Growing Pains

Growing Pains

Ethiopia is pushing engineering education harder than any other country in Africa, creating challenges for its academics.

Ethiopia is the oldest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, but from the engineering dean’s office at Adigrat University, everything seems terribly new and young – including its occupant. At the age of 30, Kiros Teklehaimanot has returned to his hometown, some 560 miles north of the capital, Addis Ababa, to hang his master’s degree on the wall of a university so freshly built that the first engineers will only graduate next year. The slight, wide-eyed chemical engineer seems undaunted by the challenge that lies before him: The school he heads is already trying to educate more engineering students than UCLA or Berkeley. Within five years, enrollment is slated to surpass America’s largest engineering school. “Regardless of age,” says Teklehaimanot, “if you have the commitment, the dream can be fulfilled.”

No one can doubt Ethiopia’s commitment to expanding higher education – particularly in engineering – nor its faith in the potential for engineering graduates to develop the country. Two decades ago, sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country had three public universities. Today there are 34, with 11 more under discussion. Total enrollment has quadrupled in the past eight years. Growth in engineering majors has been even more dizzying since the government’s 2009 mandate that 40 percent of all freshmen major in engineering. According to Zewdu Kassa, manager of the government’s Engineering Education Capacity Building Program, political support for engineering education is “more than 100 percent.” Says Teddy Ivanitzki, managing director of the Ethiopian Institute of Technology-Mekelle (EiT-M): “It’s a big tsunami wave.”

Ethiopia’s is not the only African government flooded with enthusiasm for engineering education. Calestous Juma of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government recalls that in the first wave of post-independence universities, the humanities and social sciences were emphasized in order to fill new government bureaucracies. Now a new wave of African leaders has shifted toward growing a workforce that can serve the continent’s needs for an expanded telecommunications, agricultural, and transportation infrastructure. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last year went so far as to attack the humanities as “useless courses . . . rendering their graduates jobless after graduation.”

Most Ambitious

Most new universities on the continent have a technology-for-development agenda. Last year Malawi opened the Malawi University of Science and Technology, while the Botswana International University of Science and Technology welcomed students to its new campus (Prism, November 2013). Ghana recently announced that it will convert 10 vocational colleges into technical universities by next year. As a region, sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s fastest growing higher-education sector, with enrollments up 170 percent over 12 years. But “Ethiopia is the most ambitious of all,” says Juma.

In fact, Ethiopian engineering faculty wonder whether their government has been a bit too ambitious. A highly centralized system gives the Ministry of Education the power to decide how many and which students are sent to each university. “We are now quite overloaded,” says Young Kyun Kim, scientific director at the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology (AAiT), one of the nation’s 10 institutes of technology. “Student numbers are exploding, and there’s an outcry from faculty.” Similar complaints at Adama Science and Technology University (ASTU) caused the most recent intake to be slashed from 2,800 to 1,300 new students. “Right now in Ethiopian universities, it’s the education of quantity,” says Adama’s president, Jang Gyu Lee. “We are moving toward quality.”

The growing pains are most acutely felt in engineering laboratories, which were always underequipped and now are overcrowded as well. Electrical engineering student Meklit Tsegli describes how seven or eight people hover around each lab station, where “one person does the work, and the rest just watch.” In four years of engineering studies at Adama, she estimates she personally has performed 10 experiments.

To accommodate the onslaught of civil engineering students at EiT-M – now far larger than any civil engineering department in the United States – labs operate seven days a week. When chemical supplies run out, students watch videos of experiments instead of performing them.

Barren Labs

The newer, regional universities are in particularly dire need of laboratory equipment. In Adigrat, a town with more horse carts and tuk-tuks than cars and trucks, Gebregziaher Asmelash sits with his back against the wall of an empty laboratory, studying his notes. The electrical engineering student is satisfied with his lecturers and proud to attend a university just down the road from his home. But three months into the academic year, he has yet to conduct a single lab experiment for any of his third-year courses. “Lecturers want to show us lab equipment,” he says, “but since there is none, they become angry.” At least he’s not one of the chemical engineering majors. They have no laboratory at all on the campus.

University administrations are not entirely responsible for this problem. Just as the Ministry of Education has centralized control over the distribution of students, it also sources and supplies laboratory equipment. Teklehaimanot says that when the ministry budgeted for 13 new universities, including Adigrat, civil and electrical engineering received lab supplies first. Chemical engineering labs were put on hold, but the students were sent anyway.

