Ethiopian Higher Education: Expansion, Dilemmas and Quality

By Dr. Philip Rayner & Prof. Kate Ashcroft


Higher education has only been available in Ethiopia to most qualified school leavers since the early 1990s when the current Government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Meles Zenawi, overthrew the hard-line Marxist Derg regime (1974-1991). The first higher education institution, Haile Selassie University, was established in 1961 and in 1974 the name was changed to Addis Ababa University [1] (AAU). Until 1985, when Alameya University [2] was established, this was the only university in Ethiopia.

Since 2000 Ethiopia’s higher education sector has grown from two public universities to 22 today with another 10 Institutes of Technology due to open soon. From 2004, the number of students in each public university has doubled to 77,182 in 2009/10 (although the target was 110,000 enrolments), and is expected to double again1 [3]. It is estimated that Ethiopia’s gross enrolment ratio (GER) has increased by 800 percent between 2000 and 20102 [4]. Ethiopia aims to be a middle-income country by 2025 and has the Sub-Saharan African average GER (6 percent in 2008) as its target.

Private higher education has also increased as part of a general liberalization of parts of the economy; there are now approximately 66 private institutions offering undergraduate degree programs in Ethiopia and the private sector accounts for approximately 25 percent of the country’s undergraduate enrolments3 [5]. Although the Government recognizes that it needs the private sector if it is to meet its targets for the expansion of higher education, there is a noticeable sense of distrust amongst civil servants and ministers who sometimes categorize private universities and colleges as ‘diploma mills.’

It is true that there has been a very rapid expansion of private higher education institutions, some of which are of dubious standard whilst others such as St Mary’s University College [6] outperform the public sector. Private universities are popular because they allow students to choose both their subject and their location, in contrast to courses and places at public universities that are allocated centrally by the Ministry of Education [7]. Private universities are also popular with female students as they can live at home and do not have to live communally on campus.

The rapid expansion may be partially explained by the need for a larger trained work force, but the location of the new public universities also relates to the need for national unity: universities established within the regions create a measure of autonomy and self respect, a stake in the national identity as well as being a catalyst for local economic development through the increased demand for goods and services in the local community.

The dilemmas posed by expansion

Higher education expansion raises certain issues in Ethiopia. Without a substantial middle class to tax, infrastructure investment depends on loans and international aid grants. However, in the past, capacity building based on loans led to a substantial debt legacy with devastating effects on the lives of the most vulnerable people. Higher education may be one way of creating a larger middle class, but also raises costs.

This expansion is controversial: a recent Department for International Development report suggests that the rate of expansion of public higher education in Ethiopia has been too fast for the Government to allocate the recurrent expenditure needed to maintain quality: higher education absorbs over 40 percent of the total public resources available for education in the country. The report suggests that the Government should slow down the pace of expansion and pay more attention to quality and value for money4 [8]. However it is unlikely that the Ethiopian Government will do this.

In 2008, Ethiopia decreed that all universities should modify their curricula so that 70 percent of student intake is to science and technology based subjects and 30 percent to the arts and humanities5 [9]. This has been applied to the private sector as well as public institutions: the private sector has two years to bring its provision into line with the 70/30 model. This is particularly problematic for a sector that is market driven and where the majority of students enroll on business, ICT and social science courses. The policy threatens the continued viability of these institutions.

In the short term this shift has caused many existing universities extreme difficulties, as they have had to modify teaching accommodation and staff expertise to meet these new targets: qualified staff are not readily available and the majority of instructors in the new universities are now qualified only to bachelor level. There are insufficient specialist teaching facilities: a problem that is unlikely to be fully resolved at least in the medium term.

It is not clear that benefits will accrue, at least in the short term, especially as the educational experience of the students has suffered as instructor and management attention is diverted from developing new pedagogies towards coping with the change. The policy documents outlining the change do not specify what research was undertaken as a basis for the calculations for determining the optimum proportion of intakes to the different subject categories. Other countries have made very different decisions on the basis of actual and predicted employment shortages6 [10].

Ethiopia’s expansion is quite radical in comparison to the size of the existing higher education sector and to the size of Ethiopia’s public purse. Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries and the expansion of higher education is a considerable investment, both financially and politically, and is therefore also a considerable risk for the Government. A consequence of the plan is that there will be approximately 77,000 science and technology graduates entering the job market each year. At present it is not clear where the jobs are, but the government hopes that the economic returns will make the risk of graduate unemployment and subsequent civil unrest worthwhile.

