Originally, the equivalent of higher education was reserved for students who intended to become debtera or leed themselves. This was a very small elite group of scholars. Advanced courses were only offered at special centers located in Gondar, Gojam, Tigre, and Wollo. Students had to memorize each lesson without flaw to advance. Three areas of specialization were studied. A student attended academies of music, poetry, and written texts. Life in the academy was severe, simple, and demanding. Students awoke at dawn each morning to prepare for the religious service. The master sat on an elevated platform, surrounded by admiring students. They recited the previous day's lesson and then began memorizing the new lesson for that day. Classes ended by late afternoon. They ate a modest dinner and then went out collecting firewood. The day's lessons were reinforced until midnight when they slept.
Advanced students began their training at the academy of music. These academies were attached to designated churches or monasteries. Works composed by Yared, a great composer and lyricist of the sixth century, were studied. He created a system of musical notation still widely used. Written in Ge'ez, it has dots, lines, and directional signs that tell the student how to sing a verse. Academy graduates can read these symbols and sing correctly. Ezel (low-voiced and dignified singing) was reserved for funerals, fasts, and vigils. Arary (light and happy singing) was reserved for great festivals and weddings. The Degwa (essential collection of ecclesiastical music) was mastered. Liturgical chants were accompanied by religious dancing, kabaro (drumming), and tsentsil (systrum) playing. It typically took eight years to complete the advanced courses in Ethiopian Church music. Ethiopian secular music, known as azmari (wandering minstrel), could also be studied. This music dealt with love, death, marriage, harvesting, and the like. An azmari, or minstrel, traveled widely, performing at weddings and joyous celebrations. He flattered, cajoled, and goaded people into dancing, laughing, and giving away money. He could use poetry and songs to insult anyone, even nobles.
The academy of poetry was the next challenge for advanced students. Students learned to translate Amharic into Ge'ez and enlarged their vocabularies in both languages. They studied Ethiopian culture, its traditions, folkways, values, and customs, as well as its rules and regulations. Comprehension of texts in Ge'ez was essential for students. They spent time in isolated solitude to compose original poems in Ge'ez. Though critiqued by the professors, originality was encouraged. Ge'ez grammar and philology and 12 styles of poetic composition form the curriculum of the poetry academy, which took 13 years to complete. Passages from famous philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Zara Yacob, and Wolde Hiywet, were also studied.
The literary academy was the third academy of higher education. This school of literary texts required scholars to properly interpret stories and passages from the Old and New Testaments, together with literature, fiction, and books on the monastic life. Texts such as the Laws of Kings, the foundation of Ethiopian law for centuries, were also studied. Global history was taught from an Ethiopian perspective. Ten years were required to graduate from the literary academy.
The development of local schools in each province that sent their better students for education in the capital or abroad was encouraged. These local schools stressed knowledge of Ethiopia. Ethiopia's most promising scholars were given scholarships to study in Europe, the Middle East, other African nations, and North America. The largest number went to France, where most studied law, politics, economics, and science. French was Ethiopia's leading foreign language, thus many students felt comfortable in French universities.
A university college in Ethiopia was created in 1931 to reduce the expense and training of administrators. In 1941, old blueprints for this college were reactivated, and the emperor approved a plan. A Canadian Jesuit priest, Dr. Lucien Matte, was selected to head the college. By 1954 a civil charter was granted, and Haile Selassie University became a reality in 1961. Thus, following World War II, Ethiopia had built an educational system that covered a wide range of learning needs from kindergarten to the university level.
In 1965 the Ethiopian University Service was created (EUS). This program required university students to serve as teachers in rural Ethiopia for one academic year, between their third and forth years of study.
Entrance examinations to universities have been extremely competitive. They were inequitable and favored children of the elite from the best schools, usually from major urban areas. The twelfth grade school leaving examination alone screened out 80 percent of university applicants. From 1940 to 1960 those who failed to enter college were given government jobs. By 1970, there were few government jobs to dole out. Even the Armed Forces were full to capacity with high school graduates who had failed the university entrance exam.
In the early 1970s, a program was instituted to make a quota system for university student selection. Students from each region were assigned seats based upon the percentage of their ethnic group in Ethiopia's total population. The idea was to be fair to all groups. To achieve this goal, admission standards were lowered. Many students admitted had never seen a science laboratory in their rural homeland schools. They often knew neither English nor Amharic and found it difficult to follow lectures. The urban terrain was unfamiliar and frightening, and many dropped out and retreated to their mountain homes. Quotas proved a failure and the old selection system was quietly put back in place. Another program also tried to shorten the time needed to complete a degree from four years to three. Given the low quality of education in the high schools, this experiment also failed and had to be phased out. Students simply needed more time to master English and gain scientific knowledge.
A small number of students who complete high school enter universities, despite the explosion of education at the primary and secondary levels. In 1981, approximately 75,000 students took the university entrance examination (ESLCE), but only 3,000 were admitted to four-year colleges, while another 2,000 were admitted into institutes of technology and training schools. The number of students seeking university education is increasing rapidly, but Ethiopia's institutions of higher education do not yet have the capacity to absorb them.