Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

Improving higher education faces challenges

When it comes to education, Ethiopian leaders aspire to make the sector flourish so as to produce elites that in turn help them realize their ambitions under their administrations. Modern education which goes back to the regime of Emperor Menelik in the 1890s, flourished during the Hailesillassie regime. This is especially true for  higher education. The later regime aggressively worked to educate young Ethiopian scholars by sending them to European countries like France, following the good bilateral relationship the two had established. As they returned to their homeland, the young scholars were supposed to work in higher levels with higher positions given the scarcity of educated citizens.
During the Dergue regime too, the government previously sent young scholars to socialist countries such as Cuba and Russia in mass. In both regimes the scholars would earn more in comparison with the other members of the community.
During the incumbent administration, the approach has changed. Students are not sent abroad for further education. Instead, they have been sent to the local higher educational institutions following the opening of various universities in the country. Currently, the number of higher educational institutions has increased to over 120 among which the private institutions account for over 90. These institutions accommodate millions of citizens.
In terms of distribution, a larger number of citizens are not joining higher education. As part of its goal of providing various citizens with access to higher education, the government established over 32 state universities. The number of privately owned higher educational institutions also reached 91 and as a result they are capable of accommodating a large number of students.
This year for instance, among the total of students who took end of the year end examinations in high school, about 83 percent of them or 165,167 passed the exam to join higher educational institutions during the 2014/15 fiscal year. These are students who scored 250 and above, which is the pass mark, out of 700. That is part of the government’s plan to give citizens more access to higher education.
Aiming to produce more skilled labour for science and technology, the government mandated that the proportion of science and technology students to social and humanities be 70/30 percent, a goal which has already been achieved. However, one expert at HEQA argues that the distribution of students has to take quality into account. “In principle, it is not necessary for everyone to have access to higher education,”  The aim of higher education is rather to produce a labour force  that is equipped with sophisticated knowledge and skills which I hardly see in our context,” he told Capital.
One issue that seems apparent is that in order to produce a skilled labour force, schools need to have quality infrastructure. For example equipment needs to be up to standards in order for students to get the most out of their education and remain competitive internationally and if buildings are still under construction, when students are starting classes, as has occurred at some schools, it can be distracting for them as well.
In the current scenario, various universities do not have laboratories or the necessary equipment for practical experiences, according to the audit reports by the Ethiopian Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency. What the Ministry of Education is doing to address the problem in the case of state owned universities is to create clusters among universities so that comparatively well equipped universities share their equipment with the other schools. To this effect, students from various universities are supposed to travel a number of kilometers to the other campuses in order to receive practical experiences.
The ministry speaks on behalf of the government that quality comes later following the expansion while experts strongly argue that the two cannot be treated separately.
“We do not understand why people make it a big deal. I think it is obvious that to do so and create access to higher education for many is better than to simply wait until the necessary infrastructure is built,” claims Daniel Argaw a researcher at the academic division of the ministry.
That, however, does not make that much sense to some. Gu’ush Hadgu, a retiree who worked for over 40 years, in the education sector, in places such as HERQA strongly disagrees with the current approach.
“You cannot say quality will come later. I do not understand where such a philosophy comes. For me, education without quality is not education. It is just a waste of resources,” he strongly argued.
During the last decade, HERQA conducted a single survey on employers’ satisfaction in 2010. The finding indicated that employers felt that the primary benefit of new graduates was that they could be hired cheaply. The survey revealed that engineering, medical and management graduates were insufficiently qualified for the jobs.
According to Gu’ush, the there is enough money in education to purchase up to date infrastructure.
Recently education has taken over 20 percent of the federal budget, which is drawn up by the Council of Ministers and Approved by the House of People’s Representatives. For the 2014/15 fiscal year for instance, it takes up 23 percent of the 178 billion birr budget. The larger part of this percentage still goes to higher education. It is also a given that in addition to the budget allocated by the government, universities are offered a larger amount of money from international partners for their requests.” I believe recklessness of officials is more an issue than money in the sector,” Gu’ush says.
With regard to infrastructure for instance, criteria mainly focuses on class room sizes, availability of libraries (whatever the content might be) and laboratories. 
Quality assurance
During the last ten years, the Ethiopian Higher Education and Relevance Quality Agency (HERQA) has been in charge of monitoring educational quality at colleges and universities. In principle, the agency is supposed to audit every higher education institution be it state owned or private, every five years. In actuality, however, no educational institution has been re-audited in the last eight years. Not only that but some have not ever been audited, during the last eight years. The agency attributes the failure to shortage of staff experts.
“We cannot afford to do that with the existing staff. The number of higher educational institutions has been growing at an alarming rate while the number of experts here at HERQA almost has remained intact,” says Sisay Tekle, an expert at the agency. Tesfaye Teshome director general of the agency, who is appointed by the Prime Minister, told Capital that the agency is now opening branches in the regions so as to address the problem.
Sometimes a school appears to have incongruent levels because they are rated by the accreditation and audit departments. In the 2011 publications for instance, New Millennium and St Mary schools were listed as colleges when they were audited but in their accreditation status they are listed as universities. 
Apart from the fact that there is no re-audited higher educational institution, there is also no concrete information about if the audited institutions have improved their quality or addressed shortfalls.
“We do not play the role of the police. Our major aim is to support them to achieve the best levels instead of controlling them. We are even going further considering the fact that the institutions are not applying what we suggest,” Tesfaye told Capital.
