Wednesday, July 17, 2024
In DepthAutonomizing Universities: Academic Freedom or Privatization? 

Autonomizing Universities: Academic Freedom or Privatization? 

Autonomizing Universities: Academic Freedom or Privatization?  | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today“Stagnation, decadence, the absence of science and innovation, and highly restricted academics tied up with fear.” These were the words a public university representative used to describe the state of higher learning in Ethiopia today.

He was speaking at a two-day workshop organized at Addis Ababa’s Radisson Blu hotel beginning June 4, 2024. The heads of public universities, representatives from development partner organizations, and senior officials from the Ministry of Education were in attendance to discuss a transition in Ethiopia’s public universities from government dependence.

“Even leading university professors, from whom we expect much, are unable to do minor things. This all is because our universities have been deprived of independence and autonomy,” said the representative.

The sentiments were echoed by Kora Tushune, state minister for higher education.

“Ethiopia’s higher education institutions are at a crossroads. Our higher education institutions have several problems, including quality issues, equity problems, inefficiency, leadership issues, ethics and social problems. Employability of graduates has been a critical problem,” said Kora during his speech at the workshop.

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Though he, like many other university presidents, believes that autonomization will help break the vicious cycle, Kora warns that autonomy can not be a panacea.

“This university transition policy decision comes at a time when higher education in Ethiopia is at a critical turning point.  However, it does not mean these problems go away once they become autonomous. Autonomy is not an end in and of itself. Nor is it a privilege. It is mandatory,” said the State Minister.

Reports presented during the workshop point to a glaring lack of academic, research, administrative, and financial freedom at Ethiopian universities. They also note a significant amount of undue influence from various entities.

“The government is typically considered the number one antagonist to university anatomy. It is not. Political parties are also against university autonomy. There are also other gangs that try to thwart efforts at autonomy,” Professor Damtew Tefera told attendants at the workshop.

He is the founder of the Higher Education Forum for Africa, Asia and Latin America (HEFAALA), among his other outstanding achievements. Damtew is one of four leading Ethiopian professors chosen by the Ministry to oversee the transition to autonomy.

It is a process that began last year under the watch of Berhanu Nega (PhD) as the government looks to remedy the ills plaguing the country’s 47 public universities. There are also four private higher education institutions that qualify as universities. But there are significant gaps in university charters, both public and private, according to the workshop participants.

Following the ratification of the public university transition policy last year, Addis Ababa University (AAU) gained legal autonomy in October 2023. The flagship university has been granted a two-year transition period to finalize the process. AAU was chosen in the hope that it can best meet the requirements and take the lead, given its relatively larger capacities.

The Ministry has since selected nine additional public universities to undergo the transition. The list has not been confirmed officially, but it includes first-generation institutions from all corners of the country.

Education officials told The Reporter the names will be disclosed after the universities meet the threshold requirements for autonomy. The guidelines are being finalized, according to the officials.

The thresholds were the subject of a recent round of discussions convened by the Education Ministry in Mekelle, Tigray. The heads of universities complained that the thresholds were unattainable, and the Ministry is currently reviewing the terms, according to officials.

The workshop at the Radisson Blu was an extension of these talks, and the heads of what are likely the nine candidate universities, including Gonder, Jimma, Adama, Haromaya, Bahir Dar, Hawassa, and Mekelle, among others, were in attendance.

University presidents and Ministry officials deliberated on a range of issues, starting from the definition of autonomy to the next steps for designated universities.

Experts at the Ministry classify autonomy into substantive and procedural categories. The former refers more to research, scientific work, and academic freedom. Procedural autonomy refers to administrative independence. Workshop presentations indicated that administrative bottlenecks have been the greater impediment.

“Access has increased remarkably in Ethiopia. [There are] nearly 51 universities, including private ones. Around 1.7 million students are enrolled. But quality remains deteriorating. Hence, autonomizing is essential. The universities are not efficient and competent. Autonomy will reduce government control and enable universities’ efficiency and competency. Without internationalization, we cannot be competent,” said Solomon Abraha (PhD), director for administration and infrastructure at the Ministry. “Universities’ transition to autonomy is the Ministry’s top agenda. We are reaching out to various development partners to support this transition.”

Autonomizing Universities: Academic Freedom or Privatization?  | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today

The International Association of Universities defines autonomy as a ‘necessary degree of independence’.  Autonomy does not mean ‘unaccountable’. Autonomy protects the university from external interference, but that does not make the university unaccountable. The very essence of university is the free institutionalized pursuit of knowledge. The pursuit is meant to be free from government, religion, and profit. University autonomy includes typologies like academic, financial, and administrative. Experts note that all three must be balanced.

“Basically, autonomy is not something that is given to or taken from a higher education. It must be autonomous from the beginning, essentially. Autonomy is the very nature of a university. We are giving that autonomy to universities, because in the past, our universities could not have autonomy,” said Professor Damtew. “There is a concept that autonomy is relative. There is no such thing as absolute autonomy. The kind of autonomy we see in democratic societies and autocratic societies varies. For instance, in countries like South Korea, a democratic society, institutions are highly centralized.”

