Ethiopia, with a population of 75 million, is one of the poorest countries on earth, having 98% of its population earning less than US$ 2 per day. Since nearly a decade the country has produced several planning documents to guide its development, to alleviate poverty and to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The more recent strategy documents have clearly identified higher education as one of the key instruments for achieving the country’s goals. At the same time, they recognize that Ethiopia has one of the lowest tertiary enrollment (less than 2%), not only in the world but even in Africa. Ethiopia therefore decided to launch an ambitious plan to dramatically increase tertiary enrollment by creating new public universities, increasing from 9 in 2004 to 22 in 2009, with 10 additional ones under construction.
A major stumbling block, however, was to find qualified faculty to teach at those universities. It was estimated that Ethiopia would need some 3,000 PhDs to work as faculty at the public universities. The oldest university, Addis Ababa University (AAU), had not produced sufficient Master’s and PhD graduates even for its own requirements. Recruiting foreign faculty has been difficult because of the meager local salaries. Over the past decades large numbers of students had been sent abroad to pursue full-time PhD studies at huge costs, but very few returned. The ‘sandwich’ program, whereby part of the PhD studies is carried out locally and part in a developed country, had been tried but with limited improvement in those returning home. The conclusion was that, at those rates, it would take 200 years to have sufficient PhD-trained faculty for the public universities. Ethiopia, therefore, decided to embark on a strategy of in-house graduate training.
The AAU has been entrusted the mammoth task of training Master’s and PhD graduates for itself and the emerging universities. The plan is to convert AAU from a primarily undergraduate to a graduate and research university, producing 4-5,000 PhDs over the decade 2009-18. As AAU has no capacity to embark on such a massive undertaking, the collaboration of universities from all over the world has been sought. Visiting professors from these universities come to teach graduate students and also supervise PhD students. Qualified local faculty take the responsibility of overseeing groups of up to 8 or 10 graduate students in their respective field. To ensure that the PhD research topics address the priority development needs of the country, all the programs have to be in identified multi- and inter-disciplinary thematic areas. New laboratories have been set up and equipment acquired. Graduate libraries have been strengthened. A new residential campus, specifically for faculty on training from the regional universities, has been acquired.
Such a bold venture naturally requires substantial financial resources. The government of Ethiopia itself has allocated significant funding to AAU. A number of partners and donors, notably the Swedish Sida and the World Bank, have given generous grants.
The results obtained so far are palpable. From relatively insignificant numbers only a few years back, the 2010/11 enrolments are over 9,500 for Master’s and nearly 1,300 for PhD. There are of course risks inherent in such a scale up of graduate education. These include lack of funds, shortage of experienced local faculty to supervise PhD candidates and uncertainty of the supply of visiting professors and distant PhD supervisors, all of which could jeopardize the quality of the graduate programs. There could equally be brain drain of the trained faculty to countries abroad or to the local private sector. Both the AAU and the government of Ethiopia are conscious of those risks and are determined to mitigate them.
The fundamental issues that have no doubt guided Ethiopia in its chosen strategy are: what are the opportunity costs for not embarking on such a revolutionary graduate expansion, given that all past efforts have not produced the desired results? Even if the international quality of the programs may somewhat be at risk, can the country afford not to have the absolutely essential and currently largely absent pool of qualified faculty for the rapidly growing universities, so that the latter may produce the trained workforce vital for development and poverty alleviation?
The experiment being undertaken at AAU in Ethiopia is perhaps unique in Africa, if not the whole world; it could well provide lessons to other developing countries with limited trained faculty for their universities.