Strategies to Revitalize Ethiopia’s Knowledge Institutions

Damtew Teferra




·        Introduction

·        Forging A Constructive Engagement

·        Leadership

·        Academic Freedom

·        Autonomy

·        Faculty Contract

·        Financial Commitment

·        Promote Non-Public institutions

·        Basic Necessities




I am writing this article prompted by impassioned observation made by Dr Alemayehu Geda that chronicled the plight of my beloved alma mater, Addis Ababa University on Addis Tribune dated August 4, 2000 ( I worked at AAU for over ten years as a research staff in Science Faculty and for about a year in administrative capacity in Sidist Kilo campus before I left to the US to pursue further studies in Higher Education some five years back.


I am not a stranger to much of the chronic problems that Dr Alemayehu frankly deliberated, which spurred the university to its current appalling state. I am sure as much can be said about the rest of the higher education institutions in the country. The major theme of my research and my current responsibilities are focused on issues of higher education in Africa and hence my propensity to join and expand the horizon of the discussion.


“Why do we need a university, after all?” may appear a naďve, if not a frivolous, question. But what kind of a university should we build is for sure a much more complicated one that draws considerable discussion and debate. Without being philosophical and drawn too much to the broader discussions and debates, it is clear that for any society that aspires to break the cycle of misery, poverty, and, deprivation, develop and compete as a community, and ensure the sustainable growth of a nation, the development and maturity of the knowledge industry is without doubt too crucial. To underscore, the eminence of this knowledge industry has become even more critical now as the economic paradigm of the 20th century, that was largely dependent on natural resources has appeared to have shifted toward a knowledge- and information-based economy.


In the West universities do not enjoy the total monopoly of knowledge creation, as much as they do elsewhere. In most African universities, and Third World as well, universities tend to assume virtual monopoly on the knowledge supermarket. They remain at the heart of the industry that nations do rely on for generating, consuming, packaging, translating, and disseminating knowledge and information.


As we trek along with the rest of the world toward the information era, albeit in a much slower pace, the strength, health, and welfare of the vehicles that would ferry us there —our universities—become too crucial. The obvious question now appears then “Don’t we need these social, political, economic, cultural, and technological vehicles not just to be maintained but refurbished and retooled?” This question apparently draws a quick affirmative response. But the underlying factors that constrain this innocent question are so numerous that I refrain from dwelling on.


This prologue is primarily to launch from where Dr Alemayehu raised one of his crucial questions “Then what should the government in general and the university in particular do?” First of all, I do not wish to pretend that I command the magic bullet that has not been demystified hitherto to resolve the complex and deep-rooted problems. Second, nor do I presume that this contribution unveils a new concept to those in the domain of higher education. But I remain vigorously hopeful that such exchanges encourage more discussions, more debates, and more attention to issues of higher education in the country.


African governments spend quite a large sum of their revenues on education, even though the quality of education in most of these countries remains a lot to be desired. Benin and Ghana, to provide some disparate comparative examples, earmark 30 and 40 percent of their GNP to education, respectively. In the last two decades the situation for most of the countries in Africa worsened as a result of social, economic, and political upheavals creating a crisis situation in their education systems.


This footnote withstanding, it is my firm believe that if governments are seriously committed, enthusiastically willing, and deeply concerned, they can build much better institutions of acceptable standing. My assertion is based on a simple and common observation. We have seen time and again that most African governments have managed to build and maintain enormous law enforcement infrastructure, in certain cases in an astonishingly short period of time. Superimposing this trend, I do personally fail to envisage convincing rationale why they cannot do so to educational institutions. And to accentuate the point, law enforcement agencies—as much as their significance for maintaining and protecting citizens from apparent and perceived threats within and without—have very little to contribute by way of development. Truth to be told, a huge law enforcement infrastructure is a burden, if not a liability, to the country and its people.


As the maxim goes then “if there is a will there is a way.” I have established the assertion that there is a way. Then the next question is “Do governments have the will, the concern, and the genuine interest to have strong and dynamic institutions, like universities?”


In countries where the legitimacy of governments is not firmly established, these governments and their universities often tend to be at loggerheads. Africa amasses a good number of these governments. Governments tend to believe, erroneously I may add, that they have a legitimate reason to control these institutions as they would others. They justify their action on the basis of substantial resources they allocate to these institutions. Time and again leaders in governments of these countries failed to realize the idiosyncrasies, norms, and cultures that govern universities—and the personalities and the minds there in. The ethos and the values are such that the constituency is often quite when things appear to be going right, but tends to turn voice—I may add what some in government leadership consider “ungrateful”—when not. This vocalism strikes terror at the heart of governments, which often prompts them to resort to actions—often harsh and even handed—that range from physical confrontations to university closures.


