution?

By Eden Habtamu, Ezega news

Addis Ababa UniversityAddis Ababa, September 21, 2009 ( -- Fifty nine years ago Addis Ababa got an educational institution named “University College of Addis Ababa”. It was later renamed Haile Selassie I University in 1962. It began operation with Science and Arts Faculties. In 1975 the university got it current name Addis Ababa University, and it currently it serving more than 400,000 students in its 25 Faculties or so. This number is a huge increase from the less than 50 students it once served within the department of Biology that granted diplomas and certificates. The university offered its first Master's degree in 1979, and its first PhD in 1987.

For many students, and especially those who have not gone through it yet, Addis Ababa University is the most prestigious university to study in Ethiopia. Yet for many who have passed through it, it is a place they paid heavy price and suffered a lot until the last day of their graduation.


Many former and current students of the Addis Ababa University complain about the tough and rough time they spent or are spending at this university. Eden Habtamu of wanted to check firsthand what life is at this huge institution and what people say about it – the strengths, weaknesses, limitations and difficulties within this institution – through interviews with many students that passed through it. The following is excerpts of Eden’s interview with several students.


I went to visit Addis Ababa University after a few days of the 2009 graduation. The four female graduates I met were from the department of Business Education and Marketing, and they were being photographed around the “kissing pool” at 6 kilo main campus. At first, they were afraid to comment on any of their stay at the university, as most of them have plans to come back someday to the university for further studies. After I convinced them to share their experiences with me, this is generally what they say regarding their stay at this university. They (the students) feel that the universities’ professors/instructors are generally not qualified and lack proper ethics and professionalism. Students generally accept theses weaknesses and limitations of their professors’ as well as the supporting office personnel, and try to study their subject matter the best they can. They are afraid to complain to anybody at the university for fear of reprisal, or due to consideration that the institution does not have enough professors to replace the not so good ones.     


Most of their complaints regarding their professors revolve around lack of ethics, incompetence, negligence, unwillingness to share their knowledge and experience generously, mistreating their students, and teaching courses beyond their capacity.


When it comes to the services provided by the university, they mainly and bitterly criticize the registrar office and its services.


The people we interviewed mentioned that there are different kinds of problems in different departments. Some of the departments are much better than others. And some department students enjoy their academic freedom better than others.


Amazingly, most of the students we talked to were not willing for on-the-record interview for many different reasons. However, a few were bold enough to share their experiences with, believing that the university would be able to learn from its mistakes and keep its strengths for future generation.


AAU StudentsEjigayehu Gurmo, 2009 Graduate from English Department (Extension Program) whom I met while returning her graduation gown: Ejigayehu is married and the mother of 4 children. She shared her experience with Ezega news as follows. She is more or less satisfied with the teaching process at the university, but she is disappointed by the quality of services provided at the university. She informed Ezega news that it took her two working days each to take and return the graduation gown due to lack of coordination. She is also disappointed with the registrar office, as grades are usually not reported on time and correctly.


Bethlehem Tafesse, freshman student at the Faculty of Technology, Civil Engineering Department whom I met after taking the final exam of her 1st year: My perception regarding Addis Ababa University is now completely different from the one I envisioned before I entered the campus. I expected my professors to have high qualifications, good ethics, and willing to support us when we need them desperately. But the reality is completely different and it is actually becoming difficult to handle the various hardships directly /indirectly related to the teaching and learning process. I genuinely wish that they could be more qualified and well-informed, and willing to support us, regardless of gender or anything else. And I wish the university could improve its services such as the registrar, library, and administrative services. I don’t mean that there are no qualified, ethical, and supportive professors and office personnel at the university. However, they are few and far in between, and well in the minority.


Hiwot Emishaw, 2004 MA Graduate from the Department of Political Sciences and International Relations: I personally believe that most of the courses that I took during my stay at AAU are NOT directly relevant to what I do right now. I also don’t believe that most courses given at the different departments of the university are responsive to the needs of our economy and the job market. This is why we see students who spent four years of their life studying something but work in areas completely different from what they studied. However, it is fair to say that the process of learning at AAU sharpens your mind and increases your analytical ability, making you effective in tackling problems during your work life. This has helped me a great deal. However, this may not applicable to all students and all departments.



The courses on which we spent nights memorizing were just for passing through the tube and through college. They were highly theoretical and not in context with the reality of our country and had little relevance to the work that students face when they graduate. With some exceptions, the way the courses are thought is also one that leads you to memorize just until the exams and then forget all about it and move on to the next thing to memorize.


