Government change sets off and intensifies challenges in HE

The new government in Ethiopia should pay attention to the major challenges facing the country’s higher education system. Three major recurrent challenges need immediate attention.

The first major challenge facing Ethiopian higher education is politically driven reform. It is difficult to separate education from politics because they impact each other.

Education is highly influenced by political decisions. Political decisions about education are more meaningful and effective when they are focused, flexible, and based on research and evidence.

Until 2018, the ministry of education was leading all levels of education and training in the country. One of the recent major reforms in higher education is the establishment of the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

The reform has been based partly on the education and development road map. The higher education community welcomes this reform which they expect to result in better social, economic, and political contributions.

According to the proclamation on the definition of powers and duties of the executive organs of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the Ministry of Education was responsible for only general education and training.

However, the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education has now become part of the Ministry of Education, a move by the new government of Ethiopia which was established on 4 October 2021.

The decision to merge the two ministries is a mirage and came as a surprise to the higher education sector because there is no information and evidence on the success or failure of the former ministry of science and higher education.

In its three-year lifetime, the ministry of science and higher education was developing different policy and strategic documents, including its 10-year strategic plan (2020-2030).

Higher education institutions have been aligning their institutional plans with that of the ministry. However, the ministry did not have even a five-year lifetime to see out the first term of its 10-year strategic plan.

It is now up to the new ministry to decide whether to uphold this strategic plan for higher education or develop a new integrated plan taking into consideration both higher and general education.

Change is inevitable to achieve the envisioned objectives of education and training. However, inconsistent and inappropriate changes that fail could have a negative impact on educational reform as the higher education community becomes more resistant to change which could be reflected in different ways.

Because of the experiences of the recent past, the higher education community is suspicious about the longevity of the new ministry and its plans even though they do not know what they entail. This could also have adverse consequences for the effective implementation of higher education policies and strategies.

Leadership turnover

The second major challenge facing higher education in Ethiopia is the high leadership turnover at ministry level. In the past five years, there have been four different ministers leading the higher education sector.

The high turnover could affect organisational performance negatively. In a sector where there is a lack of institutional memory and where policy, strategy, planning and reform are often initiated by and reliant on individuals at the highest level, a high turnover in leaders has a significant negative impact on the development of higher education in the country.

Recent practices show that ministers responsible for higher education were removed from office before developing or institutionalising their plans.

This trend may influence ministers to focus only on short-term strategies and goals, and on issues and activities that potentially contribute to their remaining in office at least until the end of their term. This may also include focusing on issues and activities which they think increase their visibility and please their appointers.

Regionalisation of public universities

The third major challenge is the growing regionalisation of public universities. Ethiopia has regional states and city administrations that are established based on ethnic federalism.

Ethnicity was also one of the major criteria in the establishment of most public universities in the country. As a result, public universities are geographically located in different regional states and city administrations.

However, they are owned and financed by and answerable to the federal government. Undergraduate student admission and placement are also the responsibility of the federal ministry.

However, in recent years, public universities are behaving and acting like regional universities. This is reflected through increasing loyalty to regional authorities and engaging in and facilitating ethnic-based faculty transfer.

‘Regionalisation’ in this context refers to the process of acting and behaving like a regionally owned university while in principle they are public universities answerable to the federal government.

The regionalisation of public universities is sending the wrong message to regional governments, zone administrations and the community, causing them to expect a lot from a federal university.

In recent years, the zone administrations where public universities are located are putting too much pressure on universities to directly participate and finance cities’ infrastructure development and other activities which are not universities’ responsibilities and mission.

The regionalisation of public universities has also, directly and indirectly, contributed to intensifying ethnic tension and conflict, which is one of the major challenges facing public universities in Ethiopia.

Greater faculty diversity has several benefits, including a positive impact on student learning. However, in the past three years, public universities have been facilitating and actively engaging in ethnic-based faculty transfer which has significantly eroded faculty diversity.

This contributed to students perceiving public universities as ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ which, in turn, decreased students’ sense of belonging and intensified ethnic tension and conflict on campus.

Regional states have their own flags. Recently, public universities started to stage and wave regional flags in addition to the federal government flag when they have different events.

Sometimes there are more regional flags than federal government flags. This is one of the major points of contention in the higher education community, mainly within the diverse student population.

The way to peaceful, inclusive HE

Although there are several challenges facing public universities, addressing the three major challenges would contribute to a well-established, peaceful, and inclusive higher education sector with clearly defined plans and goals which the higher education community could rely on and attempt to achieve.

The government needs to understand that politics-driven reform not supported by evidence and research will negatively affect the sector. Therefore, it needs to promote and implement research-based higher education reform.

There should be a justifiable reason for the government to change top-level leaders at the ministry. However, the government needs to understand the negative consequences of changing ministers every two years or so.

Public universities are like embassies of the federal government. Their accountability, both in principle and practice, should be to the federal government and to the proclamation.

They should be cautious of not falling victim to the regionalisation process. They should also refrain from activities that erode diversity and intensify ethnic tension and conflict, including waving regional flags on their compounds. The government also needs to address such issues through directives.

Dr Abebaw Yirga Adamu is associate professor of education and director of the Ethiopian Institute for Higher Education at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.