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Dictated by the unprecedented demands of massification and other shifting trends, institutions are constantly under pressure to implement new management modalities. These developments have however created tensions between the traditional models of collegial governance and new managerial leanings. In this article, we examine how Ethiopia, due to phenomenal growth in its higher education sector, navigated this exercise.

Ethiopia has entertained a number of university reforms that involved, among others, the redesigning of policies, systems, and organizational structures. Key among these challenges was the reform of the management modalities in the public higher education sector—a shift that has drawn significant research attention. Research done on the universities of Addis Ababa, Aksum, Haramaya, Jimma and Mekele, (all belonging to the old group of universities—except Aksum), focuses on the processes, challenges and outcomes of a variety of public management tools employed for steering university reforms. We draw on the findings of these studies in examining the nature of the reforms.

Rationales for University Reforms

When the Ethiopian higher education sector identified wider access as one of its major goals, the need for university reform was unequivocally established. If institutions were to respond to the evolving external demands, it was necessary to change the manner in which they were structured, governed and managed. Since the end of the 1990s, there have been new policy directions set by the government and aggressively pursued. However, given the very nature of universities—widely recognized as change averse—the choices were not that simple.

Ethiopian universities have embraced national reforms introduced within the civil service. The first came in 1997, in the form of Civil Service Reform Program (CSRP), in line with the changes from a centralized to a free market economy. Regarded as part of the civil service, universities were required to implement reforms to respond to the new demands of the sector. Although this was the first far-reaching step in questioning how traditional public universities were led, the inclination to use earlier CSR tools, like strategic planning, did not last long.

Another modality came into being in 2006 in the shape of Business Process Reengineering (BPR)—in keeping with the spirit of new public management theory whose influence was on the ascendency. Introduced with new vigor, BPR caused huge upheaval across the country, generating again, the exigency of transforming public organizations, including universities.

BPR has been in decline since 2008, giving way to what is called the Business Score Card (BSC), Kaizen, and currently “deliverology”—an emerging business management approach used for managing, monitoring and implementing reform initiatives. Although these changes are presumably driven by the desire to improve efficiency, accountability and performance at all levels of the civil service, including higher education, the significance of this wave of management reforms remains elusive, and at times untidy. Hence, the need for a closer scrutiny.

The Lessons of Experience

Some changes have elevated the autonomy of academic units within universities, especially in the areas of financial, human and physical resource management. Another achievement has been the shift from collegial management to that based on the college, institute and school.

Research on these reforms, however, demonstrate meager success rates. Even changes observed in terms of restructuring the work process and academic units seem to be merely symbolic compliance with government demands. Changes so far seem to be reflective of superficial rather than functional gains, effected for the purposes of attaining legitimacy and resource acquisition from the government.

Reasons abound for the derailment of the reform process. Reforms have been invariably initiated from outside and followed a top-down approach with limited room for customization, resulting in glaring gaps in understanding the context and culture of individual institutions. The new management tools fell short in aligning with the values, norms, practices and policies of universities and their academic units. They also lacked integration with the other interventions imposed on the sector.

Further challenges included poor composition and turnover of reform teams; inconsistent and limited support from leadership; absence of an incentive system; inadequate performance measurements; poor communication on the essence of the reform; and reports to outsiders that masked the actual progress of implementation.

Other challenges pertain to a lack of enthusiasm punctuated with frustration over paltry business process outcomes; poor utilization of information technology; lack of strategic leadership at all levels; undue influence by authorities; lack of in-depth understanding of the innovation process among leaders and staff; lack of team spirit and shared understanding of the implementation process; aversion to risk taking with a lack of flexibility; and the obvious tension between the traditional and new institutional cultures.

The reform initiatives had many drawbacks. Among these were the external imposition of change for the presumed sake of efficiency and effectiveness; the pressure on university leadership to maintain the right balance between the values and norms of academia and mediate prevailing negative perceptions. These were further compounded by the formation of a hierarchical governance structure with power concentrated at the top and the sidelining of the internal stakeholders, particularly academics, who should have been key champions for success.

The Virtues of Inexperience

The ideological and pragmatic changes leading to the unprecedented growth of Ethiopian higher education have subjected the sector to a multitude of challenges. Chief among them has been the reform of university management. The available data suggest that the huge resources, time and energy spent on country-wide reforms have fallen far short of the anticipated results. The imperative of learning from past weaknesses while consolidating gains made prior to moving further in the same direction remain paramount.

The government is currently pushing “deliverology” as the newest management tool for the higher education sector. The blanket imposition of this new trend on universities, enclaves of “organized anarchy” that tend to be averse to business-orientated models for higher learning management, may trigger yet new challenges. Before vigorously pursuing “deliverology,” as the latest effort to improve efficiency, the Ethiopian government may first need to seriously and systematically analyze the fitness of the new tool for application to the academic sector. The Ethiopian social, cultural, economic, infrastructural, and political realities ought to be fully taken into account prior to the deployment of any new management models.

While the lessons of experience imply learning from the past, the virtues of inexperience potentially unleash curiosity about new possibilities in the present and continuing into the future. It is hoped that the virtues of experience and curiosity might both be deployed prior to imposing the new management approach on the universities.


Damtew Teferra is a regular contributor to The World View.  Wondwosen Tamrat is the founding president of St. Mary's University, Ethiopia.

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