Damtew raised the 17th century trial of Galileo as an example of the consequences of academic freedom.

“Autonomy is not just a privilege, nor is it a selfish prerogative. It is an additional mandate to a university. It is basically academic freedom,” said the Professor. “Galileo died because he said the earth is round and other interest groups did not want to accept it. If a scientist discovers there will be a serious disease outbreak, the government might not want that finding to be made public. But if that university is autonomous, the government cannot do that. Academic autonomy enables universities to engage in research and innovation without interference.” 

Solomon, the director, noted that the government has chosen a step-by-step autonomization approach, instead of granting autonomy to all public universities at once.

“When we legislated the autonomous proclamation last year, MPs objected. They said ‘universities are already acting irresponsibly. All universities have adverse audits rolling for years. Giving them autonomy will exacerbate their nature of unaccountability and irresponsibility.’ But we told the MPs that university freedom does not mean unaccountability,” said Solomon.

He said he expects revised minimum thresholds for autonomy, which were the subject of earlier talks in Mekelle, will soon be ratified.

All nine public universities have established committees and task forces in their bid to follow the footsteps of AAU. These task forces are charged with assessing various works on the design of new revenue streams, university restructuring, identifying administrative reform areas, infrastructure and university facility gaps, student provisions and other intervention areas required to meet the autonomous thresholds.

“We have been preparing since last year. We have established five committees and done self-assessment works. The committees include one each for finance, academics, research, infrastructure, administrative,  and the main committee. We have identified our advantages and gaps based on the Ministry’s autonomy criteria. Our next step is bridging our gaps and preparing ourselves for autonomy. To this end, we utilize the lessons of AAU. In the meantime, we request the Ministry to issue a directive that would allow us to officially start becoming autonomous. Once we get the green light, we can proceed to preparing the internal legislations and institutional rearrangements,” Lemi Guta (PhD), president of Adama Science and Technology University (ASTU), told The Reporter.

Professor Essey Kebede is the academic president and acting president of Bahir Dar University (BDU). He is also excited to oversee the transition of BDU to autonomy.

“We have been preparing to embark on this important evolution to autonomy. We expect AAU’s lessons will be a good stepping stone for us. The government supported AAU a lot through its transition. What kind of support will the government provide to the nine universities set to become autonomous?”

A representative of Mekelle University cautioned that confidence-building among university leadership is key towards preventing the reversal of any gains that might be made through autonomy.

“Universities are overstretched, with several campuses under each of them. They cannot become autonomous with all these campuses. We must consolidate the universities and the overstretched branches under them. But doing so will result in layoffs, which affect social responsibility and be damaging for the government,” said another representative during the workshop.

Once autonomous, universities will be responsible for introducing their own bylaws and shouldering responsibility with minimal support from the government.

Universities’ financial independence: academic defocus or privatization?

Financial independence is a key aspect of autonomy, along with academic, research and administrative freedom. The Ministry is set to introduce a new directive that would enforce financial thresholds as a condition for autonomy, obliging universities to generate a portion of their revenues internally while maintaining a level of support from the government.

Lemi, president of ASTU, notes the ratios have yet to be ironed out.

“It could be 40 percent, 20 percent, or anything . We will know when the directive is approved,” he said. “The university needs to diversify its revenue streams, including establishing enterprises, tuition fees, consultancy services, and other sources including designing its own projects.”

He observes that autonomy will not result in a complete cutoff of government budgets for universities, rather in greater independence for the institutions.

The Ministry will also set faculty quotas requiring universities to meet a minimum threshold for the number of teaching staff that hold postdoctoral degrees.

“The autonomous university also needs to internally generate revenues and support its recurrent budget. The university must diversify its financial sources and practice sound financial management systems. External collaboration is crucial to academic excellence. There is a big misconception regarding autonomy, and the academic community must understand that,” said Solomon.

The call for self-sufficiency was also echoed by Damtew.

“Thus far, universities expect the government to do everything for them, including providing their budgets. Now, universities must be self-sufficient under autonomy. A large portion of university revenues come from tuition fees. It must be diversified. Autonomy enables the university to generate revenues from different sources,” said the Professor.

However, many university presidents and observers fear this pressure on universities to generate their own revenue will push them to exponentially increase tuition fees, which in turn will discourage students. This concern is particularly worrying as a hike in fees followed AAU’s transition to autonomy last year.

“Over 90 percent of university students come from low-income families. They cannot even afford eating outside university cafeterias. On top of that, inflation is high. Allowances for students’ daily food costs are very minimal. Ethiopia is a poor country and students and their families could not afford high tuition fees for autonomous universities,” said a university representative during the workshop. “What does autonomy mean in a poor country?”

Solomon disclosed that the Ministry has prepared a new regulation that would enable the implementation of a block grant mechanism for public universities. This would see the government cover the costs of scholarships for needy students and other similar budgetary needs while the universities would cover the rest of their expenditures via internal revenues.

If approved by the Council of Ministers, the regulation would mark a turning point for public universities, which have so far been receiving government budgets like any other public institution.

Solomon disclosed that AAU will no longer receive financing under the program budget once the two-year transition period ends in late 2025.