Ethiopian academics are not waiting passively for the government to solve their problems, however. Teklehaimanot is negotiating to send Adigrat’s chemical engineering students to EiT-M for labs, perhaps during vacations. “I don’t want my students to be like me, lacking in practical experience,” says the young dean. EiT-M itself has reduced laboratory downtime by assigning senior mechanical engineering students to repair lab machinery for internship credit. Ivanitski explains his proactive approach as he walks past EiT-M’s Structural Engineering Laboratory. “That was a student gym,” he says. “I took it. I’m brutal. I have to be.”

Five universities have upgraded their computer engineering labs by working with Yacob Astatke, an Ethiopian-American professor at Morgan State University in Maryland. Astatke, winner of ASEE’s National Outstanding Teaching Award in 2013, has organized donations of 70 Mobile Studio Boards from Analog Devices and five Dragino wireless development kits. “In electrical engineering, we’re coming at a solution,” says Astatke. “You don’t need $100,000 to equip a lab for one or two subjects; now it’s less than $5,000.” Astatke says he is “amazed” by the collaborative research he has seen between two Ethiopian universities using the Dragino nodes to create a wireless solution for Ethiopian fish farmers. “We’re not solving their problems; they’re solving their own problems.”

Dearth of Faculty

Equipment constraints are not the greatest worry for Alem Mebrahtu, Adigrat’s academic vice president. “The government is assigning a lot of money to education,” he says. “Our problem is a lack of staff.” Universities opened more quickly than Ethiopian engineers and educators could earn higher degrees. Most lecturers at Adigrat and many other new universities have only bachelor’s degrees. “They’re well-meaning people, but they’re not well-prepared,” says Astatke, who holds pedagogical workshops in Ethiopia each summer.

Engineering schools are working frantically to upgrade their faculties’ qualifications, but in the short term this only exacerbates the dearth of lecturers. Each university keeps several staff members on the payroll even when they are earning graduate degrees abroad.

ASTU has sent 40 of its academic staff to South Korea for Ph.D.’s. As a result, the student-faculty ratio is 40 to 1, twice as high as Lee would like to see it.

There is one country to which administrators are reluctant to send their lecturers for graduate education: the United States. “If we send them to study in the U.S., they don’t return,” says Gebremeskel Kahsay, the vice president of EiT-M. A capacity-building program helped educate a half dozen of his lecturers in Texas. “Almost all of them disappeared,” he recalls. The U.S. government stopped sending Ethiopian academics to American universities under the Fulbright junior staff development program because of “non-return problems.”

Asian countries are less enticing locations for Ethiopian engineers to put down roots. And Germany actually pays Ethiopian engineering graduates to return home. After earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Technischen Universität Darmstadt, Gebremichael Teame says he received 500 euros a month for two years – more than his salary – for returning to his teaching job at EiT-M.

Morgan State’s Astatke believes that Ethiopian engineers who have settled in the United States should be an asset for their homeland rather than a problem. “I don’t consider myself ‘brain drain,’ ” he explains. “Because of what I accomplished in America, I’m helping more Ethiopian universities and more students than if I had stayed there.”

Noting that there are more Ethiopian Ph.D.’s in engineering outside of Ethiopia than inside, Astatke asks, “How can we tap into them?” He holds up as a model the Ethiopian-American physicians who regularly return for stints to practice and teach. Their group has raised $9.5 million to build a hospital in Addis Ababa. Astatke is trying to set up a similar organization to facilitate the flow of engineering talent back to Ethiopia.

Cash Flow

He is not the only one with an eye on the Ethiopian engineering diaspora. ASTU’s president flew to the United States last year to meet with several Ethiopian professors, intending to lure them home on a short- or long-term basis. “We had a very positive response,” says Lee, who himself spent years in America before returning to Korea to teach. “When they left, the country was in chaos, but things are changing.”

Faculty pay scales are one hurdle Lee must first overcome. Ethiopian academics are paid on a uniform national formula. Expatriates earn more, and many foreign lecturers – especially from India – help fill gaps in engineering departments. But Ethiopian-born professors must accept the lower scale for locals, no matter their years of overseas experience. Lee, who heads one of the country’s two science and technology universities, is pushing for the right to pay Ethiopian-Americans like expatriates.

Low salaries are also a problem for Ethiopian academics who have remained at home. Turnover is very high, according to Astatke, who returns to the same universities each summer. “Those who are good will always leave,” he says, “and that problem will never be solved unless the government is willing to pay.” For Yalemzewd Negash, dean of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at AAiT, small paychecks also detract from the effort faculty devote to teaching and research. “Nobody is really living on the government salary,” he explains. “They’re living on consultancies, sometimes at the cost of time for the university.”

