House green lights universities to run commercial businesses
Public universities in the country prepare for the worst as the government decides to gradually remove the budget allotted for the institutions. Members of Parliament (MPs) lamented universities’ political affiliation, which overshadows institutional autonomy and academic freedom.
The long-awaited draft proclamation dubbed ‘Granting of University Autonomy’ was tabled before the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) on March 30, 2023. The proclamation sets free public universities from the state financially, operationally, academically, procedurally, as well as from substantive perspectives.
The public universities, which are close to 50 and at different growth stages, will have to re-establish themselves as autonomous universities with a gradual detachment from government budgets. Once the university embarks on the process, they are given a two-year transition period.
The proclamation authorized universities to establish profit-making enterprises and business organizations as per the commercial code to generate income and cover their expenditures. This includes businesses that generate foreign currency for the universities. However, they are expected to undergo strict auditing by the federal auditor general, apart from annually presenting their financial reports to the Ministry of Finance.
However, a major issue that concerned MPs was the difficulty of ensuring political fraternities between the government, the ruling party, and universities.
Under the new proclamation, universities will be restructured under a chancellor, governance board, president, senate, autonomous university council, executive committee, and other sections.
The Prime Minister appoints the chancellor. The governance board will have between nine and 11 members. The chairperson and vice chairperson of the governance board are also picked by the PM, while the president is appointed by the chancellor after the board nominates three candidate presidents through international competition.
The proclamation states that the president cannot be a party member. However, it does not address the issue when it comes to the chancellor and the board members, which is worrying MPs. They say that since the PM makes the appointment, it cannot be fully independent from influences.
“Unless the board members and chancellor themselves are free of any politics, the university president cannot be free. Otherwise, universities remain affiliated along political and ethnic lines and are geographically limited. This is what is happening now, and it must change,” MPs stated.
MPs also raised concerns that universities should not make education expensive just to cover their expenses. They urged that students must be able to pay tuition fees after they graduate and get employed.
Leading public universities like Addis Ababa University (AAU) are worried about how to make the transition. The government has already given directions to the AAU to embark on the transition in the new fiscal year, which starts in July.
On March 28, 2023, the AAU convened its staff and student representatives to discuss the way forward. The management of the university told instructors, students, and researchers that they must embark on inventions, innovative research, and patents that can be turned into production and revenue generation. The university also plans to setup a grant office and has already introduced a new tuition fee scheme starting this year, doubling the amount from last year.
On the other hand, staff members of the university fear there will be layoffs.
“Tikur Anbessa medical college, which is under the AAU, has been taking 40 percent of the AAU. We think the new proclamation is good to address such cases,” one of the management members of the university said. “The success of AAU is decisive for other universities to become autonomous. That is why we must be successfully autonomous first.”
“The government has been allocating huge budgets for universities. But after conducting studies, certain measures are necessitated,” Tesfaye Beljige, the government whip in the Parliament, said. He says the study found that setting up autonomous universities helps ensure institutional freedom, education quality, and academic and financial freedom.
“Universities will be able to generate their own revenues. They will be able to compete internationally,” Tesfaye said.
While most MPs support universities becoming free of government and party interference, they also question how the transition can be successful. So far, all public universities have been on the adversary reporting list of the federal auditor general for unaccounted expenditures and excessive use of resources.
A university official, who spoke to The Reporter on the condition of anonymity, says that the government decided to get rid of universities in the name of academic autonomy. “This decision is made because universities failed to improve their resource management.”
The official claims that the government also made this decision at this point because it is facing serious budget deficits.
However, experts say that the draft proclamation can tempt universities to shift their focus to commercial businesses and crowd out the private sector instead of strategic R&D and prototype production. They recommend that universities focus on strategic R&D, inventions, substituting import products and services, and partnerships with the private sector.