ETHIOPIA: Expanding and improving higher education

Ethiopia is radically expanding its higher education sector: from two federal universities to 22 in just over a decade and another 10 to open soon. Even so, the percentage of the available cohort that attends higher education is still low at about 3%, compared with a Sub-Saharan average in 2007 of 6%, according to Unesco. The huge expansion of student numbers is mainly in new regional universities and a vibrant private system.

The Ethiopian government sees higher education as an important plank in its strategy for social and economic development.

Particular ideas related to the purposes of higher education are valued and prioritised. Some of the purposes are seen as relatively less important (for example furthering the arts and culture) than others (especially employability, democracy and entrepreneurialism). Higher education is also seen as one of the ways of spearheading regional identity and autonomy in a country with over 80 languages and dialects. These values are used to define criteria for judgements in the Ethiopian context.

Ethiopia is one of the world's poorest countries and the expansion of higher education is a considerable investment, both financially and politically and a considerable risk for the government.

At the same time, the development of largely unregulated private higher education and the extension of open and blended learning formats have presented challenges. Partly to show that this expansion has been successful and has not resulted in a lowering of quality, a Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) was established in law in 2003.

The way that the concept of quality assurance has been introduced and developed has been strongly influenced by various 'travelling salesmen' who drew on their own (northern) university sector experience and conceptual frameworks to advise the sector and government.

The main sources of northern influence were the World Bank which was offering advice and low-cost funding; the UK, through Voluntary Service Overseas which placed experienced UK academics in senior positions in the newly created HERQA and the Higher Education Strategy Centre (HESC); and the Dutch through Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education (NUFFIC) projects that were mainly run through Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, to develop pedagogy and strategic capability within HERQA.

Quality assurance as a travelling concept has proved to be 'leaky' and malleable as it has moved to Ethiopia.

Elements that have leaked out of the model after discussion with the sector include, for example, the notion of a quasi market where higher education institutions compete for student applications and scoring systems that could be compiled into league tables.

Ideas that fit more easily with the values and practices of the Ethiopian system that have been incorporated include institutional audit against criteria derived through consultation by the sector itself and assessed through peer review.

Still others were adapted to fit Ethiopia's needs as a developing country with limited staff experience and capability: for example there was a clear commitment to academic freedom as expressed through the location of quality assurance responsibility within institutions, while at the same time institutions have been willing to dilute academic freedoms through agreement to and participation in a national curriculum framework developed centrally and by the Minister of Education heading HERQA's board.

The system now includes transparent quality assurance, with monitoring for accreditation purposes (especially important in regulating the expanding private sector) and institutional audit. The result has challenged the operation of power within government and devolved considerable freedoms and responsibilities to the universities. HERQA, as quasi-autonomous sector support unit, operates a relatively 'hands-off' system of regulation and control.

The rapid expansion of higher education in Ethiopia means that other ideas about higher education are in need of reassessment: the purpose of higher education, who it is for, how it is paid for, and so on. Higher education has become adapted to government objectives, donor agendas, internal stakeholders and the operation of differential power among stakeholders.

Tensions result: control versus autonomy, modernisation versus 'government knows best', democracy versus the need to control dissident voices. Dilemmas arise within institutions themselves because of these tensions and the need for managers to work out the hidden as well as overt agendas, but there are also creative opportunities as the sector matures.

The focus on quality in Ethiopia also encompasses relevance, especially practical problem-solving skills and student and community orientation.

Relevance requires improvements to teaching and research, greater responsiveness to the labour market and careful curricula review in terms of relevance to Ethiopia's needs. It encompasses active learning and practical education and training for almost all students and disciplines, and more student involvement in matter such as evaluation and governance.

In assessing the range of influences on Ethiopia's system of quality assurance, the Ethiopian government, higher education institutions and HERQA have generally been astute in assessing which ideas to adopt and in adapting them to the country's culture and needs.

Ethiopia's system for quality assurance in higher education has developed a settled conceptual and philosophical framework. There is a consensus about its essential features:

* Institutions' autonomy should be respected.
* HERQA's role is to look for and value local innovation and then disseminate results.
* The higher education institution takes responsibility for designing good quality processes and outcomes, rather than HERQA prescribing a set of inputs.
* The institution's mission and objectives are the starting point for assessment.
* The system assumes most of the innovatory ideas and improvements in quality systems will come from institutions rather than the HERQA.
* HERQA's job is not to control, but to recognise and disseminate good practice.
* Institutional self-assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses is expected to lead institutions to seek and implement improvements.
* The system relies on skills of self-assessment that generally require some training: this is supplied regularly by HERQA.
* Higher education institutions trust that they will get a better report where they have identified their own weaknesses and the ways in which they will rectify them.

The higher education sector in Ethiopia is a fluid entity that is still developing. HERQA itself is in a process of maturation: for example it is preparing to acquire International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education recognition.

Recently it has been integrated into a larger body, the Education and Training Quality Assurance Agency, which will develop quality assurance and control systems for the whole of the education system.

Once HERQA becomes part of an organisation with an inspection role over all education, there may be some backwash effect for the higher education sector. For example it is not yet clear to what extent the model developed for higher education, with its emphasis on academic freedom, will transfer to a more rigid secondary sector. There is also a danger that any addition roles and responsibilities will distract from a model that seems to be, at least in its early stages, working well and have the support of the higher education sector.

Higher education in Ethiopia has been in a fairly constant state of change and development since the early 1990s and there is no guarantee that HERQA's quasi-independence and mode of operation can be maintained.

However, it is clear that Ethiopia's government has taken a brave political gamble in going for such rapid higher education expansion and again in setting up HERQA. It. has made a commitment to placing quality assurance firmly at the forefront of its expansion of higher education which was especially brave as it is clear that expansion when it is as fast as that in Ethiopia, must challenge quality and HERQA can comment on but cannot prevent this.

* 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.

* This article is based on Ashcroft, K and Rayner, P (2011) "The Purposes and Practices of Quality Assurance in Ethiopian Higher Education: Journey, adaptation and integration". Boersma, FK and Van den Heuvel, H (eds) (forthcoming) Travelling Ideas in Higher Education Management and Organisation: Prominent developments in Ethiopia, Indonesia and South Africa.