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Ethiopia: Focus More on Differentiation than Expansion of Higher Education

Ethiopia is in a dire need for specialized and intensive research on areas of its development priorities, particularly in science and technology, argues Ayenachew Aseffa Woldegiyorgis by establishing what should be emphasized regarding the higher education in the country.

By Ayenachew Aseffa Woldegiyorgis |
In the second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II) Ethiopia is set to build eleven new universities. This is often explained by factors related to economic benefits and national human resources planning, as well as the more latent, and less discussed, reasons of regional distribution of universities and the political advantage of expanding access.

Of course, the government of Ethiopia has to be commended for the remarkable success it has achieved in expanding access to higher education, in the past two decades. The increase both in number and intake capacity of public universities is very impressive. However, a careful consideration of the pertinent challenges of public universities, calls in to question the wisdom in continuing to expand by building more universities, and ultimately producing more graduates. Instead pausing, or at least slowing down, expansion and focusing on differentiation of institutions along with improving quality seems to be a more sensible action for GTP II.

It has been reported that in Nigeria, one of the superpowers of higher education in Africa, when in 2012 the Dangote Group advertised 100 truck driver jobs, it attracted about 13,000 applicants. What is more mesmerizing is that six of the applicants had a PhD degree, 704 of them were graduates of master’s degrees and 8,460 of them were bachelor’s degree holders – many of them said to have graduated from reputable institutions. Similarly in Ethiopia, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of graduates are surfing through the labor market every day, or, are employed in jobs that require far less than their qualifications.

If we can learn one thing from this: producing as many graduates as possible every year is not always and necessarily a good thing in its own. The compatibility of the fields of graduation with the needs of the labor market, the quality and relevance of the programs and, more importantly, the capacity of the economy to absorb the graduates are all crucial factors of consideration.

Differentiation as a remedy

Differentiation of higher education institutions is, according to a number of researches, one way to address this predicament.

Differentiation, in this case, is the creation of different kinds of institutions in terms of their missions, specific areas of specialization, teaching methods, focus on research or training, governance structure, relations with industry, etc. This in turn is reflected in the way they recruit their students – not only should they be allowed to choose from among a pool of applicants, but also set their own criteria, perhaps in addition to what is determined by the ministry. Literature on the subject shows that differentiation has the following advantages:

a) It better satisfies the labor market needs by offering variety of specializations as needed for the social and economic development planned by the state;

b) It affords access for students with different academic backgrounds and level of achievement;

c) It makes it possible for a combination of elite and mass higher education to co-exist offering the benefits of both simultaneously; and

d) It improves social mobility by allowing diverse mode of entry into higher education and arranging the options for upward and downward transfers.

Differentiation in developmental states

Since developmental states set out multi-faceted and complex socio-economic agenda, they need institutions that are suited to serving the diverse needs of the developmental dynamics. However, it was a common challenge to reconcile between two demands: on one hand, the production of highly trained, technology-oriented professionals needed for complex industrialization, and on the other, the public pressure for wide open access for higher education. Countries, even those that pursued similar developmental goals through industrialization, took different approach in determining the size and structure of their higher education systems.

For instance, upon the realization that it would not be possible for all high school graduates to go to high tech and capital intensive higher education system, South Korea and Taiwan, adopted a two tier system: one lower level, low cost, localized tier, and one high level specialized capital-intensive tier. These countries successfully expanded and diversified their higher education systems to meet national skills requirements as well as satisfy the public demand for access to higher education, with the possibility to move from one level of higher education to another.

Malaysia and Singapore, on the contrary, opted for a small elitist higher education system almost fully financed by the state. They maintained the grip on access allowing in only small number of the applicants with the best results. Graduates of such institutions had a better chance to get employment at the highest levels of the occupational structure, while there were a small number of polytechnics engaged in training technicians.

And for Ethiopia?

Ethiopia is in a dire need for specialized and intensive research on areas of its development priorities, particularly in science and technology. However, there is also a strong political pressure to rectify the injustices of the past by further expanding access. The two-tier system, which accommodates these contending demands, appears more relevant for Ethiopia.  Such a system allows a large number of people to join higher education in general, but within itself, it embeds a small, high prestige and difficult to access, publicly funded set of institutions charged with the task of producing the best of the manpower to industry and research. In effect, it combines the features of mass and elite higher education systems at the lower and upper tiers respectively.

At this point it is important to acknowledge the positive strides made in creating two (Addis Ababa and Adama) science and technology universities, which, at least in principle, would be different from the rest of the public universities in the country. Also, the fact that, this year, a separate entrance exam was given for those applicants interested in joining these institutions, was an encouraging move, (though the result was not as expected according to some sources).

Nonetheless, whether or not these universities are practically different from the others needs a closer examination. As one research pointed out, in many African countries differentiation of universities does not go too far from inserting certain words in their names or putting a certain claim in their mission and vision statements. In practice, very often, no clear distinctions are observed in their governance structure, curriculum, entry requirements, teaching methods, focus on research, or even facilities.

In GTP II, drawing from previous experiences, more specialized universities should come into play. Importantly, a certain set of universities have to be designated to become research universities, and should be staffed and equipped as such. This calls for a temporary halt or slowdown of expansion for two reasons: first, creating specialized and research universities requires a significant investment, which, considering the limited resources, comes as a trade off with expansion. Second, many of the public universities, especially the newly established ones are poorly equipped and very poorly staffed. Without specialized and research universities being well organized first and strategically enabled to produce the qualified manpower for the to-be established universities, the coming will be worse than the existing. The alternative would risk continuing the vicious circle: more ill-equipped, ill-staffed universities, more ill-prepared graduates, more unemployment.

Ayenachew Aseffa Woldegiyorgis is a higher education consultant for the World Bank in Washington DC. The views expressed in this article are of his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bank, or The Reporter. He can be reached atayenachew@gmail.com.

Source: The Reporter

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