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Understanding Education in Eritrea

CASS students walk to 8th Commencement ceremony in Adi Keyih

By Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

According to UNESCO, education is a fundamental human right and is essential for the exercise of all other human rights. Education also promotes individual freedom and empowerment, and is a critical factor for economic growth and broad development. Around the world, millions of children and adults remain deprived of education, many as a result of poverty.

A young, low-income country located in the fractious Horn of Africa (HoA) region, Eritrea has prioritized education as a key pillar within its national policy and broader framework for development, socio-economic growth, and poverty alleviation.

There is little doubt that the country faces challenges in many areas, including education; at the same time, a lot of progress has been achieved in a short period, which should not be overlooked. Yet, as with most coverage of Eritrea in general, mainstream analyses and discussions of education (across all levels) are often cursory, lacking in context, or plagued with various shortcomings.

Eritrea’s efforts at improving access to and opportunities within education actually date back to the days of the country’s decades-long independence struggle. The independence movement, led by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), developed an elaborate system of educational programs and institutions to extend education to the children of fighters, orphans, refugees, and groups traditionally excluded from opportunities to learn, such as women, nomads, and rural populations.

However, even while the efforts to offer education during the struggle were commendable, at independence the country’s literacy rates (across all ages) were quite low, particularly for girls and women, and overall enrollment rates (within primary levels) hovered around 30 percent. Within that context, at independence, education was made compulsory, for both girls and boys, and the country also proceeded to build hundreds of schools in both rural and urban areas.

As well, initiatives were begun to offer education in the various languages used within the country, helping ensure access to all ethno-linguistic groups. Largely as a result of the country’s investment –
government expenditure on education is between 8-10 percent of the national budget – and various other efforts, Eritrea’s primary enrollment rates are now approximately 90 percent, while both gender disparity and adult literacy have dramatically improved. Importantly, literacy rates for youth in Eritrea are considerably higher than those for adults, suggesting that the country’s efforts to strengthen the supply and quality of basic education programmes have largely been successful, and should be continued and augmented.

Interestingly, while Eritrea is often derogatorily referred to as the “North Korea of Africa” the country’s focus upon, and rapid improvement within, primary education actually share parallels with South Korea. For example, consider how, after Japanese colonialism and the destructive Korean War in 1953, South Korea, then an undeveloped, low-income country faced with a myriad of domestic and external challenges, made a strong commitment to expanding primary education, ultimately resulting in remarkable improvements in national enrolments and literacy rates.

Another area of focus in Eritrea, and the cause of much mainstream misunderstanding, has been higher education. Traditionally, the University of Asmara was the only institution of higher learning in the country, and was restricted to several thousand students. Accordingly, both to expand access to and cater to growing demands for higher education, in the mid- 2000s, the government restructured the university. Ultimately, while the university was retained, seven new colleges and institutions of higher learning, located throughout the country, were built.

Somewhat myopically, analysts, critics, and opponents have frequently derided the change, alleging it was done to produce a less-educated populace. However, such perspectives overlook the fact that the country’s system of diploma, bachelor, and master programmes has generally remained the same, except for the fact that the number of programs has increased.

Moreover, it fails to account for how the number of students enrolled in higher education within Eritrea has dramatically risen from between 3,500-5,000 at the University of Asmara to nearly 18,000 today.
Finally, it misses how restructuring and relocating has allowed for a richer educational experience; for example, the College of Marine Science Technology is located on the country’s coast, in Massawa, quite apt for critical first hand research and study, while the College of Arts and Social Sciences is located in Adi Keiyh, a region of historic significance and rich social and cultural diversity.

Beyond perspectives lacking context, it is much more helpful to recall that states must often make pragmatic decisions and, at times, choose the best course of action from among only a few available choices. For Eritrea, a poor country with a growing youth population and rapidly increasing demands for higher education, the process of restructuring is better understood as a practical, sensible decision, undertaken within a challenging context and influenced by a commitment to improving the lives of the broad population. In this regard, consider how in the 1960s, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government in Singapore had decided that English was the language of commerce, international trade, and science, and that the wide use of English would serve to link Singapore to the world and also give it a competitive advantage (thus improving socio-economic development). Furthermore, the incorporation of English would also give Singapore – a religiously-diverse, multi-ethnic, and heterogeneous country – a common, neutral, working language (thus improving peace and stability).

Accordingly, Nanyang University, which was a Mandarin-medium institution, was encouraged to transition to English, and eventually absorbed into the broader National University of Singapore. While many opponents criticized the move, attacking the government, the move ultimately helped graduates to find suitable employment and meet many of the strict meritocratic standards prevalent within the fast developing, changing society.

While the increase in the quantity of higher education within Eritrea has been relatively quick, improvements in the quality of education will naturally take time to develop. Quite simply, demand has, thus far, outstripped the supply of qualified personnel. Yet, this should not overshadow the fact that gradual improvements are being made, with the support and training of qualified locals, the recruitment of more professors from abroad (e.g. Kenya and diaspora Eritreans), the engagements in numerous cooperative educational programs with other countries (e.g. Japan), and the ongoing investment and support of students’ pursuit of Master’s and Ph.D. programs (e.g. in Turkey).

Overall, in a short period of time, Eritrea has made considerable, tangible improvements in education throughout the country. Moving forward, it should continue to invest within education across all levels, further expanding quantity and enhancing quality. Such measures should be undertaken not only as a national commitment toward the realization of a fundamental human right, but also as a mechanism to support socio-economic growth, national development, peace and stability, and competitiveness in the highly competitive world economy.

Last, ongoing misguided mainstream understandings or analyses of Eritrea (and education in the country) reflect the enduring general notion that the “Third World” and its people exist “out there,” to be known through theories and intervened upon from the outside. The “Third World” has “needs” and “problems” but few choices and no freedom or capability to act. Such assumptions illustrate a paternalistic attitude and perpetuate hegemonic ideas of foreign superiority.

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