Now back to the question again. Much of what is prefaced here is the rule rather than the exception in most African countries. Ethiopia remains to emerge as an exception—yet. Narrowing down the discussion, what should the Ethiopian government and AAU in particular, and of course the other universities as well do, not only to help avert the crisis but also improve the appalling situation. Here are some of my conjectures that may help in driving the discussion.


Forging A Constructive Engagement

The development of a closer and amicable working relationship between the government and the university communities is a first vital step to bring about meaningful solutions to the deplorable situation. In an environment where each often watches the other in suspicion, forging a meaningful relationship to address the problems remains distant.


There is no question that the government has a vested interest for the development of a nation, including of course its universities. A nation without its strong intellectual institutions is a nation destined to poverty, underdevelopment, and deprivation. If a government is to serve as an institution that executes its responsibilities on behalf of its people—at least that appears logical, if not always practical—it must traverse the barriers of mistrust and rancor by taking bold and active steps to repair the damages that have already been sustained. This it should do for the sake, interest, and benefit of the people that it aims to serve.


In the absence of a mutual and close working relationship, not only hopes for more resources to universities (by the government) remain dashed, but also regrettably the opportunities that may be available outside the government cannot be actively exploited either. Recently the major monetary institutions have reoriented their policy in favor of universities in Africa and the Third World, affirming the contribution of higher education institutions toward the new era driven by information and knowledge. Three major US foundations, for example, have recently earmarked US $100 million toward revitalizing African institutions. Governments and universities can only capitalize effectively on such resources and other initiatives through concerted action by closely working and devising common strategies.


Needless to say, approaches to address problems and generally promote higher education institutions should forge strategies that are less confrontational and more cooperative, collaborative, and trustful. The culture of constructive engagement should be nurtured. Government leadership and the community in higher education institutions must work closely, vigorously, and decisively to diminish the traits those counteract these positive forces.



In circumstances where university leaders are handpicked by governments, it is often the case that they are perceived as instruments of the government machinery to protect its interest. The perception gets even much bolder particularly when this leadership either appears to be too close to the government or early in the ladder of the academic career. It is a common challenge for such individuals in the leadership to command collegial respect, build legitimacy, and win the hearts and souls of its colleagues and the community in general.


In a scholarly institution, the issue of legitimacy and the quality of leadership are too critical where governance issues take a more twisted and complicated route. Dr Alemayehu frankly indicated that he preferred to have no government say on the appointment of leadership in a university. That would be an imaginary world considering particularly the magnitude of resources from government bursary and the interest of the government in higher education institutions. A compromise can be struck, of course as he himself indicated, by creating a situation in which the interest of both parties can be served where the university nominates a short list of people for the government to approve from that list. This arrangement was used for Addis Ababa University some years back predating the last serious student activism that ensued the closure of the university.


Academic Freedom

A university faculty should be able to operate freely without fear of persecution or intimidation. A university should remain an environment where ideas are freely generated, openly debated, unreservedly exchanged, and widely publicized. A university should be actively encouraged to take a lead in formulating major policy framework and other national developmental activities. Alas, much of these academic traits are not allowed to be exercised freely in many countries of the Third World where government leadership is suspicious and mistrustful of nationals in those “enclaves.”


It remains a folly for any government not to utilize, capitalize, and mobilize wisely the precious resources at its backyard while it commits itself to run, maintain, and pay for it. In order to do so a government should be more tolerant of critical voices in the academe if a lively and active academic environment of great national potential to emerge. Needless to say, the Ethiopian government has to do more to create such a conducive environment.



Experts in higher education agree that universities should be given more autonomy to operate freely and efficiently by exempting them from the rigid, bureaucratic, and inefficient civil service regulations. It is common knowledge that universities continue to harbor lethargic and recalcitrant elements in their premises protected by these regulations. These regulations make it harder—and practically impossible—to weed out incompetent individuals. And yet, regrettably, this system is inflexible to allow the promotion of competent and productive members of the community.


It is extremely important that higher education institutions operate in an efficient and enabling environment. Universities, higher education and research institutions should be liberated from the shackles of archaic civil service regulations to allow these institutions greater control over their affairs by way of budgets, hiring and firing of their staff, self-governance, resource allocation, to mention the few.


Faculty Contract

When I left the country some five years ago, the faculty was working under a contract renewable every two years subject to performance criteria. While the faculty was subjected to short term contracts, the administrative staff was entitled to a stable and “permanent” job. I’m not in any way insinuating that they should also be subjected to the same situation. But rather reiterate the fact that the existence of the administrative arm of a university is justified on the premise to serve the two most important elements of the university—faculty (teaching and research staff) and students. And yet what was taking place appears contrary to the modus operandi.


