Ethiopia is moving very rapidly from an elite towards a mass public sector higher education system. The considerable challenges raised by 'massification' include teaching quality, funding, the need for a more professionalised leadership, staff shortages and institutional structure and mission. The operation of the Ethiopian system, where innovation is highly centralised, also makes local responsiveness difficult.
The country's higher education sector has grown from two public universities just over a decade ago to 22 today with another 10 due to open soon. At the same time, the number of students in each university has doubled and is expected to double again. Private higher education has also increased as part of a general liberalisation of part of the economy.
The expansion of a university system can lead to financial constraints and deteriorating conditions of study. The Ethiopian system struggles to achieve more graduates without a noticeable loss of quality. The Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) was set up to assure the quality of the system.
However, there is still a lack of match between employer and stakeholder requirements and the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment methods. Employers and others I interviewed for various studies consistently emphasised the need for graduates who display self-confidence, initiative, inquisitiveness and creativity.
The qualities employers need are best developed through teaching methods that are difficult with large groups. Faculty find it hard to cope with increased class sizes and tend to rely on traditional teaching methods, which seem easier and are more familiar but fail to meet market needs, increasing the danger of graduate unemployment or underemployment that is inherent in an expanding system.
Information and communication technologies (ICT) has supported massification elsewhere in the world. ICT also has the potential to impact on courses delivered to traditional students.
Some Ethiopian universities have received World Bank funds to develop distance and open learning enabled by ICT. Unfortunately, extreme unreliability of the electricity supply and of the ICT network, a lack of understanding how best to use it to support learning, and the problem of providing face-to-face backup in a predominantly rural country make development very difficult just now.
There had been progress in print-based distance learning that proved useful in supporting learners at a distance and provided opportunities for students, especially women. However, progress has been effectively blocked by a HERQA directive, issued on 26 August 2010, which has scrapped all distance education programmes provided by both private and public institutions in the country.
A system where universities are micro-managed from the centre is no longer possible, but decentralisation creates its own demands.
The Ethiopian government has passed legislation to give universities more autonomy. This means that it is not longer viable for management to be 'amateur' and makes promotion as a reward for political loyalty problematic. However, the government itself is still learning how to act in a more devolved sector and how to let go of controls while ensuring accountability.
Pay for university managers is low. Management is not seen as a viable career choice as financial reward generally comes through the attainment of higher degrees or additional teaching. This makes the role of a manager unattractive despite various donor-funded human capacity development projects to prepare staff for management roles and provide mentoring and training.
With more decentralisation, university board members need to be chosen for the particular expertise they can bring (in finance, law, people management and so on). The process of reforming boards has begun so they are not now solely political entities.
Trust is an issue: the government is not always confident that institutional managers and boards are truly competent to make important decisions, and in some cases this lack of trust and confidence may be justified. A fear that decisions taken by institutional managers may be overruled by government also sometimes inhibits initiative and decision-making.
Ethiopia suffers a shortage of academic staff. It is estimated that 70% of faculty in the new universities are only qualified to bachelor degree level. The government is trying to overcome the problem of the chronic shortage of qualified academic staff by establishing a massive programme of in-country provision of masters and PhD programmes, supported by the more established universities in the country and foreign universities.
Meanwhile, university managers are challenged to find non-monetary means to reward staff, such as motivational strategies. Academics are motivated by ideas and values. They are relatively idealistic and are not inspired by a dream of moving 'cheaply into the future'. In a massified system, managers cannot oversee all their staff and so have to help them become self-motivated.
Academics have a tendency to see things from their own point of view. Ethiopia cannot afford academic self-interest to be a prime motivator and so managers are challenged to lead staff to a more idealistic view of their contribution to their country. This requires a participatory management style that is particularly difficult in a culture of deference to authority.
The expansion of higher education institutions leads to more complex organisations, which requires more well-qualified administrative staff than are available. Many administrative staff members have very limited abilities to develop systems to cope with more students.
To overcome this problem, the government has set up a national review. They have adopted the business process re-engineering model that requires frequent meetings of and reports from presidents and administrative vice-presidents from all public universities: itself a considerable opportunity cost that may or may not prove to be good value in the longer term.
Funding mechanisms are not coping well with the expansion. Until recently, every university proposed a budget with every line of expenditure agreed with government and very little opportunity for decisions between budget heads without explicit government permission.
This centralised system is not viable with more than a handful of universities. It encourages a 'begging bowl' mentality, spending up to the limits each year and avoidance of hard choices. It discourages universities from making strategic, or even prudent, choices about their spending.
Some decentralization of funding has occurred and plans include a radical change to a system of funding based on university performance, defined by numbers of student completions and graduations in various subject groupings. This change will require more sophisticated systems for internal decision-making, monitoring and accountability than are presently in place.
The expansion cannot be funded entirely by government. Students now make some (limited) contribution to the costs of their programmes when they graduate and so they become more demanding. Even so, expansion is stretching resources, so income must be generated from new sources that are not yet fully identified.
Massification of higher education in other parts of the world has led to a diversification of mission: new types of higher education institutions emerged (specialist colleges, junior colleges, affiliated colleges, polytechnics, postgraduate institutions and so on) as greater efficiencies became necessary.
The Ethiopian government has decided not to establish more a diversified system. However, there are insufficient experienced, qualified academic staff and resources for every higher education institution to be a good comprehensive university.
Institutions themselves have started to develop more focused specialisms: for example, Adama University grew out of a technical teacher training college and is retaining this specialism while focusing on economic development and university-enterprise cooperation according to the German paradigm.
Shifting priorities in the system presents a challenge for the system. Government sees higher education as an engine for growth but there is not a settled view of how this works.
For example, the new universities were expected to focus on social sciences in the first instance, and to open science and technology faculties in a later phase of their development. A change of policy required all universities to move their curriculum, within the academic year, so that 70% of students would study subjects based on science and technology. Thus the new universities were sent science and technology students before laboratories and workshops were built or staff trained to teach them.
In another very recent apparent change of direction, the HERQA has stopped accrediting or renewing the accreditation of private institutions and is preventing them from offering training in law and teaching fields. If these prohibitions turn out to be a permanent measure, they are likely to have far-reaching and unpredictable outcomes.
The challenges of massification are not going away: population growth and the numbers of well-educated young people leaving secondary school suggest that the demand for higher education will continue to outstrip supply. In addition, Ethiopia's development is progressing fast and is likely to fuel demand for a more professional, university-trained workforce.
The Ethiopian government has been courageous in taking forward its higher education expansion programme in the face of some vociferous criticism by donors and others. It will need to show equal leadership and determination in the next phase, where its policies must be fully implemented.
* Professor Kate Ashcroft is emeritus professor of education at University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, UK. She has advised on Ethiopian and Zambian higher education, as higher education management adviser to Ethiopia's Minister of Education and the acting director of the Ethiopian Higher Education Strategy Center, and as a consultant on various projects funded by NUFFIC and UNDP. She has written extensively about development issues and is presently finishing a book with Dr Philip Rayner called Higher Education in Development: Lessons from Sub Saharan Africa for IAP Press.
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