Anyone who knows Wondwosen Tamrat, 49, testifies to his humble, soft-spoken and articulate demeanour. He credits these traits to his parents, whom he considers his role models, instilling in him the traits of resilience and commitment.
Despite years of hard work, 1998 defined and launched Wondwosen’s career. That year marked the beginning of private higher education institutions (HEIs), allowing for the establishment and expansion of private HEIs in the country, with Unity becoming the first private college and St. Mary’s soon after.Indeed, that period was characterised by a new phenomenon: the emergence of private HEIs. The education and training policy of 1994 allowed for the involvement of the private sector in higher education. This policy is being implemented through a 20-year plan known as the Education Sector Development Programme. The law paved the way for Wondwosen to establish SMU, one of the most reputable private higher institutions in Ethiopia.
Though there was no detailed, clear roadmap in the plan regarding the private sector, the readiness of the government to accommodate the private sector gave rise to private HEIs and, in turn, the career of Wondwosen.
As a result, a number of language and technical schools as well as computer training centres took the initiative to transform into colleges soon after the law was implemented. “We were among the pioneers to join the sector when a door of opportunity opened for the private sector to invest in higher education,” Wondwosen told EBR.
Born in 1967 in Harar, the third of six children of a housewife and a middle-ranking police officer, Wondwosen lived in different parts of the country due to the nature of his father’s work. As a result, he attended elementary and secondary school in the former Yifat Timuga District and East Shoa Zone. He then earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Addis Ababa University in foreign languages and literature and teaching English as a foreign language, respectively.
In 1992, with less than two years of service at Kotebe College of Teacher Education (KCTE) after earning his first master’s degree, he won a scholarship to pursue another postgraduate degree at the University of Warwick, England, where he studied English language teaching. Upon returning to Ethiopia, he continued to serve KCTB as a lecturer and later as Head of Research and Publications, in addition to establishing St. Mary’s Language School.
It is from this humble beginning that SMU emerged. Established in 1998 SMU, known then as St. Mary’s College, commenced its operations, basing its headquarters in Hawassa. It began with 33 and 37 students in Hawassa and a branch in Addis Ababa, respectively, in three fields of study – accounting, marketing and law.
After moving its headquarters to Addis Ababa the following academic year, SMU consolidated its efforts, expanding its capacity and student intake. “In the history of the institution, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2013 were defining years in terms of the diversification of programmes, implementing dual-modes of teaching and eventually all these contributed to its ascendency to a full-fledged University status,” recalls Wondwosen.
Currently, more than 18,000 students are pursuing 6 undergraduate and 11 postgraduate programmes across SMU’s three campuses in Addis Ababa. Within almost two decades of service, more than 69,000 students have graduated, including the candidates of the current academic year in regular, extension and distance education in certificate, diploma, degree and master’s programmes.
Despite its impressive growth in a short period of time, SMU still strives to improve its quality. Wondwosen notes that the University was the first higher education institution in Ethiopia to undergo a self-initiated external quality audit in 2004, which paved the way for the introduction of a formal quality assurance system at a national level. “In collaboration with the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa, we brought two American experts to undergo the quality audit which we believe laid the foundation for the quality assurance of higher education institutions of the nation,” he asserts.
Wondwosen’s knowledge and experience in the Ethiopian higher education sector consists of more than two decades of active participation and dedicated service. He served as a member of the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Assurance Agency (HERQA) board for two consecutive terms and serves as a member of the Association of Private Higher Education Institutions in Ethiopia.
One factor that distinguishes SMU from other private HEIs is its involvement in research. “In its strategic plan, SMU stipulates from the very outset that research and publications are an important component [of the University’s academic environment],” says Wondwosen. “As an higher academic institution, we have been clear in putting three pillars in our strategic plan: delivery of teaching-learning, undertaking research and publications, and community service. What we have done so far is stick to the plan we set for each pillar.”
His desire to establish robust research programmes within private universities doesn’t end with his institution. Wondwosen says SMU is a founding member of the Ethiopian Private Higher Institutions Association and he’s signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with some public higher institutions to collaborate in training and research. SMU also actively participates in forums organised by the Ministry of Education aimed at strengthening higher education.
Internationally, the University has made a name for itself by engaging in higher education development conferences. For instance, SMU was chosen to take part in the Tuning Africa Project, which is part of an African Union-European Union partnership. Additionally, SMU recently hosted the 14th Annual Conference on International Private Higher Education in Africa, in collaboration with the African Union, UNESCO and the Ministry of Education.
Regarding international partnerships, Wondwosen says that SMU has forged links with foreign institutions, especially regarding postgraduate programmes and scholarships. “We have established a good link with institutions in North America, England, Italy, South Africa, Tanzania, India, and Sierra Leone,” he says.
SMU has also set up a clearing house, a financial institution that provides clearing and settlement services for private higher education research. Other annual conferences include: The Annual Multi-disciplinary Conference, The Annual Student Research Forum, and the Annual Open and Distance Education Seminar. SMU publishes bi-annual journals in three disciplines: agriculture and development, business and administration, and law (Mizan Law Review). Almost all the articles published in the proceedings and journals under its auspices are available on the SMU and African Journals Online websites.
Despite the efforts exerted in the areas of research by SMU and other higher education institutions, Wondwosen underscores that the status of Ethiopia at the continental level in terms of research output, accessibility and impact remain low.
Personally, however, Wondwosen does a great deal of research and publishing. He has authored two books on Ethiopian higher education: The Anatomy of Private Higher Education in Ethiopia and The Evolving Quality Assurance Framework in Ethiopian Higher Education published in 2008 and 2012, respectively. A third book, also on higher education in Ethiopia, is forthcoming.
Regarding the third pillar of SMU’s strategic plan – community service – Wondwosen says as part of its corporate social responsibility efforts, the University is actively involved in the community and outreach programmes that aim to increase awareness and develop a culture of philanthropy. “[The University community] is actively involved in blood donation twice a year, visit and support patients in hospitals, orphans and the needy during holidays,” he says. Additionally, SMU signed a MoU with local NGOs that work with disadvantaged communities, such as Mekedonia and Kibre Aregawian.
Even though he’s made strides in increasing the prominence of private HEIs, Wondwosen says the process hasn’t been without struggle. “After all these years, the journey has not been simple,” he says. In 2010, when the government banned private HEIs from offering courses in teacher education and law in both conventional and distance modalities, it was a difficult period for institutions such as SMU.
In elaborating on the University’s survival strategy, Wondwosen says to overcome the difficult situation members of the management worked hard to develop a strategy of resource diversification and utilisation. “We utilised the buildings we had at hand – and with additional rented buildings and the science laboratories, along with the staff and resources in the teacher education faculty, we opened a school (KG-Grade 12) with the intention of creating an additional source of income, and widening our contribution to the country,” he says.
Still, Wondwosen’s life doesn’t revolve solely around education. He is married and has three children – a girl and two boys – who are attending school. His wife runs her own business. He acknowledges her role in his productivity regarding writing and leadership.
Despite the challenges of running a private university and providing for his family, Wondwosen is hopeful about the realisation of SMU’s strategic plan to be an icon of excellence in East Africa in terms of teaching-learning, research, publications and community service and contributing to the development of Ethiopia. “I am optimistic that the government will give enough attention to the sector, so that we will boost our role both at the national and regional level.”
4th Year • August 16 2016 – September 15 2016 • No. 42