Transformation of higher education must defeat the quality trap

The Ethiopian higher education sector has been undergoing rapid expansion in the past 15 years. Over this period, the number of public universities has grown from just two to 35 (among which two are universities of science and technology), compared to three private ones, and the number of undergraduate students has surged from a little over 30,000 to 729,028 (in the 2014-15 academic year), putting the gross enrolment ratio at 10.2 %.

The government of Ethiopia is now building 11 new public universities during the second phase of the country’s Growth and Transformation Plan or GTP II. This is a massive undertaking with many implications, in particular an urgent need for qualified teaching staff.

In order to have sufficient numbers of qualified teaching staff for the planned universities, the ministry of education invited students graduating from bachelor programmes to sit for a qualifying examination at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.

Those successfully passing the examination – which was tailored to each major – could be hired as university teachers at the rank of graduate assistants in their respective fields. While this procedure is an improvement over the practice in previous years of hiring graduate assistants solely based on grades and English language proficiency, the results were less than ideal: a sweeping majority of the candidates failed the test.

These results indicate the seriousness of the challenge Ethiopia faces in the coming period: to simultaneously expand access to higher education and improve the quality of the education delivered.

What the numbers tell us

A quick look at some of the data from this exercise yields some striking results and worrying observations.

Close to 10,000 students graduating from 32 universities across the country took the centrally prepared examination, which was offered in 14 fields of study. Eligibility was based on expressed interest and minimum requirements of a cumulative grade point average or GPA of 2.75 for men and 2.5 for women.

Ultimately, 716 candidates were selected and offered a job, among which 30% were women – conceivably in line with the objective of increasing the share of female academic staff to 25% by the end of the Fifth Education Sector Development Programme in 2020.

While the maximum possible score was 100, only one person scored more than 80 (81, to be exact), followed by 28 candidates who scored between 70 and 79. The overall average score was 57.8, with no significant gender difference (59.3 for men and 54.3 for women). A score of 57.8 in one’s major must be viewed at best as a mediocre result.

Disturbingly, 127 of the selected candidates (or close to one-fifth) scored a failing result (less than 50% score means failure according to the education policy of the country). Here, there is a considerable gender gap: 12.9% for men as opposed to 29.7% for women.

Although it is unclear in this particular case why there is such a gender difference, it is consistent with the overall issues of prior education, lack of support for female students and other social and cultural factors we see in the education system generally.

Of course, it is also important to note that this is a result from a small sample of the highest scorers in the respective fields, representing just about 7% of those who took the examination.

One can imagine the results of the remaining 93% of those who took the examination, or even worse, for those who reach the cut-off point to qualify for the examination in the first place. These are deeply distressing numbers.

Not only is the average result of the new generation of university teachers unquestionably mediocre, but a sizable proportion actually failed the qualifying examination in their own major subject. This has grave implications for their skills as teachers and their standing as role models for their students.

The quality crisis

Low calibre university teachers are one major input in the vicious circle of feeble quality in Ethiopian higher education. Simultaneously, because of the low quality of primary and secondary education in Ethiopia, students are unprepared for university-level education.

The country’s Fifth Education Sector Development Programme, or ESDP V, reported that “many students joined higher education institutions with results below the 50% threshold in the higher education entrance examinations”.

ESDP V further notes that the combination of low-quality instruction and unprepared students could be the cause for low graduation rates among undergraduate students. For the government, on the one hand, to make such an assessment, and, on the other hand, to hire university teachers with such poor levels of academic performance appears to be utterly self-defeating.

The problem is even more serious in certain fields. For example, the average score for test takers in the fields of mathematics and physics were 48.3 and 50.5, respectively.

Such low scores in these fields are particularly worrisome, since these subjects are considered fundamental to the country’s priority academic areas of engineering, science and technology. There are also implications for research capacity. Since 2011-12, research has accounted for only 1% of the total budget of all universities and much of the research is conducted predominantly by graduate students.

Given the quality of graduates, and of those admitted into graduate programmes, the research capacity of Ethiopian universities is in serious jeopardy.

What can be done?

The overall poor quality of Ethiopian university education, its graduates and its research infrastructure represents a real danger to the national economy and the country’s development agenda. Immediate responses are needed to address these concerns.

As a quick fix, there is a need to create arrangements for competent professionals from industry to take part in teaching, perhaps partnering with freshly graduated assistant recruits; establishing a mentorship programme where senior staff could train and empower their novice colleagues; creating better pay and benefits packages that attract more qualified professionals to the teaching profession; better using Ethiopian professionals in the diaspora; and, in spite of all its drawbacks, using expatriates in certain important fields.

The long-term solution is, however, to slow down expansion and focus on strengthening existing institutions, with particular emphasis on creating differentiation across the system. Specifically, by reducing the rate at which new universities are established, selected senior institutions must be elevated to research universities and resourced accordingly. These institutions can engage in high-level academic and research work, which provides two key benefits.

First, they will serve as hubs for knowledge generation and transfer, and for scientific and technological advancement. This provides the critically needed knowledge supply for the development of key sectors, such as agriculture and industry.

Second, as epicentres of academic advancement, they will have the capacity to strategically produce highly trained and qualified academic staff for the new universities to be established, and strengthen the existing ones.

It is high time to take the issue of quality in Ethiopian higher education more seriously and come up with practical solutions to avert the looming crisis. Otherwise, Ethiopia’s grand plan to expand access to higher education will result in universities of poorer quality than those already in business.

Ayenachew A Woldegiyorgis is a doctoral student and graduate assistant at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.