Interview with Dr. Tadesse Mehar iNational Board of Higher Education
(Translated by Simon Mesfun== Menesey Megazine: August 2009: No-23), Oct 13, 2009

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Could you introduce us with the National Board of Higher Education and its activities?


The National Board of Higher Education is a body that monitors the activities of higher education in Eritrea. It has nine members. Until its official establishment, a Provisional Coordinating Committee for Higher Education is monitoring higher education in the country. And it is also playing a vital role in drafting the charter and the laws and regulations for all the colleges in the country. All deans in the colleges are members of the Board and it is chaired by the Director of the office of the President. 


When compared to the previous years, what is the condition of the colleges in terms of man power and capacity?


The number of our colleges is now increasing. Today, there are seven new colleges in four regions of the country with over 10,000 students.


There are around 750 teachers of which 33% are foreigners. This big number of foreign teachers is because of the shortage of Eritrean teachers with post graduate degrees, especially PhDs in the country. Around 60% of our teachers are only first degree holders working as graduate assistants.


This shortage of teachers is costing us a lot. We are spending USD 5million annually on foreign teachers and this is beyond our capacity. To mitigate this, we are working on new strategies like establishing new public and private colleges as well as junior colleges, starting distance learning and post graduate programs.


Previously only one university exists, there are now seven new colleges. And in such condition it is obvious for some shortages like laboratory equipment, teachers and teaching materials to occur.


We are working hard to overcome these shortages. With a loan the government secured recently, around USD 20 million is allocated to equip these seven colleges with books, laboratory equipment, computers, internet services and so on. In addition, we are establishing good relations with international centers learning to gain assistance in man power and quality of education.


How is the participation of qualified in strengthening our colleges?  


Qualified nationals are participating well in the development of these colleges regardless of some uncomfortable living conditions due to the change of location of the schools. But there are some teachers who are not very cooperative in the establishment of these colleges.


Regarding their capacity, they have the necessary skills to teach the students and the graduate assistants are the best from their departments. Some of the graduate assistances are even capable of teaching in the colleges as they have stayed many years experience in the colleges.


We are also working to introduce promotion policy to upgrade the capacity of our teachers. We have finalized the regulation and we are waiting for the government to approve. This includes one year sabbatical leave and research leave abroad. If they are leaving for education to abroad, they get paid 75% of their salary if they are married and 50% of their salary if they are single.


There is some reservation about the capacity of some of the Indian teachers who come to our country. What can you say about this?


Yes there are very few who are not that good in their capacity. But now we are solving these problems by increasing the remuneration and changing the procedures we use to select those teachers.


We can’t continue importing such a large number teachers. Of course we need some teachers from abroad but not as many as we are importing now. To overcome this problem we are working hard and I am sure after four – five years 95% of the teachers will be Eritreans.


How do you evaluate the quality of education of these colleges?


When we are talking about the quality of education we are mostly talking about the curriculum and then the teachers and other facilities. The curriculum has international standards and is prepared in accordance with Eritrean culture and society. We can not however say that these colleges are giving a satisfactory quality of education.


In an attempt to improve this situation, these colleges are establishing internal and external partnership so that they can receive material and human power assistance. For example we are establishing close relationships with colleges and universities in China and India. And they have already started to cooperate in the human resource development and are assisting us with teaching aids. We are also establishing good relationship with Japanese universities. As a result 14 professors from different universities of Japan came to Eritrea on March 2009 and we conducted a two day workshop with them. To strengthen the relationship, a group from the higher education will visit Japanese universities after 2-3 months. In addition, we are also establishing good relations with German, Italian, UAE, Libyan and Dutch universities.


What could you say about the speculations that the graduates of these new colleges are not of the same standard that of the graduates of the University of Asmara?


The education which was given in the University of Asmara and now being given in the Institute Technology of Eritrea does not have much difference. Actually the education which is being given in the Institute is more up-to-date and there are new department which were not available in the University of Asmara.    


