Cost Sharing in Higher Education in Ethiopia:

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Mon Feb 02, 2004 1:13 pm   
Cost Sharing in Higher Education in Ethiopia:
Demystifying the Myth

Abebayehu A. Tekleselassie*

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Higher education in Ethiopia began in 1950 with the establishment of the University College of Addis Ababa.  In the course of half a century, however, the country’s pressing need to expand the sector largely was not met, although some progress has been under way since the mid 1990s. At present, there are six public universities and several small colleges and short-cycle training centers in the country. These were further joined by a couple of private colleges, which were created in the late 1990s, and enroll more than 8300 students or 12.4 percent of higher education enrollment (Zewdu, 2001). Put together, total post secondary enrollments have increased sharply in the past decade, reaching 67,682 or about 1 percent of the age cohort, in 1999-2000 (MOE, 2000).

Notwithstanding these current developments, the higher education sector in Ethiopia is still plagued with problems of access, equity, and quality. For many years access has been restricted to only 1 percent of the age cohort, at best. Still worse, this limited access is compounded by regional and gender disparities. Quality in higher education institutions is also declining due to the limited supply of educational inputs. The main problem facing the sector is one of capacity; the inability of public resources to keep up with an ever increasing demand for higher education. No less, the problem is compounded by the lack of aggressive measures to expand the resource base of higher education beyond government funding on the one hand, and to wisely use the limited public subsidy, on the other. 

The tradition of free higher education, which once was the norm in most African countries (such as Kenya, Uganda), but has since shifted in favor of some user charges, still has its vestiges in Ethiopia. With the exception of pocket money, which was given up in the mid 1970s, higher education in Ethiopia is still practically free, with both living and instructional costs covered by the public purse.

The introduction of user charges, it is believed, could expand the capacity of the sector and eventually address some of the major problems that it is currently facing. That said, and despite the government’s interest in introducing user charges as outlined in its Education and Training Policy (1994), the implementation of user charges, or cost- sharing is now long overdue. The need for time to plan, garner resources, sensitize the public, carry out research, etc. may be part of the explanation for the delay, although, little seems to have done in these directions, either.

More important, there is a myth among the general public, and paradoxically enough, among the underclass and the rural population that cost sharing in higher education denies access to the most vulnerable groups in society. It seems that the myth has been so politicized that any tangible action has so far been impossible. But how rational is this myth? Does cost sharing really deny access to the poor and the under class in Ethiopia?  

The fact is that free higher education and generously subsidized food and lodging (that is, the absence of cost- sharing), which is the policy in Ethiopia today, has not made higher education accessible to the children of families who are poor or rural or from-less developed regions or to women. Rather, the lack of access – that is, the currently unequal participation in higher education – is overwhelmingly due to the lack of higher educational capacity –which is due, in turn, to the lack of sufficient public resources. This resource shortfall stems from the fact that higher education has been forced (politically) to be totally dependent upon government resources alone. Such resources are and will continue to be manifestly unable to support the level of expenditure needed to expand the capacity of the sector to accommodate those who have been traditionally underrepresented in Ethiopian higher education.

Precise data on the socio economic profile of students in higher education in Ethiopia is limited. But from the rates of primary and secondary school participation, which are foundations for higher education, and for which data are available, the likely profile of students in higher education is predictable. In the years 1995/6-1999/2000, for example, the Gross Enrollment Ratio at primary education varied from a high of 51 percent in 1999/2000 to a low of 30.1 percent in 1995/96(MOE, 2000). Low as it is, the participation rate has regional and gender disparities, with metropolitan centers such as Addis, attaining a 96.2 percent enrollment rate, compared to 15 percent or lower for Somali and Afar, the most peripheral regions of the country. Similarly, with a national Gender Parity Index (GIP) of .7 in favor of males, women have a disappointing participation rate, to the point that the disparity has been acknowledge by the federal Ministry of Education as the major challenge of the education sector since the current government came to power in 1991 (ESDP, 1999).

Likewise, the Gross Enrollment Ratio at secondary school, which stands below 10 percent for the country as whole, displays dramatic disparities by region, gender and rural and urban dimensions. In the year 1999/2000, for instance, three metropolitan and urban centers, such as Addis Ababa, Harari, and Diredawa recorded relatively high GERs at the secondary school level (46.6,40.1, and 25.2, respectively).  This was in sharp contrast with the lowest three enrollment ratios in the peripheral regions, Somali, Afar, and Benshangul, whose GER were 0.7, 2.3, and 8.7 respectively (MOE, 2000). This limited access to secondary education at the national level is further exacerbated by the high attrition rate upon the completion of secondary education, suggesting a dismal picture of participation in higher education. It has, for example, been recorded that the GER in higher education in the years 1995/96-1999/2000 falls between 1.0 and 0.5 percent (MOE, 2000).  Still worse, given the requirements of passing the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Examination, which is extremely competitive, the odds are that students from well organized public or private secondary schools in metropolitan areas have the highest chance of success, further sliming the opportunity for tertiary education among the rural (83% of the Ethiopian population, CSA, 1998), and low income groups.

In view of this compelling evidence, thus, higher education has not been accessible so far to the disenfranchised sector of society in Ethiopia. The representation of a few minority and non-metropolitan students in the pool of higher education enrollees is undeniable, and it is their presence that continues to give the false impression that cost sharing will shatter a glimpse of hope that these students or their families are enjoying through the current arrangement of free higher education. Here comes the second part of the myth. Neither the existing practices of cost sharing in many countries  (developed or developing alike) purport this myth to be true, nor does the political economy of any country justify a blanket approach to cost sharing. 

