Close to 618,000 students had been registered for the Grade 12 national exams that took place last week. Only some 565,000 students could sit, with around 20pc of the students registered in Amhara Regional State unable to take the tests. No students in Tigray was registered.

Twisting his short hair with his left hand and sipping a cup of coffee with his right, Natnael Shumye was seated in a plastic chair on the veranda of Dodo Bar, a restaurant on King George VI Street in the Arat Kilo neighbourhood. Right in front of the cafe, across the road, is the Menelik II Preparatory School, the first-ever modern school in the country.

On Tuesday, November 9, 2021, high school students like Natnael were taking the national exams for Grade 12. Sitting in the restaurant, Natnael and three of his teenage friends, all students at the school, talked about the exams in a hushed tone with a look of anxiety on their faces. All of them had finished taking their aptitude tests that morning and were readying to return to the school for more exams in the afternoon.

Natnael and his friends were four of over 1,000 students who had graduated from Menelik II Preparatory in May this year, despite not taking their matriculation exams. They had little choice but to stay home for the past six months, awaiting federal officials to announce when they could finally sit for the tests. Six months was too long a wait for Natnael, and he began doing odd jobs with his family to make some money. Neither did he use the time to study and prepare for the exams.

“It's difficult to keep studying when you don’t know when the exam would be,” Natnael said.

This has been the reality for over half a million matriculating students who sat for the exams last week at over 2,000 examination centres across the country, barring Tigray Regional State and parts of the Amhara Regional State. Close to 618,000 students had been registered for the exams.

Students in the North Wello zone, Wag Hemra, South Wello and North Gonder zones could not take the tests as the 131 examination centres remain closed due to the conflict raging in the area.

Officials at the National Educational Assessment & Examination Agency do not estimate how many students have been left out in Tigray, though they disclosed no matriculating students there sat for the exams. The Agency’s communications director, Redi Shifa, says his office could not register any students in Tigray before the examination period.

However, no less than 36,000 students in the Amhara region were excluded from the exams. The figure represents 20pc of all matriculating students in the Amhara region.

Matriculating high school students "graduated" earlier this year but were forced to wait several months to sit for their Grade 12 examinations. They finally got the chance last week, though not all who were registered were able to take the tests.

Despite the tens of thousands excluded, the number of students taking the examinations this year is double the figure from last year. A policy shift enacted two years ago scrapped the requirement for Grade 10 students to take national examinations. Natnael and his friends were in 10th Grade when the policy was introduced, and nearly all of their peers passed to the next grade, leading to a high number of examinees this year.

Students who failed the Grade 10 exams would have joined technical and vocational schools (TVETs). A large number of students are slated to enrol in TVETs this year.

“I expect the TVETs would be ready,” Redi said.

Unusually, an even lower number of students joined public universities last year. Only 147,000 students were assigned to the country’s 46 public universities from the over 300,000 students who sat for the matriculation exams. Matching this seems unlikely this year as several universities have closed in areas where the militarized conflict is expanding. Five public universities in Meqelle, Axum, Adigrat, Raya and Woldiya remained closed beginning mid this year as a result of the worsening conflict. Over 14,000 students were forced to leave campuses in July this year.

According to Amelework Hizkeal, communications director at the Ministry of Education, there is nothing certain about how many students the remaining universities will accommodate.

“We'll know more when universities disclose their capacities after the exam results are announced,” Amelework told Fortune.

If the five non-operational universities remain closed for longer, the Ministry would be unable to do anything but continue with the remaining universities.

“This isn’t something only the Ministry of Education will deal with," she said.

The Ministry's officials want to reassign students from these universities. Last month, they had called on the students to register.

One of these students is Rehema Miftah, 23, who was studying chemical engineering at Adigrat University. A week ago, she was reassigned to Debre Berhan University.

Having to sit idle for the last four months after returning from Tigray, Rehema began working as a sales representative for a boutique in Addis Abeba. She plans to continue working until her the university calls her to attend classes. However, classes are not the most pressing thing for her now.

“Peace is what I need more than anything,” said Rehema.

With the war spreading further south, it remains unclear how many more universities will be forced to close, and their students leave.

The conflict raging in the north and the growing insurgency in other parts of the country have not been the only source of emotional pressure on students like Rehema. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, she was forced to return from Adigrat University to her family in Addis Abeba and spend a whole semester with hardly anything to do. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the educational cycles, from primary school to university, forcing schools to shut down for months before they were partially reopened in November last year, around the same time war broke out in Tigray.

The pandemic and the war combined have meant that Rehema and her peers have fallen a year behind in their studies. She would have been a senior this year but will have two more years to complete before graduating.

Tirussew Teferra (Prof), an education expert and project leader of the Ethiopian Education Roadmap Development Team, sees that many students like Natnael and Rehema could be faced with a lack of concentration and psychological issues to disruptions, the pandemic and conflict.

“There's no question that standard is compromised,” said Tirussew. “Much has to be done to sustain the youth.”

He urges education officials and universities to accommodate these changes and be responsive.

All of these will be issues to the leaders of the education sectors, now under Berhanu Nega (Prof.), minister of Education.

One of the three opposition leaders appointed into Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's (PhD) cabinet, Berhanu told the media how excited he was to take up the education portfolio.

“I would not have accepted had I been assigned to lead another sector,” said Berhanu, a professor of economics and former lecturer at the Addis Abeba University,

A long political career and experience in teaching could prove to be valuable assets in bettering the situation, but students like Natnael will continue to be affected with the war showing no sign of respite.

“I’m not going if I'm assigned to a university outside of Addis,” said Natnael.

This leaves either Addis Abeba University or one of the private higher education centres in the capital as his only options. Luckily for Natnael, his family is willing to pay for tuition at a private college. The same cannot be said for most of the 565,000 students who sat for exams last week.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 13,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1124]

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