It is true that the first batch of the Institute Technology of Eritrea where all who participated in the matriculations exam. As a result there was some problem in creation a sense of competition among the students as there were many students who do not have the capacity to complete the courses. But the students were evaluated in the Institute and we didn’t graduated unqualified students.


After the first batch the evaluation was before the admission of the Institute and it went smooth and the all the students in the Institute today are qualified to the first degree.


We are working hard to make the Institution internationally recognized. But it has to be clear that the recognition takes time.  


Could the increase in the number of students who score full marks in the matriculation have a positive influence in the expansion of these new colleges?


Yes. Matriculation results have been improving from year to year, especially in the fields of science. Students of arts didn’t have good performances. In the begging of the present academic year for instance, the colleges’ demand for science students was 1001 and 535 for arts. But the number of students that have passed for the degree program was 1222 for sciences and 201 for arts.


How are students assigned to the departments in the different colleges?


Students are assigned based on their matriculation results, their inclination subjects, vacancy in the real world, their choice and the results of their psychometric test. This psychometric test helps to identify the students’ interest. The students know how they are assigned to the colleges because we tell them during the orientation we give before their admission. 


How is the establishment of private colleges proceeding?


It is clear that for the future the number of students who pass the matriculation exam to increase. So this huge number can not be admitted only to the public colleges. In addition, those who can not attend the regular program can join the private colleges. But the license will be give taking the in consideration quality, technical capacity, teaching materials, curriculum, quality of teachers, teaching techniques and fees.


We expect that these private colleges will be competitive with the public colleges and it is logical that if there is competition there is development.


Does it mean the private colleges will be for the rich only? And don’t you think that there could be shortage of teachers as the teachers in the colleges could go to the private colleges?


Yes the private colleges will be for those who can pay. But it does not worry us much as the government is providing free and quality education. Regarding teachers, we don’t have any fear that there could be shortage of teachers in the colleges. Because we have clear policy that the private colleges could be established if and only if they fulfill the preconditions and one is to bring their own teachers and not to borrow from our colleges. The shortages of teachers we are facing today have to be solved first and I don’t think this problem will stay long.


Do the colleges have enough space for those who pass the matriculation privately?


There are a number of people who participate in the matriculation exam privately. For example this year the number reached 4,000. We give the priority to those who participated through the regular education. As the number of students who pass the matriculation exam is not filling the space available in the colleges, the remaining space is filled by the privately participated. But for the future, as the number of students who are joining the colleges is increasing from time to time, there will not be space for the privately participated students. So the privately participated will not have other option except to join the private colleges.


How do you evaluate the participation of female students?


Participation of female in the high-school and elementary is equal to that of male. But in the colleges, it doubts. They only cover the 25% of the students in the colleges. Some of the factors which are deterring their participation are cultural condition, under age marriage, house works and some other reasons. To motivate their participation, the required matriculation score is one grade lower than that of their male counterparts. But still the needed goal is not yet achieved.


How is the post graduate program going on?


In the past, we didn’t have clear program or procedure in the post-graduate program. But with the establishment of the Board, we started the program last year by sending some graduate assistants for their masters and PhDs. And in this academic year we are preparing to send 30 graduate assistants to China and 10 to UAE, Germany and India. This opportunity is provided to all the seven colleges equally. This post graduate program will save the huge amount of foreign currency we are spending in importing teachers from abroad. In the near future every body in the ministries and other government offices will have this post graduate opportunity too.


What technique do you use to help the students relate their education with the real world?


Previously community service has been conducted after the students accomplished their BA program. But now we are sending our students to conduct community service one year before they complete their education in the colleges. This technique helps us to develop our curriculum based in the comments we get from the service place of our students. This technique will surely help to identify the real man power shortage.


For the future, I think there must be a government body that provides the number and kind of departments of professions needed at national scale annually.

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