How to disincentivise private higher education providers

Ethiopia’s long history of education includes private providers who have, for centuries, offered religious education through the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Quranic schools.

Lower-level non-government schools outside the religious domain were introduced much later and included privately owned schools run by individuals, missionary societies, private organisations and foreign communities.

However, this early development was thwarted by the socialist Dergue (1974-91) which banned private schooling with the exception of a few international community schools.

Ethiopia had no modern privately owned tertiary level institution before the late 1990s with the exception of Asmara University (now in Eritrea), founded in 1958 by a missionary congregation known as Pie Madri della Nigrizia from Verona, Italy. This institution was granted a charter, or licence to operate, by the government later and incorporated into the public system.

Early beginnings

The growth of private higher education in Ethiopia has been the result of a government decision to involve the sector in the publicly dominated education sphere.

Aware of the limitations of the public sector in addressing the increasing social demand for education at all levels, and following a new economic policy direction, the 1994 Education and Training Policy of Ethiopia paved the way for the participation of private providers of education at all levels.

Following the implementation of the policy, the Council of Ministers in 1995 issued Regulation No 206/1995 that dictated the manner in which the licensing and supervision of private educational institutions have to take place.

Concurrent with these developments, the 1996 Investment Regulation and the 1998 Investment Incentives Amendment Regulation granted specific incentives to investors in the sector and promoted private investment in education.

The 2003 higher education proclamation followed the same spirit with a variety of promises and directions set to promote the sector. In fact, one of the goals of the proclamation itself was stated as the need to promote private higher education.

In real terms, there was a lot of encouragement in the earlier phases where, despite their resource limitations, private higher education institutions were tolerated to thrive through a relaxed accreditation procedure. The success of this strategy is now reflected in that most of the biggest private universities grew from small language schools and vocational training centres.

Changes and alterations

Since the issuance of the 2009 proclamation, there appear to have been intermittent changes in terms of the incentives and motivation laid out for the private sector. Among others, the removal and watering down of many favourable provisions in the 2003 proclamation have been witnessed in the 2009 and 2019 revised higher education proclamations.

There are a variety of areas in which the change of policies and practices are being noticed.

Admission requirements

The 2003 proclamation gave all institutions (including the privates) the right to set the admission requirement for adult learners. The 2009 and 2019 proclamations reserve this right exclusively to public institutions. Private institutions can make use of such rules only if the ministry agrees to extend the provision to them.

Such double standards can only be explained by the distrust public authorities have developed towards the sector.

Staff employment and promotion

The 2003 proclamation had provisions that allowed joint appointment of staff in private and public higher education institutions. This was a clear and legal recognition of the scarcity of faculty in the sector and addressed the challenges faced by private institutions.

This provision has been replaced in the successive two proclamations with articles that bar academic staff of a public institution (or any government employee) from being jointly appointed by a private institution.

This continues to be a serious challenge to the private sector, especially in some specialisation areas, regions and postgraduate programmes where the lack of skilled manpower is critical.

Whereas the national accrediting body demands that at least 30% of staff in private and public institutions have PhDs, the system currently accommodates only 15% of such staff at national level.

Given the fact that most of the best-qualified staff are working primarily in the public sector, putting an embargo on such staff is having serious implications for the system in general, and its private sector, in particular.

It is particularly difficult for private higher education institutions to fulfil the requirements set by the government without using the staff of the public sector which has a relatively better profile in this regard.

In a similar fashion, there is very little readiness on the part of the accrediting agency to accept the academic promotions given by private institutions, despite the fact that the existing higher education proclamation does not have provisions to that effect.

Programme restrictions

Since 2010, private higher education institutions have been barred from running academic programmes in teacher education and law.

None of the higher education proclamations put a moratorium on these fields of studies, but government authorities have done very little in terms of reinstituting the practice.

Support to private investment in higher education

The 2003 proclamation had relevant provisions related to the support that could be accorded to people who invest in the private higher education sector.

The provision of land and other forms of government assistance were clearly stated both in the higher education proclamation and the relevant investment proclamations set at the end of the 1990s.

The 2009 and 2019 higher education proclamations include an article about granting government subsidy to private institutions. However, the subsidy is promised only to non-profit private institutions which are a rarity in Ethiopia.

Government’s stance for assisting institutions that are very few in number while there are many that have been clamouring for a support scheme for nearly two decades now is neither logical nor clear.

Surprisingly, a recent investment proclamation issued by the government again identifies higher education as an investment area that does not deserve any specific incentive.

Possible impact

The issuance in 2009 and 2019 of the second and third higher education proclamations in Ethiopia aroused the hope that the private sector is seen as a sector that can enrich the system educationally.

However, notwithstanding areas of improvement in responding to trends and gaps in earlier practices, many in the private sector find the new regulations, in many respects, disappointing.

As shown above, another issue of concern for the sector has been how many additional strains are put on the private higher education sector for lack of translating proclamations into actions. Expectations of private providers are, at times, marred by the transgression or neglect of the provisions set in the proclamation by regulatory bodies that are meant to protect them.

The private higher education sector in Ethiopia has been expected to respond equally to government expectations for tertiary institutions, notwithstanding the fact that significant differences abound between public and private providers in terms of specific policies, regulations and support schemes that are critical in translating government expectations into realities.

Despite the presence of a sizeable private higher education sector in the country, neither the general incentives that the Ethiopian government provides nor the specific provisions set for private higher education institutions in the higher education law protect the private sector from being marginalised.

It is possible to argue that the increasing tendencies in disincentivising the private higher education sector contradict the country’s policy toward private investment, and the increasing roles private institutions are expected to shoulder in national development and the future of higher education.

Given the current conditions in Ethiopia, it can be posited that the few incentives provided and unrealistic demands levied on private higher education institutions have the potential to derail the private higher education sector from fulfilling the roles ascribed to the better resourced and subsidised public institutions.

Unless the existing limitations in policy directions are properly addressed, they will continue to have deleterious effects, not only on the promotion and operational efficiencies of a neophyte private higher education sector that is limited in size, has restrained working conditions, and a multitude of capacity limitations, but also the broader national goal of expanding higher education through both public and private means.

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 or This is a commentary.