The perils and promises of becoming an autonomous university

The long-awaited plan of the Ethiopian government to grant fully fledged autonomy to public universities appears to have entered its final stage, with the recent approval of a relevant proclamation in parliament.

The demand for full autonomy has been one of the major quests of Ethiopian universities since the establishment of the University College of Addis Ababa, or UCAA (now Addis Ababa University), in 1950 – the first higher education institution in the country.

Universities have always deplored the limitations they face in terms of exercising their full power and the unlawful interference from the government which disrupts their normal functions, threatens their existence, and endangers the safety of their communities.

In contrast, the government has always chosen to tighten its grips on universities, not only due to the huge resources it allocates to institutions, but also due to its view of the university as a potential threat to its power.

As elsewhere, the government’s promise of autonomy is not new to Ethiopian universities. In fact, autonomy was granted, at least on paper, the first time by the UCAA’s charter of 1954, reinforced by other successive legal regimes, including the 2019 higher education proclamation which is now governing the sector.

However, its implementation has been murky due to successive government indecisions and the endless interference in university matters, regardless of what the law prescribes.

The fact that the new proclamation is planned to be initially implemented in a single university (Addis Ababa University) is, perhaps, an indication of the government’s caution, thereby not extending the right to all universities across the public sector at once.

Policy components and rationale

The draft proclamation contains seven sections that include: general provisions; governance and management; academic and institutional autonomy; educational programmes, research and linkages with the community; funding sources, financial administration, keeping book of accounts and auditing; powers and duties of implementing agencies; and miscellaneous provisions.

The rationales given for introducing the proclamation are not fundamentally different from similar claims made in the past.

The new proclamation is justified on the grounds that granting improved freedom to public universities will help the institutions to become more responsible, efficient and self-sustaining, in addition to enhancing their contribution toward national development and global competitiveness.

A close analysis of the new proclamation offers a glimpse into the changes from previous legal frameworks that incorporated the elements of autonomy.

Organisational autonomy

Section two of the proclamation is dedicated to ‘governance and structure’ offering provisions related to organisational autonomy.

This component of autonomy considers specific issues such as selection procedure for the executive head, selection criteria for the executive head, dismissal of the executive head, term of office of the executive head, inclusion and selection of external members in governing bodies, capacity to decide on academic structures and capacity to create legal entities.

The new proclamation provides answers to all these components of organisational autonomy. It institutes a governance structure that comprises a chancellor, board, university council, management council, executive committee, senate, president and vice presidents, quality assurance and audit units accountable to the board and other units considered to be important.

The structures chosen show little change from those granted in the 2019 higher education proclamation.

Notwithstanding the decision made, a priori, it is not clear why the proclamation has chosen to maintain cumbersome structures like the university council, management council and executive management with membership and responsibilities that can be shared by the senate, board and the president.

Given the fact that one major purpose of institutional autonomy is to take and implement decisions with limited red tape, the first choice should have been to abandon these structures. If at all there was a need to be accommodated, one of the three structures only (eg, the executive committee) could have done the job.

The position of a chancellor, who is to be appointed by the prime minister of the country, is a new introduction to the system, although there was a time when this position was assumed by the late Emperor Haile Selassie I.

Assuming the prime role of building the image of the university and serving as a goodwill ambassador, the chancellor’s position appears to be ceremonial.

However, the proclamation gives additional roles to the chancellor, such as that of finally selecting the university president out of three nominees recommended and removing the president based on the suggestions of the board, and deciding the benefits of board members based on suggestions from the university president.

These seemingly ‘executive’ powers could have been assigned to the board itself as they will otherwise conjure the image of a chancellor who will have a role in the internal affairs of the university.

It will not also be easy to fill the chancellor’s position for each of the nearly 50 public universities across the country, considering the plan to extend the autonomy to others in the future.

The most important role in terms of functions is rightly given to the board, the senate and the president and vice-presidents who will have substantial powers in administering the autonomous university.

The board holds ultimate power in making decisions and setting directions with regard to key elements such as governance and structure, human resource, property and financial management, determining salaries and benefits and other related matters.

With regard to its formation, the proclamation acknowledges the need for diversified representation reflective of gender, ethnic background and stakeholder participation, but gives the full power of nomination and appointment to the government alone.

Unless carefully managed, this excessive right can open room for political manoeuvring and interference, as was the case in the old days.

The emphasis on the board’s importance is also reflected in the number of times it conducts its meetings (every month) as compared to the senate, which meets four times a year. This may have implications in terms of striking the correct balance between the supervisory role of the board and the more operational roles of the senate.

The 2019 proclamation gave the right of appointing the majority of senate members to the president while the new one dictates, a priori, what members are to be included. Although the new arrangement may help ensure fair representation, it has limitations in terms of accommodating institutional interests in determining the composition and size of the senate.

The appointment of a president to an autonomous university is to be done on a competitive basis based on criteria such as competence and proved leadership qualities. The term of office for the president is five years but an elect president is required to relinquish membership of a political party – an important dimension that has never been enforced before.

Academic and institutional autonomy

Sections three and four of the proclamation address the issue of academic and institutional autonomy.