Understandably, if a workable approach to cost sharing in higher education in Ethiopia is to be devised, it must take into consideration the impact of such a policy on different income groups, and lay down flexible strategies that address the financial situations of these groups. Experts in the field have identified three income groups that the policy of cost sharing needs to take heed of: those who can afford to pay for their university education without financial difficulty, those who can barely afford to pay any thing, and those who can partially afford to pay the cost of higher education (Johnstone, 2001, Ziderman and Albrecht, 1995). These three categories also seem to fit the Ethiopian context, through further in-depth empirical study is necessary.

1.Those who may attend university without much financial difficulty.

Essentially, this group represents students from high-income families. The problem remains, however, that in a country such as Ethiopia where disposable family income is seldom reported, it is very difficult to identify students by their income groups, especially those who belong to upper income families. Difficult as it is, there are some indicators that help track this group of students. Among these, the type of primary and secondary schools to which high-income families send their children prior to university education may serve as a barometer to identify these students in Ethiopia. In metropolitan centers such as Addis, it has been observed that such students are often enrolled in the most prestigious and costly private and religious schools to help them prepare for the Ethiopian Secondary School Leaving Certificate Examination. Tuition rates in some of these private schools may reach as high as $US20, 000, suggesting the wealth of parents in the Ethiopian context in which the GNP per capita stands at US$100.00(WB, 2001).

Despite the high tuition, admission to private secondary schools is still competitive, suggesting an unmet demand for quality secondary education, on the one hand, and the capacity of high-income families to finance the education of their children, on the other. Expensive as it is, attendance in these private schools is always a passport, guarantying students an almost 100 percent passing chance on the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Examination. Therefore, enforcing full or near full cost recovery on this group of students has both political and economic justifications. Among other things, it is reasonable to assume that parents, who have been able to pay for secondary education, have an even greater stake in paying for their children’s’ college education whose private benefits are even higher. 

2.Those who are barely able to finance their studies. These are the most disadvantaged groups representing the few who, despite the adversities, have so far managed to attend higher education either due to their extraordinary potential or to their unusually persistent families. In addition to future economic returns, it may be argued, the opportunity for free higher education explains why parents and students in the group have put unusual effort in making higher education a reality. The introduction of cost sharing among this group, it may be argued, may not only discourage their demand for higher education, but may also influence their decision to participate in primary and secondary education adversely. 

3.Those who could afford part of the cost, but who still need additional financial assistance for the completion of their studies.

This category may generally refer to students belonging to middle income families (representing different socio economic groups, such as farmers with disposable income, mainly from cash crop areas, merchants, civil servants etc), who most likely represent about half of all the students in higher education in Ethiopia. It may be argued that this group may afford to pay for part of the cost of their studies but cannot cover all the expenses. When they live near the university, it may be added, this group can afford the cost of living, while needing additional funding for instructional related costs, including tuition. When they live far from a university, which is the case for the majority, they may need significant grants to complete their studies.

To some degree, cost sharing may discourage the demand for higher education among this group, but to a lesser degree than is the case for their counterparts in the low-income group. Coming from more or less informed families, who realize the value of higher education, this group may not be easily discouraged with the introduction of cost sharing unless the cost is so high that it negatively affects family incomes.


Thus far it has been noted that, besides the current economic policy of Ethiopia, which discourages subsidy to the public sector, and the Education and Training Policy asserting this claim further, one way to correct the deep rooted problems of the higher education sector becomes the introduction of cost sharing. As much as the need for cost sharing has been recognized, working towards its implementation remains a daunting challenge to the sector in particular and to the nation in general.  In a country such as Ethiopia where students are used to receiving everything from the government, it seems that a change in attitude among parents, students, and the general public is needed to accompany policy change. Demystifying the myths and the assumptions surrounding cost sharing through aggressive public sensitization programs, open debates and discussions is thus, a foundation for launching a comprehensive and workable program of cost sharing in Ethiopia.

Central Statistical Authority (1998). The 1994 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia: Results at Country Level, Addis Ababa: CSA
IER (2000). “A Proposal to Establish A National Center For Higher Education”, Addis  Ababa University (Unpublished Manuscript).  

Habtamu Wondimu(2000) Higher Education in Ethiopia : Retrospects, Prospects and Challenges: A Chapter Presented for the Handbook of Higher Education in Africa (copy prior to publication).

Johnstone, Bruce (2001). The Financing and Politics of Cost Sharing in Higher  

Education. Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education, University at Buffalo.

Johnstone, Bruce (2001). Response to Austerity: The Imperatives and Limitations of

Revenue Diversification in Higher Education. Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education, University at Buffalo.

Ministry of Education (1999). Education Sector Development Program: Action Plan, Addis Ababa: Central Printing Press.

Ministry of Education (2000). Educational Statistics Annual Abstract, Addis Ababa: Brihanina Selam Printing Enterprise.

Transitional Government of Ethiopia (1994). Education and Training Policy, Addis Ababa: EMPDA.

Zewdu Desta (2001). “ The Emerging Private Higher Education Institutions of Addis Ababa” Addis Ababa University (Unpublished Masters Thesis).

Ziderman, A., Albrecht, D. (1995).  Financing Universities in Developing Countries, Washington DC: The Flamer Press 

World Bank( 2001). Available at:
Selected Country=ETH&CODE=ETH&.C

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