ETHIOPIA: University expansion must be sustainable

Higher education in Ethiopia is 'massifying' rapidly. Student numbers quadrupled in the decade to 2007-08 and the plan is for the sector to more than double in size in the next five years, to 467,000 students. Urgent decisions need to be made on financial sustainability, or "all of a sudden, you are in big trouble," Jamil Salmi, Tertiary Education Coordinator for the World Bank, told a conference in Addis Ababa last month.

"You need to take it seriously now, not in two years, not in five years," Salmi stressed at the gathering, which was attended by more than 100 people from Ethiopia's private and public universities, NGOs, ministries, the donor community, international universities and others.

The joint World Bank-Minister of Education conference on Ethiopian Higher Education was held in the capital from 9-10 November, and focused on quality, management and governance, the role of the private sector, and finance. It drew on the expertise of local researchers and international experts to lead a lively discussion on the achievements, strategic and practical problems and the future of Ethiopian higher education.

The sustainability of Ethiopian higher education's rapid expansion was a hot topic. The system grew from 39,000 students in the late 1990s to 185,000 in 2007-08. With the goal of growing further to 467,000 students in next five years, there are serious implications for the maintenance of quality and affordability.

Presenters urged the higher education sector to further refine plans with respect to expansion to ensure its sustainability, and to think strategically about increasing diversified funding such as tuition fees and productive activities, and about institutional specialisation.

"An expansion strategy is not just about money," Salmi noted. "The shape and structure of the system affects what you can afford to do."

Plans for performance-based formula funding were seen as a useful modernisation of the funding system. But Kenichi Ohashi, Director of the Ethiopia Country Office of the World Bank, pointed out that the percentage of government funding spent on higher education was already very high.

There were questions about whether, if government funding increased at the same rate, the planned expansion would be affordable. Even given an optimistic scenario for the economy, would government revenues increase at the same rate since agriculture is difficult to tax and assistance from donors is likely not to grow - and may shrink?

As government funding cannot grow by 150% in line with student numbers, so other strategies for funding expansion are needed. A consensus emerged around the notion that universities must become more entrepreneurial, and other forms of income generation were discussed, such as introducing student fees.

Ohashi pointed out that high financial returns from higher education accrue to the individual, so the trend worldwide is towards cost recovery. "Even if government funding is affordable there is an equity issue: given high returns to graduates, why should they be subsidised by others?"

Dr Samuel Kifle, Director of Income Generation at Jimma University, noted: "The contribution of households to the education system declines as we move from primary to secondary and at times reaches nil for tertiary education...the funding pyramid is steep."

Salmi made his view clear: notions of usefulness and quality needed to be rethought in order to groom the new generation for the future: "Are we really preparing our youngsters well for these new sophisticated skills [expert thinking and complex communication]? I don't think so...close to 90% of them are not ready in some developing countries."

New competencies were needed: "It's not only about skills any more, it's about creativity."

Quality also emerged as an important issue, in terms of quality processes such as curriculum reform that has been conducted at national, regional and institutional levels, as reported by Professor Zinabu Gebremariam, Director-general of the Ethiopian Higher Education Strategy Centre, and in terms of the effects of the rapid expansion and overstretched staff.

Professor Alenoush Saroyan of McGill University noted that quality is an elusive concept and Professor Dr Heike Schroeder, Scientific Director of the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, reported on adopting a team-based approach but found the need to change attitudes: "The single most important challenge is to get people to take on leadership willingly."

The forms of education suitable for the future were also debated and how these would impact on modes and delivery of learning. Ohashi noted: "Innovation needs more than basic undergraduate training, it needs intellectual free spirits and entrepreneurs: graduates not looking for jobs but to create jobs."

The governance framework was analysed. Some aspects of the 2009 Higher Education Proclamation were applauded, especially the provisions for institutional autonomy, but there was a feeling from some that aspects were over-detailed and too prescribed, even given the stage of development of the country.

The role of private higher education was discussed in some detail. Private higher education is recent in Ethiopia, but nevertheless current enrollment is at nearly 20% of the total and there are more than 60 accredited institutions at various stages of development.

A consensus emerged that the private sector should be an important element in the expansion strategy as it can provide a laboratory for innovation and new practice and competition that could drive up standards as well as improve access.

Professor Belay Kassa, President of Haramaya University, pointed out that private higher education institutions' characteristics can include flexibility to make decisions, response to the labour market, covering hard to reach areas, and speedy rationalisation of subjects according to demand.

Professor Daniel Levy from the State University of New York, Albany, outlined a global picture of a private sector growing but uneven, with different types of providers - religious and others which may be semi-elite or demand-absorbing.

Government polices and regulations vary widely and private higher education institutions may be seen as a threat or a solution to quality and access. It was noted that private higher education often concentrates on inexpensive fields that require limited space and facilities, but even so, it can expand access to higher education and some institutions later begin to develop more expensive study fields.

There was a feeling from the conference that private institutions will need less regulation and more freedom if they are to thrive and contribute more fully to Ethiopia's development. Agreement emerged that regulatory constraints that disadvantage private institutions are not useful. Presenters advocated government modesty in terms of demands they put on private higher education, and the market as a main mechanism to ensure bad institutions do not survive and that better institutions thrive.

Salmi's concluding remarks summed up the general feeling that Ethiopia has vision of its future and where it wants to go, but needs to define how to get there and which areas need further strategic thinking - especially in the areas of financing and exploring projections and alternative scenarios.

The conclusion was that good governance, management, financial sustainability and quality are closely linked and that the Ethiopian government and higher education system will need to look at obstacles to these, including regulations and the administrative culture that has built them.

The international community committed itself to providing support. Donors from the World Bank and funding agencies from the UK, Germany, the US, Belgium and The Netherlands stated interest in working together and in partnership with the sector for support Ethiopia's higher education strategy.