Academic autonomy refers to the level of independence institutions have to decide on, overall student numbers, the ability to select students, to introduce and terminate programmes, the ability to choose the language of instruction, capacity to select quality assurance mechanisms and providers, and the ability to design content of degree programmes.

Public universities had little authority in determining student numbers and selecting their own students. With the exception of fee-paying programmes such as extension and distance modalities, student placement was centrally administered by the government.

Although universities had relatively more autonomy to develop and implement relevant curricula and research programmes, in reality this was not always the case.

The new proclamation dictates the languages to be used for instruction and the right to develop curricula, quality assurance framework, academic advice and support on the basis of general criteria set as a basis for exercising power.

The autonomous university is expected to exercise its power based on the principles of legality, productivity, efficiency, transparency, fairness and accountability, but its new freedom does not exclude the government’s right to supervision and follow-up.

Financial autonomy

Financial autonomy is about the autonomy institutions have in acquiring and allocating funds, length and type of public funding, the ability to charge tuition fees, to accumulate surplus, to borrow and raise money from different sources, the ability to own land and buildings.

Section five of the proclamation is fully dedicated to issues such as sources of funding, financial management, keeping book of accounts, and financial auditing.

In the past, public institutions were offered the autonomy to own and manage funds and property but they did not have the power to decide freely on the investment in their real estate and the sale of their assets.

Even the power of setting fees in the extension, summer and distance programmes, which are outside of the regular programmes, was given to the institutions, but decisions about payment kind, amount and manner of payment had to be determined and issued by the board.

Public institutions were also allowed to generate income through various activities, but the utilisation of this fund was not possible unless permission was granted by the government.

The new proclamation, in addition to specifying the major source of income for the university, provides the direction with regard to the financial support from the government and its utilisation and supervision.

It also gives the right to universities to set up their own commercial enterprises without the excessive impositions of the past.

However, the new rights given to universities are still to be exercised through the direction and supervision of the board.

The government appears to be unsure of the continuous financial support it should provide to institutions, regardless of the level of self-sufficiency they are expected to acquire in the future.

This is reflected in the proclamation’s suggestion of a gradually decreasing fund issued on the basis of a block grant until such time that the university is self-sustaining.

While the block grant arrangement could give public universities the additional advantage of utilising their budget flexibly, the intention of the government to gradually withdraw its financial support to universities that serve a public purpose is worrying and unrealistic.

Although not clearly outlined, the proclamation promises institutional autonomy for procurement and purchasing – another critical area that requires fundamental change. The details of how this autonomy is to be framed are yet to be dictated by the board.

Missing elements

There are fundamental issues that should have been incorporated as part of the proclamation, but appear to be missing for unknown reasons.

Staffing autonomy

This form of autonomy includes an institution’s ability to decide on recruitment procedures (senior academic or senior administrative staff), the ability to decide on salaries (senior academic or senior administrative staff), the ability to decide on dismissals (senior academic or senior administrative staff), and the ability to decide on promotions (senior academic or senior administrative staff).

Other than broadly acknowledging institutional rights in employing and administering staff, the new proclamation does not offer details on this subject. The task of developing the specifics is again left to the board.

Considerations about the need for diverse regulations that govern academic staff and those administered through civil service law is a critical area that awaits careful planning.

Academic freedom and accountability

With its major focus on the core elements of autonomy, the proclamation fails to provide the needed emphasis on the issue of academic freedom, which should have been an important aspect of the autonomy package.

Academic freedom has been one of the most important and controversial aspects of university governance in the past when staff have been threatened, expelled and imprisoned for their personal views and speeches.

Although there are abundant statements in the new proclamation that indicate the level of accountability to be exercised, accountability schemes that were clearly set in the 2019 proclamation such as performance, funding and strategic plan agreement appear to be missing.

An emphasis, however, is given to keeping book of accounts, undertaking financial audits and fulfilling relevant requirements.

The challenges of implementation

The advantage of increased institutional autonomy in terms of the flexibility and efficiency it creates, the authority it offers to make and implement decisions with little bureaucracy, and the capacity it provides to manage resources and quickly respond to external demands of a rapidly changing higher education sector is widely acknowledged.

In contrast to similar efforts in the past, the new proclamation is, perhaps, a significant and promising move in the provision of real autonomy to Ethiopian public universities, but its success heavily depends on the commitment of the government and institutions to see it through.

Any gap between regulatory promises and realisation will defeat the purpose of the current exercise and the long-term interests of the sector.

The government appears to be more committed to the new goal than ever before, judging from initiatives it has taken so far and the preparations that have been taking place in the past few years.

However, there are people who still doubt the intention of the government, alleging that it may be more interested in granting financial autonomy to the universities in the interests of abandoning its huge responsibilities of funding the sector.

The proclamation has set a maximum of two years as the period of implementation for the new law. The next two years will, thus, be critical in realising the intentions and promises of the new proclamation.

Success in this area would not only be useful in addressing past deficiencies but, more importantly, could determine the course of the Ethiopian higher education sector in the years and decades ahead.

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.