Education in Ethiopia was oriented toward religious learning until after World War II, when the government began to emphasize secular learning as a means to achieve social mobility and national development. By 1974, despite efforts by the government to improve the situation, less than 10 percent of the total population was literate. There were several reasons for this lack of progress. According to Teshome G. Wagaw, a former educator at Haile Selassie I University, the primary failure of the education system was its inability to "satisfy the aspirations of the majority of the people and to prepare in any adequate way those passing through its ranks." Teshome described the system as elitist, inflexible, and unresponsive to local needs. He was equally critical of the distribution of educational opportunity, which favored a few administrative regions and urban centers at the expense of a predominantly illiterate rural population. The education system also suffered from inadequate financing.

In the early 1990s, the problems Ethiopians faced in making their education system responsive to national needs remained formidable. Social and political change had affected many traditional elements of national life, but it was too soon to predict what effect the changes would have on the progress of education.

Education During Imperial Rule

Until the early 1900s, formal education was confined to a system of religious instruction organized and presented under the aegis of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Church schools prepared individuals for the clergy and for other religious duties and positions. In the process, these schools also provided religious education to the children of the nobility and to the sons of limited numbers of tenant farmers and servants associated with elite families. Such schools mainly served Amhara and Tigray inhabitants of the central highlands. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Menelik II had also permitted the establishment of European missionary schools. At the same time, Islamic schools provided some education for a small part of the Muslim population.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the education system's failure to meet the needs of people involved in statecraft, diplomacy, commerce, and industry led to the introduction of government-sponsored secular education. The first public school was established in Addis Ababa in 1907, and a year later a primary school opened in Harer. Foreign languages, elementary mathematics, and rudimentary science were taught in French to a limited number of students, along with Amharic and religious subjects.

In 1925 the government adopted a plan to expand secular education, but ten years later there were only 8,000 students enrolled in twenty public schools. A few students also studied abroad on government scholarships. Schools closed during the Italian occupation of 1936-41. After the restoration of Ethiopian independence, schools reopened, but the system faced shortages of teachers, textbooks, and facilities. The government recruited foreign teachers for primary and secondary schools to offset the teacher shortage. By 1952 a total of 60,000 students were enrolled in 400 primary schools, eleven secondary schools, and three institutions offering college-level courses. In the 1960s, 310 mission and privately operated schools with an enrollment of 52,000 supplemented the country's public school system.

In May 1961, Ethiopia hosted the United Nations-sponsored Conference of African States on the Development of Education. Among other things, the conference highlighted Ethiopia's educational deficiencies. The Ethiopian education system, especially in primary and secondary education, was ranked the bottom among African nations. There were school and teacher shortages, a high dropout rate, and low overall attendance rates (about 10 percent among all school-age children in the country), especially among females, nonChristians , and rural children. Embarrassed by this record, the Ministry of Education developed a new education policy, which was in effect until 1974. Designed in conjunction with the objectives of the government's second and third fiveyear development plans, extending from 1962 to 1973, the policy gave precedence to the establishment of technical training schools, although academic education also was expanded. Curriculum revisions introduced a mix of academic and nonacademic subjects. But Amharic became the language of instruction for the entire primary cycle, which handicapped any child who had a different primary language.

Under the revised system, the two-year junior secondary schools offered a general academic program for individuals who wished to continue their education. A number of vocational subjects prepared others to enter technical or vocational schools. Some practical experience in the use of tools was provided, which qualified graduates as semiskilled workers. The curriculum in the four-year senior secondary schools prepared students for higher education in Ethiopia or abroad. Successful completion of the cycle also qualified some for specialized agricultural or industrial institutes. Others were qualified for intermediate positions in the civil service, the armed forces, or private enterprises.

There were two institutions of higher education: Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, formed by imperial charter in 1961, and the private University of Asmera, founded by a Roman Catholic religious order based in Italy.

Between 1961 and 1971, the government expanded the public school system more than fourfold, and it declared universal primary education a long-range objective. In 1971 there were 1,300 primary and secondary schools and 13,000 teachers, and enrollment had reached 600,000. In addition, many families sent their children to schools operated by missionary groups and private agencies. But the system suffered from a shortage of qualified personnel, a lack of funds, and overcrowded facilities. Often financed with foreign aid, school construction usually proceeded faster than the training and certification of teachers. Moreover, many teachers did not stay long in the profession. Sources such as the United States Peace Corps and teachers from the National Service program (university students who taught for one year after completing their junior year) served only as stopgaps. In addition, most schools were in the major towns. Crowded and understaffed, those schools in small towns and rural areas provided a poor education.

