Higher education and inequality in Ethiopia: balancing expansion and equity

University of Gondar library, March 2006
University of Gondar library, March 2006 © Keith Nockels

The Ethiopian higher education system rests on a policy framework that combines rapid expansion with a mission of equity. A major challenge in and of itself, as is evident in the many discrepancies between equity principles and 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 on how expansion and equity are balanced in Ethiopian higher education policy and practice, and who has decision-making power. A related blog post further discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting inequality dynamics. A final (upcoming) post will reflect on the use of a life course perspective to address inequality in higher education.

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.

Levelling the playing field through higher education

Since the turn of the century, academics and policy makers increasingly recognize the value of higher education as an instrument for stability, economic growth and socio-economic equality, as is illustrated by its inclusion in the Sustainable Development Goals (although some argue this has been done so marginally that its effects are questionable at best). Our review finds that the number of institutes and enrolments in low-and middle income countries have risen and, although financial data is scarce, investments have grown. However, a growing body of research supports the notion that expansion does not level the playing field for all. A recent UNESCO study on scholarship accessibility for students from Sub-Saharan Africa for example, shows that issues like finance, background, identity and beliefs about possibility and desirability are key factors in the inclusion of some groups over others. In Ethiopia, inclusion is an explicit part of the higher education expansion strategy, as is laid down in the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) and the Higher Education Proclamation. Still, major challenges remain in the road towards an inclusive higher education system. Some groups remain systematically disadvantaged, differences that are likely further exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which presents a challenge to the right to education globally.

Expansion, equity and power: a delicate balance

Conference Hall of Eshetu Chole-Addis Ababa University
Conference Hall of Eshetu Chole-Addis Ababa University © UNICEF Ethiopia/2012/Getahun

Our review reveals that in many cases, higher education policy is aimed first and foremost at expansion while quality and equality are of secondary concern. However, although rapid expansion leads to a more diverse student body, it does not create inclusive systems. Some socio-economic groups remain disadvantaged by a lack of financial, socio-cultural, human and political resources. Resource deprivations are often found in multiple domains at once, and are connected in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways. A much neglected factor in these systems is the role of decision-making power. Although it is not always identified as such in the definition of political resources, we argue it is a key factor and should be included in research on inequality. I asked Dr. Enbiale and Saskia Kloezeman about the balance between expansion and equality in Ethiopia, and who decides? Important questions in the context of Ethiopia, where civil unrest around matters of inequality and political power frequently disrupt regions of the country, as is currently the case in the Tigray region (although the interviews in this post have taken place before the current unrest erupted).

Dr. Wendemagegn Enbiale
Dr. Wendemagegn Enbiale

Dr. Enbiale explains how higher education is a key sector in policy: 43% of government spending goes to education, 60% of that is spent on higher education. These investments are made to 1) serve science, innovation and industry, and 2) to facilitate the right to access higher education, which is enshrined in the constitution along with the explicit promotion of the rights of women, disabled people and those from economically disadvantaged and developing regions. Since 1998, the number of public universities has grown from 2 to 51 to achieve the goal of offering one university to every 2 million citizens. In addition, there are around 18 private institutes of higher education.

Mechanisms of in- and exclusion

Inclusion is embedded in Ethiopian higher education policy in several ways, as Dr Enbiale explains. He first underlines the rapid expansion of higher education in previously under-served remote areas. Second, students are allocated to programmes by an independent central government body based on their preferences and grades, combined with affirmative action (disadvantaged groups get 5-10% added to their secondary school grades) and quota. Third, all students are included in a cost-sharing system: They can make use of universities, food and housing, without payment. After graduation, students reimburse 15% of the costs to the government, if and when they find a job. Finally, curricula and language practices are standardized, so programs offered at different institutes are similar.

Disability is Not Inability - Sign at Addis Ababa University - Addis Ababa - Ethiopia
Disability is Not Inability – Sign at Addis Ababa University – Addis Ababa – Ethiopia © Adam Jones

In many ways, these policies work towards equal access: universities are affordable and accessible; access is based on performance (slightly more favourable towards disadvantaged groups); and the number of enrolments has increased dramatically throughout the regions. In addition, an anticipated social side-effect of the cost-sharing system, is that students from all backgrounds end up in the same situation, eating the same food and sleeping in the same dormitories. This effect is exacerbated by a lack of quality in the private education system, attracting youth from all backgrounds to the public education system. However, as Dr. Enbiale explains, a lack of resources still leads to disadvantages, resulting in issues like rising prostitution levels among female students. Further, the ratio of women in undergraduate programmes remains at 34.7% (with lower percentages at higher levels); the inclusion of disabled people is lagging (despite their representation in the constitution); and there is a lack of decentralized decision-making power. For example, universities do not have decision-making power over enrolments and curricula. Where they do have the option to design part of the curriculum, there is little room for such efforts in practice. Also, the expansion of opportunities in remote areas loses some of its meaning, as the allocation system does not assure direct access to people from these areas: “In practice, around 40% of students are from the region, while 60% will come from different regions”.

Saskia Kloezeman
Saskia Kloezeman

Saskia Kloezeman recognizes this effect, but indicates it also has positive outcomes. Students are spread throughout the country, exposing them to diversity and new experiences: “Ethiopia is so large, and so diverse, it is a good thing that people from Addis also experience things outside of Addis”. Unfortunately, the centralized allocation system also has its downsides, creating a mismatch between what students would like to do, and therefore probably are good at, and what they are being educated for. After graduation, many students find a job while retraining for a profession they aspire to: “I met a biology teacher who was studying accountancy at night. He would have preferred to study economics. Only a small section of students are appointed to their first choice of programme”.

Saskia Kloezeman also underlines that universities are starting to gain decision-making power and recognize opportunities. This is visible, for example, in the connections they make towards their surrounding communities. They are discovering how relevant these are in developing innovative activities and community-based pilot projects. However, the question of power remains a field of tension. On the one hand, centralized governance allocates students and makes key decisions. It is then expected of the universities that they serve and engage with local environments and communities, while creating linkages with local industries – all using a standardized framework. Finally, Saskia Kloezeman further raises questions in terms of the homogeneity of institutes created by policies on paper, such as standardized curricula and teaching methods, claiming that universities are their own separate ‘villages’, with their own institutional culture and there are significant differences in the quality of, and resources offered by, higher education institutes.

Considering (de-)centralization: harmonizing standardization and diversity

The Ethiopian university system is an interesting example of the discrepancies that occur between political ideologies of inclusion and real world practice, whether intended or unintended. Although the strategies used to facilitate equity in higher education are quite innovative and constitutionally arranged, there are key challenges in terms of the centralized decision-making processes and the extent to which the standardization of higher education processes should be implemented. Universities would likely benefit from the ability to serve and enrol their surrounding communities, and to evaluate, prioritize and manage the real effects of policies; while students would benefit from a system that provides equal opportunity through expansion but also addresses questions that go beyond access, including, for example, attention to aspirations and other human- and socio-economic factors. Indeed, following the findings of our literature review, an integral part of inclusive higher education policy is to recognize that inequality is not just a matter of access, and neither one of finance: Inequalities emerge and matter throughout the life course, and are embedded in a broad scope of financial, socio-cultural, human and political factors. My next post will reflect further on this ‘life course perspective’ and its iteration in Ethiopian higher education.