Tesfaye Muhiye (PhD) serves as the Director General of the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Assurance Agency (HERQA). It’s the entity responsible for ensuring higher education institutions (HEIs) meet certain standards regarding their organisational structure and academic programmes so that they offer quality and relevant education to aid the country’s development. This is an especially important task, given the government’s push to increase access to higher education and the proliferation of private institutions. However, Tesfaye, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Addis Ababa University in geography and a masters and PhD in India in public administration and climate change, respectively, says the Agency suffers from a lack of capacity, which hinders its ability to carry out its duties to the fullest. EBR’s Tamirat Astatkie spoke with the Director General, who was a vice president at the University of Gondar and later at Wollo University before assuming his current position five months ago, to learn more about the challenges facing HERQA, how the Agency needs to improve and the reasons why they only monitor private institutions. The following is an excerpt.
EBR: The higher education proclamation says the objective of higher education is to prepare knowledgeable, skilled, and mature graduates to meet the employment demands of a variety of fields and disciplines. As per this objective, do you think universities in the country are delivering quality and employable graduates?
Tesfaye: Well, we are still assessing this issue.
But there are reports about the declining quality of higher education due to the poor performance of graduates in the workforce. Such complaints are especially common among graduates of recently established universities. Even Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that the country can’t continue producing unprepared graduates, explaining the need to focus on education quality last year. In light of this, have you done any research to understand the scale of the problem and improve the quality of education?
No, we haven’t conducted any research that evaluates the competence of graduates in the workforce. We often hear that a lot of graduates are not getting employed. However, we really need to research and empirically study the situation. And I can’t give you an exact answer if indeed the competence of our graduates is declining because we need to study it.
We give due emphasis on monitoring institutions to assess whether they deliver services fulfilling the minimum standards. Then we forward our assessment along with recommendations to institutions so that they make improvements accordingly.
However, the government recognises the issue of quality education and strives towards making progress in the Growth and Transformation Plan II. I underline the issue of maintaining quality is not a single-handed activity. It requires various activities and inputs. Currently, a lot of efforts are being exerted by the Ministry of Education (MoE) to address the issue. Such initiatives include developing the human and institutional capacities of public higher institutions.
How do you explain the situation that a lot of graduates are not finding jobs? Education for the youth is an investment – there should be a return on the investment. That return is when the trainees get employed and the nation receives the maximum benefit from the investment. Does this mean the country is investing in areas where it doesn’t get substantial returns?
Even if there are youths not employed after graduation, this doesn’t represent a substantial number of the graduates. In fact, there are a large number of people who are employed and have even created jobs for others. So it’s not to say all graduates are not employed.
Is HERQA solely monitoring private HEIs or all HEIs in the country?
In principle, we monitor all HEIs. But practically, we don’t give accreditation to public universities because the government established them. Thus, we have nothing to give them regarding accreditation. However, we audit their curricula to make sure they are up to standard. This is due to the limited institutional capacity of HERQA.
Our emphasis is on private institutions in monitoring and auditing their academic staff qualifications, facilities and resources and structure for accreditation and re-accreditation of their services.
HERQA is responsible for making sure that programmes delivered by HEIs meet the human resource needs of the country and maintain quality. In the process of regulating HEIs, have you ever suspended or cancelled programmes that do not fulfil standards at public universities?
It has never happened [because of HERQA]. But, I know cases where MoE has cancelled the postgraduate programmes of some public HEIs for not meeting standards.
But we see a number of public universities that start graduate programmes a few years after being established. Some of them launch programmes without having the right mix of faculties and other resources, which will affect the quality of the graduates.
Well, to start a graduate programme, there is a need to have at least one PhD-holder in the specialisation field to coordinate the courses. Otherwise, the MoE will not approve the programmes. Some universities have suspended their graduate programmes because of such interventions by the Ministry. This is the case with public universities. But for the private ones, HERQA does the monitoring from the very beginning. This is because the issue is serious; it requires strict, regular monitoring because some private HEIs are after profit, they show you a number of good resources during official visits, but you don’t find these same educational resources again when you make surprise visits. So this calls for rigorous monitoring.
Regulations require that, at a minimum, faculties at HEIs should be comprised of 30Pct PhD-holders, 50Pct master’s-level graduates and 20Pct with a bachelor’s degree. Newly established public universities, without even meeting this minimum requirement, are opening postgraduate programmes. Dr. Tesfaye, why are you not strictly enforcing that these universities improve their human resource before launching graduate programmes? Why don’t you say ‘no’ when they open graduate programmes?
Let’s hope that we will reach a time when we can say ‘no’. That’s when we will have the institutional capacity to regulate them; we are now building our capacity.
Why can’t you say ‘no’ right now?
Of course, we need to challenge them. But, we have to do our assignment of strengthening our organisational capacity first. Then, we may deal with this matter.
You don’t evaluate public institutions before they launch new programmes due to lack of institutional capacity whereas you strictly impose standards for private institutions. Isn’t this a double standard?