The inadequacies of public education before the mid-1970s resulted partly from the school financing system. To finance primary education, the government levied a special tax on agricultural land. Local boards of education supervised the disbursement of tax receipts. (The central government financed secondary and higher education.) The system's inequities fostered the expansion of primary education in wealthier regions rather than in poorer ones. Moreover, urban inhabitants, who did not have to pay the tax but who were predominantly represented in the schools, sent their children at the expense of the taxpaying rural landowners and poor peasants. The government attempted to rectify this imbalance in 1970 by imposing an education tax on urban landowners and a 2 percent tax on the personal income of urban residents. But the Ministry of Finance treated the funds collected as part of the general revenue and never spent the money for its intended purpose.

Despite the fact that money spent on education increased from 10 percent of total government expenditures in 1968 to 20 percent in the early 1970s, funding remained inadequate. Expenditure on education was only 1.4 to 3 percent of the gross national product ( GNP --see Glossary) between 1968 and 1974, compared with 2.5 to 6 percent for other African countries during the same period.

Under the pressure of growing public dissatisfaction and mounting student activism in the university and secondary schools, the imperial government initiated a comprehensive study of the education system. Completed in July 1972, the Education Sector Review (ESR) recommended attaining universal primary education as quickly and inexpensively as possible, ruralizing the curricula through the inclusion of informal training, equalizing educational opportunities, and relating the entire system to the national development process.

The ESR criticized the education system's focus on preparing students for the next level of academic study and on the completion of rigid qualifying examinations. Also criticized was the government's lack of concern for the young people who dropped out before learning marketable skills, a situation that contributed to unemployment. The report stated that, by contrast, "The recommended system would provide a self-contained program at each level that would be terminal for most students."

The report was not published until February 1974, which gave time for rumors to generate opposition among students, parents, and the teachers' union to the ESR recommendations. Most resented what they considered the removal of education from its elite position. Many teachers also feared salary reductions. Strikes and widespread disturbances ensued, and the education crisis became a contributing factor in the imperial regime's fall later that year.

Student in a school near Holeta.
Courtesy International Development Association (Ray Muldoon)

After the overthrow of imperial rule, the provisional military government dismantled the feudal socioeconomic structure through a series of reforms that also affected educational development. By early 1975, the government had closed Haile Selassie I University and all senior secondary schools and had deployed some 60,000 students and teachers to rural areas to participate in the government's Development Through Cooperation Campaign (commonly referred to as zemecha --see Glossary). The campaign's stated purposes were to promote land reform and improve agricultural production, health, and local administration and to teach peasants about the new political and social order.

In 1975 the new regime nationalized all private schools, except church-affiliated ones, and made them part of the public school system. Additionally, the government reorganized Haile Selassie I University and renamed it Addis Ababa University. It also initiated reforms of the education system based partly on ESR recommendations and partly on the military regime's socialist ideology. However, no meaningful education occurred (except at the primary level) from 1975 to 1978 because of the social turmoil, which pitted the regime against numerous opposition forces, including students.

Beginning in 1975, a new education policy emphasized improving learning opportunities in the rural areas as a means of increasing economic productivity. In the mid-1980s, the education system was still based on a structure of primary, secondary, and higher education levels, much as it was during the imperial regime. However, the government's objective was to establish an eight-year unified education system at the primary level. Preliminary to implementing this program, officials tested a new curriculum in seventy pilot schools. This curriculum emphasized expanded opportunities for nonacademic training. The new approach also decentralized control and operation of primary and secondary schools to the subregional level, where the curriculum addressed local requirements. In each case, committees drawn from the peasant associations and kebeles and augmented by at least one teacher and one student over the age of sixteen from each school administered the public schools. Students used free textbooks in local languages. In late 1978, the government expanded the program to include nine languages, and it adopted plans to add five others.

There were also changes in the distribution and number of schools and the size and composition of the student body. The military regime worked toward a more even distribution of schools by concentrating its efforts on small towns and rural areas that had been neglected during the imperial regime. With technical assistance from the Ministry of Education, individual communities performed all primary school construction. In large part because of such community involvement, the number of primary schools grew from 3,196 in 1974/75 to 7,900 in 1985/86 (the latest years for which figures were available in mid-1991), an average increase of 428 schools annually (see table 5, Appendix). The number of primary schools increased significantly in all regions except three, including Eritrea and Tigray, where there was a decline because of continuing insurgencies. In Addis Ababa, the number of primary schools declined because of the closure or absorption of nongovernment schools, especially religious ones, into the government system.

