Government-university relations – A troubled matrimony

Ethiopia has unveiled a draft education roadmap to provide a strategic direction for the next 15 years following the culmination of its 20-year Education Sector Development Programme. The roadmap, still in the discussion phase, covers the entire education sector, including higher education.

We observe that government-university relations – as an umbrella theme incorporating elements of academic freedom, autonomy and accountability – appear to have been overlooked in the roadmap, although issues of autonomy are marginally noted. We thus firmly argue that a strong, vibrant and competitive higher education system, which Ethiopia must seek to develop, cannot thrive without the cultivation of healthy government-university relationships.


Successive governments in Ethiopia have been at loggerheads with academia, which has seriously impeded the emergence of effective, robust and dynamic institutions critical to development.

Although government-university relations have, historically, remained precarious since the founding of the first University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, they have been substantially eroded over the last four decades subsequent to the military takeover in 1974.

The remarkable transformation that took place in the higher education sector following the defeat of the military junta in the 1990s has not brought about the requisite adjustment in the relationship either. In a stunning move, the incumbents summarily fired more than 40 senior academics and professors from Addis Ababa University not long after assuming power, shattering all of the promises and expectations, while creating an unsettling tone for the future.

Ethiopian institutions of higher learning still continue to be the subject of unfettered political and administrative interference, beyond the expected norms of such engagements. This calls for clearly defining government relations with universities and institutionalising mechanisms for practice and compliance.

The status quo

In Ethiopia, the government plays a dominant role and wields unlimited power in higher education institutions, mainly through legislation and resource allocation. The limited research and substantial anecdotal evidence on the subject indicate a serious lack of freedom to critique government policies, establish and participate in independent student-teacher associations as well as openly criticise institutional policies and practices.

Although universities are established as autonomous institutions by law, their policies and priorities are excessively influenced by the wishes and wide-ranging whims of the government. Higher education institutions have a very limited scope in resisting direct external interference, for instance, the presence of armed and plainclothes security forces operating on their premises and-or intervening in their internal administrative and management affairs.

Internally, the representation of staff in governing bodies, their participation in internal policy-making processes and their contribution to major policy dialogues have been dismal. Admittedly, the threat to institutional autonomy in some institutions emanates from the lack of capacity to exercise powers enshrined in legislative frameworks such as the Higher Education Proclamation (2009). The overall trend has, however, been dominated by the overbearing influence of the government, which is commonly described in the literature as a state-controlled system.

Over the last decade, the mandatory practices of accountability to government have multiplied. The Higher Education Proclamation of 2009 dictates various forms and tools of accountability – such as financial management, financial audit, strategic plan agreement, reporting and supervision, self-evaluation, academic audit and accreditation – yet Ethiopian universities continue to be poorly rated in terms of transparency, financial management, effective public communication, commitment to excellence, transparent and open accounting, and efficient use of resources.

This is attributed to low levels of compliance and enforcement, in contrast to excessive scrutiny of matters ascribing to academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Effects and challenges

The steep decline in academic freedom and autonomy in Ethiopian higher education institutions has had deleterious manifestations. As noted above, professors were fired for exercising academic freedom and expressing political views.

Until recently, wider anti-government movements, student protests, class boycotts, campus takeovers by security forces and the brutal crackdown on protesters have been commonplace.

The government has frequently been accused of direct and wide-ranging interference in academic and administrative matters, conducting surveillance, propping up favourable political orientations, recruiting party members and sowing divisive views. These have resulted in apathy, silence, self-censorship and fear across virtually all universities.

The decline in faculty influence over institutional governance has further led to poor motivation and engagement in the most important tasks of institutional development and national dialogue. The yawning gap – between legal and legislative pronouncements and actual practices – has been another stark reality.

The concepts of academic freedom and autonomy will remain elusive as long as they continue to be the mere pronouncements of lofty declarations, without regard to their practice by institutions and academics. The lack of translation of intention into real practice as a result of negligence, lack of capacity and state interference bespeaks a nagging mismatch between the two. This has harmful implications for the rule of law and realisation of the aspirations of institutions and the academic community.

Although the government receives the lion’s share of blame for the gradual deterioration of its engagements with the university, the university community on its part may be partially culpable for obfuscating the complex interplay between academic freedom, autonomy and accountability.

Over the years, the government has erroneously viewed the university as an integral part of its political system and one of its appendages. Yet, in contrast, the academic community has largely considered the university a fully independent entity that determined its own fate, without the tutelage of the government. The need to reconcile these divergent views, which often co-exist in perennial tension, has been evident.

Where to from here?

A new dawn of hope has broken in Ethiopia in the sphere of politics, governance and admission of guilt since the new prime minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, assumed power six months ago. In addition to opening up the political space, his government is redefining its relations and interactions with a host of institutions that include academic, religious, civic and business organisations.

The historical coincidence of the unveiling of the draft education roadmap and the renewed spirit in the country offers a rare opportunity for redefining relations between the government and universities. This must be used to build strong and viable institutions to encourage not only the embodiment of a new institutional culture, but the enhancement of the country’s ambition to emerge as an economic powerhouse and knowledge hub in the sub-region and beyond.

Indeed, a system that chooses to silence its powerhouses of knowledge and disenfranchise its university community may find it immensely difficult to achieve its national development goals. In terms of the critical importance that universities thus play, the government should respect their academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The open apology extended by Abiy to academics who had been dismissed without due process may be regarded as a good – and encouraging – start.

Putting mechanisms in place

In view of the critical role that higher education plays and the huge government resources allocated to it, it is imperative to put in place effective mechanisms that guarantee external accountability without stifling autonomy.

In particular, a healthy balance between university autonomy and accountability must be created so as to provide the requisite assurance to the government on the proper utilisation of public resources, while reminding the university community of the exigencies of accountability in discharging their responsibilities.

We cannot anticipate a better opportunity, regarding the charting of these ideals and the practical components of a viable higher education system, than the new education roadmap under consideration.

Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and a founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is the founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education and steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Africa Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa. Contact him at and Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and president of Saint Mary’s University in Ethiopia. This is an edited version of the article first published on the International Network for Higher Education in Africa site.