Regarding professors’ competence, it is hard to generalize the competence of AAU instructors in one sentence. They vary from department to department and from individual to individual. As it stands right now, instructors are recruited largely from former students who achieved high academic achievements, that is, with as many A’s as possible. This is not a bad approach on its own, but can be devastating as most instructors with many A’s do not necessarily make good teachers. Teaching requires skills of imparting knowledge and pedagogic ability. These A students who go straight from being “good” students to teachers do not undergo trainings to develop these skills. As a result, many of these people become terrible instructors whom students end up hating and get little learning from. 


The other problem regarding teacher’s competence is the huge generational gap that has been created between “veteran instructors”, some of whom have been there since the establishment of the university, and the new generation. Most of these veteran instructors have different sets of values as to what a good student should be, and this may be different from what the new generation thinks. Some of them never take the time to update themselves with new information and simply stick to the handouts they prepared decades ago. The handouts, like they were written on stone, never change, and students are required to memorize them whether they make sense or not.


Social life of Addis Ababa University offers a great life experience, particularly for students residing in the dormitories. It is a chance to make new and life-long friends, develop as a person, and perhaps meet a life partner. For students who are interested and would like to make the effort, there are different clubs that offer opportunities for expanding oneself beyond academia and develop all-rounded personality. The café experience, the late night outs, and the campus romance are among the memorable ones a student may encounter there. They are perhaps the most cherished times in your life and follow you more than the actual education you get from the university.


Biruk Fekadu, 2009 graduate from Journalism and Communication Faculty, Institution in real crisis: It is quite intriguing to go through Addis Ababa University despite lots of comments (spoken and written) against its services. I believe anyone can be proud to be studying at the university for several reasons. One is that many employers prefer to hire its graduates, and, the other, our society believes that it is the best higher learning institution in the whole country. But the other side of the coin is that Addis Ababa University continues with the legacy of its complicated internal problems which sometimes cost its reputation.


The problems range from ordinary teacher-student disagreements to offering grades based on biases on ethnic, political, or religious affiliations. Women are often sexually harassed by irresponsible professors who aspire to practice their arrogant bullying behavior using their position. Others intentionally make students suffer for different reasons at the end of every semester. Many professors at the university consider their students as powerless servants, instead of recognizing their significant role in the pedagogy. Several teachers exhibit inferiority complex when excelled by some brilliant students. In fact, they turn every stone possible to make things difficult on those who do not need much from them. Often controversies are resolved in favor of the staff member, ignoring university regulations. Another embarrassment is the fact that the university does not posses a well-organized syllabus in almost any of the faculties. The departments carry out their activities and course offerings by merely following schedules that are never consistent.


In general the university has interwoven problems which are causing damages to its reputation and its long-standing service.


Anonymous interviewee, Law department Graduate of 2004: I personally don’t think I have seen the worst of the system at the university. It had multitude of problems, many that effected me afterwards one way or the other, although, I believe, I had ways of coping up with these problems.


There were things that I did not like from the start, like the grading and examination system, the relevance of the training you receive there to the outside market, the quality of student service, etc. Let me elaborate on these.


First, in a country where the university system is set up to fail as many students as possible in order to be able to accommodate students, it was frustrating to see the amount of work students have to put into their studies only to risk everything on a single examination at the end of the semester. For whatever reasons, if you did not do well, that’s it. Unless of course you have done extremely bad, like you got an F, or you did not attend the exam at all….then you will have another chance. This trend did not change much when students joined their preferred field of study after the freshman year, except for departments that had midterm examination schedules. Still, tutorials were not that abundant; neither were supplementary reading materials relevant to the courses being taught.


Second, although I can not speak for all departments or faculties, many of them in my opinion did not offer practical skills training, but jus theoretical study. That is why when students join the job market and are employed, they need a sort of on-the-job training. For instance, in the Law School where I studied, there used to be a lot of training on litigation in the court, drafting, case briefing, and the like. During our time, the courses were either no longer offered, or their credit hours reduced, or no instructor available to teach them. When we were employed in the court, we had to learn all the procedures and technical stuff all over again. In other words, we were not ready for the job market.


Thirdly, the bad quality of student services, usually attributed to the poor financial capacity of the country, is still in shatters. The food sucks, the dorm rooms are crowded, and the healthcare is not something to be proud of, even though it does provide basic services. I don’t even know where to start about the guidance and counseling services, making of the entire university accessible to students with disabilities, and organizing and supporting various groups created at the university. Of course, I shouldn’t even mention the university publication/media – they just don’t exist; I don’t know if they do now. And in the brief times they existed, they were shut down due to student movements and riots.


