The idea of the applied university is growing as an enticing concept in developed and developing countries alike, offering a vehicle for system differentiation and the production of high-level practical skills.
The applied university goes by many names – polytechnic university, university of applied sciences, vocational university, applied technological university – according to what countries think best describes their context.
For example, the German term fachhochscuhle, the French haute école, the Dutch hogeschool, and the Italian scuola universitaria professionale all hint at the different emphases given by the institutions to functions such as teaching, research and professional qualifications. However, in spite of these variations, the applied university distinguishes itself from traditional universities in its focus on practical knowledge.
Enhanced opportunities for the development of high-level practical skills that these institutions represent are especially appealing to countries and systems that seek a highly trained workforce that can contribute to national economic growth and development.
The fact that applied universities are increasingly assuming similar status and prestige as traditional universities further augments their appeal. The availability of applied universities within a given system also helps in the process of differentiation of a higher education system, providing more choices to students who seek a study path based closely upon their interests and career plan.
The Ethiopian experience
Ethiopia has a long history of school-based technical and vocational education. The first technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institution was founded in 1942 as Ecole National des Artes Technique, later known as Addis Ababa Technical School.
Other middle-level schools with vocational orientation operated across the country with particular focus in areas such as agriculture, technology and business. In the early 1960s Ethiopian high schools were structured along two streams: one purely academic and the other focusing on vocational training. In 1963 the Bahir Dar Polytechnic Institute was set up as a higher education institution with vocational orientation.
The national education sector review initiated in 1973 viewed TVET as one major solution to the perennial problems of the theory-oriented education system that offered neither practical skills nor employment opportunities for the thousands of school-leavers.
However, despite this solid start, the next two decades were characterised by the mushrooming of academic-oriented institutions across all levels of education and the gradual dominance of an academic orientation in the higher education sector. Today, the country has 50 universities and more than 160 private higher education institutions which together accommodate nearly a million students.
A separate stream
Growth in the TVET stream has also occurred and it is expected to grow further. However, since 2009 it is no longer part of the higher education sector. While it was expected that 80% of those who complete general education (grades 9 and 10) would join the TVET stream, this target has not always been met and the TVET sector currently accommodates just over 300,000 students, which is far below the government’s original plan.
Among the many challenges TVET graduates currently face are the limited opportunities they have to satisfy their quest for higher education and training after completing their training through middle-level TVET programmes.
The Ethiopian system in principle allows TVET graduates to pursue further degree studies after completing their training as middle-level technicians so long as they fulfil government requirements, which includes a one-year work experience after graduation and passing an entry examination set by the higher education institution.
However, even if they meet the criteria, candidates face the challenge of immersing themselves in a strongly theoretical degree programme. Since there are no parallel TVET academic paths, students who complete the TVET stream have no choice but to join the academically-oriented university system and pursue further studies at degree level and above.
Despite the new programmatic design of Ethiopian universities, which focus heavily (70%) in their programmes on science and technology subjects, the majority of universities across the country are comprehensive universities and are substantially oriented towards theory. The only exceptions are perhaps the Addis Ababa and Adama Science and Technology universities that were split from the previous structure in order to gradually assume special status as science and technology universities.
Having TVET graduates join comprehensive universities in some ways defeats the purpose of TVET education, which aims at producing mid-level technicians that can fill a skills gap and assist the government in its plan of producing skilled human resources to contribute to the economy and national growth.
The Ethiopian higher education sector is lately bracing itself for a more differentiated system. It is not yet clear what specific course this will take but one of its outcomes should be addressing the need for higher-level professional training for thousands of TVET graduates.
One immediate consideration in this regard might be the possible establishment of applied universities that can offer high-level professional and practical degrees different from what has so far been provided by comprehensive universities.
The manner in which applied universities are to be distinguished from comprehensive universities and how they operate across the system is the question that will be answered by the differentiated system to be created, but the advantage of applied universities to TVET graduates as a further training path is clear.
Such a move will create additional opportunities in the higher education sector, but it will also provide invaluable opportunities for further study to TVET graduates who have been forced to abandon TVET streams in search of higher-level training at comprehensive universities, or who are tempted to turn away from the education sector altogether.
Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is a collaborating scholar of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education, headquartered at the State University of New York at Albany, United States. He also coordinates the private higher education sub-cluster set up for the realisation of the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.