An Analysis of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Ethiopian Higher Education

The Ethiopian Government gives higher education a central position in its strategy for social and economic development. This has some advantages (for example 40 percent of the education budget goes on higher education) but also disadvantages. Ethiopia has radically expanded the numbers of its higher education institutions: from two Federal universities to 22 in just over a decade with another 10 to open soon. There has also been a rapid expansion of the private sector and it now accounts for nearly 25 percent of student enrollments. In the new public universities especially, this rapid expansion has caused resource and other problems. At the same time, Ethiopia has developed sector support units that help to strengthen the sector and links with donors that allow a range of capacity building initiatives to occur.

Strengths of the System

Quality Assurance Systems in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian higher education system has a number of strengths, including a transparent quality assurance process that looks at public and private higher education institutions and is operated through the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency [1] (HERQA), a quasi-autonomous sector support unit. It operates a system of regulation and control that includes monitoring for accreditation purposes (in the private sector) and institutional audit (both public and private).

The reports made by HERQA on the quality of individual higher education institutions represent a comprehensive, honest appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses that have been found, and reliance can be placed in their accuracy. However, they are not public documents and institutions may choose not to share them with potential partners.

A start has been made in implementing the notion of quality enhancement. HERQA staff have been engaged in undertaking meta-analysis of institutional audit reports and other documents. They have presented their findings to the sector at a recent conference.1 [2]

Capacity Building Initiatives

In addition to these quality initiatives, the system, in partnership with donors, has put in place a system of capacity building for teachers and managers that has strengthened the system, especially in the more established universities. For example, the government has established an extensive masters and doctoral program at Addis Ababa University [3], its principal research university, in collaboration with foreign universities to up-grade academic staff in the public sector. This system has largely replaced the previous system of sending academics abroad for masters and PhD programs which often resulted in brain drain when sponsored students stayed abroad after they qualified. It allows more to be educated with the same or similar resources and ensures that the research undertaken is relevant to the country. There are still limited opportunities for study abroad, mainly where these can be funded by a donor or through a foreign aid project. When a state employee is sent abroad for further study on their return they are required to work for their home university for two years for every year they have spent studying abroad.

The Dutch Government, though the Centre for International Cooperation [4] at the VU University, Amsterdam (CIS/VU), has also funded a leadership and management development program and a pedagogic development and resource project that has up-skilled teaching staff and created academic resource centers in nine of the more established public universities.2 [5]

The Government has also worked with the World Bank, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), UNDP and others to fund a range of initiatives that have enabled staff from foreign systems to work for extended periods within public institutions as a means of strengthening teaching and management capabilities.


Ethiopia, by African standards has generally low levels of corruption. Where corruption is found, the Government has an anti-corruption unit that is vigorous in rooting it out and even senior staff previously favored by the government lose their positions if found to have acted corruptly or if they have failed to take action against corruption. On the other hand, the most senior posts in public higher education organizations are appointed or approved by the Government and are often given to party members or supporters.

The Development of a Qualifications Framework

Ethiopia’s Higher Education Strategy Centre (HESC) has been working with institutions to determine what should be essential components within the curriculum in different subjects. It is presently working with partners from South Africa to develop a qualifications framework for higher education. Once this is complete, it will include benchmarks that will inform universities and stakeholders about the content and competences graduates in a named subject should have achieved.

Gender and HIV/AIDS

The Ethiopian higher education system has embraced issues of gender and HIV/AIDS. The government requires every public university to have a functioning gender office and to take affirmative action to encourage women students. Female applicants are admitted to higher education with a lower score than male students and are generally given extra facilities and/or tutorial support to help them succeed.

Most universities are addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS with their students. They have functioning HIV/AIDS clubs and societies that campaign on the issues and undertake publicity about safer sex. Some have HIV/AIDS testing facilities.

Quality Challenges Within the System

Staffing, Resources, and Finance

Ethiopia suffers a shortage of academic staff. It is estimated that 70 percent of faculty in the new public universities are qualified only to bachelor degree level. Salaries in public universities are determined by Civil Service conditions and are therefore low and turnover is high. The low pay encourages ‘moon-lighting’ (often by teaching part-time in a private university), this can mean that public university lecturers are not keen to work in areas outside of the cities where there is less opportunity for this additional employment. University management is not seen as a career and therefore qualified people do not seek management positions.

