Hurdles to overcome on the road to internationalisation

Interest and involvement in the internationalisation of higher education are unavoidably on the rise across both the developed and developing worlds. In both contexts, institutions are increasingly enticed to conform to this emerging trend. However, differences abound due to the influence of contextual factors such as prevailing needs, capacity, resources, institutional status and ambitions.

We examine the manner in which internationalisation is realised in developed and developing countries by exploring such factors as motives, approaches, policies, strategies and the nature of institutional relationships in the Ethiopian context. We believe that such an exercise is instrumental to plan and develop frameworks that are relevant to Ethiopian higher education, instead of opting for wholesale adoption from elsewhere.

Higher education in Ethiopia began in 1950 with the establishment of the University College of Addis Ababa. The sector remained elitist in its orientation until the end of the 1990s – with two universities, a student population of about 38,000, and a gross enrolment ratio (GER) of 0.8%, which was very low even by African standards.

Over the past two decades, the sector has achieved phenomenal growth. The number of public institutions has reached 36 – with 11 more projected in the coming few years. There are 110 private institutions – four of which hold university status. The sector accommodates more than 700,000 students – 85% in the public sector – and has a GER of 10%.

This fast-changing landscape has increasingly brought internationalisation to the fore as a major mechanism to address the numerous challenges associated with fast ‘massifying’ systems.

Emerging needs

With regard to motives, the engagement of Ethiopian higher education institutions in internationalisation has been driven mainly by emerging needs. The aggressive expansion in the sector has raised formidable challenges in terms of qualified staff availability and research output. Currently, PhD staff within the higher education sector still stand at 15%, despite the government’s plan to raise it to 30% by 2019-20.

Research output has also been rather low due to, among other factors, poor research traditions, excessive teaching loads, deficiency in skills – and, of course, funding constraints.

Ethiopian universities are aware of the importance of internationalisation in terms of perceived benefits in improving teaching and learning, student and teacher development and standards and quality. Their dominant forms of engagement relate primarily to teaching and research collaborations and international research projects.

The government further envisages enhancing such collaborations and international exchanges in the interest of advancing the effectiveness of teaching and learning and the quality of academic programmes and research.

When internationalising, universities give the highest importance to PhD and masters programmes, in that order. In terms of academic disciplines, engineering and health sciences take the lead. This appears logical, given the serious shortages of highly qualified personnel at these levels and in these disciplines.

As a corollary, the dominant rationales identified for Ethiopian higher education institutions, as in most other African countries, relate more to academic than to economic, political and-or cultural rationales.

No comprehensive policy on internationalisation

Issues of international student recruitment and using internationalisation as a source of prestige, which appear to be dominant features of higher education institutions in the North and are increasingly emerging in developing economies, are not yet the focus of Ethiopian institutions.

Institutions recognise the importance of national policies in shaping institutional policies on internationalisation, but, to date, no such policies exist. The lack of a comprehensive policy on internationalisation is acknowledged by a recent government document, The Education Sector Development Programme V, which envisages the preparation and approval of a national policy and institutional collaboration strategy on internationalisation in the period 2016-20.

Establishing a national unit or body to promote, monitor and evaluate the internationalisation of Ethiopian higher education, as well as developing and implementing a strategy to attract foreign students, is also included in the plan. However, this has yet to materialise.

The lack of strategic engagement in promoting internationalisation is widely discernible across universities. Most of the institutions that have initiated and managed partnerships with foreign institutions have not handled their engagements in an organised and systematic manner, due to a lack of resources and clear directions.

At the larger universities, initiatives are managed at different levels without being communicated to the higher echelons of the institute or the particular office in charge. Equally serious is the paucity of data on many aspects of internationalisation, further compounded by weak knowledge management systems that impinge on information flows at various levels.

Institutions attribute these weaknesses to the excessive burden of mundane but critical issues, such as student accommodation, catering and leisure, keeping their attention from more strategic tasks.


Most relationships established by Ethiopian universities are largely North-South rather than South-South, with Europe as the preferred continent for collaborations – distantly followed by North America. These lopsided partnerships are mainly attributed to the disparity in financial resources and capacity. In most cases, local institutions are mere ‘recipients’ and the elements of reciprocity are not evident.

There have also been instances of Northern partners seeking to achieve their own objectives without too much regard to the needs and aspirations of their local partners and, at times, their own funders.

A peculiar and instructive feature of internationalisation in Ethiopia is the presence of regulatory regimes and frameworks that are not always available elsewhere, even in developed countries. Academic recognition and equivalence arrangements for foreign qualifications was for a long time a task of the ministry of education. Any recognition of foreign credentials within the civil service required passing through the ministry’s scrutiny.

This role, and the additional responsibility of granting accreditation to cross-border higher education providers, have been transferred to the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, established in 2003. The agency uses its double mandate to keep dubious credentials and unscrupulous providers at bay.

The way forward

The above analysis demonstrates the need to understand global trends, national frameworks and institutional contexts when navigating the internationalisation terrain and setting one’s own agenda. While the trend in Ethiopia, in terms of improved awareness and readiness toward internationalisation, is upbeat, there is still an urgent need to address existing deficiencies – with regard to issues of policy, strategic direction, systems and frameworks.

Yet, given the multitude of challenges they are constantly confronting, higher education institutions in Ethiopia, and many others in similar nascent systems elsewhere, will probably continue to struggle with the complexities of internationalisation – for many years to come.

Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Ethiopia. Emails: and Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education, leader of Higher Education Training and Development, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. Emails: and This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.