by Wondwosen Tamrat
This blog is a short summary of the author’s paper for a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. This issue is currently free to access and includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020. Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021. The paper presented the findings of a study that sought to examine the impact of the pandemic on the private higher education (PHE) sector in Ethiopia. It employed a mixed-methods design using a weekly diary of signiﬁcant events kept between the months of April and August,2020, and two online surveys conducted between the months of April and May, 2020, and at the end of August, 2020, respectively. Among 110 private higher education institutions contacted for the purpose of the study, ninety-seven institutions (89%) responded to the ﬁrst survey while 77 (70%) institutions gave back their answers during the second survey.
Together with tourism and travel, higher education has been identiﬁed as one of the major sectors upended by the COVID-19 pandemic (The Economist 2020). Despite the lack of research on the area, anecdotal evidence suggests that the eﬀect of the pandemic may be more pronounced in the private higher education (PHE) sector whose resource base and capacity are too limited to withstand the impact of a crisis of this magnitude.
Arguably, in many systems, private colleges are over-reliant on student tuition and do not count on direct government support or emergency grants to keep them aﬂoat. The search for external support is also not easy at a time when institutions are losing their selling points due to the pandemic which has indeed presented an unprecedented challenge such as reduced admissions, cash ﬂow problems, inability to pay salaries, and furloughing of staff.
Initial experiences and reactions
The ﬁrst conﬁrmed case in Ethiopia, reported on 7 March, was a Japanese advisor employed to provide technical assistance to Ethiopian schools. Things moved quickly after the Ministry of Health reported the case in public media. Ethiopia’s 30 million learners in schools and nearly a million in its 50 public universities and more than 250 private academic institutions were identiﬁed as high potential transmission sites. On 16 March, the Prime Minister announced that schools and universities would halt classes for 2 weeks. On 17 March, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education gave further directions on how universities should act during the closure.
In the immediate aftermath of the closure, the Ethiopian government set up a national task force that mobilized the public towards combatting the impacts of the pandemic. Most higher education institutions (HEIs), including the privates, responded to the call by donating money, sanitary items, essential supplies, and even their buildings to be used for quarantine and storage purposes. According to a ﬁgure obtained from the Ethiopian TVET and Private Higher Education Institutions’ Association, donations worth more than ETB 30 million (nearly US$ 1 million) were raised by private institutions for the cause. Private medical colleges also enlisted nearly 4000 of their medical students to be deployed by the government to combat the pandemic.
Government also made further interventions in the form of declaration of a state of emergency and providing support to the private sector. Whereas the initial government shutdown had a largely common impact across sectors, the declaration of a state of emergency loomed as potentially disastrous for many private institutions. The limited assistance provided to private enterprises by government went mostly to manufacturing, hotel, horticulture, ﬂoriculture, and others labeled most aﬀected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, PHE was not on that priority list and as a consequence, the only workable beneﬁts extended to PHEIs were a 4-month employee income tax exemption, the postponement of pension payments for a few months, and regulation that bans landlords from increasing rents and evicting tenants including PHE institutions.
The challenges of shifting online
Shifting to online delivery was diﬃcult in the Ethiopian context for many reasons. Poor internet access, cost, availability of computers and related technology, little previous preparation, and students’ and teachers’ twin problems of limited technical knowhow and negative attitudes towards the use of information and communication technology stood out as the most prevalent problems both for public and private HEIs.
Most institutions used social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp, and Google Classroom in their program delivery, a few struggled to develop their own learning management systems more recently. Despite such eﬀorts, not much is known about the most disadvantaged students who are being left behind. Mechanisms such as creating zero-rated access to speciﬁc educational websites, universities, digital libraries and online knowledge hubs, and oﬀering free data bundles to students, that were observed in some African countries have not been practised in Ethiopia.
Impact on income
Ethiopian PHEIs rely entirely on student tuition and fees. An overwhelming majority had the practice of collecting fees on a monthly basis which immediately put many of them in jeopardy immediately after the official closure of the sector. Government policy that crippled undergraduate ﬁnance has been a weightier problem for private than public since PHE depended almost solely on tuition from its undergraduates.
The strain of paying monthly rent, staﬀ salaries, and other expenses was also a serious challenge. Under normal circumstances, along with salary, rent accounts for more than three-fourth of PHE’s monthly expenses. PHEIs were forced to ask for the postponement of payment periods, abandon some of their branches, and/or settle their rents by taking loans from other sources. While a limited number of institutions continued to pay salaries, the majority faced the increasing diﬃculties of meeting this responsibility. Making late payments, salary reductions and entering into litigations due to failure to pay such expenses were challenges faced by many HEIs.
Impact on employment
Many institutions have frozen new employment and stopped employing part-time workers who constitute a signiﬁcant portion of the workforce in the private higher education sector which relies heavily on such staﬀ. Another impact has been the reduction of the productivity of workers compared to the earlier days. Institutions also claim that the output of their employees has been reduced signiﬁcantly after the disruption of classes. The pandemic is further expected to have a signiﬁcant impact on the future employability of graduates (around 150,000 per annum) across both the public and private sectors.
The leadership in the private sector carried huge burdens in combating the impact of COVID 19 which was exacerbated by the sadness of the pandemic and the little preparation they had. Institutional limitation in collecting fees and paying salary and rent has created a condition whereby leaders had to abandon their normal plans and attend to day-to-day challenges. The declining work ethics and their failure to provide enough information about the fate of their institutions was another challenge. The struggles to convince students to pay and employees to share the ﬁnancial strains they are going through were the major occupations of institutional leaders for the past several months.
Leaders were also perturbed by a high level of uncertainty and hopelessness as regards the fate of their institutions. Although they are hopeful about the start of classes in the last two months, the feeling of uncertainty still appears to linger in their disposition as adjusting to the ‘new normal’ cannot be an easy task. Further, the limited help obtained from the government so far appears to have worsened the feeling of hopelessness compounded by the fear of the unknown which still appears to haunt most of the leaders.
It is possible to envision a post-COVID future in which PHE has lost much bad as well as some good from its long-unbridled expansion and in which some of the ﬁtter not only survive but improve their organizational management and certainly their use of technology in educational provision.
Private institutions still expect meaningful interventions in areas that include tax exemptions, long-term loans, rent waiver or reduction, direct ﬁnancial support from the government, assistance with online platforms, reduced internet costs, facilitating student access to computers with reduced costs, etc.
It is understandable that the government is overwhelmed by a multitude of social, political, and economic pressures unleashed by COVID-19 as it is preparing for the reopening of higher education institutions. However, unless a substantial intervention is made in terms of assisting the PHE sector and/or inﬂuencing ﬁnancial institutions to provide meaningful assistance, this sector, which boasts the largest number of students in Africa (Tamrat and Levy, 2017) and caters to the needs of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians will be signiﬁcantly weakened.
While solving the challenges of the economy remains a key to addressing anticipated problems caused by COVID-19, the ﬁndings of this survey strongly point to the need for close monitoring of PHE to curb the continued impact of the pandemic. Further, continuous and fruitful dialogues are needed between the government and sector representatives in order to maintain the conﬁdence of PHE institutions in government policy aimed at ensuring their survival.
Wondwosen Tamrat is an Associate Professor and Founding President of St. Mary’s University in Ethiopia. He is an affiliate scholar of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) headquartered at the State University of New York at Albany, US. He coordinates the Sub-Cluster for Private Higher Education in Africa under the African Union’s Higher Education Cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa, CESA 2016-25.