Strengthening higher education in a time of peace

Eritrea has in recent months recruited foreign academics and signed international higher education agreements. It is an indication that the country may be turning a corner, putting war and destruction in the past and strengthening universities for the future.

University World News interviewed Professor Tadesse Mehari, executive director of Eritrea’s National Commission for Higher Education since 2008, who described the higher education landscape and numerous developments in recent years.

A time of war

Eritrea, a small country with a population of six million people, is located in the Horn of Africa on the Red Sea. It is bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south and Djibouti in the southeast, and across the sea is Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Created by the incorporation of kingdoms and sultanates that resulted in Italian Eritrea, in 1947 Eritrea became part of a federation with much bigger Ethiopia.

Annexation sparked the Eritrean War of Independence, which lasted for three decades from 1961-91 and led to independence in 1993. A short period of peace was shattered by the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of 1998-2000 and there have since been clashes with both Ethiopia and Djibouti.

University of Asmara

The University of Asmara was founded in 1958 by the missionary Comboni Sisters and was long the country’s sole accredited university. But it stopped enrolling students in 2003, and the last batch of students graduated in 2007.

In the university’s place, seven colleges dotted around the country were opened.

“It couldn't cater for the needs of higher education in the country and the government decided to open new institutes of higher education,” said Mehari.

The Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education and the Norwegian Universities and Colleges Admission Service wrote in a 2013 Eritrea higher education assessment report that the University of Asmara had been relocated to make higher education more accessible to students outside of the capital.

Other reasons were to build larger teaching facilities for a growing student body, and to find sufficient housing for students – a general problem encountered in Asmara.

The new institutes of higher education functioned concurrently with the University of Asmara, but a shortage of faculty and teaching facilities obliged the government to reallocate facilities of the university to the other institutes, Mehari told University World News.

The university’s premises are now being used by the Orotta School of Medicine and Dental Medicine and the law school, and some classes of Asmara College of Health Sciences are also conducted there.

A restructured landscape

“They [the institutes] are satisfying the needs of higher education in the country,” said Mehari, a former director of academic affairs at the University of Asmara from 2001 to 2004 and its acting president until 2007.

Student enrolment had grown from the maximum of 1,200 that the University of Asmara could accommodate, with the institutes now enrolling between 4,000 and 5,000 students a year. So while the student population at Asmara University was 5,000 there are now close to 14,000 students in all higher education institutes.

More fields of study exist, with many recently introduced such as medicine and dentistry, optometry, mining and engineering. And higher education is available across the country’s regions, while it was limited to Asmara before.

Every year the institutions graduate 2,700 to 3,000 students and the majority obtain diplomas and bachelor degrees, with very few masters graduates. From 2008 to 2015 about 23,000 students have graduated from all the higher education institutes.

While graduate unemployment is a problem in other African countries, in Eritrea it is not. “Almost all graduates are assigned to the various ministries and government offices, so finding a job is not a problem,” said Mehari.

For Eritreans, national service is compulsory for all and university graduates are only awarded their qualifications after completing 18 months of national service, which includes six months of military training and a year of community service.


The National Commission for Higher Education was established in 2006 and is guided by the deans of higher education institutes in the country. It drives education developments, and since its formation teaching and learning activities have been harmonised across all institutes.

Mehari said academic and administrative guidelines had been produced, to aid in consolidating undergraduate programmes and in governing institutes. The existing curricula were revamped and new programmes were introduced

“We had to make them relevant to the needs of the country and maintain international standards. We have initiated postgraduate programmes at masters level in some institutes,” he said.

The promotion of academics, which was stalled for several years, has resumed. “We have cultivated a culture of research and we keep soliciting funds for research and other activities,” according to Mehari.

Additional teaching and research facilities have been constructed in many of the institutes, and funds from development partners have equipped higher education with basic teaching and research facilities.

Partnerships have been established with more than 30 universities outside the country and this is continuing. They include universities in South Africa, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda.

“These partnerships are contributing to the development of higher education in Eritrea through exchange of staff, students, collaborative research and [partner academics] serving as external examiners to our students,” Mehari said.

Challenges and initiatives

The main challenge to improving higher education is lack of highly skilled staff.

“We only have a few qualified national staff in almost all our institutes,” Mehari admitted. “Thus, we are recruiting many expatriate staff to help us teach.” For instance, in August this year the Eritrean government hired 35 Kenyans to work as expatriate lecturers.

Mehari said about 30% of all faculty were expatriates and the country was spending a substantial amount of hard currency on this. “We are trying to solve the problem by sending junior faculty to be trained abroad for masters and PhDs.”

Eritrea’s institutes of higher education have only 15 local professors and 23 expat professors, and 25 Eritrean and 26 expatriate associate professors.

Postgraduate programmes have started in higher education institutes and Eritreans working in government are being trained through distance education while working.

“We are engaging Eritrean professionals in the diaspora to come and help us in teaching and research in their spare time. There is enormous potential in the United States, Canada and Europe,” he continued.

Digital libraries were also being established with Eritreans in the diaspora. An Eritrea-Finland collaboration to develop ICTs for education in higher education institutes was on the cards.

Mehari said postgraduate programmes were being developed and distance education promoted. Meanwhile, foreign institutions such as the University of South Africa and Swiss Management Center University had been saving the day with hard copies of materials they have online.

“Online education is very limited at the moment because of the slow internet connectivity we have. But we have installed V-SATs in all institutions to improve the situation.”

Plans are also underway to introduce a cost-sharing mechanism in higher education, as currently education from kindergarten through to higher education is free. Students fee protests have not featured in Eritrea as the government pays for everything – tuition fees, books, accommodation and food.

But student disquiet could follow cost-sharing on the higher education menu for the future.