Agency fights to maintain standards during HE expansion

The Ethiopian government’s Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, HERQA, is to implement new measures designed to raise standards in universities. The initiative comes amid major concerns about the state of the country’s fast-growing tertiary education sector.

The number of public universities in the country has grown from two to 34 over the past 12 years, and there are now seven private universities and 52 polytechnic colleges. Each of Ethiopia's nine regions, apart from Gambela, now has at least one university.

Such rapid expansion has brought with it growing doubts about the quality of teaching and other resources, as well as the employability of graduates.

Dr Tesfaye Teshome, director general of HERQA, told University World News that a new quality assurance programme is set to be introduced, focused heavily on measuring the specific skills and other attributes being attained by graduates.

Teshome said that under the programme, expert university audits would cover every subject area, closely assessing what students have learned, as well as measuring teaching standards and internal academic management procedures.

Details of the new quality assurance programme have been communicated to all universities in Ethiopia, Teshome said. It will be piloted with two private universities early next year – Unity University and St Mary’s University College, both based in the capital Addis Ababa.

HERQA is also establishing an internal quality assurance system across all universities, based around 10 key standards and focused on core issues such as classroom size and minimum staff requirements. Teshome said this system had been piloted at two private and two public universities and was to be introduced soon.

In addition, HERQA has expanded from 14 to 53 the number of guidelines it issues to help universities measure their performance, while all universities are now required to have a quality assurance directorate.

"We are focused on ensuring that quality assurance is anchored into each university,” said Teshome. “In three years’ time, our universities will have a built-in, robust quality assurance system.”

HERQA, which was established in 2003, is a member of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, INQAAHE.

Teshome said that at a conference in Nairobi earlier this year, organised by INQAAHE and the African Quality Assurance Network, HERQA good practices were ranked third out of the 18 quality assurance agencies from Africa participating in the conference.

However, despite progress being made by HERQA, and new measures being implemented, concerns about Ethiopia's public and private universities continue to intensify.

Higher education expansion

Around 320,000 undergraduate students currently attend public universities, according to figures from the Ministry of Education, and this number is targeted to reach 467,445 by 2015 under Ethiopia's five-year Growth and Transformation Plan for 2011-15.

There are now 15,445 postgraduate students at public universities, and Dessalegn Samuel, director of communication affairs for the ministry, said this number was expected to double every year for at least the next three years.

Around 70,000 students now attend private universities. Samuel said that while there are currently no plans to increase the number of public universities, existing universities will be expanded and "we expect growth in the number of private universities".

He added that the government was providing a range of incentives, such as offering land without lease, for further private universities to be established.

Ethiopia remains one of the world's poorest countries, and still depends on agriculture for around 50% of its gross domestic product (GDP), 60% of its exports and 80% of its employment.

However, GDP has been growing at around 7% over recent years, and the government is keen to diversify the economy, with a range of manufacturing and services sectors expanding rapidly.

A decision in 2008 that all higher education institutions should enrol 70% of students in engineering, technology and the natural sciences, and 30% in social science and humanities, reflected its priorities. "We need graduates in many more fields, ranging from railway engineering to sugar production," said Samuel.

Doubts about quality

But doubts about the quality of graduates appear to be growing. An educationist based in Ethiopia, who asked not to named, said: "The higher education sector here is growing in terms of the numbers of students, but the quality is deteriorating."

He pointed to the comparatively low number of university staff. "I know that there are now many classes of 50 students, whereas 10 years ago there were no more than 30 students in a class. There are also doubts about the qualifications of teachers, especially at the universities that have opened most recently."

He said this was contributing to a significant decrease in the standard of graduates: "When I recently recruited staff for different organisations, many graduates lacked basic skills such as writing in English. Their application of skills and knowledge was very poor.”

A lecturer at Addis Ababa University, who also asked not to be named, added: "The tipping point came when many four-year degree programmes were reduced to three years, and the pass mark required for entrance into a university was reduced – all just to get higher numbers of students.

“The quality has become so watered down that many qualifications, even PhDs, are not respected now."

He added that there were also concerns that the supply of graduates is outstripping demand. "I know there are many engineering graduates who can't find a relevant job," he said. "Some are working as builders' labourers instead."

Huge investment in education

But Samuel countered: "When you expand, you face challenges, such as with the number of teachers, as well as laboratories and libraries. But the government is investing a huge amount of money in education."

He said the government was now training 2,500 new lecturers a year, and that a growing number of Ethiopian teachers are being trained overseas, in countries such as India – where 172 Ethiopian teachers are currently studying – and the US. All costs are covered by the Ethiopian government.

In line with Ethiopia's five-year plan, the target is for 25% of university teachers to be qualified up to PhD level, and for 75% to have masters degrees by 2015.

Samuel added that the government was also "working aggressively" on importing more laboratory equipment and constructing more libraries.