The true size of academic salaries is a matter of perspective, however. Ethiopia is one of the poorest nations in the world. Not surprisingly, its universities pay some of the lowest salaries, as tallied in Paying the Professoriate, a 2012 book by Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. Even within Africa, Nigerian professors earned four times as much. Yet relative to a very low GDP per capita, Ethiopian salaries worked out to be extraordinarily high.

AAiT’s Kim has a partial solution to the faculty shortage: online education. This year he is testing courses from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) with 100 students. Within three years he hopes to have 70 percent of classes online. The School of Electrical and Computer Engineering is in more of a hurry, with plans to reach the 70 percent mark by next semester.

Few of the new regional universities have adequate Internet bandwidth to adopt this approach, however. Even in Addis Ababa, intermittent electricity remains a problem. Since most Ethiopian students do not own computers, online courses are still taught in lecture halls. On the day Prism visited AAiT, an online lecture halted when the power failed, and the lecturer went home. “It’s one of the key solutions,” says Astatke, who taught an online graduate course at AAiT for three years, “as long as you have the infrastructure.”

Preparation Gap

The high school graduates whom these underpaid and under-qualified lecturers must turn into engineers are themselves underprepared. Several years ago, freshman mathematics was pushed out of the first-year curriculum for engineers and into the high school syllabus. But lecturers report that neither the teachers nor their students are ready for these higher concepts. “We’re expecting that they know these things, but they don’t know them,” says Teame at EiT-M. Since about 40 percent of incoming freshmen are assigned to engineering, the field no longer receives only the top of the graduating crop. At AAiT, Kim says that even though the government sends a small percentage of low-quality students to the nation’s premier engineering school, “it’s a headache – we need student selection power.”

While the challenges of educating the “tsunami wave” of engineering students are slowly being tackled, less is known about the challenges that graduates will face when they hit the job market. Teame notes that when EiT-M was graduating 50 electrical engineers, all found jobs easily and employers were begging him for more. In the near future he will release 500 graduates, and “not all will find work,” he fears. Civil engineers enjoy higher levels of demand, since Ethiopia today resembles one giant construction site. But the government also is counting on engineering graduates to create their own jobs and accelerate industrial development in what has largely been an agricultural economy. Courses in entrepreneurship are being added to the engineering curriculum, and Adama’s Lee takes comfort in knowing that South Korea also trained large numbers of engineers before industries had arrived to absorb them.

Some Ethiopian employers say they would take on more engineers if graduates were better qualified. In Addis Ababa, Girma Afework is making plans to hire some 30 engineers for his structural steel company, Gatepro Engineering. But he has requested permission from the government to bring some of them from overseas, since he cannot find local graduates with knowledge of computer numerical control. “They don’t have professors to teach this technology,” he says. On the wall behind his desk hangs a symbol of his concerns about the engineering education in Ethiopia: a framed copy of his son’s bachelor’s degree in engineering from George Mason University in Virginia. Still, GatePro’s growth is a sign that the engineering environment in Ethiopia is heading in the right direction. The expatriate engineers will train locals to take their place, and Afework will send other hires for advanced degrees in Addis Ababa while they work for him.

There is cause for optimism. Ethiopia is in the midst of an astounding spurt of economic development, with a growth rate in excess of 10 percent almost every year of the past decade. “The focus of the government on engineering will develop the country. That’s obvious,” says Ethiopia Tilahun, country director of the Institute of International Education in Washington, D.C. “But in my opinion the government should give enough emphasis to quality,” she adds. “These are engineers we are building. When they graduate, they have to be very talented.”

At the Engineering Education Capacity Building Program, Zewdu Kassa asks for patience with the government’s agenda. While the quality issue “needs to be focused on,” he says, “within one time, you can achieve only so many objectives.”

A glimpse of a future of quality engineering education is on display inside one ASTU building. Kalid Ahmed, an energetic 32-year-old, heads the first materials engineering department in the country. Just a few years ago, while working toward his Ph.D. in France, he felt a world away from the universities he knew back home. “Seeing the labs, the infrastructure, the curriculum, I doubted we could have that in Ethiopia,” he recalls.

Now Ahmed proudly shows visitors the scanning electron microscope and x-ray diffractometer his students use, not to mention the differential thermal analysis device about to be unpacked from its box. South Korea’s aid agency purchased the laboratory equipment, and Pohang University of Science and Technology supplied curricula and the visiting lecturers. The laboratory cupboards hold enough supplies to last several years. Down the hall, a group of fourth-year students, Ethiopia’s first home grown materials engineers, are independently producing hydrogels in preparation for a science fair. Such progress fills Ahmed with optimism. “That’s why I came back,” he says. “We have come a long way.”


By Don Boroughs

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.
Design by Nicola Nittoli
Images courtesy of Don Boroughs