Swimming against the tide of an ethnicised HE system

Ethiopia is a country with more than 80 ethnic groups. The formation of its ethnically based federation system post-1991 has led to the restructuring of the country into 10 regional state and two city administrations.

Despite the benefits protagonists ascribed to such a system, Ethiopia has been facing unprecedented challenges in its socio-political sphere as a result of its ethnocentric federalism.

Not surprisingly, these challenges come to the fore in every sector, including in its 70-year-old higher education system and the 50 public universities currently operating across the country.

The major manifestations of the new system include the division of the university community along ethnic lines and an upsurge of ethnic tensions among students, while it also has an impact on student and staff mobility between universities, among others.

Impacts of an ethnicised HE system

Universities, which have originally been set up to accommodate students from around the country and promote a sense of unity and national identity, have gradually degenerated into institutions that accommodate students primarily from the regions where they are located.

Academics, mid-level and top leaders, and administrative staff, have also been primarily drawn from the same regions [where the universities are located]. Even the composition of boards has had a similar orientation, for the most part.

As a consequence, many students and faculty tend to be reluctant to move away from their home regions to universities in other areas on account of their safety and security.

Authorities and communities in the various regions view universities primarily as entities set up to address their local interests than as institutions that cater to national responsibilities and the concerns of all citizens.

Excepting their budget and ownership, the nature of federal universities has been gradually eroded into the features of ‘state’ universities set up to promote and enhance specific regional interests.

The leadership and management patterns at the level of the ministry may also not be free from the ethnic orientations observed at the lower levels.

Recent changes

Recognising the corrosive effect of this excessive ethnic pattern in the higher education system, the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education (now Ministry of Education) has been trying to overturn the trend.

Conscious efforts to assign students to institutions outside the regions that they come from have enhanced the ethnic diversity at some universities.

Over the past four years, the appointment of university presidents has rigorously followed a new ministerial guideline which emphasises academic status, experience, personal capacities and qualities.

However, the results of these initiatives have been minimal, perhaps due to the political system that has its own bearing on individuals making decisions about their mobility and leadership interests.

For instance, the mobility of staff from their areas of origin to other regions still shows little sign of change and most of the federal universities in the various regions still continue to be led by presidents from the same region.

The newly constituted ministry of education which, in 2021, saw the appointment of a new education minister – a university professor and a prominent opposition party leader – appears to focus more sharply on changing this unhealthy trend by aggressively pursuing a merit-based system in the sector.

In fact, the new minister appears bent on undoing a system unduly politicised and ethnicised. Current efforts of the ministry appear to be reflected in a few key intervention areas.

Quality in focus

One of the major focus areas of the ministry is improving the quality of education at all levels. In pursuit of this, the ministry has announced that it will freeze the establishment of new universities in the next five years in the interests of consolidating the system.

The ministry also plans to set up elite schools in various parts of the country as feeders to the universities that clamour for students with good academic background. With 50 such schools planned, they are projected to recruit and cultivate the best minds at the lower levels.

For the first time in recent years, the ministry has implemented a 50% (and above) policy for student placement at higher education institutions.

Moreover, the ministry has announced that all secondary school examinations will be offered at university premises to combat the rampant exam malpractices at secondary schools. Plans are also under way to introduce computer-based exams at this level.

Another initiative is the introduction of a national exit exam in all undergraduate programmes with effect from the next academic year.

All public and private universities have been advised to prepare for this new mandatory scheme, with anticipated implications, for instance, for employment.

Autonomy and governance reform

Granting robust autonomy to universities is another area in which the ministry has chosen to intervene. Accordingly, Addis Ababa University (AAU), the country’s flagship academic institution, has been identified to prepare plans towards this end, and assume that status in the next academic year.

While the original intent was to use AAU as a pilot, there is growing interest in hastening the process and including more universities in the new scheme in the next five years.

Another notable action by the ministry is the recent introduction of a merit-based and competitive recruitment process for its executives and staff.

Directors, unit heads and professional staff have all been required to apply for their positions based on new criteria that reflect individual merits and competencies.

In a bid to elevate the uptake and recognition of the exercise, the ministry involved, not only the minister, state ministers and relevant professionals in this process, but also members of its council – an independent body – in the interviewing and selection of candidates.

A change in the composition of board members of the various public universities is another development.

These posts, which had been, for the most part, filled by political appointees, are now substituted with those endowed with extensive professional, academic and industry experience. The ministry assumes that this change will enhance the various reforms planned at universities.

Anticipated challenges

The ministry anticipates that the various interventions and its reform intentions will bear fruit in advancing the quality of education in the country.

Indeed, some of the proposed interventions have the potential to bring about meaningful changes to a higher education system that has been rocked by excessive ethnic and political orientations for way too long.

It is notable that the new reform enjoys considerable support within the government. It appears that all major interventions are fully endorsed by the office of the prime minister, which is key to alleviating possible challenges ahead.

That said, the hitherto ethnically based political arrangements, the lingering ethnic institutional culture, corrupt practices, exaggerated internal and external expectations and resource constraints may continue to challenge the successful implementation of the various efforts that are under way.

It is imperative that the ministry reinforces its own leadership as well as the monitoring and evaluation processes to advance and sustain the changes.

At another level, and perhaps more importantly, the ministry needs to balance regional and national interests to galvanise support from all stakeholders, among others, to prevent its plans from being sabotaged or aborted.

It is anticipated that success on these fronts may have considerable lessons for other ministries in Ethiopia – and beyond – which face similar realities.

Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founder-president of St Mary’s University, Ethiopia, and a collaborating scholar of PROPHE (Program for Research on Private Higher Education) based at the State University of New York at Albany, US. E-mail: or

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, director of research and programmes at the Association of African Universities, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. E-mail: or This is a commentary.