Esrael Zelalem, a 17-year old first-year college student at Wollega Nequemt University College, is photocopying transcripts and other academic documents a day before registering in the newly opened school. “How much is it for one sheet?” she asks the shopkeeper behind the dark grey patched counter.
“30 cents per copy,” he replies looking busy while handing changes to other customers.
“I made four copies,” said the student as she extended two birr notes. Business is booming this week for kiosks that provide photocopy services near the college because there are thousands of new students register for classes in Nequemt, the former capital of Wollega province. And the increase in the number of college students is a national trend for Ethiopia.
In two years time, Ethiopia’s education ministry has launched 13 new public colleges and universities throughout the country. These new schools have doubled the number of students in higher education, according to the Ministry of Education. The government estimates that public colleges and universities now serve an all-time high of 53,000 freshmen.
“The government has made enhancing higher education a milestone agenda in the struggle against poverty and the road towards development,” says Desalegn Samuel, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education.
Teachers and students are asking, however, how the quality of education during this expansion can be maintained at a time the country faces shortage of college teachers.
Desalegn says the government has foreseen the challenges and has prepared to over come problems that may arise with the increase in services in higher education. “When you talk about expansion, it has to go hand in hand with the level of professional need and the quality of skilled manpower the country desires.” The spokesman said. “We made sure that was the case, when we embarked on these projects.”
The government’s expansion has put a strain on many-but not all-of the private higher learning institutions. Two years ago, private colleges registered thousands of students. They are now limited to a few hundred as students take advantage of the free public educational system.
A decade ago when there was only room for 8,000 students in government schools, private colleges flourished. But the founder of Unity University College, Ethiopia’s first private college, says the government’s expansion practices have taken away three-fourths of his students. “The impact is tremendous,” says Dr. Fisha Eshetu. “We do not even know what to do next.”
“Over the past years, private institutions have been active in providing education opportunities to many Ethiopians. We will continue to do so. But our role will be limited if government policies do not consider us as equal partners in the provision of higher education to Ethiopians.”
Some private schools say they have not suffered. “The problem with the private institutions is the fact that during the time of good business, instead of improving the quality of their education, they kept on taking tens of thousands of students,” says Dr. Ahmed Hussein, academic president of HILCO, a private school that says it has not been affected by increased government admission rates.
“We knew a day would come when only those who were able to provide superior quality education would sustain a drop in the market, says Hussein. “What we see now is that the private colleges that once had tens of thousands of students only manage to get a fraction of their existing student population.”
For more on the issues on higher education in Ethiopia click to the links on the top of the story.