One of the ways in which the Government is trying to mitigate these risks is though the establishment of some kind of transparent and objective quality assurance process: monitoring for accreditation purposes (especially important in regulating the expanding private sector) and also to ensure that quality does not suffer to an unknowable extent. The rapid expansion puts pressure on the limited pool of capable and qualified people and systems to manage the institutions.

At the same time, the Government cannot micro-manage a diverse and growing system (as it has done in the past) and so must balance central control with institutional autonomy. It is devolving freedoms and responsibilities to the universities. It has looked to developed countries for ways to manage this and has used concepts of quality and quality assurance, operated through quasi-autonomous sector support units, as the basis for a relatively ‘hands-off’ system of regulation and control. Recognizing the importance of quality and relevance in this new context, the 2003 Higher Education Proclamation established the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Assurance Agency (HERQA) as a quasi-autonomous organization to oversee quality and standards within the sector.

This organization was intended to monitor the newly expanded system to ensure that it is ‘producing quality’ whilst providing many more students with the opportunity for post-secondary education, increasing the level of skills and professionalism amongst the population and helping to meet the country’s development needs.

Ethiopia’s response to the issue of quality assurance

When HERQA was established, quality assurance was a new concept to Ethiopian higher education, and so the Agency had to determine what quality meant in the Ethiopian context. Using development organizations such as the World Bank, Voluntary Services Overseas and the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education (NUFFIC), the Ministry of Education sought help in developing appropriate concepts and models of quality that would work for Ethiopian Higher Education.

HERQA has taken various approaches to the measurement of quality. Initially HERQA chose to measure volume. This method relies on quantitative data collection, which whilst generally poor in Ethiopia, seemed a feasible approach for a new agency with limited resources and inexperienced staff. It proved a useful methodology for bureaucratic purposes such as accreditation of private colleges and universities and it allowed quantitative data to be compared in a way that looked as if it was objective.

The accreditation process for the private sector is very input-based: to determine whether a private institution may receive institutional accreditation to continue to award degrees, HERQA looks at matters such as student numbers, courses and subjects opened and run to completion and certain resources. However analysis of this data by HERQA, the Ministry of Education or any other organization is still unsophisticated. HERQA is therefore in the process of considering other approaches to the accreditation process, including subject-level assessments against benchmarks. At the moment public universities do not have to undergo a process of accreditation nor do they have to comply with the Government’s edict that teaching staff should be 20 percent bachelor degree, 50 percent masters degree and 30 percent PhD holders.

According to the President of St.Mary’s University College, HERQA operates a ‘double standard’ where most of HERQA’s activities are seen to focus on the regulation of the private sector and have little influence or jurisdiction over the public sector.7 [11]

HERQA also reports on quality at the institutionl level. In relation to quality assessment rather than accreditation, HERQA has located responsibility with the institutions and sees its role as one of supporting the universities and auditing institutional systems to determine whether they represent good practice and are fit for purpose as well as suggesting ways for improvement. HERQA’s central concepts stem from the Dutch and UK quality assurance systems which are based on self-evaluation and external review. Universities (whether private or public) are expected to benchmark their own performance in administrative and academic areas against national and international best practice and come up with plans for improvements.

HERQA also expects them to analyze and use this data for quality improvement. Thus, universities compare themselves with achievements of others and set targets to improve. HERQA undertakes visits to each institution using a peer assessment approach and publishes a report of the university’s success in achieving its objectives and makes recommendations for improvement and commends good practice where it finds it. This is a radical and sophisticated exercise to undertake and universities, at the time of writing, struggle to do this.

In the Ethiopian model the university completes a comprehensive self-evaluation document that should highlight strengths and weaknesses within the institution. HERQA’s assessment involves outside academics, working with HERQA professionals, coming into the institution and commenting upon the veracity and depth of the self evaluation as well as what is going on in terms of teaching and learning and research. The quality auditors use a checklist which is based in part on those from the United Kingdom, but has been developed and refined in workshops of staff from Ethiopian universities. Thus the main feature of the system is self-evaluation and peer review against peer generated criteria, and in this sense it can be seen as a democratic system.