In principle, we have the mandate to assure that all academic programmes of higher education in Ethiopia are relevant and maintain quality. However, we don’t have the capacity to execute these responsibilities regarding public institutions; hence the MoE monitors them. It is also known that public HEIs go through a number of rigorous steps and procedures to launch programmes that help maintain quality, whereas the private institutions don’t go through the same process. Thus, we assess curricula as well as audit human resources, infrastructure and institutional capacity using outsourced experts.
This is obviously a dichotomous treatment. Is there a reason why the system is set up this way?
We somehow emphasise private HEIs because some of them are accused of breaching laws such as admitting students below minimum grade points, shortening and overlapping the academic calendar, issuing a degree for undeserving individuals, delivering courses in a campus without permission and a lot more unacceptable practices.
However, the different treatment between public and private institutions will be short-lived. There will be a uniform procedure across the board. As part of the restructuring process at the Agency we have even asked to be more autonomous, to give up our accountability to MoE and independently monitor all higher education institutions.
Education is a public good. Still, private institutions have to be profitable to survive. Some argue that what you do in the name of regulations threatens the very survival of private higher education institutions. What do you do to encourage the smooth operation of private HEIs?
Indeed, our major mandate is to make sure private HEIs have organisational capacity and the required human and educational resources for accreditation. It is also in our discretionary power to monitor quality education and proper delivery of services throughout the accreditation period. The same is applied during the renewal process.
Of course, we are also cautious in the measures we are taking not to endanger the survival of private institutions. This fiscal year, we are planning to establish a forum constituting all parties to discuss common problems and resolve them together. This platform will also serve to [help administrators] share best practices among themselves. The forum will help us maintain the balance between their services and businesses. Other than this, we boldly focus on whether they are maintaining their organisational capacity and delivering the service in line with the set standards. It’s not in our mandate to help private HEIs remain profitable.
How about the investment privileges they should be given, like investment in other sectors to get land and build facilities as well as import equipment and books duty-free? In fact, it feels like the government is taking actions that threaten the survival of these institutions. For instance, the huge expansion of universities by the MoE. This is not to criticise the government for expanding education. But the combined admission capacity of public universities have hugely expanded in recent years, such that the government can send all students to these public institutions. And more than 10 universities are planned to be established during the GTP II. Why is it that the government is not taking the capacity of private universities into consideration while planning the expansion of higher education?
This question is raised often but it is beyond our mandate. We were established to monitor and regulate the conduct of education in private higher institutions and make sure that their programmes are relevant and [maintain] quality.
Some argue that in order to assure educational quality, the accreditation and re-accreditation process should also give emphasis to the educational process, outputs and outcomes rather than only basing it on input requirements like infrastructure, facilities, faculty and other staff qualifications. Why don’t you incorporate these?
It is true that the assessment focuses on what can be seen and tangible because they are easily measurable. This is mainly due to HERQA’s limited institutional capacity, which does not allow for incorporating the educational process, inputs and outcomes, as we don’t have the capacity to execute them. As we build our capacity, we will consider measuring these outcomes in the future.
However, we are implementing a pilot project regarding some sensitive fields of study to measure outcomes. For instance, we have prepared national exit examinations for graduates of health and law to measure their competence. We will continue to strengthen our capacity towards this direction.
Some argue that the criteria for accreditation and re-accreditation by the Agency are ambiguous and lack clarity that lead to subjective judgments, which may engender corruption.
The assessment checklist constitutes more objective components. I acknowledge there are some elements that involve subjective judgments. We are striving for converting some of them so that they can be objectively judged. However, these elements have minimal impact when they are compared with the objective assessments in the accreditation or re-accreditation process.
How is the institutional capacity of HERQA in terms human resource and facility to fully deliver its support and services?
We are not in a capable position both in terms of human and institutional capacity to discharge our responsibilities. We are now almost fully engaged in solving routine problems. We are extensively consumed with daily routines such as providing solutions to problems brought to us by our constituencies, mainly students in private colleges. Rather, we need to build a system and expand our services by opening branches in the regions. We have studied and proposed our plans to the relevant body for restructuring as well as acquiring the human and technological resources to discharge our duties and responsibilities properly and with full capacity.
When will HERQA provide full-fledged services?
I don’t have the detailed plan at hand. The government is also pushing us to speed up.
What is the problem; is the government not providing enough funds?
Government always provides whatever we ask. Last year, our budget was ETB20 million; but we used only 78Pct of that. So the problem is not a lack of financial capacity.
If you have the funds, why don’t you employ capable staff and acquire technologies you need to execute your mandates to the fullest? If you are getting enough money, the problem must be the leadership within the institution.
Well, building capacity requires time. Some countries even took more than 100 years to build capacity. And this is an institution that has complicated problems. We don’t have the time or the human resource to deal with [strategic] issues other than [solving] routine problems. We hope with our new structure, we will deliver more.
When will you build your capacity both in terms of human resource and technology to execute your mandates to the fullest?
Well, I can’t give you an exact time because I don’t have the detailed plan.
Is the number of private HEIs increasing?
Yes, it is increasing. We had 94 accredited institutions last fiscal year. This year, the number has increased to 106. The increment is not only by the number of institutions, but also diversity of their academic programmes. EBR
4th Year • August 16 2016 – September 15 2016 • No. 42