Why a centralised admissions test for postgraduate students?
The ministry’s letter did not say anything about the purpose and implications of the new direction except that it was to regulate the process, as some institutions did not use admission tests as basic requirements for students who join their postgraduate programmes.
This sudden decision has wider implications about the effective running of graduate programmes in general and the autonomy of individual institutions, in particular.
Purpose and modalities
Graduate admission tests are often taken to determine the capacity and readiness of students who wish to pursue their postgraduate studies.
International and standardised tests such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, the Graduate Record Examination, the Graduate Management Admissions Test, Law School Admission Test and the Medical College Admission Test are often used to test students’ general or professional readiness for graduate-level studies.
Results in internationalised tests are common requirements universities use when they accept students from countries and systems they have very little knowledge of.
The United States’ tradition is more in favour of such tests as compared to Europe, where demands for performance in tests like IELT or TOEFL, which are used to check the language competence of students, appear to be common.
However, the tradition across many countries indicates that such tests are just one aspect of the many requirements that students may need to fulfil in order to pursue a postgraduate programme.
What is more, in most cases there is no such thing as a straightforward pass or fail in these exams since an ‘acceptable score’ is often determined by individual schools or universities that wish to admit applicants in their particular programmes.
Graduate admission tests
Standardised admission tests are often preferred due to their potential to provide an easy and ‘objective’ mechanism for making admission decisions.
However, based on research outcomes, universities have started questioning graduate admission tests, labelling them as inaccurate, biased and unnecessary hurdles in the graduate school admissions process.
In fact, there is an increasing tendency, even in systems which used to rely on admission tests, to explore other possible alternatives or to abandon such requirements altogether.
This has been mainly due to the limited predictor ability of standardised admission tests, the bureaucracy and costs they involve and their limitation in considering other relevant sources of information about individual applicants.
In the US, there are institutions and schools that do not demand admissions tests from in-state students, but require them from out-of-state candidates.
In some countries, universities do not require such exams at all, especially for students who have shown outstanding performance during their undergraduate studies at the same university.
A significant number of universities also use other mechanisms of assessment such as transcripts, work experience and faculty recommendations when making decisions about admissions to their graduate schools.
Despite the increasing burden on institutions that use alternative means, going ‘test optional’ may have positive effects on enrolment and student diversity, while mandatory test admission requirements may limit the percentage of accepted applicants and affect the broader goals of access to higher education and lifelong learning.
Overall, current trends indicate that university admission tests are not mandatory and are not uniformly applied.
AAU Graduate Admission Test
So far, Ethiopian universities have been using different criteria for graduate admission purposes, including faculty recommendations, work experience and institutional or departmental exams.
Until the recent direction, the task has been an institutional prerogative, given their autonomy granted by the higher education proclamation of the country.
The Graduate Admission Test (GAT) administered by the AAU is a recent addition to the system and has been used for the purpose of screening candidates who wish to pursue their postgraduate studies at the AAU only. It has never been used as a national screening exam.
The exam, which is not standardised, is computer-based and seemingly modelled after international tests.
It is composed of a total of 125 multiple-choice questions divided into three sections: verbal reasoning (60 questions), quantitative reasoning (40 questions) and analytical reasoning (25 questions).
AAU’s website states that GAT is administered in the months of November, December, February, March, April, May and July every year. As reported by the AAU Registrar’s Office, most candidates apply for the July testing, which makes the task challenging.
The passing percentile rank of GAT for candidates that apply for a masters programme is 30 and above; while applicants for PhD programmes are expected to score 40 and above.
Although passing GAT makes candidates eligible to apply for postgraduate programmes, it does not necessarily guarantee admission to specific programmes, and departments may use additional selection criteria for making decisions on admission.
Implications of the new direction
Given the negative reactions from both private and public institutions, it can be assumed that the need for compulsory graduation admission tests and the implications should have been discussed before the ministry’s new decision.
This would have given a better chance to offset some potential challenges that are envisaged.
Among others, the new regulation appears to disregard the autonomy of individual institutions, which know why they need graduate admission tests based on their general and programmatic requirements and how and when to implement these requirements.
This appears to counter the move towards greater autonomy, which the government purports to encourage.
It is not clear why universities which are differentiated as comprehensive, applied science and technology universities, will have to take an exam prepared by the AAU, which is a research university.
It is not particularly clear why universities outside of the capital will have to send their candidates to the AAU to take such exams when they could have been allowed to develop and administer their own tests.
Another alternative could have been for institutions, no matter where they are based, to use the test developed by the AAU or any other university designated for the purpose, in order to make the process more convenient for institutions and applicants alike.
Another possible area of contention is whether the AAU will be able to administer admission tests for tens of thousands of students who apply for postgraduate studies from all over the country.
In 2021 alone, there were more than 90,000 students pursuing their masters degrees in Ethiopia’s public and private institutions.
Administering the test to thousands of students will not only be a cumbersome task for the AAU but will also involve a lot of unnecessary cost for students who will have to travel to the capital to write the exams.
A further challenge is related to a single, dedicated period of time the ministry has set for the exam to take place which does not necessarily consider the academic calendars of individual institutions and equally restricts individual choices in terms of when to take the exam.
This decision particularly clashes with the exam times set by the AAU.
It is not clear which of the regulations set by GAT for AAU candidates will be applied. This relates to the number of years the exam results is going to be valid, the pass requirement , and some student groups who may not fit the assumptions made by the ministry.
There are, for instance, students who have already acquired their postgraduate degrees in certain subject areas and wish to pursue other degrees at the same level.
There are also graduate programmes at Ethiopian universities that are run in collaboration with foreign universities that have their own requirements for graduate admission.
Issues of access
The ministry’s direction is not clear about whether there will be students who will be barred from pursuing their masters degrees if they fail to achieve a minimum score or whether this decision will be left to individual institutions and programmes.
If these types of decisions are to be made, their implication for institutional autonomy and individual choice needs to be considered.
The implication of selectivity and academic excellence which such decisions may involve, also needs to be seen in light of the broader access and lifelong learning options the system has been claiming to be pursuing so far.
Towards a centralised system?
The ministry’s plan to introduce a graduate admission test uniformly across the public and private sector may be envisaged as one mechanism of improving the quality of education provided by Ethiopian higher education institutions.
However, the inconveniences and implementation challenges related to a single university undertaking this task in a country where there are more than 400 public and private institutions are obvious.
It is not particularly clear why the choice to centralise the exam has been made by the ministry while the same need could have been better served by individual institutions that know for what purposes and when to use such tests.
It goes without saying that the ministry’s new direction needs further reflection and amendment, not only to quell current woes from both public and private institutions but, more importantly, to serve its purposes without negatively infringing on institutional autonomy and individual choice.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. This is a commentary.