Greater autonomy in public sector will affect private HE

The Ethiopian higher education sector is currently undergoing promising reforms towards substantial autonomy for public institutions.

For quite some time, the new government has planned to gradually move away from a funding system heavily reliant on public resources and educational provisioning dependent on campus-based training.

The idea is to provide greater autonomy in return for reduced dependence on public money – a dependency which has been a defining feature of the public sector for more than seven decades.

Originally, the change was to have been piloted at Addis Ababa University (AAU), the country’s flagship university, but the government has agreed to include other public institutions in the test-run over the next few years.

The government recognises the various benefits of this scheme in terms of developing an efficient and effective system that produces competent graduates and enhances better research output and staff productivity.

There is also a belief that this move can help the sector to attain the desired excellence and respectability in the regional and global higher education system where it seeks to establish itself.

Apart from involving substantial changes in the manner in which public universities operate, the change is expected to have significant implications for the fledgling private higher education sector in Ethiopia.

Reform components

The government’s readiness to provide more autonomy to public universities appears to be informed by the four major areas of autonomy, commonly identified in the wider literature as academic, administrative, organisational and staffing (human resources), and financial autonomy.

The planned academic autonomy focuses on allowing public institutions to exercise independence in determining institutional strategy, student admission policies, initiating and terminating academic programmes, determining the structure and content of academic programmes, and quality assurance of programmes and degrees.

Institutions will also have organisational autonomy that offers them the freedom to establish their own structures and governing bodies, select their leaders and determine lines of accountability while the planned staffing autonomy is expected to strengthen an institution’s capacity to recruit staff and determine employment terms and salaries.

Financial autonomy caters for the freedom of acquiring and allocating funding, the ability to charge tuition fees, accumulate a surplus, borrow and raise money from different sources, own land and buildings and reporting procedures as accountability tools.

Some of the aforementioned autonomy packages were included in the 2019 higher education proclamation. In particular, the provisions set out in Articles 15, 16 and 17 of the proclamation outline the level of academic freedom that institutions can exercise, and the types of autonomy granted.

Accordingly, the proclamation grants higher education institutions the right to set up organisational structures, enact and implement internal rules and procedures, choose institutional leaders, administer personnel, and generate and utilise internal income.

However, the promises in the higher education proclamation were not fully realised due to a variety of constraining factors.

For instance, despite the promise of staffing autonomy, public institutions still have a serious challenge in attracting, hiring and firing staff based on their own internal regulations and evaluation systems.

Similarly, in spite of the financial autonomy promised, institutions still experience the brunt of a bureaucratic procurement system that offers them little freedom and the limited authority they have in utilising their internally generated income.

These and related gaps have been inhibiting the freedom and institutional capacity of the public sector and encouraging its excessive dependence on the will and resources of the government.

While the new direction promises to correct past gaps, it also incorporates additional directions that go far beyond the bundle of rights set out in the existing proclamation, calling for its eventual revision to get the legal backing that such a move requires.

AAU as a model

Addis Ababa University has been implementing a variety of plans over the past few years that would help it attain its desired autonomy.

For instance, the university’s revitalisation plan developed in 2020 identifies major areas of reforms that include teaching and learning, research, community service, governance and management, and environment. The plan also includes strategies in which the AAU’s recent designation as one of Ethiopia’s eight research universities could be achieved and its promised autonomy realised.

Under its governance revitalisation plan, the university seeks to regain its academic freedom and institutional autonomy which, it asserts, are critical to the operational independence and flexibility needed to attain global competitive standing.

To achieve this, the AAU intends to attain the status of a legally chartered institution with relative independence in setting its own policies and practices in key areas such as admission and matriculation standards; faculty tenure, promotion and compensation; resources management (both financial and human) and leaders’ selection at all levels.

The university also wishes to reintroduce a system of shared governance that places faculty at the heart of the university, and has the advantage of enabling an environment where a meritocratic selection system is implanted while, at the same time, fostering accountability and transparency.

In addition to developing an efficient and durable strategy for internal revenue generation, the plan seeks to ensure that there is adequate and sustained funding drawn from government, public and private organisations, through activities such as contract research, community services, endowments and donations from alumni and stakeholders.

Under its teaching and learning revitalisation plans, the university emphasises the need to select all staff based on a meritocratic system and free from outside political manipulation; develop an adequate salary and benefit package; and introduce conditions of employment that will encourage better performance with corresponding new standards for faculty accountability and academic competency.

Under its research vitalisation scheme, the university plans to remove the administrative bottlenecks that have hampered research activity and to develop an efficient and conducive procurement and accounting system in all its spheres of research operation.

All the above are a clear indication of the challenges public universities have been facing and the possible advantages they will get through the new direction proposed.

Ethiopia’s private higher education sector

Ethiopia’s private higher education sector currently covers about 15% of total enrolment at a national level, with the more than 350 institutions established over the past quarter of a century.

Like most similar systems elsewhere, Ethiopian private higher education institutions have thrived on the weakness of the public sector since their inception.

The determinants of student choice in private institutions often relate to the deficiencies of the public higher education system such as the lack of places at public universities, the lack of peace and security outside the capital, distance from the capital, lack of security and safety in campus, poor instructor delivery and assessment mechanisms, and so on.

Although it does not offset all, the new direction can offer better opportunities for public institutions to address their past weaknesses and gaps.


Among others, the new direction is expected to create increased competitiveness between the public and private sectors and will necessitate a new form of privatisation within the public sector.

The healthy competition between the two sectors can enhance sectoral and institutional improvement and offer better choice to students – although it may also result in the demise of institutions that may fail to survive the competition.

The ensuing privatisation within the public sector may also lead to the introduction of a system whereby regular students, beyond certain seats reserved for those who will not pay fees, will be charged tuition fees for the first time.

If at all this happens, it would lead to a ‘dual track system’ within the public higher education system that caters to the fee-paying and non-paying students in the regular programmes of public universities as is the case in other countries of East Africa such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

In these countries, the introduction of fee-paying parallel programmes has resulted in raising significant additional income to the public sector and drawing more students who, in previous years, were destined to study at private higher education institutions.

Policywise or in practice, this new direction may generate negative consequences in terms of weakening the private higher education sector and challenging some of the ideals of the public sector.

To begin with, it will allow the further dominance of the public sector by crowding out, rather than complementing, its private counterparts and endangering the complementary roles private institutions were supposed to play.

By forcing public universities to function more like privates, the scheme can also erode the previous public nature of their organisational arrangement and function with direct implication on the questions of access and equity that were propagated as the major ideals of the sector.

Since most Ethiopian higher education institutions are already accessed by students who come from the middle class and above, the new plan can further encourage this unhealthy trend unless supported by other schemes that provide poor and disadvantaged students the choice and guarantee to attend public or private institutions.

While weighing the pros and cons of the new plan may be left to the government and public institutions, private institutions should examine the impending consequences and prepare themselves for a more competitive and demanding future than has been the case so far.

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.