Urgent need for new curricula, academics and innovation

There has been extraordinary expansion of higher education in Ethiopia, with the number of public universities increasing from two in 2000 to 35 today. But the burgeoning sector might not deliver quick economic growth because universities do not have the capacity to drive the development agenda or innovation, says a World Bank report.

Lacklustre innovation performance in Ethiopia – a fascinating East African nation with a rich, ancient history and population of 91 million people – is stifling its competitiveness, according to the study.

Unlocking Firm Level Productivity and Promoting More Inclusive Growth: The role of innovation in Ethiopia stresses an urgent need for the country not only to increase its number of higher education students but also to tackle issues related to curriculum reforms, infrastructure development, and more and better qualified lecturers and researchers.

The study was conducted by a team led by Smita Kuriakose, a senior economist and task team leader for trade and competitiveness global practice at the World Bank, and authored by her and colleagues Hiroyuki Tsuzaki, a private sector development specialist, and Gemechu Aga, a private sector development analyst.

The trade and competitiveness global practice team of experts at the World Bank and International Finance Corporation advises countries on poverty alleviation, innovation and job creation strategies.

According to Kuriakose, the rapid expansion of higher education in Ethiopia has caused a wide range of challenges for universities. In particular, the university and research infrastructure has not expanded in response to the increase in the student numbers.

“Despite the construction of new buildings there is a shortage of suitable classrooms and laboratories,” said Kuriakose.

Higher education expansion

The number of public universities in Ethiopia has increased in 16 years from two to 35. According to Education Minister Shiferaw Shigute, plans are underway to build 11 more universities by 2020, which would bring the total to 46 fully-fledged public universities.

The number of private tertiary institutions currently stands at 76, according to Dr Arega Yirdaw, president of Unity University. Only one is a fully-fledged university while the rest are classified as university colleges (3), education colleges (69) and institutes of education (3).

“In addition there are three non-profit private colleges that offer tertiary education,” wrote Yirdaw in a recent article on private higher education in Ethiopia.

According to Yirdaw’s study, titled “Quality of Education in Private Higher Institutions in Ethiopia: The role of governance” and published by the Sage Open Journal last month, the country has almost 500,000 tertiary students with 17% in private institutions.

While the rapid expansion of higher education could be partially explained by the need for a more highly educated work force, it has become controversial among many stakeholders, taking into account a large proportion of graduates in Ethiopia who go unemployed for years.

According to an insight report from the World Economic Forum on higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa: “This mismatch manifests itself in high emigration rates among Ethiopian graduates even though the country lacks skilled workers, for which it heavily relies on technical aid.”

Yirdaw found that the current drive in higher education was largely “underpinned by strong ideological, political and economic justifications that the government believes to be vital for the survival and development of Ethiopia as a multicultural state”.

Under pressure

Dr Philip Rayner, former acting director of the Ethiopian Higher Education Relevance and Quality Assurance Agency, has argued that rapid expansion of the sector “puts pressure on the limited pool of capable and qualified people and systems to manage the institutions”.

It is difficult to evaluate with a high degree of certainty how public and private universities are meeting Ethiopia’s skills shortages, as statistics from the World Bank indicate that there are severe shortfalls in skilled labour.

Commenting on the issue, Kuriakose and associates fell short of describing higher education in Ethiopia in crisis as a result of lack of qualified staff. “Academic staff, particularly in new public universities, are very young and are often found to be under-qualified as most of them hold only bachelor or masters degrees,” they wrote.

The crux of the matter is that there has been more focus on the quantity than the quality of higher education in Ethiopia as elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. This has led to a mistmatch between the graduates universities produce and the skills required in the labour market.

Research and innovation

The thrust of the World Bank report was on how to reduce poverty in Ethiopia by unlocking innovation and productivity at firm level, and the researchers faulted government efforts to boost research capacity.

Although technically the government increased spending on research and development from 0.24% of gross domestic product in 2010 to the current 0.61%, most of the funding was not used to train or raise the number of researchers.

“Increase in the research and development budget in Ethiopia was a result of the increased headcount of research and development personnel and not researchers,” said the World Bank report.

Between 2010 and 2013 the number of research and development personnel rose from 13,095 to 18,435, which was an increase of around 41%; however, during the same period the number of researchers rose from 7,283 to 8,218 – a marginal 13%. This implied that most of the increase was in support staff other than researchers.

And even though the number of researchers in governmental institutions has increased, the World Bank has pointed out that new recruits are mostly only trained to BSc degree level.

According to 2014 statistics from the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators or ASTI – the research arm of the International Food Policy Research Institute – more than half of Ethiopia’s agricultural researchers hold a BSc degree and 48% were under 31 years old.

“The share of PhD researchers in Ethiopia is also significantly low compared to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda,” says Nienke Beintema, head of the ASTI initiative, in a study titled Taking Stock of National Agricultural R&D Capacity in Africa South of the Sahara: ASTI synthesis report.

Academic shortages

Although there have been drum-beats from government on how to improve higher education quality in Ethiopia, widened access has prompted an urgent need for more qualified academic and research cadres – they are in desperately short supply and, according to the World Bank, around 70% of lecturers, especially in new public universities, only hold a bachelor degree.

Government research facilities, especially those dealing with agricultural research, also suffer from high staff attrition, negatively impacting on research and innovation initiatives. According to Kuriakose and associates, salaries in public universities and research institutes are low because they are determined by regular civil service guidelines.

For instance, during 2008-12, 195 researchers, including 38 with a PhD, left the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. “The primary reasons for the high turnover rates have been low researcher salaries, unfavourable working conditions, and dissatisfaction with the current career path,” said Kuriakose and associates.

What needs to be done

While the deterioration of university education quality in Ethiopia is primarily attributed to the focus on government expansion of public universities, lack of commitment to and declining quality in private institutions have contributed to the problem.

Although intentions are good, there is much unfinished business and much more needs to be done before higher education can effectively contribute to development and innovation.

For instance, while the government agenda is to achieve 70% of students enrolling in science and technology based-fields and 30% in the arts and humanities by 2020, this grand idea is still only on paper.

And the World Bank report highlights an urgent need for, among other things, Ethiopia to implement its 2012 science, technology and innovation policy, strengthen linkages between universities and industry through incentives, implement the new Ethiopian Agricultural Research Council and develop a career path and incentive structure for researchers.