For over 120 higher educational institutions that HERQA is supposed to audit every five years, in addition to some other frequent and student supervisions, the agency has only ten experts for auditing.
The focus areas of the institutional quality audit include: educational goals that have to do with vision and mission, governance and management systems, infrastructure and learning resources, academic and support staff, student admissions and support services, program relevance and curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment, student progression and graduate outcomes, research and outreach activities, and finally internal quality assurance.
The agency recommends universities to consist of staff comprised of 30 percent PhD holders, 50 percent Masters and 20 percent with a Bachelors Degree.
However, the majority of audited higher educational institutions (excluding medical and veterinary schools) on average had 13 percent PhD holding staff, 54.7 percent Masters and 32.2 percent Bachelor’s Degree.
The agency has not also been audited by external auditors. Even the Netherlands based organization that studied the agency in 2012 concluded that the agency is fragile. The International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) – an international quality auditor declined to accept the agencies’ membership application due to various shortfalls. Among others, the agency is not autonomous. At the time, the board was led by the education minister who made its autonomy questionable. Now the board is chaired by the health minister Kesete- Birhan Admasu
The fact that HERQA itself has not been audited by an external auditor is another problem, according to Gu’ush. He claims that the attention given by the government to the institution is not sufficient. He mentions that many of the experts and management are not education experts.  In fact, the experts and the management including the director general are from different professions. The director general is a forestry professional while the accreditation director is a veterinary medicine professional. Among the experts the majority of them are not education experts.
Tesfaye Teshome (Phd) Director General of the agency argues that the management is not necessarily expected to have education expertise. “What matters is, the management skills. If that is the case, you can mention various top personalities that do not deserve to be in the positions that they are in across the globe,” he says.
Gu’ush, however, strongly argues against this, “If you do have the expertise, you will have more impact in working for change in principle. Plus professional responsibility will be there,” he says.
Gu’ush says more attention is needed  by the government. “You know what I think; it seems to me that the agency is filled with non relevant professionals and weak leadership capabilities; even the newly appointed deputy director, who was the Dean of Dilla University, of the Agency, HERQA.   An external evaluation of the agency undertaken by the Netherlands MUFIC project, which looked into its performance from 2006 – 2011, reported that the agency’s institutional sustainability was ‘fragile’. “Educational institutions must be audited or accredited by relevant professionals,” Gu’ush insists.
Yeromnesh Ayele director of the Accreditation& Authentication of Educational Credentials, disagrees. “Of course, we believe that the agency has to do more to ensure quality. But to accredit a certain institution, one is not supposed to be an education expert. Anybody can do that given that there is a clear criteria set by the agency,” he told Capital. The audit reports by the  agency undertaken in 70 educational institutions shows that the majority of them do have qualities that enable them survive despite the existence of various critical issues that the agency says should be improved.  Yet, the issue of enhancement is unthinkable with the majority of them, according to an expert at the agency who requested anonymity. Yeromnesh also shares the expert’s conclusion. “A number of them strive to achieve the minimum requirements. But once they secure that, they forget about improvements,” Yeromenesh told Capital.
To minimize the problem the agency is to open branches in the regions. “The opening of branch offices will definitely have an impact on our performance and then in assuring quality of the nation’s higher education. We are now working aggressively towards,” Tesfaye told Capital.
University- industry linkage
Getachew Worku is an instructor and academic dean at Lion Tourism College. He usually finds it difficult to find a company where he can take his students for practical training. “The companies are not usually willing to do that. Plus, the college may not have the necessary equipment which is used to give practical trainings. This usually forces us to cancel the practical training arts,” he told Capital. In principle, the concept of university industry- linkage is very important. If educational institutions and companies sign a memorandum of understanding, the institution provides the company with its potential workers while the company serves as a training center for the colleges. “Unfortunately, that kind of trend is not yet developed well,” Getachew claims.
The final outcome of all these are graduates that are less competitive than needed for their professions. In addition to the graduates that fail to be competitive within the labour market, employers too are victims of the products fabricated by such an education system. while sharing foreign investors with the business opportunities in the agriculture sector a month ago  at Hilton Hotel, Essayas Kebede manager at Agri Ceft one of the MIDROC groups said that the workers sometimes become means of a loss at the company given that they do not offer the service the company expects from them. “Sometimes we feel that we pay the majority of our workers for free. We do not get the service we expect and this has to do with skills which emanate from the education system,” he told participants.
Gu’ush also considers oversees employment as poor in his own observations during the last decade. But the ministry still contends that oversees employment is not the target. “We do not train our citizens for the other markets. If they are able to afford the local market and support our development, that is what we want,” Daniel from the ministry said. That is however illogical according to Gu’ush. Higher education has to have both national and international recognition. I think to work towards achieving that is better instead of listing excuses,” he says.
The National Qualification Framework which is being prepared by the Ethiopian Education Strategy Center (HESC) should improve the country’s higher education quality. The qualification framework was tabled for discussion for stakeholders about two months ago. It will go for implementation after one more discussion, according to Aklilu Hailemichael(PhD) director general at the education strategy center. The framework which is supported by different counterparts in countries such as Australia, Germany and the Netherlands, will encourage lifelong learning by enabling diploma holders to smoothly continue learning in the university, among others. It also aims at increasing the acceptability of the educated citizens by institutions abroad. It will maximize overseas employment, according to Aklilu.
Stakeholders like Essayas and the education experts who aspire to see quality education in the nation like Gu’ush look forward to the implementation of the qualification framework.