There are no restrictions on pay in private institutions. The salary of teachers below the rank of assistant professor is similar to the public sector public institutions, but, above the rank of lecturer, private institutions pay better than their public counterparts.

The expansion has led to more complex organizations that require more qualified administrative staff than are available. Many administrative staff are insufficiently skilled to develop systems to cope with the expansion. Public universities are not allowed by government to pay market wages to attract better staff. This means that administration is cumbersome, inefficient and ineffective and acts as a break on the effective use of scarce resources.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries and the expansion of higher education has been possible because of the considerable direct budget support by donors. Even so, the system is underfunded. Libraries are under resourced, classes are large, and equipment and supplies are short.

The problem is compounded by an inflexible system of line budget negotiation between government and institutions that encourages universities to cling to the status quo as far as the expenditure is concerned, to overstate their needs and to spend to the limit. A more rational, output-based system of funding is being contemplated that will help to ensure that the limited funds available would be used more effectively.

There is a limited form of cost sharing that obliges graduates from the public sector to pay back a small proportion of their teaching costs after graduation. However, in the public sector they get free room and board and pay no up-front fees. Since there are few opportunities for profit making consultancy, this limits the revenues available to universities.

The expansion of higher education in other parts of the world has led to a diversification of mission with some institutions focused on different levels of study: sub-degree, undergraduate and graduate. This allows more efficient use of resources and a concentration of more experienced, qualified academic staff and resources where they are most needed. In Ethiopia, the government has decided not to establish a more diversified system and each new public university has to be a ‘comprehensive’ university offering a bit of everything.

Cultural Issues

The quality problems the system faces are not solely to do with resources and government policies. Government, managers and staff have a disabling culture of bureaucracy, blame and deference that is often inimical to change and modernization.

There is over-regulation of the rapidly expanding private sector. Some of this is a result of the admittedly patchy quality found in these institutions, but the upshot is that the continued viability of the best (some of which rival the best in the public sector) is called into questions. For example, in 2010, the HERQA said it would stop accrediting or renewing the accreditation of private institutions (this seems later to have been rescinded) and has prevented them from offering training in law and teaching fields. Private higher education is now also prohibited from offering distance-learning programs. These prohibitions seem political and are likely to have far-reaching and unpredictable outcomes.

As a result of these tensions: managers in universities have to discern hidden agendas rather than working within a more open system where they can confront the problems they face in partnership with government and staff; outsiders to the system are sometimes critical of the expansion policy; private higher education faces an uncertain future; and there is no guarantee that HERQA’s quasi-independence and mode of operation can be maintained.

Pedagogic and Curriculum Issues

The staffing and curriculum problems outlined above mean that, although many institutions are nominally ‘universities’ some questions arise as to whether the education they offer can be seen to be meeting minimum international standards.

Despite extensive training programs, there is still a lack of match between employer and stakeholder requirements and curriculum, pedagogy and assessment methods. Scarce ICT, book and other resources and traditional attitudes compound these difficulties and discourage a move to more student-centered forms of learning. The result is that teaching and learning is too often rote learning with a lack of depth and application.

The valuing of science and technology above other subjects (such as the arts and social studies) has led to micro management of the curriculum and intakes within public and private higher education, without taking into account what the institutions are able to cope with, the expertise of their staff and the facilities available. This means that in the short and medium term, science and technology graduates will have been taught using chalk and talk methodologies by non-specialist and under-qualified staff.

Equality and HIV/AIDS Issues

Most universities deal with equality and HIV/AIDS issues as a student problem. Their policies do not emphasize the institutional and systemic barriers that female students face: the lack of assertiveness that requires changes in teaching and learning methods in high schools and in universities; teacher attitudes; a lack of female role models in the teaching staff; a curriculum that may be ill-suited to female interests and so on. In addition, since subject choices are generally allocated according to school-leaving grades, popular subjects are filled with students with higher grades who get their first choice (almost always male). This means that female students are generally studying subjects they have not chosen and they therefore struggle to succeed. As a group, they have an alarmingly high drop-out rate which has devastating social implications (some are ashamed to return to their families and some turn to prostitution).

