Rescuing Postgraduate Studies from the Downward Spiral of Shame

(Tesfai Hailu)

Anyone who has ever been enrolled in a postgraduate study at a credible university would know how demanding, exhausting and time-consuming it is. Prior to admission, not only does a prospective student have to earn above average grade, but also obtain a letter of recommendation from his/her undergraduate school professors/instructors. And – depending on the program – it takes a rigorous full-time study to graduate within a year or two. Otherwise, when that’s not possible, it’s likely to take years to achieve a degree on a part-time basis.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case in the new Ethiopia wherein degrees can be grabbed easily and quickly even while working fulltime. As a result, the number of people with master’s degrees has skyrocketed. In fact, nowadays, it’s not unusual to see individuals, not strikingly academic, holding more than one master’s degree.

This makes one wonder what’s going on here? Has the current generation become a fast learner and multi-tasked? Could it be that computers and the internet have made it easy for learners to obtain their degrees faster than ever before?

It’d be heartening to accept the aforementioned possibilities, but I have my doubts that this is the underlying reason. As a member of a hiring team in a not-for-profit organization, I have had the responsibility of reviewing CVs of job applicants who happen to have one or more master’s degree. And, unfortunately, most of them don’t measure up to the education and skills level they claim to hold. Looking at their error prone resumes, one is left to wonder how they possibly were awarded their first degrees never mind second and third. The interviews are often letdowns too as the applicants fail to prove good verbal communication skills. (Ironically, most of them immodestly rate their written as well as verbal communication skills as “Excellent” in their CVs.)

Photo - A graduation ceremony at a university, Ethiopia, July 2016
Photo – A graduation ceremony at a university, Ethiopia, July 2016

Thus, one can’t help but deduce that there is a serious problem with the education system in general, and postgraduate studies in particular. And, while this certainly requires a comprehensive research to get to the bottom of the problem, it’d be plausible to identify the following factors as culprits:

1/ Declining regard for postgraduate degree: While a first degree was regarded highly in the past, a postgraduate school was exclusively considered by high academic performers. Yet, these days, just about everyone who holds a bachelor’s degree feels entitled to master’s, especially if an employer happens to cover the expenses and – as we can see in #2 next – there is an institution willing to liberally bestow the degree.

2/ The commercialization of education: Private universities and colleges are obviously in the business of education for the bottom-line. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be fair to the student, the employer, the economy and the country at large if the ability to pay tuition becomes the main requirement to graduate. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case in Ethiopia where private universities, colleges and “leadership institutes” have become like drive-through fast-food chains.

3/ The fixation with quantity at the expense of quality: The Ethiopian Govt. is to be commended for expanding access to higher education to all parts of the country. However, the focus seems to be on increasing the number of universities, sometimes at close proximity. Likewise, the learning institutions are fixated with a bragging right of how many students have graduated in a given year.

4/ Leaders’ obsession with postgraduate degrees: Public leaders in Ethiopia are increasingly becoming unrivaled in the rat race to a degree as high as PhD. Ministers, vice ministers, commissioners, executives, managers and military higherups are enrolling – or claiming to be enrolled – in postgraduate studies, and thereby coming up with master’s and PhD as if it’s some kind of office workshop or short-term training completion. This in fact raises relevant and legitimate questions:

a/ How pertinent and essential is a given study to enhance leaders’ knowledge and skills, and empower them to execute their public responsibility effectively?

b/ As leaders are likely burdened with heavy public responsibilities, where do they find the time and energy to pursue their studies, especially without having to take sabbatical? Also, who makes sure that their work is not being adversely affected in their pursuit of academic and professional growth?

c/ How could the public be sure that leaders are not getting special privileges owing to their position of power or that their research and dissertation papers are not being ghostwritten?

d/ Who is paying for their tuition and related expenses, especially when the study takes place overseas in which case air travel and hotel expense may also be involved?

e/ Shouldn’t there be a concern that the degree grabbing trend could appear that those in leadership role have unquenched thirst not only for the usual power and wealth, but also for educational prestige at the expense of slaughtering sacred academic cows?

After all, political, social and religious leaders are supposed to set examples for citizens. So, if leaders exercise unfair practices and shortcuts for personal gain, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if ordinary citizens do the same in their daily lives – falsifying documents, resume padding, tax evasion, for instance.

1/ The media’s failure to tackle the problem. When medical malpractice results in a patient’s death, it’s not uncommon to read media report and criticism of the clinic or hospital involved. Nonetheless, while the media may have addressed the education problem in its generality, I have yet to see a thorough investigative journalism related to any of the problems stated above. But, fact is, the damage some universities, colleges and institutes are causing is a very grave matter as the lives of thousands of students and a country’s future are put at risk. Sadly, learning institutions are rarely held to account.

To sum up, before the downward spiral of education in general and university study in particular brings national shame, and the country become a laughing stock of the world:

2/ Public awareness has to be raised on the value and purpose of higher education, and that master’s and PhD degrees have to be attained through commitment and hard work, and not as just something nice to have, and get obtained easily and effortlessly.

3/ Universities and colleges, particularly private ones, should be regularly scrutinized to make sure that they are delivering quality education and skills, and that they are producing qualified graduates.

4/ Before opening yet again another university, government should first ensure that the existing universities are up to standard academically, technologically and administratively.

5/ Public leaders have to pursue higher education for the right reason, and earn their degree. Furthermore, information on their studies and work (research, dissertation, etc.) have to be open to the public.

6/ The media has to be actively involved in ensuring that students, employers and the country are getting their money and time’s worth of education. As well, instead of serving as a mere medium for announcing another public official’s master’s or doctorate degree, the media should make every effort to obtain and share as much detail as possible – including but not limited to interviewing the person on his/her claimed academic achievement; making a background check on the accreditation of the institution and contacting sources for relevant information.


Guest Author

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