Private higher education – An atypical case

As enrolment in private sector higher education increases in Ethiopia, policy choices about how supportively or restrictively to handle private higher education will assume increasing importance.

With more than 110,000 students (in 2016), Ethiopia’s private higher education sector is the largest or second largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. This large private presence exists despite Ethiopia being rather late to start private higher education and despite some stiffly restrictive regulation.

It is common for expert and public opinion in a given country, partly for lack of knowledge of other countries, to hold an exaggerated view of how atypical their systems are. But a reasonable conclusion from scrutinising Ethiopian private higher education is that in fundamental ways it is indeed significantly atypical for Sub-Saharan Africa. After acknowledging several not insignificant commonalities, we will hone in on the more striking differences.

Though large in absolute private enrolment, Ethiopia’s 14-17% private share is typical of Sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, the types of Ethiopian private higher education are those found throughout the region. By far the largest chunk is non-elite which is some mix of demand-absorbing and more effective job-market oriented.

Semi-elite and religious institutions

Semi-elite and religious institutions are visible as well. The few semi-elite universities compete with the good public universities, especially in teaching and some other fields, and benefit from disorder in their public counterparts. Also, as seen elsewhere in the region, private higher education’s overwhelming majority of fields of study are market-oriented, but with some recent diversification into other fields.

Women account for a larger share of the private than public sector. Myriad forms of community engagement are apparent. And both in Ethiopia and the region, while total enrolment growth has been very rapid in the private sector, it has been very rapid in the public sector as well, so that the private share has recently even slipped a bit.

Notwithstanding such similarities, atypical characteristics are more remarkable. One set of unusual characteristics concerns growth and regulation; another concerns the private sector’s internal composition.

Atypical growth and regulation

As African private higher education emerges comparatively late in terms of global private higher education and from a low gross enrolment ratio, or GER, so Ethiopian private higher education is late (1998) for even the African context and started from a typically low 0.8 GER.

Much of the reason for Ethiopia’s late entry into private higher education lay in the decades of repressive Marxist rule that followed the end of the long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and banned all forms of private ownership. Yet today only Uganda may match Ethiopia in private enrolment.

Meanwhile, Eritrea (which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991) remains one of the few countries in Africa or the world with no private higher education.

Compared to most of the region, where the unplanned emergence and rapid growth of private higher education caught governments by surprise, establishment with fast growth of private higher education was rather planned and promoted by Ethiopia’s post-Marxist government. Indeed the regulatory framework preceded the private education sectors emergence – and was mostly enabling (as opposed to restrictive) regulation.

Though it is common for African countries to promulgate 'delayed regulation' when they see the academic and other weaknesses of easily proliferating private institutions, and common to impose some rules on the private sector not imposed on the public sector, in notable ways Ethiopia has gone to a regulatory extreme.

Without legal warrant, the government blocks private programmes in law and teacher education. After private higher education had played a pioneering role in Ethiopian distance education, it was temporarily banned from that realm, too.

And while religious institutions often start within African private sectors and then thrive there, in Ethiopia the religious degrees offered by religious private higher education are accepted only within religious society. They are not recognised by the state, a restrictive policy with job-market ramifications; to gain wider acceptance, programmes would have to be secular and gain national accreditation.

Atypical composition of subsectors

It is not by chance, then, that the religious subsector holds a markedly lower share of private higher education than it does in most of the continent. Nor is it by chance that Ethiopia’s religious subsector is mostly non-elite. Much of it was not created afresh but, rather, rose from pre-existing schools at lower levels.

In contrast, in many African countries religious institutions are among the strongest academic forces. Many former colonies had strong Catholic or Protestant roots to build upon in higher education, whereas Ethiopia was never colonised.

So if religious private higher education is unusually small in Ethiopian private higher education, what is unusually large? The answer is for-profit private higher education. It accounts for the overwhelming majority of private higher education.

This is not just a difference between Ethiopian and most African private higher education. It is a stunning difference. Not all African countries allow a for-profit presence and often the appearance of profit relates to legally non-profit institutions finding ways to skirt regulatory restrictions.

Moreover, in those countries with legal for-profits, the for-profits sit alongside an array of non-profits. Not so in Ethiopia. It appears that the only non-profit Ethiopian higher education institutions outside the (small) religious subsector are a few private higher education institutions owned by non-governmental organisations.

Among the for-profits, the bulk are private limited corporations, mostly family-owned. For-profits are allowed at all tertiary education levels.

Continuity vs change going forward

Thus, in the face of a huge growth in demand for higher education in Ethiopia, a mix of enabling and restrictive policy has let private higher education play a major role that is, however, limited in key respects. How will policy evolve as the country now faces not only continued growth, but a projected acceleration of it?

If, as predicted, the total enrolment will nearly double over the next five years, with the private sector expected to receive an increasing share of this growth, policy choices about how supportively or restrictively to handle private higher education will assume increasing importance.

The private sector, bolstered by its relative success despite restrictive regulation, is confident that it could perform a larger role into the future, for a greater share of Ethiopia’s enrolment, were government to provide stable and less antagonistic policy.

Not all government policy-makers share that view.

DOI: http://dx.doi/org/10.6017/ihe.2017.90.9791

The Program for Research on Private Higher Education has a regular column in International Higher Education. Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founder-president of St Mary’s University, Ethiopia. Email: Daniel Levy is SUNY Distinguished Professor, department of educational policy and leadership, University at Albany, United States. Email: