What could a new premier mean for higher education?

After years of protests in its major regions and recent political crisis, on 2 April Ethiopia got a new prime minister. Dr Abiy Ahmed was elected chair of the ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front or EPRDF, a few days before he was sworn in as prime minister.

In his close to 40 minute inaugural speech, Abiy outlined the major areas of emphasis for his government.

Interestingly enough, the quality of education was one of them. He underscored that the key to solving the country’s multiple problems was to be found “in education and only in education”.

Despite the achievements made in expanding education, Abiy noted, there is a lot of work remaining in terms of improving quality. He particularly highlighted the lack of quality in vocational and higher learning institutions as a major hurdle to the knowledge and skills graduates acquire.

Reasons to hope

The prime minister reaffirmed the commitment of his government to revamp the quality of education at all levels. He promised to redouble efforts to make sure that all higher education institutions focus on quality.

To this effect, and to address other major problems, he assured Ethiopians that necessary policy measures will be taken based on the results of an evaluation of the progress made in implementing the Growth and Transformation Plan.

While the prime minister’s speech has since received mixed reviews, there seem to be reasons to be hopeful when it comes to higher education.

First, the acknowledgement of the problem at this level in and of itself is a positive development. In the past, poor quality of education has not been sufficiently emphasised as one of the root causes of the multidimensional challenges the country is faced with; neither has it ever been presented as the ultimate solution.

Understanding the magnitude of the problem, and its all-round impact, is an important step. This will, however, only bear fruit when it is accompanied by practical commitment.

Second, the way the issue is framed is also a critical departure from the usual input-oriented view of quality in higher education. Often policy discussions, plans and reports regarding quality have been dominated by numeric accounts of inputs, leaving limited to no space for the knowledge and skills of graduates as essential measures of quality.

In addition to this, the prime minister has put out an open invitation to the Ethiopian diaspora to return and-or engage with various institutions to use their knowledge and experiences to help the development of the country.

Given that over the years a considerable number of highly educated Ethiopians have migrated to developed countries, this could be – though not in the immediate future – a significant resource for higher education development.

Political differences have long been one of the key factors deterring meaningful engagement of the diaspora. Following the call by the prime minister for all political elements to come together for a dialogue on the future of the country, some in the diaspora are already taking action.


It would be utterly naive to take the word of the prime minister for granted; a healthy dose of scepticism is reasonable.

Although Abiy, who has previously served as the minister of science and technology, is said to be an advocate of innovation and technology – and although he might have good intentions to introduce reforms – as is often the case in parliamentary systems, policy-making is largely determined by the political party in power rather than the individual chief of the executive branch.

This is particularly the case in the EPRDF, which takes democratic centralism as its official modus operandi. The current unstable power dynamics within the ruling party can only add to the situation.  

Besides, considering that the country is dealing with major political and economic challenges, reform in higher education might not come as a top priority.

However, immediate measures can improve overall the higher education environment and restore a stable teaching and learning process.

Release of students and staff arrested during the state of emergency and the complete withdrawal of security forces from campuses can help ease the situation. Further, dialogue with the higher education community, including in particular students, could produce meaningful positive outcomes.  

Ayenachew A Woldegiyorgis is a doctoral student and graduate assistant at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. Email: