The Failed Promises of College Education in Ethiopia

By Seble Teweldebirhan

Graduation-EthiopiaJuly 19, 2019 ( -- Ten years ago, in the Ethiopian Parliament, the then Trade and Industry Minister Girma Biru was presenting the success of opening multiple universities in the country. This magnificent achievement being cited did not impress the then outspoken parliamentarian Lidetu Ayalew. Lidetu asked about the fate of the hundreds of thousands of youth who will graduate from these universities. The question was rather clear. Industrial development in Ethiopia is very slow and the nation was (and still is) heavily dependent on traditional agriculture and foreign aid. And both were not promising to create employment for young fresh graduates. Girma Biru said it is better to have educated but unemployed youth. And he made it seem the question was motivated by ill intentions of denying the Ethiopian youth college education. Over the years, as the number of graduates accumulated and the job opportunities are nowhere to be seen, Girma’s party EPRDF tried everything, including forcing university graduates to become daily laborers on cobblestone roads or to ‘create jobs’ for themselves using the ill-conceived and politicized microfinance system for small scale industry. The failed promises of education and economic development are, perhaps, part of what brought the EPRDF to its knee last year, making some the policies it championed for long disappear in the name of ‘reform'.

Growing up in Ethiopia is not easy. Let’s talk about the majority, the sons and daughters of the farmers who have never been to schools, the teachers, the agricultural extension workers, and the small business owners.

The current generation has a fundamental problem. For the millions of youth who graduated from the nearly 40 universities in Ethiopia, everything that was told as truth turned out to be anything but truth. Just to name a few, one would assume getting a college education improves life for the better. That has remained a myth, as millions of college educated youth not only are unemployed, but also being criticized for incompetency in their fields. Despite the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of engineers and computer science graduates, many companies and industries still outsource their jobs overseas. “They are simply incompetent. And it’s not just the skills they lack, they don't have the discipline to learn and improve. They are usually late and waste your time with excuses. Who has the time for that in this day and age,’ said one.

For many, college did not change or improve their lives. Instead, life has become more difficult and unbearable for many after graduation. That is because, now, the expectations are higher. Society expects them to be in a certain way. After years of education, costing their families a tens of thousands, many are back to be burdens on their families. The system failed to teach them basic entrepreneurial skills or to be of any help to those who have them.

“My son became a lot more difficult after he graduated,” says Almaz, an Agro resident. Her son graduated in civil engineering three years ago, and still did not find a job. ‘’His demands have increased and wants me to buy him things I cannot afford. He is careless and does not even clean after himself. In addition, I have to give him money everyday, because he won't leave the house otherwise. I don’t know what they teach them in the university,’’ she told me. I talked to her son, and he said it’s the government which has to get him a job. I applied everywhere and I didn’t get any job or call back. The same is true for most of my friends. We gave up and now we spend the day chewing chat and just hanging around in the city. There is nothing to do here,’’ he says.

I have talked to more than 30 graduates and their parents in Agaro, Dembetcha, Meklelle, Adama and, Arba Minch, and they all told me the same story over and over again. They are frustrated and want the government to do something. Habtamu, a biology graduate in Dembetcha, said his only hope is to move to Addis Ababa. He is now pressuring his farmer father to sell his ox and give him money to move to Addis Ababa. However, his father, who has already sold many things to put his son through college, does not agree with the idea. ‘’I have sold so many things so that my son finishes school. I can’t keep doing that because I have young children to look after. He is on his own from now on. It’s is the government that should do something,’’ he told me. Habtamu was arrested twice last year, engaged in ant-government demonstrations. He was caught while throwing a rock on police cars and spent three months in prison. However, when he talks about the riots, Habtame is very enthusiastic. His face literally lit up. I asked him if that is something he would consider doing to improve his situation. He agreed. ‘’I belive we brought the TPLF down. We did that.’’

My questions is, however, what did they achieve? That’s because, in the last year, little has changed for many.

There are some who do anything to survive. Yonas, a waiter in one of the hotels in Hawassa, said he has a degree in hotel management, and is working to get his masters degree at Addis Ababa University. ‘’I couldn’t do this in my home town. People would talk about me and judge me for failing,’’ he says. He is from Bonga and he ran as far as he could from his home town, so that he is free to be a waiter with a college graduate degree. ‘’The opportunities are very limited. I am not happy here, but I am doing it to survive,’ he said. Yonas also believes that the solution is with the government.

Notwithstanding their dissatisfaction with the quality of education they received, and the lack of books and educational materials, many of the graduates think they have got the skills necessary in their fields -- if only somone gave them the chance. I have not heard many who say they want to start low and learn, or develop skills through practice. There is this staggering confidence in them that, the only thing that is holding them back is the system, the government, the corruption, the TPLF, etc. And if that changes, things would change for them as well, they believe. I have mentioned for many that companies that hire new graduates complain about the lack of basic skills and the discipline to learn and improve. All of them did not accept that assertion. Fikremariam from Adadama told me employers say that because they want to hire their families. ‘’It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I am from a farming family. My parents do not know anyone who has the potential to get me a job. I am unemployed because of that,’’ he said. Kokeb from Addis Ababa echoes their sentiment. "It's because they want to hire their family and people with connections," says Kokeb. "Every one of my friends who have families in the government or is rich got jobs. I am unemployed because my parents are poor and powerless,'' she said.

However, the main thing is that we need not just cry about the quality of education, he says. ‘Even if we, the graduates, were competent, we do not have the industry and the private sector to accommodate all of us. The government is still the number one employer in the country, and that may not change anytime soon. What Ethiopia needs currently is a cultural revolution. The way we see education, jobs and employments needs to change. And we need to come to terms with the fact that even the government may not have answers to all the problems. That might be the harsh reality, but it’s the truth. While we still need a better system, industrialization, etc., time does not stand still until these things happen."

The underlying problem is deep and wide. The fact that public education has been in steady decline in the last two decades is not news to anyone. In fact, many of the school graduates say, their teachers, for the most part, hated their jobs and were unwilling to put the extra effort. ‘’I remember we had an English teacher who also owned a taxi. He works on his taxi instead of coming to the class. He calls the class monitors and tells them to close the door and make sure the students are quiet, so that the supervisors assume that the class is in session,” Tebeje, an 18 years old, told me. When I heard that, my first thought was how many wrongs this teacher might have thought these kids. Tebeje and his friend Dawit are now freshmen in a university, but they believe university teachers are also the same. “We still have teachers who are busy with their own consultancy services outside the university,” they said.

Ethiopia is now a country where the average 8th grader cannot read and write properly, or do or comprehend simple math problem. Just ask a random kid in a school to read a few passages from a book, or do a simple math problem, and you will know the magnitude of the problem.

Youth unemployment is an emergency for Ethiopia. It is not one of the challenges, it is 'the challenge'. It is a threat to national security and political stability more than any of the outstanding issues we have, including ethnic divides. It is the factor for the rising crimes in cities and it is the energy that fuels conflicts in many parts of the nation. And unlike popular beliefs, education does not make the youth non-violence. Rather, it increases frustration with the system and creates desperation. Ethiopia has already got a taste of that. As the saying goes, the most dangerous of all among us are those who have nothing to lose. Everyone of the graduates who were interviewed for this article clearly stated that they want see change and better opportunities at any cost, and they have nothing to lose by trying. If Ethiopia does not address this challenge, the current political instability, social and economic misery is far from over. 


Seble Teweldebirhan



 Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa-based contributor for She can be reached through this form.



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