HERQA is also encouraging Ethiopian universities to introduce external and second examiner systems, external representation on course validation and periodic course review panels as other ways of measuring their own quality for their internal and external purposes. So far the implementation of these measures is limited.

As it has matured Ethiopia’s higher education system for quality assurance in higher education has developed a settled conceptual and philosophical framework. There is a consensus about its essential features:


There is a shortage of suitably experienced and qualified staff in Ethiopia to meet current HERQA commitments, both for the recruitment of full time ‘experts’ to HERQA and to work as peer reviewers on external audits. As the sector expands, HERQA will need commensurate resources or the additional workload will negatively affect the quality of HERQA’s own performance. There is also still a question over the autonomy of HERQA itself when the Minister of Education heads its Management Board and many positions on the Board are left vacant.


The Government of Ethiopia has taken a brave political gamble in going for such rapid higher education expansion and again in setting up HERQA as a quasi-autonomous organization. It risks exposing the range of contradictions and dilemmas that Ethiopia faces, for example, between control and autonomy, modernization and ‘government knows best,’ democracy and the need to control dissident voices. The resulting debate is likely both to enrich the development of the system and reflect the dilemmas that inevitably arise within institutions and the sector.

HERQA has already helped transform high education in Ethiopia and has achieved much. The ideas and language of quality assurance are now commonplace within Ethiopian higher education in a way that seemed impossible eight years ago. There are reports describing the good and bad aspects of all public and many private universities, although these are not generally available to the public. However, HERQA still needs to play a key role in developing a more sophisticated model of relevance, in defining the mix of subjects appropriate for all the social and economic needs of the country and as well as pedagogic and curriculum processes that will develop graduates with a full range of employability skills and attitudes for public life and private enterprise.

The Government can sustain HERQA’s unique contribution to the transformation of Ethiopia and ensure its independence and authority, for example by allowing it to have a block grant similar to that being proposed for universities and ensuring its Management Board is pro-active, effective and independent. With the support of a properly constituted and funded quality agency, and with a better and more sustainable funding model for the universities themselves, higher education, both public and private, can change the lives of Ethiopians, opening up opportunities, ideas and avenues of knowledge that will fundamentally change the direction of the country, enabling it to achieve its goal of transforming itself from a subsistence economy to a middle-income country by 2025.

1 [12] Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, (2010) The Federal Ministry of Republic of Ethiopia Education Sector Development Program ESDP IV (2010/11 – 2014/2015), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

2 [13] http://stats.uis.unesco.org/unesco/TableViewer/document.aspx?ReportId=121&

3 [14] Tamrat p.99

4 [15] Ravishankar V.J., Abdulhamid Kello, Alebachew Tiruneh, Ethiopia: Education Public Expenditure Review (2010) Department of international Development, UK. P.22

5 [16] Teshome Yizengaw, (2007) Undergraduate and Graduate degree programs mix and student placement in the expanding higher education system in Ethiopia, policy white paper prepared by Ministry of Education and Ministry of Capacity Building, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

6 [17] In South Africa, i n an effort to ensure that the higher education system produces graduates in line with national needs, the Department of Education set national targets for the proportion of enrolments and graduates by field of study. The targets are 30% for business, commerce and management, 40% for human and social sciences, and 30% for science, engineering and technology.

7 [18] Wondwosen Tamrat (2011) Evaluating the Evaluator: HERQA in the Eyes of PHEIs in Ethiopia, Paper presented at the Conference ‘The Influence Of HERQA On The Quality And Relevance Of Ethiopia’s Higher Education System: Reflections On The Evidence’. Addis Ababa 3rd and 4th May, 2011.

Dr.Philip Rayner and Professor Kate Ashcroft are directors of Ashcroft & Rayner Consulting Ltd. and have worked in Ethiopia since 2003 as a management advisors to the Minister of Education and the State Minister for Higher Education. In 2004 Philip was acting director of the Ethiopian Higher Education Relevance and Quality Assurance Agency.

Kate is also Emeritus Professor at University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. In 2004/5 she was acting director of the Ethiopian Higher Education Strategy Centre.

Their book Higher Education in Development: Lesson from Sub-Saharan Africa will be published later this year by IAP- Information Age Publishing Inc., Charlotte, NC 28271, USA.