The scourge of unscrupulous private HE institutions

The last three decades have witnessed the global proliferation of private higher education institutions at tremendous speed. This sector currently accounts for a substantial percent of higher education enrolment across the world, ranging from 20% in Sub-Saharan Africa to more than 80% in East Asia. In Ethiopia, the sector contributes around 15% of the national enrolment.

Ethiopian private higher education institutions, or PHEIs, need to be accredited before commencing operation, although there are institutions that deliver programmes under the pretence that they are accredited. Any credential obtained without accreditation is considered to be unlawful, and hence valueless.

While a few PHEIs have attained a good public image and semi-elite status, with recognition given to their programmes, research endeavours and public engagement, the initial legitimacy obtained through accreditation is often abused by unscrupulous institutions that take advantage of the growing demand for higher education and the government’s finite monitoring capacity. Such providers are on the rise, posing a serious threat to the entire system.

This article examines the behaviour and negative impact of shoddy institutions by considering the Ethiopian context as an example. The observations are drawn from repeated statements given by regulators such as the Ministry of Education and the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, media outlets, public and personal experiences, and a few studies on the subject.

Characteristics of shoddy operators

Shoddy providers are usually known for their myopic vision and limited appetite for long-range planning. Institutional planning and internal monitoring are considered expensive and a waste of time. Such institutions are infamous for the emphasis on short-term pecuniary gains and the lack of capital and energy put into institutional growth.

Shoddy providers are widely associated with poor preparation, delivery and output. They make little or no preparation before launching their programmes. Curricula are directly copied from others and frequently lack rigour and self-initiated reviews. The will to develop programmes in a manner that promotes an institutional identity is rare.

The programme delivery of such providers is poor due to substandard facilities, under-qualified staff and poor management. Since improvements require serious commitment, these institutions reflect little change even after years of operation. Substandard facilities and less qualified and experienced staff mean less investment and poor delivery, but undoubtedly more profit.

Unscrupulous PHEIs are adept at stage performance during accreditation visits in order to secure initial permission to operate. They may falsify documents or present resources borrowed or transferred from other sites in order to meet accreditation requirements. Aware of the power of accreditors, they have also been known to seek out godfathers placed in the higher echelons of government to give them the needed backing and protection. A few have developed an ‘untouchable’ status due to this illegal backing.

Where regulations are lax or non-existent, rogue providers are quick to disrespect admission requirements, curriculum arrangements, exam regulations and assessment practices. The files of illegally registered students are guarded against regulators so that no evidence is traced about the illicit practices of the institutions. Staff are coddled or bribed to keep the secrets of the institutions.

The assessment system in these institutions is designed in a manner that does not put off potential candidates.

Grades are often inflated when compared with public or some of the more serious private institutions. Managers unashamedly coax course instructors to offer ‘acceptable’ grades to ensure student retention. When instructors fail to concede, managers sometimes alter the grades themselves. In this way the institutions create expectations in students that initial enrolment will guarantee graduation.

Limited regulatory impact

Despite continued efforts, the power of regulatory bodies over these providers has been too limited to protect the system. The rogue providers have not only managed to consistently elude regulators, but the way in which they behave continues to mar the legitimacy of the private higher education sector as a whole.

At times their actions invite the sudden reaction of government, as was the case in 2010 when private higher education institutions were barred from offering teacher education and law courses – a ban which still stands today – and the imposition of a moratorium on distance education programmes in 2012, which affected both public and private institutions.

With few exceptions, employers are increasingly losing interest in employing private graduates. This is happening despite the fact that the law does not allow such discrimination.

The impact of such institutions is so pervasive that other private providers may seek to emulate such practices for fear of losing their market share.


Public reaction towards shoddy providers has been mixed for a variety of reasons.

A significant number of students who enroll in such institutions do so for the certificates that will bring them additional benefits in terms of employment, self-esteem and social acceptance. This has made them consenting accomplices.

The limitation on government authorities’ ability to enforce rules continues to encourage illegal institutions and students to take their chances. Taking the size of their student populations as their line of defence, rogue providers capitalise on the “excessive damage” any government action might cause when their illegal acts are exposed.

There were instances when the government had avoided taking serious measures for fear that the action would cause uproar among the public and in political circles. Currently, there are tens of thousands of students who feel protected in this way and continue to pursue their education at these institutions.

Another failure has been the lack of proper support to law-abiding PHEIs that continue to face the double challenge of meeting the stringent legal requirements of the system and resisting the influence of shoddy providers.

Required interventions

Critical interventions are needed in order to counteract the effects of burgeoning illegal providers.

The creation of a robust and well-resourced regulatory system with ethical personnel is key to the kind of improvements sought. This demands meaningful and continuous support by the government.

Regulators should also learn how to work with employers, professional associations and other relevant stakeholders who should be encouraged to bar the use of illicit credentials for employment, promotion or recognition of any sort.

Students who wish to join such institutions should be forewarned about the distinction between the short-term gains of a dubious qualification versus the long term dangers of earning a certificate that may turn out to be unworthy.

A mechanism that provides extensive support to law-abiding PHEIs should also be instituted. These institutions should in turn work in collaboration with appropriate organs to resist the influence of illegal providers.

It is only through concerted and organised efforts that the influence of rogue providers can be curtailed and the private higher education sector can attain more credibility.

Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is an affiliate scholar of the Progam for Research on Private Higher Education or PROPHE headquartered at the State University of New York at Albany, US. His email addresses are: or