Whether that approach was an ill-advised policy or a deliberate one to subdue the faculty—as some vehemently contend—the plummeting moral ground of the faculty and the subsequent flight from the institutions since that policy was adopted tells the whole story. Dr Alemayehu’s article clearly outlines that. The government should clearly, loudly, and unequivocally make it clear that the faculty enjoy a stable and secure job with favorable employment contract not only to encourage those already in the universities and institutions to stay but also attract highly competent ones.


Financial Commitment

As stated earlier, African governments make a significant amount of contribution to education in general and higher education in particular. In a situation where resources are overstretched across other social amenities, making a case for more resources to higher education remains a challenge. But in a world where skilled human labor has increasingly become a sine quo non to growth and development, these expenses should not be construed as expenditures but rather as long term investments.


As stated earlier, collaborative initiatives with international and other donor organizations be vigorously sought to build (and rebuild) these institutions. A healthy and concerted effort between the government and the universities and research institutions is paramount to take advantage of these opportunities in improving the state of universities and research institutions.


Promote Non-Public Institutions

It is encouraging that private postsecondary institutions are emerging in the country. There are also some efforts underway to promote distance education. The government should not only encourage such initiatives but in fact actively promote them. Such initiatives have a multitude of advantages, in which I would like to mention a few. First of all, they help fulfill the thirst for knowledge for those who could not make it to public institutions. Second they are endowed with traits that are more flexible to address the changing needs of the labor market. Third, they ease the pressure off public institutions.


Introducing fees and tuition in traditionally free and public institutions have been highly critical, political, and controversial across the African continent where university education has been generally considered as ones birth right. But then when the segment of the public, small as it may, is prepared to pay for its education, and individuals commit to invest on such initiatives, the government has to nurse such endeavors carefully and wisely.


Basic Necessities

It is foolhardy to expect faculty to direct their focus on their academic duties and research activities and also attract others to the profession unless they are provided with descent accommodation, reliable transportation, and other basic necessities.


In 1986, the president of our neighbor Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi reported as saying that a primary school leaver with only one cow can obtain from the sale of its milk a monthly income equivalent to that of a university lecturer. He later made a decision to significantly increase the salaries and benefits in two years. Kenyans in the business of higher education may still however feel that the commitment of the government to universities remains unsatisfactory.


One of my Ethiopian friends sometime ago told me “I would never go back [home] without a guarantee to a descent accommodation. I was sick and tired of leaving in somebody else’s kitchen before I came here [to pursue further studies].” Numerous studies on brain drain corroborate this response and this is far from being anecdotal. So what can be done?


The government should take a serious commitment to ensure that the faculty reside in a descent housing, have access to a reliable transportation and acceptable level of working environment. There are a number of alternative approaches, particularly as regard to accommodation. In many African countries, housing allowance is provided. In some countries, including Ethiopia (outside Addis Ababa), institutions provide housing for its faculty, often on the premises of the institutions. In the case of AAU, the government may have to build such facilities and provide it to the faculty either for free or nominal fee. Even better, the government could facilitate the ownership of these accommodations to the faculty favorably, for example among others, through low- or no-interest rate plans.


The Ethiopian government has recently established more universities. The challenge remains however for some of these universities to live up to their names. It is hoped that, the same commitment will extend to ensure the welfare of the most important players of these institutions. It will be naďve to embark on the campaign of institution building without ensuring a system that provides guarantee to the welfare of the major players of the institution—the teaching and research community.


Surely, as the government has addressed the issue of accommodation for members of parliament and others, it can do the same for the university community—at affordable price commensurate with their income. If members of parliament were considered to make up the head of a nation, the university faculty, as our heart and soul, should deserve not less.


In conclusion, a country that honors its highly skilled and educated force and invests on and wisely utilizes it, lays a groundwork that guarantees the success and betterment of its future. It may appear that the university faculty is one of the government’s highly paid community in the country. But that falls far short of fulfilling the basic needs and necessities of the academic community. Ethiopia, as poor as it may be, should promptly address these pressing issues of its higher education institutions, if its development plans to bear fruit. The key for this to materialize rests on promoting trust and cooperation and encouraging constructive engagement between the government and the university community.


* Damtew Teferra is a co-director and lead researcher of the African Higher Education Project at the Center for International Higher Education in School of Education, at Boston College, USA. His address is The Center for International Higher Education, School of Education, Campion Hall 207B, Boston College, MA 02467, USA; Tel. (617) 783 4807 (home), (617) 552 1279/4413 (off.); fax: (617) 552 8422; email: or; Internet: