Monash University
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The neoliberal policy agenda of the World Bank and higher education reform in Ethiopia: the problem of inequality in focus

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posted on 2017-02-08, 01:07 authored by Mekonnen, Tebeje Molla
Partly as a consequence of the knowledge-driven poverty reduction discourse of the World Bank (WB), higher education (HE) has assumed a central place in the development plans and strategies of aid-recipient nation-states in sub-Saharan Africa. Accordingly, governments in the region have introduced planned changes to revitalise their HE subsystems. Given the increased economic optimism associated with the reforms and the neoliberal ideals underpinning them, it is necessary to question the social equity implications and consequences of these changes. Drawing on a critical policy analysis approach, this study examines: the neoliberal higher education policy prescriptions of the WB and the national realities and responses to these in Ethiopian higher education; the way the problem of inequality in HE is framed; the specific instruments put in place to address the problem; the institutional arrangements in implementing gender equity-related reforms; and, subsequent changes on experiences of the reform targets – women in public universities. It investigates the reform context, contents and effects. Data were collected through reviews of selected policy documents from the WB, the Government of Ethiopia, and two public universities; in-depth interviews with senior government officials in the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia, and senior management members and gender office directors from the two universities; and focus group discussions with four groups of female staff and students in the two universities. The study applied inductive analysis. In line with the research questions and objectives of the study, close analysis of policy texts and transcribed data revealed patterns of commonalities and emerging meanings, contradictions and tensions between policies and the perspectives of key stakeholders. The study reports the findings through descriptive accounts and analytical narratives of the themes. The findings from this research provide evidence that i) the WB has used a combination of lending and non-lending instruments to instil its neoliberal policy prescriptions into the reform process; ii) the reform agenda includes decentralizing governance of the subsystem,aligning HE with goals of economic competitiveness and poverty reduction, and promoting the involvement of market forces in the subsystem; and iii) the neoliberal policy elements constrains gender equity efforts at different levels. Discursively, the problem of inequality is framed as a lack of access to HE and as a drawback in the human capital of the nation; and in practice, the drivers for greater efficiency and reduced costs in the educational provision embedded in the reforms are inconsistent with the need for financial and political commitments that are required to benefit women in HE. As a result, qualitative dimensions of gender inequality in HE remain unaddressed and women continue to face structural impediments in their working and learning environments. Therefore, I argue that in order to increase the relevance of reforms to the socio-economic development needs of the nation, policymakers need to contextualise external policy directions; and that to promote gender equity in HE, equity policy instruments should be informed by a social justice principle rather than a narrow human resource development perspective.


Principal supervisor

Dharma Arunachalam

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Political and Social Inquiry


Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Arts

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