Postgraduate admission restriction undermines national plans

The Ethiopian Ministry of Education’s recent decision to set a new admission standard for postgraduate students has set in motion an unprecedented restriction on access to the postgraduate programmes of many public and private universities.

Whereas, it is not clear what the ultimate purpose of the admission standard is, the move will affect candidates who want to further their studies, and it will militate against institutional efforts made so far to broaden access to postgraduate programmes.

This, in turn, will also adversely affect the national plan for producing the needed human resources at this level – given the country’s various developmental plans and the plans for the higher education sector.

Postgraduate programmes in Ethiopian universities

Higher education in Ethiopia is nearly 75 years old, having commenced in 1950 with the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa (now Addis Ababa University, or AAU).

Postgraduate education started in October 1978 – the year when the AAU’s first school of graduate studies was launched by enrolling its first 40 students in six masters programmes in linguistics, literature, teaching English as a foreign language, biology, chemistry, and geology.

The school of graduate studies at AAU evolved in response to the lack of sufficiently qualified personnel to meet the needs of higher education institutions; to provide higher level human resources to the rest of the economy; and to build up local expertise in the various fields, including science and technology, agriculture, medicine and social sciences.

In 1979, the then Alemaya College (now Haramaya University), which was under Addis Ababa University, initiated graduate programmes in agronomy, animal science, plant science, agricultural economics, and horticulture.

Graduate education in Ethiopia continued to be exclusively offered by Addis Ababa University – the only full-fledged university in the country until Alemaya obtained university status in 1987 and began running its postgraduate programmes independently. At that time, AAU also initiated the first PhD programmes in Ethiopia.

Overall, enrolment in postgraduate programmes did not show any significant growth in the first decade after the establishment of the schools of graduate studies both at AAU and Alemaya University of Agriculture, AUA (now Haramaya University).

Both AAU and Haramaya University remained the only two universities running postgraduate programmes until the beginning of 2000, after which many other public and private universities followed suit.

Growth in postgraduate enrolment

Deliberate efforts over the past two decades have resulted in the growth of postgraduate programmes in Ethiopian higher education institutions.

New policy directions, such as successive education sector development programmes and especially the 2002 Higher Education Capacity Building Programme, that served as its major component, and initiatives like the White Paper on the Annual Intake and Enrolment Growth and Professional and Programme Mix of Ethiopian Public Higher Education: Strategy and Conversion Plan (2008), served as the key catalysts to pave the way for more universities to open new postgraduate programmes and boost the growth of programmes that are contributing to the steady increase of national participation at this level.

The increasing demand from the newly established public universities for trained staff with higher degrees (masters and PhDs) and the growing need for a highly trained labour force in various industries have contributed to drive the growth of postgraduate training in Ethiopian universities.

The government has been using various strategies to achieve the targets set for postgraduate expansion.

These include strengthening local postgraduate training through the expansion of in-house capacity of universities, developing partnerships with foreign organisations, and encouraging joint programmes and scholarship with foreign universities as well as through funding schemes supported by international agencies and development partners.

The 2021 data from the ministry of education indicates that postgraduate enrolment in the country reached 90,345 students.

A total of 37,760, or 42%, of the students were enrolled in the regular programmes of higher education institutions, while 52,835 (58%) were registered in non-regular programmes, indicating that these programmes tend to be self-sponsored, compared to undergraduate studies which are highly subsidised by the government.

While the majority of the enrolments remain in the public sector, the private sector contributes about 5% to 7% of the total postgraduate enrolment in the country.

Despite the encouraging moves, the overall level of growth attained so far is not considered to be enough, given the country’s needs and sectoral plans for more expansion at masters and PhD level.

New admission requirements

Unlike undergraduate programmes, the admission requirements at postgraduate levels have always been left to the discretion of individual institutions, which used a variety of criteria to select their candidates.

Over the past few years, AAU has introduced what it calls a Graduate Admission Test (GAT) to recruit students who wish to join postgraduate studies at the university.

In setting a new admission requirement at a national level, the ministry ordered all new applicants across the country to sit for the GAT administered by the AAU.

The ministry claims that its decision has been triggered by its observation that a significant number of institutions do not administer admission tests for entry into their postgraduate programmes, which, it said, should be corrected.

