Despite the encouraging strides made in the expansion of higher education across the globe, the unavoidable challenges of equity are far from being addressed. The disparities of access and opportunities among students of different economic backgrounds remain a major concern. Against the claim of being an equalizer, higher education is blamed for perpetuating inequity and not serving as a channel to equal opportunity and social mobility.
Making a clear distinction between issues of participation and equity is thus important while assessing the impact of higher education expansion. Celebrating changes in the participation of a given group may not always speak to the success of mediating equity challenges that are more complex than they appear. In many sub-Saharan African countries, participation of students from households in the highest income quintiles continues to dominate tertiary enrollment. Ethiopia is not an exception in this regard.
Dimensions of Equity
Discussions on equity in higher education mainly focus on four target groups: females, individuals from the lower income groups, individuals from groups with a minority status defined on the basis of their ethnic, linguistic, religious, etc background, and people with disabilities.
Strategies to address issues of equitable access in Ethiopia have mainly concentrated on increasing the number of public institutions distributed across the country, the establishment of private institutions, rapid increases in student intake, and the gradual increase in female participation. A variety of intervention strategies aimed at addressing the different dimensions of inequity have also been initiated, from special admission requirements for disadvantaged groups to providing various forms of student support at individual HEIs.
While the achievements so far appear to be addressing some equity goals, the challenges persist. The system’s continued failure to address equity related to the socioeconomic background of students remains one such challenge.
Public Spending and Beneficiaries
Total expenditure on education in Ethiopia is in the range of 4- 4.5 % of annual GDP. Higher education receives more than 40% of the total budget allocated for education. Recurrent public expenditure per student is reported as 557 ETB (~USD 20) at the primary level, 1,398 ETB (~USD 50) at the secondary level, and 14,493 ETB (~USD 518)at the level of higher education.
The system is vastly subsidized by the government, especially at the lower levels of education. The only exception in the system is a cost sharing scheme introduced for students attending public universities. According to the Higher Education Cost Sharing Regulation (2003), graduates from Ethiopia’s public universities are obliged to pay back full costs related to boarding and lodging, and a minimum of 15 percent of tuition related costs in the form of graduate tax. The wealthiest households make the most out of the government subsidized system as compared to those from the poorest households. The benefit that they garner increases with an increase in grade levels, as evidenced in the major findings of Ethiopia Welfare Monitoring Survey(2011), Ethiopia Public Expenditure Review(2016) and other related studies.
Data obtained from the aforementioned sources reveal that children from the poorest and wealthiest income quintiles are equally represented at the first cycle of primary education—19 percent of children who attend the first cycle of primary education (grades 1-4) in Ethiopia are from the poorest 20 percent of the population. However, 20 percent of the poorest households comprise only 15 percent of the student population in the second cycle of primary education (grades 5- 8). This group gets overwhelmingly sidelined as it moves higher on the educational ladder.
The wealthiest households account for 87 percent of student participation at the level of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and 82 percent in higher education. While the poorest represent one percent of the student population at the level of TVET, the poorest in higher education comprise two percent of the student population. Related findings further indicate that the proportion of students from the highest income quintile over the proportion of students from the lowest quintile (usually known as the disparity ratio) in Ethiopia is one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.
The continuing disparity between the poor and the wealthy is explained in large part through poor attendance/transition and completion rates. For instance, children from the highest income quintile have a threefold probability of entering the second cycle primary (grades 5-8) by age 11 compared to those coming from the poorest income quintile. Those from the poorest quintile have the lowest completion rate at postsecondary level due to challenges they face in their academic progress.
The share of expenditure patterns in the system also favor the wealthiest households. Data from Ethiopia Welfare Monitoring Surveyand Ethiopia Household Income indicate that the poorest contribute more to education financing than they benefit out of it.
Towards Addressing Inequity
Obviously, counteracting existing inequities will not be simple. Responding to the complex realities behind equity challenges is not especially easy in the context of a young, rapidly ‘massifying’, and under-resourced system. Yet, there are a range of possible measures that can be used to bridge existing gaps. In this regard, the experience of countries in East Europe and Central Asia that have been relatively successful in tackling similar challenges is worth emulating.
Addressing various dimensions of inequity should begin with what is most often known as ‘equity mindedness’. The promotion of policies and practices that facilitate better access to and completion rates of disadvantaged groups from the lower levels upwards should be given increased attention. This should happen with equal consideration to the quality of education offered to students from such background. Mechanisms by which the rich contribute more to the education of their children should also be sought. This may extend to the arduous task of addressing structural determinants of inequity across the society. Since these are goals that cannot be achieved overnight, long- term planning, allocating the necessary resources and concerted follow-up and improvement of the system will be necessary to address the existing inequity in the various strata of the education sector.