Dilemmas of higher education massification

By: Kate Ashcroft

opride-newsEthiopia is moving very rapidly from an elite towards a mass public sector higher education system. The considerable challenges raised by ‘massification’ include teaching quality, funding, the need for a more professionalised leadership, staff shortages and institutional structure and mission. The operation of the Ethiopian system, where innovation is highly centralised, also makes local responsiveness difficult.

The country’s higher education sector has grown from two public universities just over a decade ago to 22 today with another 10 due to open soon. At the same time, the number of students in each university has doubled and is expected to double again. Private higher education has also increased as part of a general liberalisation of part of the economy.

The expansion of a university system can lead to financial constraints and deteriorating conditions of study. The Ethiopian system struggles to achieve more graduates without a noticeable loss of quality. The Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) was set up to assure the quality of the system.

However, there is still a lack of match between employer and stakeholder requirements and the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment methods. Employers and others I interviewed for various studies consistently emphasised the need for graduates who display self-confidence, initiative, inquisitiveness and creativity.

The qualities employers need are best developed through teaching methods that are difficult with large groups. Faculty find it hard to cope with increased class sizes and tend to rely on traditional teaching methods, which seem easier and are more familiar but fail to meet market needs, increasing the danger of graduate unemployment or underemployment that is inherent in an expanding system.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) has supported massification elsewhere in the world. ICT also has the potential to impact on courses delivered to traditional students.

Some Ethiopian universities have received World Bank funds to develop distance and open learning enabled by ICT. Unfortunately, extreme unreliability of the electricity supply and of the ICT network, a lack of understanding how best to use it to support learning, and the problem of providing face-to-face backup in a predominantly rural country make development very difficult just now.

There had been progress in print-based distance learning that proved useful in supporting learners at a distance and provided opportunities for students, especially women. However, progress has been effectively blocked by a HERQA directive, issued on 26 August 2010, which has scrapped all distance education programmes provided by both private and public institutions in the country.

A system where universities are micro-managed from the centre is no longer possible, but decentralisation creates its own demands.

The Ethiopian government has passed legislation to give universities more autonomy. This means that it is not longer viable for management to be ‘amateur’ and makes promotion as a reward for political loyalty problematic. However, the government itself is still learning how to act in a more devolved sector and how to let go of controls while ensuring accountability.

Pay for university managers is low. Management is not seen as a viable career choice as financial reward generally comes through the attainment of higher degrees or additional teaching. This makes the role of a manager unattractive despite various donor-funded human capacity development projects to prepare staff for management roles and provide mentoring and training.

With more decentralisation, university board members need to be chosen for the particular expertise they can bring (in finance, law, people management and so on). The process of reforming boards has begun so they are not now solely political entities.

Trust is an issue: the government is not always confident that institutional managers and boards are truly competent to make important decisions, and in some cases this lack of trust and confidence may be justified. A fear that decisions taken by institutional managers may be overruled by government also sometimes inhibits initiative and decision-making.


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