Overcoming the public-private divide in HE law

The public-private distinction has been a major area of interest in the broader realms of business, law, public administration and, lately, in the evolving literature on higher education. However, the growth of privatisation tendencies within the public sector has increasingly challenged the wisdom of drawing such a clear distinction between the two spheres of public and private.

One frame of reference used in debates about the public-private distinction within higher education is what the legislation of a country, or the higher education law in particular, says about the subject. Bernasconi (2011) argues that despite its potential, the law has been neglected in the wider literature in terms of serving as a barometer of public-private distinctions in higher education.

Roles and responsibilities

Despite differences in their size, staff composition, funding sources, research traditions and capacities, the Ethiopian higher education law ascribes similar roles and functions to both public and private higher education institutions based on the broader missions of higher education – teaching and learning, research, and community service.

All higher education institutions are expected to be led by such values as the pursuit of truth and freedom of expression, successful execution of mission, competitiveness in scholarship and cooperation with other institutions, institutional autonomy with accountability, participatory governance and the rule of law.

Equally, all institutions are expected to uphold and promote justice and fairness and adhere to a culture of fighting corruption, quality, efficient delivery of services, economical use of resources and effective maintenance of assets, and the culture of recognition of merit, democracy and multiculturalism.

In addition, government expectations related to setting up the internal quality assurance systems, academic and counselling services, and research and research directions are shouldered by both public and private institutions. This also applies to the broader frameworks for curriculum design, delivery and assessment, programme development, research and research funding.

Although the mandate for developing curricula is left to individual institutions, the overall curricular design, delivery, and assessment of learning outcomes in all institutions must be geared towards enabling the learner “to acquire pertinent scientific knowledge, independent thinking skills, communication skills and professional values that together prepare him/her to become a competent professional”.

More importantly, every institution is expected to develop a suitable framework that provides for purposeful curricular development and implementation by academic units.


While particulars of the organisation, management, responsibilities and procedures required to conduct research are left to the discretion of each institution, the establishment of an overall framework relating to core research areas and themes is equally dictated to both types of higher education institutions.

Furthermore, the need for an institutionalised system of research and joint research projects with other national and international institutions or research centres are broadly defined as expectations that need to be met by both private and public institutions.

Both public and private institutions are expected to undertake and encourage relevant study, research, and community service in national and local priority areas and disseminate the findings as appropriate. They should also be accountable in terms of reporting and publishing details of their educational achievements and financial performance.


Despite the expectations of the law that apply equally to both private and public institutions, there are areas of divergence. Institutions are treated differently in areas such as student admissions, institutional designation, accreditation, funding, and employment. All of these are observable differences that call for attention.

While both types of higher education institutions are required to comply strictly with directives issued by the Ministry of Education regarding admissions of students, special treatment is accorded to the public sector relating to the way in which students are chosen for admission. Students are assigned to public universities on the basis of their grade points in the senior secondary school-leaving exam. Private institutions most often accommodate students who do not get placements at public institutions.

According to the higher education proclamation of 2009, a public institution can admit adults under special admission if procedures for the same are issued pursuant to the establishment of regulations of the institution, and if such decisions are passed by the institution's senate. This provision is not, as a matter of right, given to private institutions due to a restriction set by the law.

Notwithstanding the accountability expected of both sectors, the accreditation requirement in Ethiopia is imposed exclusively on private higher education institutions. Both the ministry and the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency are mandated to take measures against institutions that transgress requirements related to running programmes without accreditation. The public sector is currently free of this regulatory burden.


Public institutions receive their funding mainly from the government while most income of private institutions is drawn from student tuition and fees. Private institutions have no access to public resources whatsoever. While there exists a cost-sharing scheme for those attending public institutions, no similar system (for example, student loans) exists for students from the private sector.

Despite the need to augment the staff profile in the private sector, the law gives the right to public institutions with better postgraduate programme resources to assist their peers in the public sector to upgrade their staff. The Ministry of Education has changed this practice lately by offering assistance to private institutions that want to train their staff at public institutions. However, another similar strategy – joint employment of professionals from industry, business, research establishments – is again permitted for public institutions only.

Unrealistic demands

The higher education law in Ethiopia expects private institutions to discharge similar roles to those of public institutions. However, neither the specific provisions of the law nor the general incentives that the government provides to private investors help these institutions to repond satisfactorily to the expectations laid out.

Unrealistic demands can derail private higher education institutions from fulfilling the roles ascribed equally to the most resourced and subsidised public institutions. In addition to promoting a competitive regulatory approach above a cooperative one, the practice has the potential to hinder Ethiopia’s efforts to expand higher education through both public and private means.

Unless the dichotomous treatment of public and private institutions is properly addressed through legislative arrangements, it will continue to have serious ramifications for the success of the fledgling private higher education sector that is already known for its dwarfed size, restrained working conditions and a variety of capacity and ethical challenges.

Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, an affiliate scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) at the State University of New York at Albany, United States, and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy of Africa (CESA-AU). He may be reached at or