Higher education and inequality in Ethiopia: A life course perspective

This blog was written before the outbreak of the armed conflict in Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, of which the impact on higher education in the country is not known yet. 

The Ethiopian higher education system rests on a policy framework that combines rapid expansion with a mission of equity. A major challenge in itself, as is evident in the many discrepancies between equity principles and often harsh realities, and now disrupted by the (near) complete shutdown of institutes of higher education since the inception of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. How and to what extent does Ethiopia’s higher education system, which has seen the number of universities grow from 2 to 51 in just 22 years, spread its benefits among the population of over 109 million, and what happens to equity principles in a context of crisis? This post discusses the relevance of taking a life course perspective, i.e. considering what happens before, during and after higher education, recognizing the role of inequalities that go beyond access. Related blog posts further discuss how higher education expansion is balanced with equity in Ethiopian policy, and how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting inequality dynamics.

The blog posts are based on the findings of a scoping literature review on inequality in higher education in low- and middle income countries by Simone Reinders (Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh), Professor Marleen Dekker (African Studies Centre Leiden) and Dr. Jean-Benoit Falisse (Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh), funded by a Leiden–Edinburgh Research Grant (LERG) provided by the University of Edinburgh. The review underlines the need to examine the outcomes of higher education expansion in terms of equality and inclusivity, and developed a framework for further research. Building on our findings and reflecting on the specific case of Ethiopia, we asked Dr. Wendemagegn Enbiale (member of the advisory council for the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education and co-chair of quality education and training committee) and Saskia Kloezeman (researcher and consultant on higher education, gender equality and graduate labour market outcomes in Ethiopia)for their experiences with, and reflections on, Ethiopian higher education.

Inequality in higher education does not start at access

 Boditi primary school, Ethiopia 2012
Wolatia Liqa secondary school, Ethiopia 2014

Our literature review finds that equality in higher education does not start, or end, at access. Instead, a lack of resources (e.g. a lack of access to quality primary education) impacts education throughout the life course, thus creating the need to reflect on earlier experiences as a source of inequality, but also on retention and performance, and labour market outcomes. Saskia Kloezeman confirms that a key source of inequality in Ethiopia lies in the expectation that students with diverse educational and socio-economic backgrounds can access and function in the same higher education system. The current strategy assumes that rural schools, without facilities or even electricity, teach at the same levels as expensive private schools in Addis Ababa.

Dr. Wendemagegn Enbiale
Dr. Wendemagegn Enbiale

Dr. Enbiale also recognizes the relevance of this perspective, mentioning specifically the relevance of gender inequalities over the life course: “in the house, it is the girl who will support the family and do most of the jobs, while the boys go out and play football”. This inequality is continued in higher education where women’s tendency to end up in private education is related to their (on average) lower grades, but also to its flexibility (e.g. night- and part-time school schooling). As women generally take care of the family next to their education, they require this space. Unfortunately, private education is also more expensive and of lesser quality.

Saskia Kloezeman
Saskia Kloezeman

Saskia Kloezeman mentions a number of other relevant socio-cultural factors: “In general, universities do not adhere to any code of conduct to systematically implement a culture that is beneficial to quality, equality and diversity in higher education”. In universities, such a code of conduct can provide a set of basic rules that manages living and learning on campus. Relevant especially considering this young, culturally diverse student body. Unfortunately, rural and urban social mechanisms clash regularly and gender-related incidents are common. In general, there appears to be a lack of attention to the socio-cultural aspects of learning, which is not limited to students: “teachers are put in front of a group of students without any training or pedagogical background. And where students fail, the teacher is at fault and could lose their job. The result is a biased, subjective system. What we need is systemic change”.

Basic living is key to the learning experience

Wolatia Liqa secondary school, 2014
Wolatia Liqa secondary school, 2014

Other factors that influence the learning experience are more practical. In (public) higher education, students have markedly different learning experiences, as Saskia Kloezeman explains. The twelve oldest universities are of much better quality in terms of curriculum, staff and facilities. In contrast, the fifth and youngest generation often do not have a library, or electricity: “I have seen students a few years back, in a third generation university, in an IT programme without computers”. Furthermore, the university budget is expected to allow students housing, food, access to education and learning materials. Still, a (small) contribution is expected from students to complement the facilities. The goal of providing the same learning experiences to all students, as reflected upon in my previous blog, is not achieved: “In many universities, facilities are of such poor quality that the situation is hardly manageable”. Students with no financial means are completely dependent on the services as offered, while others are able to find food and housing outside of campus. Describing on a visit to one campus: “there are three levels of dormitories, access is dependent on your year of study. The first level has no water or toilets, the second has water five times a week, and toilets that not always work. The third has water three times a day, and toilets that work most of the time”. The impact on the educational experience is considerable: “If you do not even have a piece of soap to wash yourself with, if you have to fight for survival every day, how can you say you have equal access to education?”.

Job matching remains a challenge, except in the medical sector

Jimma University Campuses. Photo by Ali Eftekhari,
Jimma University Campuses. Photo by Ali Eftekhari,

Another well-known challenge to achieving equal outcomes is that graduates from well-educated families with networks have a much higher chance getting a job. Saskia Kloezeman underlines the lack of connection between the higher education and the private sector in any systematic or effective way, which can in part be seen as a side-effect of the rapid growth of the system. In the former elite higher education system, universities did not need to consider networks and employability for its graduates. The new system focuses on expansion, but does not take job matching into account. Dr. Enbiale agrees that currently, the chance of getting a job depends on background. Disadvantaged graduates without a relevant network do not know how to find a job: “that is a big problem in the country, and a main driving factor for the political unrest. Because we have a lot of graduates who know how to surf Facebook, but not how to do something with their education”.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade PhotoStream, 2009. A teacher demonstrates aspects of assisting labour to midwifery, Addis Ababa Ethiopia
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade PhotoStream, 2009. A teacher demonstrates aspects of assisting labour to midwifery, Addis Ababa Ethiopia

The medical education sector in Ethiopia is an interesting example of how the role of education within the national strategy can affect mechanisms of in- and exclusion in higher education and the labour market: When Dr. Enbiale graduated as a dermatologist the country employed one physician per 40.000 people, most of which resided in Addis Ababa. Medical education was then expanded to address shortages in the health workforce, enrolment figures in medical school have since risen from around 150 per year in 1997 to over 3000 pernext blog post year at present. The strategic function of expansion impacts inequality dynamics: All types of medical programmes are completely free, and all graduates are employed through an obligatory commitment to serving two years in a rural medical post, or 5 years in an urban area. In their first few years, graduates rich or poor will earn the same wages and work in the same institutes. Another side-effect of the strategy is that there is less attention to inclusivity in other respects: There are major challenges in terms physical accessibility of medical programmes for people with disabilities, and only the students with the highest grades are accepted, which creates clear gaps in terms of type of students that gain access.

Equality is not an option. What then?

It is clear that despite marked efforts to build an inclusive higher education system in Ethiopia, significant gaps remain. In line with the findings of our literature review, future efforts would be served by a strategy that addresses the challenges of inequality throughout the life course, extending before, during and after higher education. In addition, it would be productive to look beyond economic challenges and into the socio-cultural aspect of learning. In the context of Ethiopia, it may be productive to take a closer look at universities and their organizational culture. Keeping in mind that universities operate in a culturally diverse context and homogeneity may not be an option (or, arguably, a desirable option), the effective implementation of a code of conduct could be a good place to start. Along these lines Saskia Kloezeman states: “in the end, we all know equality is not possible. Of course, there will always be inequality. But we have to move towards a minimum standard, and that is not what we are doing now”.