Should a degree be compulsory for parliamentarians?

At the 16th International Conference on Private Higher Education in Africa organised by Saint Mary’s University and held in Addis Ababa from 25 to 27 July 2018, I proposed that Ethiopian legislators must be holders of a bachelor degree. In this article, I argue that as the country enters a new political era, dialogue on a well-informed and better-educated class of parliamentarians is timely.

The argument

Parliamentarians are tasked with formulating the laws of a land – with implications for the country and the world. A member of parliament (MP) – more specifically a conscientious, principled, responsible and accountable MP – must be capable of comprehending, reviewing, analysing, critiquing, sanctioning, endorsing, ratifying and passing a multitude of laws, policies and documents.

The increasingly intricate and complex globalised social, political and economic realities of the 21st century highlight the compelling need for competent and skilled legislators who can effectively navigate these realities. Accordingly, more countries are making efforts to ensure that their parliamentarians have college credentials.

Even in countries where competent and skilled legislators have access to experienced and robust legislative advisors, committees, staff and resources, their roles and tasks are not getting any easier. In countries such as Ethiopia, where this is not the case, and where many legislators have not been college-bound, a glaring deficit is evident.

A number of countries, including Ethiopia’s next-door neighbour Kenya, have proposed that a member of the legislature club must have the minimum of a university degree.


In Kenya, an MP approved a far-reaching provision in the Election Laws (Amendment) number 3, Bill 2015. But this faced resistance as it went to the House. One of the key arguments by proponents of the Bill is illustrative: “As the country develops, it would be good to have MPs who are more conversant with complex issues, who have a wide scope of world affairs.”


In a survey conducted by the Institute of Economic Affairs in Ghana on public perception of members of parliament, a great majority of the 2,346 respondents drawn from all 10 regions agreed that MPs should be required to have a minimum level of education, with a significant number (67%) stating that this should be a university first degree.


In Nigeria, most of the 360 members of the House of Representatives that make up the eighth National Assembly have at least a bachelor degree, with only 26 holding a secondary school certificate. The House has at least 13 PhD holders.

United States

In the United States, all members of the Senate have higher degrees, as do all but 19 members of the House of Representatives: 15 Republicans and four Democrats. The only governor without a college degree is from the tiny state of Utah. More than 40% of US voters have a college degree and only three countries – Canada, Israel and Japan – have a more educated electorate.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, 84% of MPs in the House of Commons, which comprises 649 members, are university educated, with 126 holding postgraduate degrees.

The counter-argument

It is true that a bona fide university degree merely points to one’s calibre and competence in a particular qualification and specialty. Without being drawn into the debate between being learned and being educated, a university degree may not guarantee the requisite qualities of a university graduate.

A number of prominent personalities in Ethiopian society never attended university and such a law would unfairly bar them from fulfilling their national duty and, importantly, exercising their citizen’s right.

A few participants at the Addis Ababa conference and others in subsequent conversations felt that such a law would be unfair, discriminatory and elitist. Some cited examples of other Western democracies where no such laws exist.

It is true that some of the great American success stories such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steven Jobs (Apple) and Larry Ellison (Oracle) do not have college degrees. One could add leading entertainers such as Clint Eastwood, Julia Roberts and George Clooney to the list.

However, the counter-counter argument is that one cannot function on the basis of exceptions as these always exist.


One could also argue that this proposal may be somewhat premature, given Ethiopia’s higher education enrolment rate which now stands at about 10%. However, it is my view that a country of 100 million people – with more than 45 universities and 130 private universities and colleges and an estimated 800,000 enrollment and 100,000 annual graduation capacity – would not have difficulty finding suitable candidates from respective constituencies.

Multiple scenarios could be painted in realising this proposal. Among others, the requirement could be waivered for a certain period in constituencies considered largely marginal. Limits could also be imposed on the number of contributions of non-degree holders per representative group (or party).


A legislative body with discernible academic and professional deficits is a burden both to a nation and to itself. This scenario creates a situation where a few competent people carry the load and are responsible for the lion’s share of the voice of the legislative body.

While this proposal may be controversial and contentious, it is essential to ask whether Ethiopian legislators are sufficiently competent to execute their enormous responsibilities in writing the laws of the land.

Given criticism of parliament’s lacklustre performance, avenues must be explored to elevate its stature and competence. While I am aware that other factors have impeded parliamentarians and that their performance is not simply the manifestation of a lack of academic credentials, nurturing and sustaining credible and competent legislative and executive bodies is a key component of nation-building.

Such powerful institutions must be well endowed in terms of human capital to effectively and efficiently discharge their mandated duties and obligations which have become increasingly complex and daunting.

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Africa Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at and