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Editorial

October 2018

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The Advent of a New Ministry: The Long Journey to Its Birth

Damtew Teferra is Professor of Higher Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and Founding Director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is Founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Africa Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA). He may be reached at teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu

 

For more than a decade and half now, I have vigorously argued and passionately peddled unsolicited proposal urging the Ethiopian government to establish a Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology. When I started pursuing this proposal, the higher education sector in Ethiopia was just beginning its transformation path while other countries were configuring their institutions and ministries to respond to—and benefit from—the global imperatives in the knowledge domain.

At the time UNESCO declared that “At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education as a major force in building an inclusive and diverse knowledge society and to advance research, innovation and creativity.” The World Bank also stated that improving tertiary education systems should be high on Sub-Saharan Africa’s development agenda because, it affirmed, skills for the knowledge economy are built at the tertiary education level.

Key Arguments

At a “Conference on Higher Education in Ethiopia: Future Challenges” in December 2007 in Addis Ababa, where I raised the issue for the third time, here is how I re-articulated my proposal for the birth of a new Ministry:

Producing high-level expertise to create, access, consume, adapt, and disseminate knowledge has become critical for national development; and integrating science, technology and higher education as a national knowledge development strategy for meaningful social and economic progress is gaining more traction.

Institutions, departments, and expertise are reorganized, reshuffled and streamlined to capitalize on their collective strength, quality and vigor. The repositioning and reconstitution of organizations represent steps in the realization and enhancement of these underlying objectives. Nearly a third of the African continent, many countries in Latin America and others in Asia have integrated their higher education and science and technology under one roof.

Countries all over the world are striving to overhaul their knowledge institutions to deploy them as engines of development and, it is my position that, Ethiopia also should do the same. Ethiopia need not initiate change just for the sake of it; but the changes must be guided by long-term vision, genuine commitment, and above all national interest. I am thus reiterating the idea of establishing a new organizational body that governs higher education, science and technology collectively under one roof in a Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

It was in 2008 that elements of my proposal were first partially realized with the establishment of a new fully-fledged Ministry of Science and Technology, though without including higher education. I only briefly celebrated the new development which prompted me to take my case to the two relevant ministries—the Ministry of Education and the new Ministry of Science and Technology.

“Work in progress”

I then visited the two ministries some time in 2008 and fortunately able to meet both ministers at the time to query why the new ministry was not given the portfolio of higher education (alluding to my proposal). One of the ministers at the time reassured me that “this is work in progress” and alluded to the possibilities of revisiting the new structure in the future.

In my latest public presentation as a keynote speaker at the 16th International Annual Conference on Private Higher Education organized by Saint Mary’s University, Addis Ababa in July this year, I once again hammered the proposal in the presence of important dignitaries and authorities including the incumbent Minister of Education. I also followed up the same line of argument on an article in University World News June 2018 issue entitled Abiy’s Fellows’ – A new frontier to advance excellence and widely circulated it in Ethiopia.

The New Ministry

The Ethiopian government is reported to be re-configuring its ministries—and trim the size from current 28 to 20—a nearly 30 percent reduction. It is somewhat surprising, though not unexpected, that the government is re-constituting a Ministry of Higher Education and Science (MoHES) as well as a Ministry of Innovation and Technology (MoTI) in the midst of this major merger. Other than the developments I raised earlier it is conceivable that Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s earlier role as the Minister of Science and Technology may have something to do with this new development.

The portfolio of MoHES would presumably cover all the public and private universities and colleges, TVET, as well as relevant portfolios under the current Ministry of Science and Technology. While I have not anticipated the separation of science from technology—as it is not impossible to accommodate them under MoHES’s roof—I however look forward to study the mission, scope and role of MoTI which makes it distinct from MoHES.

Allies and detractors

Witnessing the realization of such a proposal after years of persistence amidst both dubious and bona fide detractors—who questioned and challenged the necessity of engaging the government in such an exercise—gives one a delightful feeling; and I cannot be immune to this human trait.

Proposing such ideas and persistently pursuing them may not be a big deal after all. But, one may need to appreciate the resolve for confronting the multitude of critical voices from different, if not necessarily opposing, camps—with reticence and boldness, with reverence and firmness, with tenacity and equanimity. Be that as it may, it is simply fitting to recognize all those who’ve been part of this long dialogue in public and private fora.

Winning the Battle—Not the War

I have engaged with many home-bound and international experts over the years to contribute to the articulation of a conducive policy for Ethiopia to help it reap social and economic benefits through the systematic deployment of higher education, science and technology.

To use established idioms, the battle for recognition of the concepts contained in this long-standing proposal may soon be over, but the war is yet to be won. As Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed is expected to unveil his new cabinet members soon, I am keenly anticipating a team of competent, dynamic, passionate and respectable leadership commensurate with the necessities of this ministry—and its institutions which ought to be unique, independent and autonomous. I can only envisage a few other ministries than MoHES which must be headed by unparalleled caliber and merit par excellence.

Conclusion

It is somewhat fulfilling to witness one’s long awaited wish coming true, and hope that I am not celebrating a little too soon as we are yet to learn the leaders of these two anticipated ministries. In particular, I remain optimistic that MoHES would live up to expectations in delivering quality higher education, science and research—key to the advancement of the nation. It may need to be noted that the paramount importance of close working relationships between the new ministries cannot be overstated.

The leadership at the helm of the new ministry must proactively champion the revival of the culture of merit and excellence while aggressively weeding out deeply rooted incompetence and mediocrity which have been devouring the soul of the nation and its institutions. The need to take bold, and even unpopular, measures and actions—unencumbered by political exigencies, personal aggrandizement, or group interest—is beyond any doubt.

I hope I am not raising the bar too high.

 

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