However, the ministry deviated from the previous pass score set by the university. Instead, it has chosen a higher score, emulating its standards for secondary school leavers taking national exams and those sitting for exit exams after completing their undergraduate studies.

Until the new decision of the ministry, AAU set a 30% score for masters and a 40% for PhD students to qualify for admission into its postgraduate programmes.

The university believes that these scores are by no means an indication of substandard performance as the ministry appears to imply in its new demands for raising the score to 50%.

GAT has been used primarily to help identify the students who perform less well and give more room for average and high achievers to pursue their postgraduate studies.

The nature of GAT also indicates why AAU made its decision in the first place. Unlike other national exams which assume a content coverage of 50% before applicants pass to the next level, GAT is more of an aptitude test, primarily designed to check the readiness of candidates for postgraduate programmes.

It tests the three major components of verbal, analytical and mathematical ability – all given in the form of multiple-choice questions.

The exam has nothing to do with the content coverage of programmes candidates attended during their undergraduate studies, which would have justified the ministry’s decision for a higher standard.

Like similar international exams in other contexts, with predictability power that is also increasingly being questioned, it is not clear if the ministry is assuming that the performance in this exam alone will guarantee success in postgraduate programmes.

Achievement scores and implications

Achievements of the first round of test takers across the country are a clear indication of the possible repercussions of the ministry’s abrupt decision.

Of the 25,000 candidates who sat for GAT, fewer than 50% ‘passed’ the exam. Maintaining the previous standards of AAU would have enabled a better result.

This entails a huge reduction in the number of candidates who would enrol in the postgraduate programmes of the country’s institutions, with its dire impact on the overall human resource planning of the country.

For the past decade-and-a-half, the country’s decision to expand its postgraduate studies, including PhD programmes, has been triggered by the critical human resources required to catalyse its economic development and institutional needs.

In addition to the human resource needs highlighted in its successive national development plans, specific plans outline the need for the expansion of postgraduate programmes with the major goal of addressing goals set out in the 2008 White Paper of the ministry and its Education Sector Development Programmes, and the recent five- and 10-year higher education strategic plans of the sector clearly outline the need for the expansion of postgraduate programmes with the major goal of addressing the aforementioned goals.

These policy directions continue to serve as a major impetus towards the continued expansion of postgraduate programmes in local universities and the training of an increasing number of candidates both within and outside of the country.

Given its rush to implement the new decision, it is not clear how the ministry is planning to address the human resource gap that will be created – if it has planned for such challenges at all.

The decision will also have an impact on the material and human resources deployed at many public universities which have been expanding their postgraduate programmes over the past two decades.

An immediate effect will be working below their capacity, which has become common since last year, when the ministry introduced the stringent university admission requirements for undergraduate admission. Subsequently, the number of students qualifying for university has gone down significantly.

By exclusively relying on a candidate’s performance in a single exam, individual candidates will be deprived of pursuing lifelong learning which the ministry claims to be committed to.

In fact, a complaint recently lodged with the ministry and other government offices by dissatisfied examinees indicates that, in addition to the various deficiencies observed in planning and administering the exam, the majority of those who are alleged to have failed are respected professionals with long years of experience in their fields of study.

The decision to require the set pass rate in GAT also goes against the policy direction set in the country’s Higher Education Proclamation, which recognises universities’ responsibilities to set special admission requirements for their adult learners.

Concern over ministry’s direction

The directives of the ministry to raise performance bars at every education strata may be viewed as a positive development in a system that wishes to address the issue of quality.

Despite the good intentions, such simplistic considerations may not always provide the right outcomes – unless a thorough investigation of past practices, and new alternatives, are made with broader involvement of relevant stakeholders, and a serious consideration of national and sectoral plans that can be inadvertently derailed.

The foregoing indicates that the ministry’s abrupt decision on access to postgraduate programmes will have many dire consequences, given its exclusive reliance on a single test, the controversial assumptions behind the new standard set, the lack of transitional arrangements, and the complete absence of alternative criteria that institutions could have used in recruiting their students.

The fact that there is little evidence that the ministry has taken its new decision in consultation with the public and private institutions, and other relevant stakeholders for whom the new standards hold critical implications, is a worrying trend.

Introducing new initiatives without putting the necessary nuts and bolts in place will serve little purpose other than being a bad omen for a system that wishes to make changes for the better.

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.