The growth of private higher education institutions (HEIs) has been rapid over the last decade – up from 55 in the 2002/03 academic year to 106 in 2014/15. Private HEIs graduated 133,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students last academic year – and often enjoy greater gender parity than government universities. Still, these institutions face a number of logistical and managerial hurdles, not least of which is an imbalanced treatment from the government vis-à-vis assessment and accreditation. While some stakeholders don’t mind the scrutiny, done so in the name of improving education quality, many wonder why there’s a double standard between public and private institutions. EBR’s Tamirat Astatkie spoke with key insiders to learn more about the tension present in the relations between private HEIs and regulators.
Sherbanu Mazher Hussein, 26, is an Ethiopian national of Indian origin and a recent graduate of Unity University’s Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, completing her studies with a cumulative grade point average of 3.89. While attending her primary and secondary education at Sanford International School in Addis Ababa, Sherbanu was always at the top of her class – and has always had a deep passion for design, architecture, mechanics and electronics.
However, until her decision to pursue architecture and urban planning at Unity University, she was in the throes of a difficult decision: which course of study to pursue – astrophysics in New Zealand or medicine in Russia. However, both options failed for logistical reasons. She also worked as an air-hostess at Ethiopian Airlines, which only lasted for one year.
Because she initially wanted to attend university abroad, she had to forego the option of pursuing her education at a government university. Running out of options, Sherbanu was in a predicament.
However, due to the promulgation of the Education and Training Policy in 1994, which served as a springboard for the emergence and proliferation of private higher education in Ethiopia, Shebranu was able to enrol in a private higher education institution (HEI) to pursue her educational and professional goals.
Unity University is the first private institute of higher learning in Ethiopia; and the first to be granted full-fledged university status by the Ministry of Education. It is also the first private university to offer postgraduate programmes leading to a master’s degree in Business Administration and Development Economics.
Roughly 8,000 students are currently enrolled at the University: 160 in the postgraduate programme, 3,487 undergraduates and 927 in the diploma programme. The distance programme is offered to more than 3,330 students enrolled at 38 centres.
Private HEIs absorb excess demand for higher education in Ethiopia, providing alternatives for students who don’t like their placement or field of study at public universities.
For Molla Tsegay (PhD), President of Admas University, the benefits of private higher education institutions include creating opportunities for students that don’t have the chance to enrol in government universities. “Especially through distance education, private HEIs provide education for those that live in remote areas,” he says. “Even public universities are unable to reach these areas.”
Even after private HEIs were allowed to offer programmes, most pioneering institutions did not directly begin providing degree programmes. Rather, most started as language schools, computer training centres or as vocational institutes, offering short-term, tailored courses.
In 2000/01, the then Alpha University College was the first accredited higher education institution to offer undergraduate accounting and management distance education programmes. Soon thereafter, the presence of private institutions became more prominent and by 2002/03, there were a total of 55 private HEIs offering diploma programmes throughout the country, of which three were accredited to confer undergraduate degrees.
However, in recent years that figure has grown exponentially. Currently, there are 106 accredited private HEIs that offer undergraduate and postgraduate programmes across the country. There are also 13 more institutions currently undergoing the accreditation process.
Private HEIs Contributions
This academic year private higher education institutions have enrolled 115,925 students. This represents less than 20Pct of the total students attending higher education throughout the country. More than 98Pct of the students in private institutions are pursuing undergraduate studies, whereas the figure is lower in government institutions.
Industry insiders say that in addition to increasing access to education, private institutions help to balance the gender gap in higher education. “Private HEIs play an increasing role in Ethiopia by creating a lot of opportunities for women in narrowing the gender gap of those who pursue a higher education,” says Molla.
Mekonen Berhe (PhD), President of Medco Bio Medical College (MBMC), agrees with Molla regarding the opportunities private universities provide to women. “Of the total 10,000 graduates of MBMC in the last 16 years, more than 80Pct are women and they account for 88Pct of current students.”
Indeed, in the 2013/14 academic year women accounted for nearly 42.6Pct of the total students enrolled in undergraduate programmes in private HEIs, a figure that stood at roughly 25Pct at government universities, according to data from the Ministry of Education.
