Jana Frey | 19.07.2018 | 379 Aufrufe | Interviews

Tesfatsion Abiyo: Language and Identity in the Ethiopian University System: A Case Study of Addis Ababa University

Lisa Maskell Fellowships at Stellenbosch University, South Africa

In 2014, the Gerda Henkel Foundation initiated a scholarship programme supporting young humanities scholars from Africa and Southeast Asia in honour of the foundation's founder, Lisa Maskell. It is the largest international support programme for PhD students in the history of the Foundation. The Lisa Maskell Fellowships aim to strengthen universities in the partner countries, to counter the outflow of qualified young scholars and to ensure the doctoral students enjoy excellent academic training.

In the following months, L.I.S.A. will publish interviews with the Lisa Maskell Fellows from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, in which they will talk about their research projects as well as their experiences during their academic career and the Lisa Maskell fellowship.

This week, we welcome Tesfatsion Abiyo from Ethiopia. After graduating from Addis Ababa University, he started his PhD in Sociology with the thesis Language and identity in the Ethiopian university system: A case study of Addis Ababa University at Stellenbosch University in 2017.

Tesfatsion Abiyo from Ethiopia

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"Educating high-level professionals"

L.I.S.A.: What is the status of the humanities in Ethiopia, your home country?

Tesfatsion Abiyo: The status of the humanities in Ethiopia is very poor compared to the standards of other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The reasons include the shortage of human power in the field and the government’s little emphasis on the humanities. The shortage of qualified human power in the area is a result of an inability to produce high level professionals. Educating high-level professionals is a resource intensive endeavor that is difficult for poor countries like Ethiopia. On top of this, the low emphasis of the government on the humanities is another reason that makes the status of the field low. In 2008, the government declared that universities should modify their curricula with the goal of enrolling 70% of students into science and technology-based subjects and 30% percent into the arts and humanities. The majority of Ethiopian Universities are government funded. Therefore, the policy highly restricted the resources to the humanities, which in turn lowered the number of students that enrolled in these programs and slowed the development of humanities departments.

"Limited resources to enrol students in the humanities"

L.I.S.A.: Have you ever encountered problems in the realization of your academic career?

Tesfatsion Abiyo: Yes, I encountered various challenges to pursue my studies in Ethiopia. The main challenge was getting an appropriate supervisor for my research work. As the country doesn’t have a sufficient number of professors, I encountered difficulties getting professors to supervise my research area. Secondly, the government gives a lot of focus to funding postgraduate studies in science and technology, therefore, universities have limited resources to enrol students in the humanities. Thirdly, Ethiopian universities have problems in giving high quality education and the government also agrees with this point. Therefore, as a Ph.D. student one doesn't only need certification, but also one needs to have pertinent skills to conduct an independent research in the future. To this end, most Ethiopian universities do not meet the standards.  

"Witnessing several ethnic conflicts"

L.I.S.A.: What is your Ph.D. project about and what got you interested in the chosen topic to begin with?

Tesfatsion Abiyo: My Ph.D. proposes to examine the construction of national and ethnolinguistic identities in Ethiopian higher education. The study focuses attention on the two macro factors that seem to be associated with the dynamics of identity politics at Ethiopian universities: the massification of the university system in the period after 1991 and the national language policy in higher education and the 2003 proclamation on higher education. The theoretical frameworks of the thesis draw on a range of authors within the domains of sociolinguistics and the social sciences, specifically, the work of Anderson's "Imagined Communities", Bourdieu's work on "Language and Symbolic Power" and Coulmas' work on language economy and writing systems. The proposed study uses a case study that is conceptualized at two levels: the wider context that is shaping the issues of interest and the university system.

My interest to study the topic comes from my experience of witnessing several ethnic conflicts at the university as a student and lecturer. My experience motivated me to try to approach the issue from a scientific point of view. Therefore, this is my reason to do research on the topic when I got the chance to study my Ph.D. 

"Being a student is enough to get academic support and service"

L.I.S.A.: What has your experience at Stellenbosch been like? Have there been any differences to the Addis Ababa University and possibly other institutions you have previously attended?

Tesfatsion Abiyo: Stellenbosch is quite different from Ethiopian Universities. The main difference lays in the availability of high profile supervisors in Stellenbosch. Now, I can say, my journey to Stellenbosch University is a pivotal juncture in my academic path. The seminars held at the university involve distinguished professors from South Africa and other parts of Africa, which is instrumental in broadening the perspective in my field of study. It has given me an opportunity to network with scholars and students from different parts of the globe. The facility and quality service provided to post-graduate students at the university makes it one of the best universities in Africa and superior to Ethiopian universities. To be honest, all professors are eager to assist you in times of trouble, which is not the case in my country. In Ethiopia, there are strata in the universities in which professors/lecturers are somewhat perceived as kings. The atmosphere creates fear and anxiety that deters students from freely engaging in academic activities. In Ethiopian universities, there is an ethnic component for any type of service you ask for. For example, you need to be like the ethnic group of lecturers/service givers/administrators to get any service. In Stellenbosch being a student is enough to get academic support and service. In summary, I would say I have a positive experience in Stellenbosch which always motivates me to move towards my goal.  

L.I.S.A.: What are the opportunities in Ethiopia to pursue different degree options (BA/MA/ Ph.D.)

Tesfatsion Abiyo: I would say, the universities are expanding at a rapid rate so the enrolment of students to different programs is increasing. I think students that enrol in BA degrees have more opportunities than those enrolling in MA/ Ph.D. programs. The opportunity decreases when one moves to up the ladder.

"Empowering less privileged students at Ethiopian universities"

L.I.S.A.: What are your plans concerning your future career once you have obtained your Ph.D.?

Tesfatsion Abiyo: I have two plans that I want to achieve after completing my Ph.D. The first and the most important one is empowering less privileged students at Ethiopian universities through teaching and collaborative research. To this end, I want to transfer the knowledge that I gain at Stellenbosch to my countries context. My second goal is to pursue my post-doctoral study to further upgrade my academic standing.  

Tesfatsion Abiyo has answered the questions in written form.

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