Other forms of discrimination and bias are not recognized. When they are interviewed, female and ethnic minority students report discrimination and abuse (sexual and bullying) from both other students and some staff. Female students often get involved in relationships with older men (and not uncommonly their teachers) in a ‘sugar daddy’ relationship: country girls can be dazzled by the treats on offer. This has led to female students becoming one of the groups most at risk from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia.  Managers do not always take relatively simple measures to combat them, such as codes of practice for sexual relationships between staff and students, a system of anonymous and second marking of assignments and confidential routes for reporting abuse.

Similarly, with HIV/AIDS the problem is seen to be with students. Teaching about HIV/AIDS is seldom mainstreamed in the curriculum, and where it is, the focus is on developing students’ knowledge: the pedagogies chosen do not address attitude change and behavior. The role of students as potential agents for change with respect to gender and HIV/AIDS is not often addressed within the curriculum in terms of their future role as leaders in society. The issues of HIV/AIDS and gender are seldom addressed fully as management and staffing issues.

ICT and Connectivity

The Ethiopian higher education sector aspires to be part of the ‘knowledge super-highway’. However there are several factors inhibiting this. One is that there is only one internet service provider in Ethiopia, the Government-run Ethiopian Telecoms (ETC). Even in the capital city Addis Ababa a constant electricity supply cannot be guaranteed and throughout the country outages are common. In 2009 it was estimated that only 0.4 percent of the population were internet users.3 [6]

Poor connectivity and a lack of technical expertise make it difficult for those outside the country to connect with individuals and organizations within Ethiopia. A website set up in 2005 by HERQA and HESC with support from the Dutch Capacity Building organization NUFFIC [7] was an attempt to create a portal for the higher education sector in Ethiopia and a means of entry into the sector for those outside the country. Recently the site has been difficult to access and the data has not been updated.


Higher education can be transformative for both the individual and a country. It has the potential to do this for Ethiopia but much needs to be done if this transformative potential is to be fully realized.

The Ethiopian system is trying to achieve more graduates without a noticeable loss of quality. HERQA has reported honestly on the quality of universities within the system. It has mitigated, but has not been able to stem, quality problems. Their reports show that institutions have considerable strengths, but many have systematic and deep-seated weaknesses. The fact that the reports are (as yet) largely confidential to government and the institutions limits their effectiveness as a spur to improvement.

There are tensions within the system that impact on the quality of education offered and graduates’ capabilities: resources versus expansion; autonomy versus ‘government knows best’; the country’s needs for a professional workforce versus the need to maintain standards; openness of HERQA reports versus the need to maintain confidence in the government strategy.  Despite these tensions, we are constantly impressed by the progress made and the commitment of government, and managers and staff in public and private universities to making the expansion work for the benefit of the country. On balance, the past achievements of the system make us optimistic about the future of Ethiopian higher education.

1. [8] Conference paper Analysis of Institutional Quality Audit Reports by HERQA: Challenges Faced and Way Forward, presented by Kassahun Kebede (HERQA Senior Expert) Valerie Lestrade (HERQA/VSO volunteer) Dr. Tesfaye Teshome (HERQA Director General) and Sisay Tikele (HERQA Senior Expert) ‘The Influence of HERQA on the Quality and Relevance of Ethiopia’s Higher Education System: Reflections on the Evidence’, Addis Ababa, 4th & 5th May, 2011. (Conference Proceedings to be published by HERQA later in 2011).

2. [9] These projects included LMDP, The Leadership and Management Development Project; ASSIST-HERQA,  Advice, Strengthening and Support through Investment and Supply of Training for the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency; HELP-HESC, The Higher Education Leadership and Policy Support Project for Higher Education Strategy Center; EQUIP, Educational Quality Improvement Programme (see http://www.cis.vu.nl/projects/index.cfm [10] 20 Aug 2009).

3. [11] Internet World Stats [12], accessed July 6th 2011

Dr. Philip Rayner and Professor Kate Ashcroft are directors of Ashcroft & Rayner Consulting Ltd. and have worked in Ethiopia since 2003 as 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 Africawill be published later this year by IAP- Information Age Publishing Inc., Charlotte, NC 28271, USA.