The other contribution of private HEIs, according to stakeholders, is the jobs created by these institutions. As of 2013/14, private HEIs managed to hire 2,015 Ethiopians and 36 expatriates.
The Quality Dilemma
Despite their positive contributions, some education insiders question the quality of instruction private universities deliver.
Although education quality is often a subjective, nuanced concept, private HEIs operating in Ethiopia have been blamed for issues regarding opportunistic behaviour and profit-seeking at the expense of the delivery of quality education. According to literature on the topic, the concept of quality in higher education is not easy to define, as it differs depending on the interpretations and needs of different stakeholders. As a result, there is no single, commonly agreed upon definition of quality and quality assurance systems.
Because of this reality, society is constantly changing its expectations and demands of higher education, which makes matters more complex. This is because different actors have special interests regarding what constitutes quality and each definition has its own implications for standards and indicators emphasised in a given quality assurance system.
According to Lee Harvey, the former Director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom and Diana Green, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham, higher education quality can be defined as “exceptional” or overall “excellence”. This approach focuses on process and sets specifications that it aims to meet perfectly. This is encapsulated in two interrelated dicta: ‘zero defects’ and ‘getting things right the first time’.
Another approach often discussed is that of “fitness for purpose”, which has been introduced in many quality assurance systems. The standards employed in this quality assurance system reflect the extent to which a product or service meets its stated purposes. The “fitness for purpose” approach has been accepted as the working definition in Ethiopia.
Dereje Kebede, Public Relations Coordination Assistant Head of the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA), argues that the major problems identified in private HEIs include applying the accreditation of a certain programme at one campus to other campuses, registering students without fulfilling the required criteria and beyond the permitted number, a lack of qualified academic staff, abusing the academic calendar to their advantage and offering more credit hours than permitted to be given in a semester.
“In addition, self-declaration of the name ranking (College, University College and University) is another problem,” he says. “Consequently, all these have a direct or indirect influence on the quality of education.”
Since its establishment in 2006, the most important work of HERQA has been to conduct institutional quality audits of HEIs. One of the outcomes of these audits is higher education institutions have made only modest progress in establishing robust and comprehensive quality assurance systems. While higher education institutions have embraced the quality concept, only a few of them have developed quality assurance policies and strategies and established efficient structures to systematically ensure quality.
In explaining the wrongly perceived association of private HEIs with inferior quality, Molla emphasises that quality is an existential matter for his university and some other private HEIs. “The association of private institutions with inferior quality education is all about attitude, not based on facts, Molla argues. “Our very existence is determined by the quality service we offer.”
Wondwosen Tamrat, founder and President of St. Mary’s University (SMU), concurs with Molla. “This biased outlook is due to the fact that the sector was a public domain for many decades,” he stresses. “I reject the allegation that the declining or falling of quality of education is particular to private HEIs as a whole.”
According to Molla, in addition to the accreditation process and the external quality audits conducted by HERQA, which he acknowledges as instrumental in assuring quality, many private institutions, including Admas University, have established their own internal system that gauges quality.
“There is a need to closely look at what’s going on the ground before judgement,” he says. “We believe that we are more stringent in classroom follow-up and assessment than the public institutions, which translates into quality assurance.”
Students at private HEIs also testify to the quality of education available at private institutions. “Graduates from private institutions such as Unity University are competent and even sometimes better than those from public institutions,” argues Shebranu.
She supports her argument with anecdotal evidence. “My colleagues and I participated in a televised architectural competition called Bet Lembosa on the Ethiopian Broadcasting Service, in which students from the Addis Ababa University also took part. The competition was presided over by accomplished architecture professionals. Eventually, I won that competition,” says Shebranu, arguing this demonstrates the academic rigour of private HEIs vis-à-vis public institutions.
Additionally, she says most of her fellow classmates have been offered jobs in offices where they did internships because their performance impressed the respective companies.