When I come to the Law School, it was supposed to be the most sought after and prestigious faculty in the main campus. After all, only students with the highest grades joined it, and we took classes in the very room where all the main laws of the country were codified. Law school was a relatively tight society than the rest of the social sciences. Since all or most of the batches took classes in a single building, where the library is also located, a family-like feeling was created between students and some instructors. However the instructors of the faculty were no less arrogant than the rest of the instructors at the university. It is a faculty where you are taught that there are no right or wrong answers to a question, so long as you are a good lawyer who can argue both sides convincingly.


Nolawi, Department of International Language Studies, graduate of 2005: I spent a total of seven years at AAU, first joining this historic and prestigious institution in 1999 as an undergraduate student. I worked for two years and returned for my postgraduate studies.


My undergraduate years were both filled with pleasant moments and rife with frequent student protests and violence that disrupted classes. But I would like to reflect mostly on our instructors and students academic and language capacity.


We were lucky to have instructors at the ILS (Institute of Language Studies) who were by far well equipped and resourced to conduct the course work properly. And we had one of the most capable and well-staffed departments in campus, thanks to a number of PhD instructors with years of experience and proven loyalty to the institute.


Many of us didn’t join the department as our first choice but pursued it with vigour and discipline once we were assigned. Class participation was both encouraged and rewarded in many of our literature and journalism classes (except the linguistics courses).


We were, like our instructors, of the opinion that our capacity to express our thoughts in English was pretty good. Not surprising, we were actually studying the language, self expression was the least of the expectations. We were mostly scoffed at by our teachers for using colloquial and slang expressions and were encouraged to speak more to improve our debate and language skills. Studying English was not that challenging to be honest, than say other social science programs that entail deep technical features. Nevertheless, we had our share of students who lacked all the basic skills of the language and yet made it to graduation. No sooner had I joined the masters’ program than I noticed how terribly language skills have crushed. Student discipline, language and analytical skills have drastically fallen that so many of students can’t even convey the simplest of ideas in class, and worse, they are not even aware of mistakes in their language usage that it makes any chance of improvement slim to none. And yet, it is so sad to see that many of these students are allowed by the system to pass from semester to semester, up to defending thesis papers.


I recently met my undergraduate instructor who took no time to thank me and my batch for our discipline and determination to improve on our language skills and give our best to our papers. His exact words were: ‘I am glad to have thought students like you. My students now can’t spell words properly and that I have stopped giving them paper assignments.’


I am not saying plagiarism was nonexistent. It was systematic and widespread. Back then we heard of stories of students found guilty and punished for it. But I returned to the university to find out that plagiarism was routine way of life for all levels of students. Downloaded online documents now form ‘term and thesis papers’ in their entirety. I am saying that unwillingness and, at times, the inability of many of the teachers to check on the contents and reference of their student’s work gave a moral boost to all that basically says ‘you now have a choice to score grades and graduate with minimum effort’. AAU is and has always been a beacon of educational prestige for over half a century. It needs all the help it can get to rid itself of practices that crank out graduates who struggle to complete sentences and to even spell their course titles.


The greatest headache of my campus years was department registrars – small kingdoms that respond to no one (including the main registrar) and do things on their own ways. Getting a grade report or a letter (of any level of importance) was a real pain, takes days, and it is ever accompanied by frowned looks of the staff. Mistakes on your grade report were the worst nightmare you can possibly imagine. Once a grade report is issued, it would be very difficult to change it. And since the entire burden of involving the instructor, having the form sent to him, returning the form, and reminding the registrar not to forget it is your responsibility. You are in for a big week of frustration and despair. The whole saga starts from getting the form to the 'mistaken' class to correct the grade, to following up the paper trail (which literally means standing at the gate of the registrar each morning and afternoon) until it comes back to the office. If you think it is finished here, well, you are wrong! You have to make sure that the corrected grade makes it safe to your file. And that should take some time. 


The main campus registrar is a different place. By different I mean a more horrible story. New regulations and de facto laws are routinely issued at this supposedly important service provider of the campus every few months. But that was in the past! It has significantly deteriorated to a level that every few days, new laws prop up on things like student copy, temporary issuance, official documents and the like.


Some days, you can get your student copy, pay for it (when you go to the finance section to pay, the registrar usually closes so you will have to come back in the afternoon, may be). And the coming days could suddenly see no service for disclosed or undisclosed reasons. The disclosed reasons are very familiar, such as new regulations, meetings, or administrative reasons. I have learnt to do things with considerable patience and politeness, and rushing from one office to the other, often taking a full day leave from my work. Because, unless I run and pray at the same time to get the papers I need from the registrar, newer regulations could disappoint me for more weeks. So, I don’t take chances!


