Higher Education in Eritrea

Simon Bisrat (May 2005)

This article is not intended to prescribe a solution for all the ailments the education system is suffering; but to shade light on one of the core problems the country is facing and entice scholars and experts in this field for further in-depth and professional discussion.


Eritrea has only one higher institution. This very lone institution is under the process of disintegration, as a result of the government’s deliberate actions. I am surprised to see only few and sporadic articles dedicated to this dwindling institution despite the enormous challenge and difficulty it is facing today. I am equally surprised by the muted response of most of the respected Eritrean scholars in the diaspora to this deliberate action of the government and its dire consequences.


The University of Asmara (UoA) is facing its greatest challenges since its inception some 50 years ago. Even during the most difficult and trying times of the late 80’s, the UoA did not stop enrolling students. But now under the very hands of a government which is believed to care, it stopped enrolling freshmen students for the last two successive academic calendars and there is no any hope it will enroll during the upcoming academic calendar of 2005/2006. It is literally slowly phasing out. No one knows the fate of the University after the current year III and year IV students graduated. In 2004, the government suddenly cancelled the graduation ceremony and ordered all the would-be graduates to go to Sawa few days before the intended day of commencement. The government’s deliberate action to phase out the institution did not stop there; it is tirelessly working to open other higher institutions to replace it. Each ministry is ordered by the President to open its own College regardless of the existence of the program with in the UoA. A good testimony of this is the opening of the School of Medicine with in the auspices of the Ministry of Health, instead of upgrading or strengthening the College of Health in the UoA. Recently, I read news clip at the Ministry of Information website reporting that a new College of Agriculture which will offer five different programs is being built in the Gash Barka region and the President recently visited the area and gave directives to expedite the process while UoA has similar programs running.


In 2004, the government suddenly ordered all high school graduates to go to Sawa for additional one school year after hastily opened a ‘High School’ without giving any plausible explanation. This decision overwhelmed the general public. Few months later, the government again hastily opened a ‘College’ at Mai Nefhi with out any prior preparation. The programs at the new ‘College’ were exact replica to what UoA is currently offering with others to have no direct relevance to the needs of the country at this point in time. Then, all the students from Sawa including some members of the national service were directed to attend the new ‘College’ regardless of the results achieved in their High School Leaving Certificate Examination denying the bright students the opportunity to join the established programs with in the UoA. Ironically, the Minister of Education, Mr. Osman Saleh, publicly confirmed his government’s policy not to fail any students defying the conventional wisdom of learning; thereby, confirming the sole intention of the opening of the ‘College’ which is to appease few thousands of members of the national service which otherwise were supposed to be demobilized. The greatest irony is that in this whole process the UoA is just kept in the dark. This put the University administration in a defensive position; and later led to the resignation of its President who was a staunch supporter of the government and faithful cadre for decades.


In 1991, the government introduced new education policy by radically changing the existing curricula. No one questioned the appropriateness of that policy as the general public was pre-occupied with greater euphoria caused due to the victory achieved in liberating the country. Thirteen years later, after a generation of students passed through the supposedly ‘improved’ curricula, it was declared a failure by the President himself and the Ministry was ordered to introduce another one. Again without the requisite consultation and in-depth review the Ministry again hastily drafted a new one. No one knows how long the current curricula will last.


The hostility and contempt of the academia started when the government suddenly dismissed 40+ Professors from the UoA in 1993 by the time the thriving University desperately needs them. In 2001, it incarcerated 2000 UoA students that led to the death of two students in the detention camp. The government did not take responsibility to the death of the two students to date. How can a government that tried to preach to others about the principles of ‘self-reliance’ treats its own citizens that are the brightest and the educated in such a manner? How can a government which states time and again that Eritrea’s only resource is its people condemn, ostracize, and disenfranchise the young and the educated under the hands of tugs of government officials who are either have no any formal education or lack the necessary professional training. How can a government which brags for having a sound education policy deny the salary of teachers across the country under the guise of national service for almost five years?


Education is a cornerstone of a modern society. Then, why is all this mockery to the education system, in the first place? No sane individual can get a plausible explanation to the action of this government. Are there any other governments in this world who are hostile to education to a level to the government of PFDJ? Not to my knowledge. The government’s contempt to education emanates to the very foundation of the government. History tells us that the EPLF, which is the precursor to the ruling party, was formed out of those who lack formal education with a wider base with people in the rural part of Eritrea. The elites either shunned it away from the very beginning of its inception or gunned down by the ‘halewa sewra’ who attempted to join it during the course of the struggle. How can you expect a sound education policy and respect for professionals and scholars from people who have a long-standing history of working against these segments of the society? It was for this very reason that one of the reform-minded veteran fighter, Petros Solomon, made the wake up call in public in June 2001 to the obsolete and outdated ruling party to participate the young and the educated if it needs to survive in 21st century. His call for ‘new generation of leaders’ resonated throughout the academia and the younger generation. Such reform-minded and inclusive personality with in PFDJ is not welcome and his fate became incarceration.


No words could be sufficient to explain the brunt of war that is being waged against the educated in Eritrea. It is the hope of this writer that this article will meet its intended objectives of inviting more professional discourse on this very issue which received little attention to date. Hope the anticipated scholarly review and analysis of the problem will lead to the recommendation on how to fix the problem in post-PFDJ government.


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