According to a 2015 report published by HERQA on current trends of quality assurance procedures and practices in higher education, ‘accreditation of program[me] and institution’, and ‘institutional audit’ are the emerging types of quality assurance in Ethiopia. There is a tendency towards “accreditation of program[mes]” in private institutions and “institutional audit” in both public and private HEIs. There is also a tendency of implementing “quality control” in private and “quality improvement” in public institutions.
The report also reveals that unlike private HEIs, public institutions often do not implement recommendations forwarded in audit reports, and no follow-up action was taken by the quality assurance agency. In this regard, the existence of differential treatment (double standard), especially regarding the accreditation system, academic staff joint utilisation and development opportunities, material support, and the issuance of restrictive laws and regulations were factors affecting education quality.
This is because, as observed, most of the criteria demanded of private HEIs are not applied to public higher education institutions. This lack of a level playing field makes it hard for private institutions to fairly compete with their public counterparts when it comes to acquiring all the necessary inputs for quality education, like learning support materials and qualified academic staff.
Molla says that one example of the dichotomous treatment between public and private higher education institutions is that public universities are established through proclamations while the private ones go through a rigorous accreditation process. Wondwosen adds that another privilege public institutions enjoy – the joint appointment of academic staff – is something that is denied to private HEIs.
Despite this imbalance, insiders acknowledge that private HEIs still face challenges, including the issue of education quality, which is a struggle that is shared by all higher education institutions in the country, including the public ones.
According to a research paper entitled “Quality of Education in Private Higher Institutions in Ethiopia: The Role of Governance” conducted by Arega Yirdaw (PhD), President of Unity University and the Association of Private Higher Education Institutions, poor or declining academic quality in higher education is likely not a misconception by the public or the media but a real phenomenon currently occurring throughout HEIs in Ethiopia. As a result, he argues that quality problems should be a real concern both for the institutions involved and for the nation.
The research also indicates that students’ behaviour and attributes, such as poor communication skills, resistance to active learning, and absenteeism, were seen as major indicators of quality issues in private HEIs. Another serious challenge was associated with the negative behaviour of instructors, such as a low level of academic qualifications, lack of dedication, excessive moonlighting, and meagre pedagogical skills.
This demonstrates that, despite efforts by the Ministry of Education and HERQA to maintain quality education while implementing an aggressive higher education expansion programme, poor-quality education throughout the system is still a critical issue.
According Wondwosen’s book Challenges Affecting Quality of Education in Tertiary Private Higher Education Institutions, the difficulties facing private HEIs are substantial. These include, among other things, limited capacity of governance, leadership and management, inadequate financial support, problems diversifying funding and a lack of government support.
The current limited capacity of HERQA, according to stakeholders, is one factor that limits government support. Although there is consensus among those EBR spoke to that HERQA’s contributions to enhancing quality of education through accreditation; re-accreditation; and monitoring, auditing, and extending support have been positive, the Agency’s capacity to deliver the necessary support and services was strongly questioned.
Dereje admits HERQA’s lack of capacity to offer private HEIs the support and services they need to improve quality of education. He attributes the problem to the Agency’s own limited capacity due to shortage of qualified staff. In spite of this, HERQA strives for higher standards and exerts effort to fill the gaps, he says.
In addition to the capacity problems of HERQA, there are also complaints most often heard from private institution about the subjective judgements involved in the accreditation and re-accreditation processes, which may lead to discrepancies. Mekonen supports this argument with evidence that a letter submitted to his college by HERQA regarding the quality audit is ambiguous and lacks clarity, leading to subjective judgements. “The letter says some of the departments in the college are disorganised,” he says. ‘‘The word ‘unorganised’ is unclear unless it is quantified and itemised in detail.”
Dereje admits that there are subjective judgements involved in the evaluation process. However, he says the objective indicators outweigh subjective ones, which only have a minimal effect on the accreditation or re-accreditation processes.
Insiders stress that coordination among stakeholders, especially HERQA and education institutions, will alleviate the aforementioned problems. Support from the government, specifically with regard to providing private HEIs land to enable them build their own campuses, tax exemptions and soft loan facilities are key areas in which stakeholders say these institutions need support in order to realise their full potential. EBR
4th Year • August 16 2016 – September 15 2016 • No. 42