Accreditation: Battle over staff with ‘right’ qualifications
In Ethiopia, the recent enforcement of regulations of the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, HERQA (now the Education and Training Authority) for private higher education institutions to permanently employ enough staff who meet minimum qualification requirements before the institutions can be re-accredited, has set off a cut-throat competition among them to acquire staff with the required credentials.
The market for academics with PhD qualifications, in particular, has, therefore, been vibrant. Private institutions have been vying to recruit qualified staff by promising exaggerated salaries until the institutions have secured their accreditation and re-accreditation permits which are renewed every three and five years, respectively.
Some institutions are prepared to pay the lucrative amounts asked by individual applicants, knowing they can abandon them as soon as they secure their permits.
The previous experience of the sector shows that, with limited control from the national agency, some individuals were able to sell their credentials to more than one institution.
Knowingly or unknowingly, this provided leeway for many private higher education institutions to claim such staff as their permanent employees and present their credentials to the quality assurance agency for accreditation and re-accreditation purposes.
Part of the problem is that the information system at the agency has been deficient in terms of tracking the employment history of individual academic staff members.
This has led to the employment of a single person as a permanent worker at more than one institution and the agency granting accreditation to these individual institutions based on this information.
New agency demands
Currently, not only has the agency started asking private higher education institutions to ensure the permanent status of their staff, but it has also developed a central database to check the claims made by some institutions about the status of their instructors.
The agency has discovered instructors, who claim to be permanent staff at a single institution, who are, in fact, employed at several private and public higher education institutions.
This happens because some institutions deliberately employ applicants without checking their background. There are also institutions that are unaware of the employment history of their staff members unless the staff members choose to disclose it.
Where double employments have been discovered by the agency, this has led to the denial of accreditation or re-accreditation of programmes offered by such institutions.
In addition to exacerbating the unhealthy staff poaching trend that exists within the sector, the response by some private higher education institutions to the new demand of the agency is causing the unabated mobility of staff from one institution to another, based on competitive salaries promised.
Private higher education and postgraduate education
The new challenge with regard to staff members’ qualification status is especially common at postgraduate level where the demands of the quality assurance agency are higher and the qualification of staff across the sector is far below the requirements set at a national level.
Currently, there are 51 public universities and about 340 private higher education institutions operating in the country.
The 2021 data from the ministry of education indicate that there were over 90,000 students attending postgraduate programmes at Ethiopian institutions of higher learning, with 4,649 (5.1%) at private higher education institutions, whose share is increasing.
In 2021, 53,356 academic staff were employed by both public and private higher education institutions. While 48,736 were employed in the public sector, the remaining 4,800 served in private institutions. In terms of academic qualifications, there were 5,948 staff members with PhDs compared to 412 in the private sector.
This indicates that the average number of staff members with PhDs per public institution is around 110, while the average at private higher education institution is below 2. The number of PhD candidates being trained at a national level has now reached more than 5,000.
However, the majority of the PhD candidates being trained are drawn from public institutions that are struggling to meet their own needs for qualified staff. It can be seen that the current figure still leaves much to be desired.
Causes of malpractices
As noted earlier, the scramble for PhD staff is especially rife between private higher education institutions that run masters programmes.
The re-accreditation requirements set by the accreditation agency demand that at least three staff members with PhDs should be employed as core or permanent staff to run a single masters programme.
Given the lack of qualified staff across the sector, it is increasingly becoming difficult for private higher education institutions to meet this requirement.
The staff mix of Ethiopian higher education institutions for the year 2021 shows that staff at government-funded universities with first, masters and PhD degrees reached 21%, 64%, and 14%, respectively.
At private higher education institutions, the qualification distribution was 23% with first degrees, 68% with masters and 9% with PhD degrees.
The national requirement that both public and private institutions have to meet is that 70% of staff have masters and 30% have PhD degrees.
Given that public institutions prioritise the training of their staff up to PhD level, the private higher education institutions find it difficult to also rapidly train their staff to reach the 30% institutional target.
PhD programmes in the business and IT fields of studies, which most private higher education institutions want to train their staff in, are limited or unavailable at a national level.
A further barrier is government regulation that bars private higher education institutions from employing instructors from the relatively better resourced public sector as joint staff and the little recognition given by the national agency for such staff during the re-accreditation process.
In the past, although the 2019 higher education proclamation and operational guidelines of the agency had this regulation as a requirement, there has been considerable tolerance on the part of the agency in implementing it, due to the reality on the ground.
There were times when the agency considered the contractual or part-time status of an employee as acceptable for programme accreditation, though private higher education institutions were encouraged to reduce the number of such staff gradually.
HERQA’s recent requirement, however, demands that only those employed as permanent staff will count towards programme accreditation.
Addressing the challenge
Given the status of the private sector, the government needs to seek mechanisms that address the impasse through a closer examination of the inherent causes of the new challenge.
Among others, the earlier transitional criteria of accommodating both part-time and full-time staff for accreditation purposes (with more weight given to the latter) may need to be re-instituted until such time that the private sector acquires the capacity to fulfil government requirements.
Although the government’s efforts towards supporting the capacity building needs of private higher education institutions has been positive, it needs to be further strengthened.
This can be done by providing more opportunities for training at public institutions that run PhD programmes and ensuring that such needs are accommodated in countrywide and institutional plans.
The information database that the agency has recently developed should not only be used for checking the employment status of staff during the time of (re-)accreditation, in particular if it is supposed to save the sector from unhealthy practices.
It should be made accessible to all institutions that need to access and verify information that may be hidden by potential applicants during the employment process.
While some level of flexibility is expected from the government, without which many private higher education institutions running postgraduate programmes are doomed, the private sector should also develop the capacity to enforce healthy practices in the employment and development of its staff.
In conclusion, the sector should learn to present and argue its case with the government in search of solutions rather than trying to settle its short-term goals by circumventing regulations and instigating unethical competition across the system.
Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education 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 for Africa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. This is a commentary.