Lecturers at public universities find themselves in an impasse as the government pushes forward with a controversial university restructuring that would fundamentally change academic structures.
Association representing lecturers at several public universities are exploring legal options, as officials have gone radio silent on key details surrounding plans to close programs that fall outside designated specializations.
In 2019, the former Ministry of Science and Higher Education – now merged into the Ministry of Education (MoE) – categorized 45 public universities as research, applied, comprehensive or specialized institutions.
The differentiation policy categorized universities as research, applied, comprehensive or specialized institutions. The MoE ordered universities to start implementing the differentiation policy for the just ended 2022–2023 fiscal year, meaning universities must restructure to focus only on their designated area.
In September 2022, the MoE wrote letter to the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, Prime Minister’s Office and public universities directing them to prepare an ‘exit strategy’ for departments and programs excluded from universities’ differentiation areas.
The management of Debrebirhan University has started implementing the differentiation policy ahead of other public institutions. The university is categorized as applied science, and the Education Ministry letter states it should focus on engineering, technology, highland agriculture, business, economics and health sciences.
“Debrebirhan University is closing the colleges of social sciences, natural sciences, law and education. We lecturers in departments under these colleges have been told to leave the university starting in July 2023,” says Mezemir Girma, a frustrated lecturer at the university’s social science college for the past 15 years.
In a July 6 letter, the newly formed lecturers’ association demanded Debrebirhan University immediately reopen the colleges of social sciences, natural sciences, law and education slated for closure under the differentiation policy.
The Association said 18 undergraduate programs and 15 graduate programs – along with two doctoral programs – under the four colleges are being shut down, potentially laying off around 500 staff. Fields like Amharic, history and others considered “undesignated” are on the chopping block, according to the letter.
“We presented our case to the MoE, Justice Minister Gedion Timotiwos (PhD) and university board chair, but there has been no response,” said Mezemir. “The university and the Ministry have been deceiving us about differentiation,” he alleged. “They claimed there would be no layoffs, but colleges are gradually closing and they finally told us we have to leave.”
He claims “This is illegal and it is intentionally hindering the local community’s right to access education.”
Ahmed Mohammed, Debrebirhan University’s public relations director, acknowledged the institution is gradually phasing out disciplines not designated under the differentiation policy.
Lecturers say the university has stopped accepting new students for 35 programs and will simply wait for existing ones to graduate. Then those colleges and programs will likely to phase out, potentially leading to layoffs.
“As per the MoE’s differentiation, the university is keeping only five colleges: engineering, computing, agriculture and natural resources, business and economics, and health sciences,” Ahmed said. “So we cannot have the colleges of social sciences, natural sciences and humanities.”
Only courses like psychology, sociology, math, physics, geography and history will continue as common courses under the designated colleges, Ahmed added.
“But the four colleges, including natural and social sciences, will not exist as colleges,” he said. “They will continue only until they graduate existing students, likely for the next two years. But then they will stop accepting freshmen.”
Ahmed says lecturers in undesignated disciplines may be transferred to other colleges, but the university management will determine which faculty stay or go. “It is the university management that decides which lecturers from those departments and programs will not continue,” Ahmed said.
However, Amelework Hizqiel, the MoE’s public relations director, rejects claims that MoE ordered undesignated colleges to close.
“The differentiation policy is part of education sector reform,” Amelework said. “Universities are categorized based on their focus areas. We did not tell universities to close faculties outside their specializations. We stipulated procedures for universities to refocus in their assigned categories.”
Minister of Education Birhanu Nega (Prof.) declined to comment on the issues facing lecturers.
Lecturers at universities beyond Debrebirhan are also frustrated by unclear implementation of the differentiation policy and potential layoffs.
Addis Ababa University (AAU), designated as a research university, is preparing to become Ethiopia’s first autonomous university after Parliament passed the bill two months ago.
“Our reform will not affect academic staff. There may be layoffs of administrative staff,” an AAU management team member said, requesting anonymity. “The differentiation policy is phased and procedural. Some universities have started restructuring management. AAU is doing intensive research to determine how to implement differentiation and autonomy legislation.”
AAU currently has a new regulation that will allow it to be reestablished as an autonomous university soon.
“For now, AAU has no plans to close faculties,” the management team member said. “But we will downsize undergraduate programs. All universities will have undergraduates, but our intake will decrease and focus on graduate programs and research. As an autonomous university, we will only accept students who pass our entry exams.”
The management member claims that AAU is preparing to implement differentiation and autonomy policies in tandem starting next fiscal year, 2023–24.
“Whether faculties and disciplines open or close should be demand-driven,” the member noted. “Departments and programs are decided based on differentiation and demand. Universities should maximize revenue from designated areas. But that does not mean they can close disciplines that do not generate revenue.”
Some disciplines like math, history and others “cannot be closed just because they have no demand,” according to the AAU management team member.
“Government budget support for those departments and programs will continue even after the university becomes autonomous. But the budget size may gradually decline. Universities will have to find ways to fund departments that don’t generate revenue,” the member added.
The Reporter’s attempts to get insight from AAU leadership were unsuccessful.
More than 90 percent of the knowledge in Africa is generated by public universities, the official noted. “The Ethiopian government cannot stop allocating budgets for public universities even after they differentiate and become autonomous,” he argued.