“The number of needy students the university enrolls and level problem-solving research produced by the university will determine how much budget the university will get under block grant. The budget will be allocated only based on output and impact. We will no longer allocate a budget for the ‘teaching and learning process’,” said Solomon.

Many fear that autonomy will erode equity and reserve university education to students from well-off families. Ministry officials, however, argue the government will make sure this does not happen.

“Autonomy denotes independence in research and academic works. Financial autonomy is also granted with accountability. An autonomous university will cover its own needs,” said Solomon.

The Reporter approached Samuel Kifle (PhD), former state minister for Education currently serving as interim president of AAU, for his views on the question of equity.

“It’s a misconception,” said Samuel, who is set to head AAU until the transition period expires next year. “When a university becomes autonomous, it does not mean it will be financially independent from the government budget. It continues taking the government budget through block grants. Making universities financially independent is difficult. For instance, Tikur Anbessa Hospital, which is under AAU, takes 45 percent of AAU’s budget annually. So how can AAU cover Tikur Anbessa’s budget without government support?”

Lemi, the president of ASTU, concurs.

“Autonomy will not hinder access to education. When universities become autonomous, they will accept willing students based on entrance tests. Those who can afford the fee will pay and attend. For those who qualify but cannot afford it, the government will offer scholarships through block grants. So, autonomy will not affect the university’s intake capacity,” said Lemi.

However, the absence of a mechanism for identifying need is a glaring flaw in the notion of need-based scholarships offered by the government.

Experts note that the lack of registries and data on household income makes it virtually impossible to determine which students can afford fees and which ones cannot. University leaders urge the government to introduce a data system that would make this possible before embarking on the block grant initiative.

“We are working on a new system that will enable universities to identify which families can pay and which can not. The system might be requesting students to provide evidence of need from local government offices,” said Solomon.

Lemi worries that government scholarships will not suffice.

“We believe the government will have to facilitate an education loan scheme with banks. So far there is only a cost sharing scheme. But in the future, the cost sharing scheme will be difficult for universities to implement. So there must be a student loan modality introduced soon. Universities are already unable to maintain the cost sharing scheme,” he said.

Other university presidents The Reporter spoke to have similar views.

They suggest bank loans as an option for students that can neither pay tuition fees nor qualify for government scholarships. Admission documents would be used as collateral and the student would pay off the debt after matriculation. They note the practice is common in other African countries.

Under the autonomy drive, universities are encouraged to diversify their revenue streams to lower dependence on tuition fees, which currently constitute the large bulk of their income. The new rules would allow them to get involved in a range of businesses, including lines of work that could potentially generate foreign currency.

There are fears that this will pull attention away from the universities’ academic priorities. Experts say the university autonomy initiative is part of overall reform that demands government pullout.

On the other hand, the heads of universities are concerned that declining enrollment figures foreshadow a dip in tuition fee revenues, which will in turn need to be compensated by alternative income streams. The fears are compounded by the dramatic fall in the number of senior high school students who are able to pass the 12th grade national examination required for university entrance.

Last year, only three percent of some 800,000 students who sat for the exam scored passing marks.

“The problem now is universities are not getting sufficient enrolment. Only three percent passed the university entrance national exam last year. Ninety-seven percent failed. This is a serious issue. Compared to the number of existing universities and their intake capacity, this is a very insignificant number,” said Lemi.

The Ministry is aware of the problem. Several universities were on the verge of closure due to a lack of new entrants in the past two years, according to Solomon.

“There are no more students entering universities. This is because fewer and fewer students are passing national exams. If the government did not introduce a remedial exam last year, several universities would have been closed by now,” he said.

The other boiling issue regarding finance is the notorious culture of adverse audits in Ethiopian public universities. Every year, the Federal Auditor General presents reports to Parliament exposing widespread financial mismanagements at universities. But the culture of fiscal irresponsibility has shown no sign of improvement.

Lemi told The Reporter the problems arise from flawed, government-enforced procurement policies at universities.

“Universities have multidimensional problems regarding procurement. The problem arises from the government’s public procurement policy. The policy is the same for all public institutions. But the nature of universities is unique. We are responsible for providing everything for students 24/7. So we must act anytime there is need, without waiting for the government procurement policy procedure. You cannot float a bid and wait for bidders to procure for a university cafeteria, generator or any other equipment, keeping the student in hunger or in the dark,” said Lemi.

He argues the flawed procurement policies contribute to the adverse audits presented to Parliament.

“University auditing is exposed to the flaws.  A university researcher is required to provide a financial statement in a year while the research could take several years. Finding university equipment like chemicals is usually conducted through direct procurement. But the government expects us to do it through the public procurement process. You cannot find such equipment through tenders but through direct purchase. We believe the government procurement law must align with the nature of universities,” said Lemi.

Solomon disclosed that legislation for special university procurement practices is currently in the pipeline.

“Financial diligence in universities must improve. Universities will have freedom once autonomous. They will be procuring by themselves, without government involvement. The university’s management must be able to shoulder that freedom. Financial diligence will be serious. Adverse audits will not be accepted,” said Solomon.

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