Perils of unregulated privatisation in public universities

While the private higher education sector in Ethiopia continues to be demonised for its commercial motives, the issue of partial privatisation in the public sector has, in general, not received the scholarly attention it deserves. However, the increasing evidence that is now available about the growing privatisation tendencies in Ethiopia’s public higher education sector demands a closer understanding of its features and implications.

Ethiopia illustrates both of the common routes to partial privatisation of public universities. The first is the importing of management ideas and practices from the business world in order to make the public sector more businesslike, while the second is about increased effort to raise private (non-governmental) income. This article focuses on the latter – probably the most impactful of the privatisation measures.

Policy framework

In Ethiopia higher education was for far too long totally free of charge. Neither tuition fees nor fees for services such as food and lodging were required from students. However, the last two decades have seen a fundamental policy shift in government position away from the exclusive funding of university education towards exploiting private means to support public missions.

Privatisation tendencies have been motivated in particular by the general economic policies of the incumbent government and its 1994 Education and Training Policy (ETP) that allowed increased cost-sharing beyond secondary education and encouraged institutions to generate their own income.

Echoing the ETP’s directions, the Higher Education Proclamation (HEP 2009) underscored the need for diversifying public university income through tuition, research, innovation, consultancy, donations and other activities. Public institutions are encouraged to outsource some of their services and set up an income fund and-or enterprise that functions independently as a business entity.

An expansion in higher student numbers and demand for higher education led to the introduction of cost-sharing in the public sector in 2003-04. Although the government’s capacity to collect the range of fees from graduates is still a challenge, it nonetheless plans to boost the current cost-sharing scheme from 15% to 25% by 2019-20, so as to be able to cover as much as 20% of the total cost of the higher education sector by 2020.

Manifestations of privatisation

Ethiopia’s public universities are encouraged to broaden and diversify their income through multiple means. For example, universities have been encouraged to outsource some of their services such as cafeterias, dormitories, ICT services, libraries, laboratories and health centres. While modest attempts are made in this direction, achievements have been far below expectations. New plans are under way to develop a national strategy that indicates how non-academic services should be administered.

Providing research and consultancy services is another area where institutions are encouraged to generate additional income. The achievements in this area are again very poor. The reasons for low performance are identified as poor funding, excessive teaching loads, lack of policy direction, and absence of incentive schemes.

The only income-generating scheme that seems to be successful and is growing is the sale of educational services, aided by student demand for public institutions and the strategy’s comparative easiness to manage. This is happening against a variety of challenges and regulatory loopholes.

To cater for the growing market of fee-paying programmes at public universities (currently covering around 44% of overall enrolment), some public universities, primarily located in the regional states, have opened branches outside of their geographical limits – usually in the capital city of Addis Ababa – where they run evening, weekend (a modality not recognised by law) and postgraduate programmes.

These programmes are made available through branch campuses run by the mother institution itself, and-or joint ventures forged between the private sector and public institutions.

Public protection of private revenue-raising?

Aware of the potential dangers excessive commercial tendencies might entail, HEP 2009 requires public institutions to ensure that income-generating activities do not erode the mission, legal and ethical standards of universities. To this end, public institutions have been required to issue detailed regulations of such activities, and to use the income earned primarily for the purposes of delivering better academic services and enriching teaching and learning.

However, since no national framework or guidelines have been developed to clearly delineate responsibilities and boundaries, the move appears to be driven more by the whims and actions of individual institutions.

Hence, the aggressive privatisation currently being pursued is resulting in mission drift, reduced staff research time, faculty absences from main duties while covering responsibilities at revenue-generating branch campuses, avoidance of the accreditation process by private businesses, utilisation of public sector credibility for private gains, and the giving of undue advantage to those who cut corners over the most regulated private institutions.

Concern over revenue-raising led to the intervention of the Ministry of Education in 2015 at a time when the presence in the capital city of branches of public institutions from the regions exposed some dubious practices. Programmes were accused of being run without meeting the accreditation requirements of the national agency for quality assurance, and at the expense of the developmental needs of the regions where the universities were primarily located.

After the ministry ordered all regional public institutions to close their operations in the capital, things seemed to be improving. However, while some institutions complied, others did not and with few or no enforcement mechanisms on the part of the government, the same practice has continued.

The problem is assuming a new dimension lately in that even new public universities, with little or no preparation, are competing in the business of tapping the lucrative educational market outside of their geographical remit.


Public universities in Ethiopia are exercising new forms of privatisation through extended efforts directed at increasing their sources of revenue.

However, an obsessive drive towards privatisation in the absence of regulation can be expected to have serious consequences. Privatisation can shift the focus of institutions away from their core educational mission towards excessive efforts at revenue generation that may threaten the traditional goals of universities. The new focus on privatisation can also push institutions in directions that may clash with national goals such as access, equity, regional development and quality.

Striking a delicate balance between the traditional roles of Ethiopian public universities and the new drive towards privatisation requires a meaningful public-policy dialogue, clear guidelines and operational routes. It is quite unlikely that the looming dangers of privatisation can be prevented without substantive interventions from the government, which holds the responsibility of providing overall guidance and direction.

* I gratefully acknowledge the comments and suggestions received from Distinguished Professor Daniel Levy, State University of New York at Albany, on an earlier draft of this article.

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