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The Interview: “AAU will not transform into institution exclusive to the affluent” – Dr. Matiwos Ensermu VP, AAU

Addis Abeba – In a landmark decision by the Council of Ministers, Addis Abeba University has been conferred the honor of becoming the first autonomous university in Ethiopia after a 50-year hiatus. This significant move comes on the heels of the Ministry of Education’s announcement that 10 first-generation universities in the country will be granted autonomous status within the upcoming two years. Subsequent to this autonomy, Addis Abeba University has communicated its intention to modify its undergraduate admissions process. Beginning 2016, the university will admit undergraduate students based on a competitive selection process. Furthermore, there are plans in place to accommodate fee-paying undergraduates under distinct conditions. To delve deeper into these changes and the future trajectory of AAU, Addis Standard’s Zelalem Takele had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Matiwos Ensermu, Vice President of the university, an Associate Professor with eighteen years of service who has been instrumental in the university’s administrative and academic advancement.

Excerpts:

AS: Following the decision by the Council of Ministers, Addis Abeba University has become the first autonomous university in the country. What is the significance of this change, and what effects will it bring?

Dr. Matiwos: The shift to autonomy has profound implications for Addis Abeba University. As observed in other government-led institutions like the airlines and Ethio telecom, the presence of a robust board and a high-performing CEO often drives performance. This privilege, now extended to Addis Abeba University, positions us to establish a dynamic board and recruit an adept CEO, thereby bolstering our competency on both domestic and international fronts.

Autonomy further empowers us to devise our strategic plans and directives. For instance, the finance bureau will draft new directives aligned with the university’s objectives, covering areas like procurement. Additionally, this status allows us to set our salary scales, thereby attracting top-tier professors and maintaining competitiveness.

While we will continue to receive a block grant from the government, accounting for students assigned by the state, the autonomy means these funds arrive in a consolidated block, granting us discretion over its allocation.

Furthermore, embracing a progressive business model, the university envisions the establishment of commercial entities, such as consultancy firms and private hospitals. While these ventures are anticipated to be significant revenue streams, it’s imperative to note that the finances garnered will be reinvested into the university’s core functions, ensuring its growth and sustained excellence.

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AS: During a recent press conference Prof. Tassew Weldehanna of Addis Abeba University stated that admissions from the upcoming year will be based solely on entrance examinations. Could you elucidate on the rationale behind this decision and how you intend to ensure the examination is accessible nationwide?

Dr. Matiwos:  The shift to an examination-centric admission process is rooted in the autonomy granted to us by the recent proclamation. Prior to this, student allocations to the university were made by the Ministry of Education. While some of these students were well-prepared, others might not have met our desired academic standards. Our objective with the new model is to maintain a rigorous selection process, ensuring we admit only the most qualified students. It’s worth noting that this focus on examinations aligns with the Ministry of Education’s recent policies, such as the introduction of the exit examinations; we are essentially aligning with this broader educational vision.

Regarding the logistics of the examinations, we’re exploring various avenues to ensure accessibility. One approach is to leverage other universities across the nation as examination centers, ensuring students from all regions can conveniently take the test. Additionally, we are considering administering the exam online, while adhering to strict security measures to maintain the integrity of the examination process.

AS: The recent announcement by the president regarding the introduction of fee-paying students under “special” conditions has garnered significant attention. There are growing concerns that this might position Addis Ababa University as an institution exclusive to the economically privileged. How would you address these apprehensions?

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Dr. Matiwos: The recent proclamation bestows upon us the autonomy to make decisions in this domain. However, let me clarify that Addis Abeba University will not transform into an institution exclusive to the affluent. We have always prioritized diversity, and we will continue to do so.

Firstly, any student, regardless of their economic background, who successfully clears the 12th-grade entrance examination, will be eligible for our university entrance exam. These students will be financed through the government’s budget, ensuring continuity in our commitment to admitting students from underprivileged backgrounds.

Additionally, we’re strategizing to offer scholarships to exceptionally talented students. The revenue generated from fee-paying students will be reinvested to support these scholarships. Scholarships will cater to various categories, such as female students, students with disabilities, and other specialized packages, ensuring that we maintain a diverse student body.

To address the topic of fee-paying students: it’s not a new concept for us. We already have students who are self-financed, and others sponsored by various organizations.

We recognize that there are private institutions in the country with significant tuition fees, and many students opt for international studies after high school. With our enhanced autonomy, Addis Ababa University aspires to serve as a competitive local alternative. Our focus is to align our educational offerings with international standards found in European and American institutions. This will be achieved by investing in state-of-the-art facilities and premier academic staff. Our goal is to deliver world-class education at a cost considerably lower than international rates, ensuring our institution remains diverse and accessible to all.

AS: Given the challenges in the quality of education in the country, how will gaining autonomy help address these issues?

Dr. Matiwos: There’s a prevalent misconception that our country’s educational challenges primarily stem from a lack of professional skills. However, this isn’t the root issue. In a developing nation like ours, universities are often constrained by limited budgets, which lead to lower wages for educators and inadequate facilities, all while catering to a large student population. This is the crux of the problem.

By achieving autonomy, we will have the ability to generate significant finances. This will empower us to compensate our educators better. A well-compensated teacher can focus more on their primary role of imparting knowledge. As it stands, many educators, due to their meager salaries, juggle multiple jobs, which detracts from their teaching commitment. With autonomy, we aim to rectify this.

While reaching this goal will require time and the generation of a sustainable budget, it remains our primary objective. I firmly believe that institutions like Addis Abeba University possess the skills needed. What we lack, and what affects quality, is sufficient funding. Quality, after all, comes at a cost. AS

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