Primary school enrollment increased from about 957,300 in 1974/75 to nearly 2,450,000 in 1985/86. There were still variations among regions in the number of students enrolled and a disparity in the enrollment of boys and girls. Nevertheless, while the enrollment of boys more than doubled, that of girls more than tripled (see table 6, Appendix). Urban areas had a higher ratio of children enrolled in schools, as well as a higher proportion of female students, compared with rural areas.

The number of junior secondary schools almost doubled, with fourfold increases in Gojam, Kefa, and Welega. Most junior secondary schools were attached to primary schools.

The number of senior secondary schools almost doubled as well, with fourfold increases in Arsi, Bale, Gojam, Gonder, and Welo. The prerevolutionary distribution of schools had shown a concentration in the urban areas of a few administrative regions. In 1974/75 about 55 percent of senior secondary schools were in Eritrea and Shewa, including Addis Ababa. In 1985/86 the figure was down to 40 percent. Although there were significantly fewer girls enrolled at the secondary level, the proportion of females in the school system at all levels and in all regions increased from about 32 percent in 1974/75 to 39 percent in 1985/86.

The number of teachers also increased, especially in senior secondary schools (see table 7, Appendix). However, this increase had not kept pace with student enrollment. The student-teacher ratio went from forty-four to one in 1975 to fifty-four to one in 1983 in primary schools and also increased from thirty-five to one in 1975 to forty-four to one in 1983 in secondary schools.

Although the government achieved impressive improvements in primary and secondary education, prospects for universal education in the near future were not bright. In 1985/86, the latest year for which government statistics were available, enrollment in the country's primary, junior secondary, and senior secondary schools totaled 3.1 million students, up from the nearly 785,000 enrolled a decade earlier. Only about 2.5 million (42 percent) of the 6 million primary school-age children were enrolled in school in 1985/86. Junior secondary school enrollments (grades seven and eight) amounted to 363,000, while at the secondary school level (grades nine through twelve), only 292,385 out of 5.5 million, or 5.3 percent, attended school. In addition, prospects for continued study for most primary school graduates were slim. In 1985/86 there was only one junior secondary school for every eight primary schools and only one senior secondary school for every four junior secondary schools. There were many primary school students for whom space would not be available and who therefore would most likely end up on the job market, where work already was scarce for people with limited educations.

School shortages also resulted in crowding, a situation aggravated by the rural-urban influx of the late 1980s. Most schools operated on a morning and afternoon shift system, particularly in urban areas. A teacher shortage exacerbated the problems created by crowded classrooms. In addition to these problems were those of the destruction and looting of educational facilities as a result of fighting in northern regions. By 1990/91 destruction was especially severe in Eritrea, Tigray, and Gonder, but looting of schools was reported in other parts of the country as well.

Higher and Vocational Education since 1975

In 1977 the revolutionary regime issued Proclamation No. 109, which created the Commission for Higher Education. This document also outlined the main objectives of higher education institutions as follows: to train individuals for high-level positions in accordance with the national plan of development and to provide qualified medium-level personnel to meet the immediate needs of the economy; to improve the quality of education, strengthen and expand tertiary-level institutions, and establish new research and training centers; and to contribute to a better standard of living among the masses by developing science, technology, the arts, and literature.

Additionally, Addis Ababa reoriented institutions of higher education to reflect the new regime's objectives and modified admission criteria to benefit students from small towns and rural areas. But the government also assigned many students to specialize in certain fields, which denied them the opportunity to decide on careers of their choosing.

Higher education expanded modestly in the period after 1975. The College of Agriculture at Alemaya, which was part of Addis Ababa University, was granted independent university status in 1985. A postgraduate studies program was established in 1978, which had an enrollment of 246 students in 1982/83, of whom 15 were women. Graduate programs were offered in several fields, including engineering, natural science, agriculture, the social sciences, and medicine. Several research institutes supported these institutions of higher education. Addis Ababa University also provided an evening extension program offering courses in many fields.

Other diploma-granting independent colleges trained middlelevel manpower in several fields. These included the College of Teacher Education, the Junior College of Commerce, and the Municipal Technical College, all in Addis Ababa. There were also junior colleges of agriculture in Ambo and Jima, the Institute of Animal Health Assistants in Debre Zeyit, and the Institute of Health Sciences in Jima. Altogether, there were approximately twelve colleges or universities in the country in the early 1990s, with intense competition among students for admission.