Tadesse MulunehTaddesse Mulunehe, Department of Civil Engineering, 2005 Graduate: The teaching-learning process shows that the university just has the name it once had, but not its previous reputation. First, the curriculum has many drawbacks and need serious modification, and, second, the non-stop policy changes have impact on students, resulting on poor performance among other things. In science and engineering related faculties, I would like to see more emphasis on laboratory and experiments, rather than on theory. The need for well-equipped laboratories is obvious. And, because almost all of the library books are old, it has its own impact on both students and teachers, causing each not to contribute its part.  If we take Earth Sciences as an example, the departments has one of the most sophisticated laboratory equipment in Africa (an equipments which was donated by European countries), but these days most of the equipment is not in working order because of lack of spare parts and skilled manpower. The department doesn’t want to spend money on this kind of matter. As for having skilled people manning the equipment, the managers of the laboratories have their own personal interests to look after and take all the training opportunities for themselves and do not want to share their skills with the people who are working on the equipment.


Regarding ethical problems of the teachers, in the first place some the teachers have no real desire in serving their country properly and don’t even worry about finishing their courses on time.  Many of them have side jobs which can help them get more money than what the university is paying them. This came from the proclamation that the government announced some years back that any professional who is teaching at universities has the right to work for unlimited number of employers. This led these teachers to just ignore their commitment to the university and behave like businessmen. Because of this, some of them don’t even bother to teach their respective courses properly or evaluate their students by checking their exams carefully. Instead, they seem to be giving random grades inconsistent to exam performances. This sometimes cause great discomfort to those who have studied well and expect good grades.


There is also the issue of sexual harassment. This is often perpetrated by married people at the university by pushing female students to have relationships with them so that they get whatever grade they want.  By doing so, some teachers change grades from F to A and A+.  By looking on these and other issues, I suspect that the university may have become ground for the spread of  HIV/AIDS and other related diseases and for victimizing women.


The other issue which is usually done by our teachers is copying of students’ works and present them as their own, including presenting in international conferences, and publishing in journal and books. At times, they assign students tough thesis titles so that they can benefit out of the students work.  Some of them even receive funds from abroad and give some of the money to the students and take an ample amount for themselves.


Management of the university has lots of problems that we see in our day-to-day activities at the university, including corruption, misuse of government budget, and various managerial problems.


Tsedale Lemma, Faculty of Journalism and Communications, Graduate of 2009: I would love to comment on the lack of strategic planning and coordination amongst the Addis Ababa University management. One of the many challenges I have faced during the past four years of my stay at AAU was the university’s reluctance to let students know what the plan was regarding upcoming academic programs and lack of better coordination amongst its various departments. 


Most of the decisions that have direct and indirect implications on the teaching-learning process at the university are often inadequately communicated to the students. We don’t know when final exams are going to be given until a few weeks from the exams; we don’t know what courses we are supposed to take until after registrations for the courses are completed; we don’t know the professors who will be giving the courses until they are actually in the class, taking us all by a surprise; and most importantly, we don’t know the timetable for the courses well ahead of time so we can adjust our schedule in the office - as many of us are working people at office or at home. It has been a frustrating four years.


We don’t even know when we are going to graduate, if it happens at all. While these are pure lack of planning, most wearisome to me is the lack of coordination amongst the various departments. A good example is when a student misses an exam due to various reasons. I strongly believe that it is not by choice that a student misses a final exam after all the ups and downs he/she had to go through the course. Some circumstance force a student to miss a final exam. Then all hell breaks loose! It is an arduous process involving almost every department and management in the compound before it is decided that a student will be able to sit down for a make-up exam. Every office is poorly synchronized with each other that it is often the case one office dismisses what the other office approves. Finally, as someone preparing to leave the compound after four years of stay, there is nothing I wish more than this university having the values and manners of a real university rather than just name only. hopes that AAU authorities will take the above comments made by former and current students of Addis Ababa University into consideration and make Ethiopia’s premier educational institution better. In a follow up article, Ezega news will interview professors, instructors, and administrative personnel of the university and present their views and comments about the university.


Eden Habtamu Ezega News 

This article was written by Eden Habtamu reporting for from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She can be reached by email at The article can be reprinted in full or in part elsewhere but only by giving full credit to Ezega.  If reprinted on a website, we ask that you place this active link: Ezega Ethiopian News, pointing to



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