In a rare televised cabinet meeting in February 2021, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed revealed the government’s readiness to grant full autonomy to universities in an effort to reduce their financial dependence on the government.
Abiy particularly considered a system of full-fee paying students in public universities who can share the increasingly heavy financial burden on the government.
As much as the prime minister looked worried about the increasing pressure that universities are placing on the government’s coffers, he equally expressed his dissatisfaction about the portrayal of subsidised public institutions as centres of riots, ethnic clashes and intermittent class disruptions.
The prime minister’s remarks could be singled out as a rare occasion on a continent known for governments with an excessive interest in controlling universities.
Despite the relative improvements in university governance in Africa in terms of institutional autonomy, governments still continue to wield disproportionate power through the appointment of governing boards and university administrators, among others.
This practice is often a reflection of state authoritarianism in the wider political system. Universities are also often treated as appendages of existing political systems and their leaders as their political pawns.
Such an overpowering system is adversely intrusive, manifestly ineffective and dizzyingly non-responsive.
Prime Minister Abiy’s open invitation for more autonomy should thus be hailed as one of the most significant gestures towards universities in a long time.
That said, the offer may require an uphill struggle to translate into action, owing to the background and history of the institutions’ founding.
A dependent system
Up until 2004, Ethiopia’s public higher education was fully funded by the government, involving no student contributions towards tuition.
In 2004, the government introduced a cost-sharing scheme whereby students contributed 15% towards their education with fees payable after graduation.
Successive education sector plans have been encouraging internal income generation by universities, though the achievement has been dismal.
Typically, Ethiopian public universities draw less than 10% of their budget from various other sources, in particular for offering part-time teaching.
Purpose of autonomy
Institutional autonomy is predicated on flexibility and efficiency in human resources and financial management.
Autonomy grants institutions freedom to hire and fire staff and pay them on merit, to enrol students independent of the government, and to set their own curriculums.
Autonomy introduces greater competition between institutions, encourages greater institutional differentiation and a more corporate style of governance. It also promotes innovation and creativity which are often smothered by excessive bureaucracy.
The quest for institutional autonomy has also been advocated in the interests of responding to the impact of ‘mass’ higher education, and offering agility to respond to the fast-changing higher education landscape.
Scope of autonomy
The various properties and dimensions ascribed to autonomy may be understood in the light of an institution’s (or its constituent parts’) right and independence to decide on matters of institutional governance, missions and principles, student admission, staff recruitment and administration, and financial management, among other matters.
Depending on a distinction involving these various areas, two principal forms of institutional autonomy have been identified in the literature: substantive autonomy which covers academic and research areas (such as curriculum design, research policy, entrance standards, academic staff appointments, awarding of degrees) and procedural autonomy which is more related to non-academic or administrative aspects (such as budgeting, financial management and purchasing power).
A further elaboration of these two major areas of autonomy yields four dimensions of autonomy widely identified as organisational autonomy, financial autonomy, academic autonomy and staffing autonomy.
According to the European University Association (2009, 2011), organisational autonomy relates to such issues as the freedom institutions have to establish their own structures and governing bodies, select university leadership and determine their line of accountability.
Financial autonomy refers to the university’s freedom in acquiring and allocating funding, the ability to charge tuition fees, to accumulate surplus, to borrow and raise money from different sources, the ability to own land and buildings and reporting procedures as accountability tools.
Academic autonomy focuses on the independence exercised by institutions in terms of determining their institutional strategy, student admission, introducing and terminating academic programmes, determining the structure and content of academic programmes, and quality assurance of programmes and degrees.
Staffing autonomy is about an institution’s capacity to recruit staff, the responsibility for terms of employment such as salaries, and issues relating to employment contracts such as civil servant status.
It is important to note that, as a relative concept, autonomy assumes meaning only depending on the context in which it is discussed such as political context, legislative intent, inherited rights, historical and societal circumstances and tradition playing a significant role in this regard.
The question of how it is interpreted and how much autonomy is granted to institutions or individual faculty is usually dictated by these factors.
Although autonomy at national or institutional levels could be granted through legislative frameworks, the extent to which this is realised is open to question.
Autonomy, as granted in legal documents, is different from one exercised in practice, such as actual autonomy.
The distinction between these two forms of autonomy is central in understanding the gap between promises and practices.
Autonomy as a concept does not imply a government’s complete withdrawal from the higher education sector, nor does it necessarily reflect absolute institutional independence.
Governments cannot abandon universities altogether due to the key and strategic roles they play in social and economic development.
They have an enormous stake in the optimal functioning of institutions which entails negotiated understandings and compromises between them.
In this sense, autonomy granted to institutions can best be understood as ‘conditional’, since it is granted mainly in view of facilitating the achievement of societal and government goals.
The conditionality in autonomy dictates that institutions are permitted to function under the norms and frameworks defined by or jointly negotiated with the government.
Autonomy exercised in a given system is bound by the purposes laid out and the best means that they can be delivered.
In his discussion with the cabinet, Abiy was particular in terms of the modality of autonomy for the country’s public institutions.
He was clear that institutions stand on disparate footings, which suggest they could not be granted the same level of autonomy at the same time.
He urged the major universities to endeavour to secure more autonomy in advance of others with a view to being more self-sufficient.
Although it is clear that the government wishes to scale down its obligations in supporting public institutions, it remains uncertain how far it would go on that track, however.
A country with about 50 public institutions, Ethiopia organises them per the stages of their founding as first, second, third and fourth generations.
Evidently, it may take time — probably a long time — for all these institutions to declare autonomy if autonomy is thrust on them by the government as an avenue for self-sufficiency.
To be sure, it would not be an easy proposition for most of the institutions if the granting of autonomy is linked to self-sufficiency.
It is high time that Ethiopian public universities took advantage of the government’s renewed interest in granting them an extended level of autonomy.
For that matter, the granting of the autonomy, sensu stricto, is not a new provision per se, as the existing proclamation already provides for it, although autonomy has not yet been fully exercised.
The need for a robust dialogue on the way forward is evident.
Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com; Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founder-president of St Mary’s University, Ethiopia, and PROPHE (Program for Research on Private Higher Education) affiliate. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. This is a commentary.