Ethiopia has banned off-campus education, and ordered private universities to close degree programs in law and education.
A directive issued by Ethiopia's Education Ministry describes distance learning at off-campus sites as "unnecessary at this stage" and orders all such operations to stop enrolling new students immediately. The proclamation also prohibits private universities from accepting new applicants in teaching or law degree programs.
The ruling will affect 64 private institutions, most of which have sprung up in the past 15 years as the government opened higher education to the private sector. The distance education ban also includes Ethiopia's 23 public universities.
Educators estimate there are roughly 75,000 students currently enrolled in distance education programs, about one-third in undergraduate programs and the rest in technical and vocational training. The rules allow them to complete their course work.
Education Ministry spokesman Abera Abate Abebe says the directive was issued in the interest of maintaining education standards. He says several private institutions were more interested in profit making than in providing quality education.
"When the purpose is collecting money, it is not a good purpose," said Abera. "The only issue some universities have is collecting money."
The directive has drawn outrage from private educators.
Wondwosen Tamrat founded St. Mary's College in Addis Ababa 11 years ago with 37 students. Today St. Mary's has 7,000 undergraduate students on its main campus and more than 10,000 others enrolled in a nationwide distance learning program. He says the directive is a crushing blow to institutions like St. Mary's.
"To begin with, two-thirds of the students are in the distance education division," said Wondwosen. "If you are not offering this program, it would mean we would be losing what we have been working for the last 11 years. We have 140 distance education centers all around the country. We have people in all of these centers. We would be losing these."
Wondwosen says closing distance education, plus the loss of the teaching and law faculties, will force the layoff of more than 800 of the university's 1,200 employees.
He acknowledges there are disreputable private Ethiopian universities that grant degrees to anyone who pays the tuition. But he says St. Mary's students, who pay the equivalent of about $1,000 for a three-year course of study, have been driving national standards in some areas.
He says the new directive will undo all the good the government did 15 years ago when it overturned a ban on private education that had been in effect during the rule of the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
"They are spoiling what they have already done," added Wondwosen. "All this access the public is having through an expanded public system or a newly created private system has been the making of the government. I do not see any reason why government decides to go back on its own practice and tell us it is no longer possible to do these things."
Education Ministry spokesman Abera says the directive will be strictly enforced. But he suggests the rules could be eased once institutions issuing worthless degrees are forced to close.
"It may be a short period of time," explained Abera. "It is not for a long, it is not the end. Maybe [when] education is going straight on a track that is quality."
Wondwosen says the growth of private universities in Ethiopia has contributed to a five-fold increase in the country's gross higher education enrollment ratio. A decade ago, one percent of Ethiopians went to college, as compared to an Africa-wide average of six percent. The latest survey indicates the figure for Ethiopia has risen to 5.1 percent.