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Past Editorial : October 2018

October 2018


Government-University Relations: A Troubled Matrimony

Wondwosen Tamrat* and Damtew Teferra

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. He is Founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Africa Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA). He may be reached at teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu


Ethiopia has lately unveiled a draft Education Roadmap to provide a strategic direction for the next 15 years following the culmination of its 20-year Education Sector Development Programme. The Roadmap, still at initial discussion phase, covers the entire education sector, including higher education.

We observe that government-university relations—as an umbrella theme incorporating elements of academic freedom, autonomy and accountability—appear to have been overlooked in the map although issues of autonomy are marginally noted. We thus firmly argue that a strong, vibrant and competitive higher education system, which Ethiopia must seek to develop, cannot thrive without cultivating healthy government-university relationships.


Successive governments in Ethiopia have been at loggerheads with academia which, in many ways, has seriously impeded the emergence of effective, robust, and dynamic institutions critical to development. Though government-university relations historically remain precarious since the founding of the first University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, it has been substantially eroded for the last four decades subsequent to the military takeover in 1974. The remarkable transformation that took place in the higher education sector, following the defeat of the military junta in the 1990s, has not brought about the requisite thrust in the relationship either. In a stunning move, the incumbents summarily fired more than 40 senior academics and professors from Addis Ababa University not long after assuming power, shattering all the promises and anticipations, while setting an unsettling tone for the future. It was recently reported that the government took this unprecedented action to dismantle the citadel of the only remaining opposition element in the country purportedly camping at the university.

Ethiopian institutions of higher learning still continue to be the subject of unfettered political and administrative interference beyond the expected norms of engagements. This thus calls for clearly defining government relations with universities and institutionalizing mechanisms for practice and compliance.

The status-quo

In Ethiopia, the government plays a dominant role and wields unlimited power in HEIs mainly through legislation and resource allocation. The limited research and substantial anecdotal evidence on the subject indicate a serious lack of freedom to critique government policies, establish and participate in independent student and teacher associations as well as openly critique institutional policies and practices.

Although universities are established as autonomous institutions by law, their policies and priorities are excessively influenced by the wishes and whims of the government in a wide range of areas. HEIs have very limited scope to resist direct external interference, for instance, of armed and plain cloth security forces from operating on their premises and/orinterfering in their internal administrative and management affairs.

Internally, representation of staff in governing bodies, participation in internal policy making processes, and contributing to major policy dialogues have been rather dismal. Admittedly, the threat to institutional autonomy in some institutions emanates from the lack of capacity to exercise powers enshrined in legislative frameworks such as the Higher Education Proclamation (2009). The overall trend has been, however, one dominated by the overbearing influence of the government commonly described in the literature as state-controlled system.

Over the last decade, mandatory practices of accountability to government have multiplied. The Higher Education Proclamation of 2009 dictates various forms and tools of accountability such as financial management, financial audit, strategic plan agreement, reporting and supervision, self-evaluation, academic audit and accreditation. Yet, Ethiopian universities continue to be poorly rated in terms of transparency, financial management, effective public communication, commitment to excellence, transparent and open accounting, and efficient use of resources. This is attributed to low level of compliance and enforcement in contrast to excessive scrutiny of matters ascribing to academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Effects and Challenges

The steep decline in academic freedom and autonomy in Ethiopian HEIs has had deleterious manifestations. As noted above, professors were fired for exercising academic freedom and expressing political views. Until recently, wider anti-government movements, student protests, class boycotts, takeover of campuses by security forces, and brutal crackdowns of protesters have been commonplace. The government has been frequently accused of direct and wide-ranging interference in academic and administrative matters, conducting surveillance, propping up favorable political orientations, recruiting party members, and sowing divisive views. These have resulted in apathy, silence, self-censorship and fear across virtually all universities.

The decline in faculty influence over institutional governance has further led to poor motivation and engagement in the most important tasks of institutional development and national dialogue. The yawning gap—between legal and legislative pronouncements and actual practices—has been another stark reality.

The concepts of academic freedom and autonomy will remain elusive as long as they continue as mere pronouncements of lofty declarations without regard to their practice by institutions and academics. The lack of translating intents into real practices—which are marred by mere negligence, lack of capacity, and state interference—bespeaks the nagging mismatch between the two. This bears harmful implications for the rule of law and realization of the aspirations of institutions and the academic community.

Although the government receives the lion’s share of blame for the gradual deterioration of its engagements with the university, the university community on its part may be partially culpable for obfuscating the complex interplay between academic freedom, autonomy and accountability. Over the years, the government has erroneously viewed the university as an integral part of its political system and one of its appendages. Yet, in contrast, the academic community largely considered the university as a fully independent entity that determines its own fate without the tutelage of the government. The need to reconcile these divergent views, which often co-exist in perennial tension, has been evident.

Where to from here?

A new dawn of hope has broken in Ethiopia in the sphere of politics, governance and admission of guilt since the new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, has assumed power some six months ago. In addition to opening the political space, his government is redefining its relations and interactions with a host of institutions including academic, religious, civic, and business organizations.

The historical coincidence of the unveiling of the draft Education Roadmap and the renewed spirit in the country offers a rare opportunity for re-defining the relations between the government and universities. This opportunity must be used to build strong and viable institutions that can encourage not only the embodiment of a new institutional culture but also enhance the country’s ambition to emerge as economic powerhouse and knowledge hub in the sub-region and beyond.

Indeed, a system that chooses to silence its power houses of knowledge and disenfranchises its university community may find it immensely difficult to achieve its national development goals. In terms of the critical importance universities thus play, the government should grant and respect their academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The open apology extended by Prime Minister Abiy to the academics, dismissed without due process, may be regarded as a good—and encouraging—start.

On the other hand, in view of the critical role higher education plays and the huge government resources allocated to it, it is imperative to put in place effective mechanisms that guarantee external accountability without stifling autonomy. In particular, a healthy balance between university autonomy and accountability must be struck to provide the requisite assurance to the government on proper utilization of public resources while prompting the university community to the exigencies of accountability in discharging responsibilities. We cannot anticipate a better time and situation in charting these ideals and practical components of a viable higher education system than in the new Education Roadmap under consideration.

*Wondwosen Tamrat is Associate Professor and the President of Saint Mary’s University in Ethiopia.


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