Ensuring quality in education and equity, my sole purpose: Dr Hirut

The erstwhile minister for Labor and Social Affairs, Dr Hirut Woldemariam, is now Minister of Science and Higher Education. Being an academician herself, her appointment has been well received by the scientific and academic community; however, she faces uphill tasks of not only revamping the Higher Education system and enhancing quality, but also ensuring gender equity at every level. Click here to see the picture

Speaking on the sidelines of 5th Graduation Ceremony at College of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dr Hirut said that the task begun by Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, to bring about equity and equilibrium in various aspects of life across the nation, is here to stay.

Elaborating further, she says, at present, Ethiopia’s higher education system stands at a critical juncture, explaining as to why in the new organizational structure, science is made the pivot of higher and technical education. We need to cultivate a scientific disposition and temperament throughout our system so that professionally and socially we are fruitfully effective. We may not be there yet, but with infrastructure of 50 universities, many research institutions and Academy of Sciences we have had a fairly good beginning.

And it would be our launching pad that is in line with the human resources development vision of FDRE Government, as articulated by our Prime Minister, she emphasized.

Underscoring gender equity, she said, a huge change has already come as 50% of Dr Abiy Ahmed’s Cabinet has women ministers; this is an altogether new development; it indicates we have started acknowledging women’s worth. Capable women were always there, but deeply entrenched patriarchal set-up was the barrier, and yet all 50 public universities are headed by male presidents; it should change. At the same time, we should address factors causing women to lag behind in research, academics and in general education; the alarming attrition rate is a matter of great concern.

Expressing her opinion, she said, if a woman is meritorious and diligent to deliver, she must get her due, and to ensure this, currently the Ministry has presented a draft strategy to Prime Minister asking for 50% leadership positions for females in Universities, administrative boards and top management. It will ensure women’s perspectives in decision-making process and it has to start from the department level in any university, she averred.

And for leadership, she says, we shall push for this as gently as possible without any letup. We have a leadership institute under Ministry of Education that will focus on this task; one of its strategies is to encourage those capable women who often stay away from the limelight.  It will encourage them to come forward and it’s our duty to help make it happen at institutional level.

Dr Hirut insists that problem of female underrepresentation in higher education has to be related to what happens in the system of general education. In primary and higher education, we have a fairly high rate of enrollment of girls, but things become bit difficult as we go up in the system and doors get closed. And, the opening of those doors has to start now because the country’s future hinges upon it and to make opportunities available for them is to create a wider room in which women’s perspectives would get a fair hearing that would be for the good of all of us.

She adds, this issue of equity can’t and shouldn’t be divorced from that of improving quality in higher education. In both areas, I know, I would encounter challenges such as lack of resources, inappropriate curriculum and programs that are irrelevant to the immediate developmental needs of the nation. But challenges need to be dealt with hammer and tongs and come out of the rut.

Pointing out female students’ attrition, she says, the current attrition rate needs to be reduced significantly or arrested, among other things, by mentoring female children by letting them learn by themselves and at the same time we have to probe the factors that lead to increasingly high levels of drop out at high and preparatory schools. We should also have exit strategies for those who often come a cropper; we should channelize or steer them to vocational or technical streams that will prepare them for an employment.

Provision of scholarships for female students is another area of intervention she said, that can be made available particularly for those coming from disadvantaged areas. In terms of increasing government funding for equity-related issues, she maintains that it’s something that has to be looked at seriously, although at present a huge amount of resources have been earmarked in building universities, health centers, etc and on hiring teachers, which has put strain on national exchequer.

Dr Hirut further says equity has to be pursued on a war footing; there is a lot of work that universities and their gender offices can do to mentor and encourage students; more can be done in collaboration with the Ministry of Women, Youth and Children Affairs. The new Ministry that she heads will undertake the task of encouraging and coordinating these potential efforts with all seriousness that they deserve.

On personal side, she says that motivation and rudiments of leadership, she inherited from her late father, who was a teacher. It was streamlined and systematized in part by a short-term training that she had taken in England. Science and Higher Education is her third portfolio, preceded by Culture and Tourism and Labor & Social Affairs. She says she is grateful to the Government for reposing faith in her.

She attributes her success to the good education that she has had both in Ethiopia and abroad. She completed her PhD in Linguistics from University of Cologne, Germany, & Addis Ababa University in 2004. Addis Ababa University is her alma-mater that provided opportunities to exercise leadership.

She taught linguistics with a focus on socio-linguistics at AAU. Her journey in academic administration begun as Head of Linguistics department, Faculty of Language Studies (2006-8); then, she went on to become Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs (2008-10), Vice President for External Relations, Strategic Planning and Partnership (Jan 2010-Apr 2012); and finally, Vice President for Institutional Development (Apr 2012-Oct 2014), after which she was appointed Minister for culture and Tourism. She served in that capacity for a year and a half. She was transferred to the Ministry of Labor & Social Affairs where she served for 18 months. And it was in Prime Minister Abiy’s recent Cabinet reshuffle that she has been appointed Minister for Science and Higher Education.

Her new assignment, she said, is empowering as it allows her to do what she believes is best for the country. Dr Hirut Woldemariam grew up in Addis Ababa, her husband, Dr Tegene Hawando, is a surgeon, who runs his own hospital; she has three kids, of which the eldest daughter is a medical student.

(Corporate Communication Directorate)