Institutional and programme mobility from the developed to the developing world is a phenomenon that continues to attract research interest within the broader field of higher education internationalisation, while the movement of programmes and institutions within the developing world itself is little studied.

More research in this area can assist in our understanding of the evolving features of internationalisation. This article briefly examines internationalisation in East Africa through an exploration of outposts of Ethiopian public and private higher education institutions that have made inroads into Somalia through programme mobility.

Somalia lost much of its political, economic and social fabric after the civil war at the end of the 1980s and the disintegration of its central government. One of the major casualties of state failure in the country has been the education sector.

Unprecedented growth

However, the relative peace that prevailed in the country over the last decade and a half has seen unprecedented growth of higher education institutions in South-Central Somalia, Puntland, and Somaliland. According to a news report, the 50 universities Somalia had in 2013 have in five years ballooned to more than 100 higher education institutions operating across the country. The number of institutions operating in the capital city alone is said to be well over 60.

According to a 2013 report from the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, the biggest share of the higher education growth in Somalia is taken up by private higher education institutions that include those established by Somali nationals and those that have moved from neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.

There are currently half a dozen private and three public Ethiopian higher education institutions operating in Somalia. Most of them have a base in Addis Ababa. The institutions operate on a franchise basis with Somali partner institutions that assume responsibilities for delivering programmes, while the mother institution’s major role is in the sphere of standards, quality control and certification.

Ethiopian institutions are recognised and accredited in their own country but are required to register with the Somaliland Higher Education Commission which has not yet started fully-fledged local accreditation due to legislative and capacity gaps prevailing in the country.

Although most of the programmes offered by Ethiopian institutions in Somalia are accredited in Ethiopia through the national Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, there are some programmes that have not received such recognition yet but are being delivered in Somalia.


After its heyday in the 1960s the Ethiopian higher education sector has been denigrated for quality deterioration, mainly due to the limited attention it received in the 1970s and 80s and the effects of the expansion drive over the last two decades that has resulted in shortages of resources, qualified staff and systems of delivery. This might cause one to wonder how Ethiopian institutions are successful in exporting their programmes outside their territory.

Among other reasons, it is the high demand for tertiary education in Somalia that has created opportunities for providers from neighbouring countries to operate outside of their geographical remit without necessarily carrying the quality label. Another possible explanation is the overall preference for foreign institutions which is said to be common among Somali students.

From an institutional point of view, opening up a foreign post comes with a raft of opportunities and challenges. On the “opportunity” side, in addition to financial gains, institutions can help promote people-to-people relations and acquire wide academic and managerial experience from such operations.

Challenges usually reside in cultural differences, student expectations and local resources – including human resources – that may not be available. The success of a foreign institution is usually determined by its ability to capitalise on the benefits and navigate the challenges. The assistance of local partners in this regard is crucial.

Quality concerns

Despite wider opportunities created by local and foreign higher education institutions and anticipated institutional differences there is little empirical evidence about the standards of education provided by higher education institutions in Somalia. However, grave concerns about the general quality of education continue to be raised.

Most institutions are said to be deficient in terms of infrastructure and facilities, qualifications of staff, and library and laboratory resources. No serious national or institutional quality assurance mechanisms appear to have been put in place to regulate or enhance the quality of local providers.

An observation by a Somali education authority revealed that existing higher education institutions admit over 50,000 students annually while the country’s output from its high schools is only 30,000, indicating the possibility of fraudulent activities – relaxed admission requirements and enrolment of ill-qualified students – behind the enrolment practices of some institutions.

The other concern is related to the neophytic stage of the national quality assurance system of Somalia. Although established in 2011 with responsibility for accreditation and quality assurance, the commission has not yet been able to enforce its mandates due to the absence of a legal act. In order to commence activities, tertiary education providers from neighbouring countries need only to register with the Somaliland Commission for Higher Education.

The way ahead

Somalia is a classic example of how state failure or the absence of a regulatory framework can lead to the rapid rise of private providers to fill the demand for higher education.

For Ethiopia, the ability of Ethiopian higher education institutions to export their programmes outside the national territory is a new and exciting development within the country’s higher education system. It aligns well with the government’s strategy of internationalisation which encourages higher education institutions to make use of demand for tertiary education in neighbouring countries.

It is also suggestive of a similar strategy that can tap the educational needs within and outside of the region, especially in the Middle East where thousands of Ethiopians live and work without access to educational opportunities that can benefit them when they return to their country.

It should however be noted that while the lax legal requirements in Somalia can enhance the mobility of strong foreign institutions, the existing legal vacuum might also encourage illegal providers and certificate shops to proliferate, endangering the overall course of the higher education sector in the country and the sustainability of the new developments.

If Somalia is to benefit from the current positive trend it needs to coordinate its quality assurance efforts with responsible agencies in neighbouring countries like Ethiopia that have established their own system of regulating cross-border higher education. Another viable option is to develop a robust national quality assurance system of its own that addresses the country’s efforts to grow higher education provision without compromising on quality.

Equally important is what foreign institutions should do about their operations. Although Ethiopian institutions should not deny themselves the benefits of the initial phase of a relaxed regulatory environment, they should ensure the sustainability of their operations through continuous capacity development and internal quality assurance systems that will guarantee them success not only in the short term, but also in the years ahead when they will inevitably be subjected to more stringent national regulatory processes.

* I wish to acknowledge with a great sense of gratitude the extensive help and information I received from Matthew Gichile, president of New Generation University College in Ethiopia, and his colleagues in Somaliland, in the preparation of this article.

Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, 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, United States. He is also the coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster set up for the realisation of the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy of Africa (CESA). He may be reached at or