Enrollment in higher education grew from 4,500 in 1970 to more than 18,400 in 1985/86, of whom nearly 11 percent were women. But enrollment was low, considering the size of the population. Space limitations at the colleges and universities caused the government to raise admission standards. To narrow the gap somewhat, the number of students sent abroad on scholarships and fellowships grew from an annual average of 433 during 1969-73 to about 1,200 during 1978-82.

The number of Ethiopians on teaching staffs also grew. The faculty of Addis Ababa University increased from 437 in 1970 to 1,296 in 1983, with a corresponding increase in Ethiopian faculty from 48 percent to 74 percent of this total during the same period.

There was also more emphasis on the creation of technical and vocational schools, most of which were operated by the government. The Ministry of Education operated or supervised nine such schools scattered around the country. These schools had an enrollment of more than 4,200 in 1985/86, and their graduates were in great demand by industries. With Soviet assistance, Ethiopia established its first polytechnic institute, in Bahir Dar, in the 1960s. It trained personnel in agromechanics, industrial chemistry, electricity, and textile and metal-working technology. In addition, a system of general polytechnic education had been introduced into the senior secondary school curriculum so that those who did not continue their education still could venture into the skilled job market.

The government also introduced vocational training to upgrade peasant skills. The peasant training centers, operated by the Ministry of Agriculture, provided training in vocational trades related to agriculture for periods ranging from three weeks to six months. The country had twelve such centers, which trained more than 200,000 farmers from 1974 to 1988.

Among the revolutionary regime's few successes was the national literacy campaign. The literacy rate, under 10 percent during the imperial regime, increased to about 63 percent by 1984, according to government figures. Others sources, however, estimated it at around 37 percent. In 1990/91 an adult literacy rate of just over 60 percent was still being reported in government as well as in some international reports. As with the 1984 data, it several wise to exercise caution with regard to the latest figure. As some observers pointed out, defining just what the term "literacy" means presented a problem; in addition, the military government's desire to report as high a literacy rate as possible had to be taken into account.

The national literacy campaign began in early 1975 when the government mobilized more than 60,000 students and teachers, sending them all over the country for two-year terms of service. This experience was crucial to the creation in 1979 of the National Literacy Campaign Coordinating Committee (NLCCC) and a nationwide effort to raise literacy levels. The government organized the campaign in rounds, which began in urban centers and spread outward to the remote parts of the country up to Round 12. Officials originally conducted the literacy training in five languages: Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Welamo, and Somali. The number of languages was later expanded to fifteen, which represented about 93 percent of the population. By the end of Round 12, in the late 1980s, about 17 million people had been registered, of whom 12 million had passed the literacy test. Women represented about half of those enrolled.

According to government sources, about 1.5 million people eventually worked in the campaign. They included students, civil servants, teachers, military personnel, housewives, and members of religious groups, all of whom, it was claimed, offered their services freely. Adult literacy classes used primary and secondary school facilities in many areas. Officials distributed more than 22 million reading booklets for beginners and more than 9 million texts for postliteracy participants. The Ministry of Education also stocked reading centers with appropriate texts. These books focused on topics such as agriculture, health, and basic technology. To consolidate the gains from the literacy campaign, the government offered follow-up courses for participants up to grade four, after which they could enroll in the regular school system. In addition, national newspapers included regular columns for new readers. The literacy campaign received international acclaim when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded Ethiopia the International Reading Association Literacy Prize in 1980.

Foreign Educational Assistance

The regime's efforts to resolve the country's educational problems received considerable support from abroad. The initial cost of reorienting the education system toward national development goals through improving opportunities in remote rural areas had been estimated at US$34.7 million. Of this amount, US$23 million was received from the International Development Association (IDA). By late 1978, the European Economic Community had contributed US$2.6 million to help with the government's education development plan. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) sent teachers, training specialists, and curriculum development experts. The Soviet Union provided hundreds of scholarships. In 1978 there were 1,200 Ethiopian children (aged nine to fifteen years) from poor families who attended two special schools in Cuba for an undetermined period. Other students followed this initial group. In 1990 the Swedish International Development Authority granted US$10.5 million for elementary education. This aid helped make possible the construction of about 300 schools. The Swedish agency already had contributed to the construction of 7,000 elementary schools.