How much autonomy will Addis Ababa University really have?

State and ruling party media in Ethiopia have reported that the council of ministers’ new regulation prepared in accordance with a new proclamation allowing for self-governance of public universities mitigates political interference and enhances academic freedom and the self-governance of Addis Ababa University.

The nexus between graduate competency, research productivity of academics, the level of public funding of higher education and university autonomy is a continually debated matter.

Academics Jo Ritzen of Maastricht University in the Netherlands and Kata Orosz of Central European University in Vienna, Austria, wrote in 2016 and 2018, respectively, that university autonomy can be measured using four dimensions: academic autonomy, financial autonomy, organisational autonomy and staffing autonomy. Measuring autonomy in one or more universities requires archival and survey data and a more complex latent variable model.

Professor Wondwosen Tamrat, president of St Mary’s University in Ethiopia, documented the “promises and perils” of the new regulation in an article in University World News. He noted that staffing autonomy, academic freedom and accountability are missing from the new regulation. Tamrat highlighted the uncertainty over the government’s level of commitment to funding public higher education.

Whether higher education is a private good or a public good is a moot point. Public investment in higher education and research is unavoidable, even in rich economies where household income is high and private returns are higher.

Furthermore, the commoditisation of higher education and under-investment in public higher education and research have had adverse consequences for developing and emerging economies. Academic research and the Commission for Africa have documented this in no uncertain terms.

The World Bank also shows that investment in research and development comes from government sources and public research universities. Liberalisation of the market for higher education has not only resulted in exclusion but also market failure.

Seen from the perspective of the economics of higher education, the Ethiopian government’s granting of ‘autonomy’ must be examined carefully. Of course, there are competing priorities and the government can save money for public higher education and research by stopping the wars, reducing its defence and security budget, and enhancing government accountability.

Organisational autonomy

Regarding organisational autonomy, unlike British and Commonwealth universities, the new chancellor of Addis Ababa University is appointed by the prime minister (Abiy Ahmed). He also holds the education portfolio. The chancellor has the power to select or remove the university’s president and decide the benefits of the university’s board members.

Education Minister Professor Berhanu Nega was appointed chancellor on 31 August 2023. This chancellor is, according to a feature in The New York Times Magazine of 31 August 2016, a former Bucknell University professor who has been in and out of jail in Ethiopia for political reasons, and a person who preferred to trade his tenured position at Bucknell (in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in the US) to become a rebel commander based in neighbouring Eritrea.

In other words, the chancellor is a politician and is accountable to the prime minister. The new chairperson of the governing board is Frehiwot Tamiru, who has been at the helm of the state-owned telecom since the arrival of Abiy in the office of prime minister, according to The Reporter on 31 August 2023. The minister-chancellor appointed his deputy to become the interim president of Addis Ababa University.

This, of course, is not an indication of autonomy. Furthermore, institutional autonomy and academic freedom of professors cannot be exercised in the presence of a new state of emergency, as a Reuters news report on 4 August 2023 illustrates.


When Abiy came to office in April 2018, several promises were made. New commissions and ministries were created. Science and higher education were merged and separated from elementary and secondary education. The Ministry of Science and Higher Education was established in 2018 with its towering mission. Higher Education Proclamation 1152/2019 amended the new proclamation but still reinforced the firm control of the ruling party on universities.

Within three years, higher education returned to the Ministry of Education and, except for one, all the ministers were fired. It became business as usual. The new minister came into office after the June 2021 troublesome election and started to disclose the dismal state of schools by releasing ‘shocking’ statistics. About 3.3% of matriculants passed the university entrance exam, University World News reported on 2 February 2023.

On 22 July 2023, it was the universities’ turn. Headline news indicated that “46.6% of prospective graduates pass university exit exam” and private universities got pass rates of a mere 17%.

Higher educaiton needs careful planning

One must ask an important question. Are granting autonomy, cutting public investment, and commoditisation of higher education the answers to the problems? Liberalisation of the higher education market allowed the importation of dubious foreign degrees, and created academic entrepreneurs and some fly-by-night degree-granting institutions. Massification also had its consequences. The size and shape of higher education requires careful planning and needs to go beyond vocationalisation.

Weak postgraduate and doctoral programmes, high student-staff ratios in undergraduate programmes, demoralised and underpaid faculty, a high level of maintenance lags, including for the university’s historic buildings, campus decay, adverse financial audit opinions, and embarrassing allegations of plagiarism against graduates who occupy the nation’s high offices are some of the problems of the university.

The country’s universities, public or private, do not feature in the top 500 of the more stringent global rankings (such as the Shanghai or Academic Ranking of World Universities). None of the discipline-specific journals (business and economics) appear in international benchmarks like the Australian Business Deans Council Journal Quality List.

If higher education quality and better governance are the purposes of the new regulation, appointing politicians to head the transition and semi-privatisation of the country’s premier public higher institution is not the answer.

Minga Negash is a professor of accounting at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado, in the United States and visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.