Managing student ethnic diversity is a daunting task

Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups and many of them have their own cultural practices, creating a society in which diversity has been considered to be one of its most attractive features.

Since 1991, the Ethiopian government has introduced an ethnic-based federal system that considers ethnicity as the ideological basis of its political organisation and administration.

This ethnic-based federalism is understood to be a mechanism to ensure diversity within unity and to address historical ethnic-related problems in the country. However, in practice, ethnic-based animosity, hatred, tension and conflict have significantly increased and reached a level that has, of recent times, never been seen or heard before.

This implies that, contrary to the very problem it intended to address, ethnic federalism seems to have created more problems than it has solved. And yet, proponents of ethnic federalism continue to support the system – at the expense of the country’s unity.

Politicisation of ethnicity

In Ethiopia, the politicisation of ethnicity on a national level has impeded positive intergroup relations and intensified tensions and conflicts among ethnically diverse university students.

During 2018-19, campuses were temporarily closed, many students left universities, and some students were killed. In early 2020, universities were so shaken by a series of escalating ethnic conflicts that the government even hinted at the possibility of closing universities to take time to address the issue.

The politicisation of ethnicity has intensified to the extent that regional states, the community and students and teachers who are from the dominant ethnic group where the university is located perceive the university as “their university” and other students and teachers feel that they are learning and teaching in a university that belongs to “others”.

This is despite the fact that all public universities are owned, funded by and accountable to the federal government. The ethnic-driven politics and ethnic-affiliated leadership selections and appointments have subsequently crippled universities to the extent that they do not function and act like the federal institutions that they are.

Diverse student body

Ethiopian public universities are considered to be microcosms of Ethiopian society because of the diverse student populations they have that come from different ethnic, linguistic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds.

A diverse student body can be valuable because it potentially creates an academic context in which a wider range of thoughts, ideas and opinions can be shared. It is necessary, however, to note that the mere presence of students from diverse backgrounds does not guarantee positive learning outcomes about diversity.

In fact, it can be the source of challenges that leads to less cohesiveness, less effective communication, increased anxiety and greater discomfort, tension and conflict among diverse groups.

Therefore, managing diversity should be one of the crucial tasks of universities and needs to be given the highest priority. The managing of diversity in higher education should be supported by institutional policies and strategies.

Although most Ethiopian universities appear to embrace the notion of diversity, which is often reflected in their institutional core values, in practice, there is a clear lack of policies that consider diversity as one of the guiding values that universities promote and uphold in pursuance of their mission.

Instead of proactive diversity management strategies to harness the benefits of diversity such as promoting its values, and limiting diversity-related challenges and problems, most public universities are engaged in reactive measures, which only help to lessen the negative impacts of diversity-related problems.

Challenges in managing ethnic diversity in HE

There are several factors that negatively affect ethnic diversity management. These include, firstly, the absence of clear and feasible national and institutional policies and strategies. The lack of policies that direct and support ethnic diversity management have relegated it to an act of goodwill.

Secondly, the ethnic-based political system reinforced ethno-national sentiments and segregation along ethnic lines and decreased national sentiment and unity among different ethnic groups, which is a challenge for effective diversity management.

Thirdly, one of the major strategies in promoting and managing diversity in higher education is providing various opportunities for students to help them acquire knowledge and experience about diversity.

However, public universities lack diversity programmes and activities and there is no unit or centre for diversity in universities. In fact, it is no one’s job, per se.

Fourthly, managing ethnic diversity is one of the greatest challenges that confront leadership in Ethiopian higher education, but most university leaders do not have good leadership and management skills to effectively manage ethnic diversity.

Even though there are some who may have the skills, they are not determined to take on the task. They often follow instructions or alternative solutions from the ministry or other government bodies.

This is mainly because they are not responsible for the consequences of any action proposed by the government. But they may be held accountable if the measures they took by themselves disappoint some ethnic groups or escalate the situation.

Fifthly, diverse faculty members contribute to managing student diversity in Ethiopian universities in many ways, including increasing students’ sense of belonging and overall satisfaction with their university.

However, recent trends and practices show that faculty members transfer to universities that are located in a region where their ethnic group is in the majority.

This is mainly due to the serious ethnic tensions and conflicts in universities in different parts of the country that followed the change of government leadership in 2018.

Some faculty members did not feel comfortable and secure to work and live away from family and relatives in such a situation.

Some faculty members who support ethnic politics and do not want to work at a university which is located in another ethnic group’s region have also transferred to the universities of their best choice.

Although effective ethnic diversity management requires the active participation and commitment of universities, communities and the government, in the Ethiopian context, addressing issues related to the ethnic, political and administrative system should be the highest priority because politicisation of ethnicity is found to be the mother of all challenges associated with the ethnic diversity management of students in higher education.

What is the way forward?

Managing ethnic diversity in Ethiopian public universities is not an easy task, but it is worth investing in because the benefit of managing diversity goes beyond higher education and contributes to the political and social stability of the country.

So far, presumably, universities in Ethiopia have not properly managed the ethnic diversity in their own context, let alone played a role in addressing the diversity-related problems present in society at large.

The ministry of education and universities need to formulate diversity-related national and institutional policies and strategies that help to strategically manage ethnic diversity.

The ministry should also promote and support universities to establish centres for diversity and inclusion which primarily work to address diversity-related issues, including the promotion of diversity in curricular and non-curricular activities.

The government should also help universities to manage ethnic diversity because the main sources of the key challenges and problems associated with student ethnic diversity are external to the universities.

This is an edited version from an article, ‘Student Ethnic Diversity Management in Ethiopian Universities: Practices, Challenges, and Way Forward’ published in Higher Education.

Dr Abebaw Yirga Adamu is an associate professor of higher education at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. He was director of the Ethiopian Institute for Higher Education, a Global Dialogue fellow of NAFSA: Association of International Educators (2019-21), and International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) university administration support programme research management fellow. He can be contacted at