Graduation day in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, and the traffic has come to a standstill on Tele Bole, one of the city's main arterial roads.
Proud students and their beaming parents are spilling out of the cavernous Millennium Hall convention centre. Restaurants across town are packed with young men and women dressed in mortarboards and academic gowns celebrating the fruits of three or four years of hard work. And this year there are more than ever before.
These students are the latest graduates of a massive campaign to keep pace with the flood of high school students applying for degree programmes, the result of a rapidly growing population and an extremely successful drive to increase primary school enrolment.
The communist Derg junta was ousted in 1991 and five years later only 27.5% of school-aged children received primary education; today that figure stands at over 85%, according to the World Bank. Ethiopia's population has exploded from 58m in 1996 to 91.7m in 2012, making it Africa's second most populous nation after Nigeria.
In August 2005 the government embarked on an ambitious expansion plan, simultaneously building 13 universities across the country at a cost of $550m, paid for out of the education budget. At the time the country had just eight universities and of these, Addis Ababa University, founded in 1950, was the oldest and most prestigious.
Since 2006, when lecture rooms and dormitories at the 13 new universities were first opened to students, undergraduate enrolment has more than doubled from 203,339 to 494,110 in 2011 - 12. The latter figure already exceeds the government's stated target for 2014 - 15, according to the country's education ministry. Ten more universities are under construction, all of which have already begun to admit students, increasing even further the country's higher education capacity.
The decision to build 13 universities all at once was also politically motivated. In an effort to ease tensions and jealousies between Ethiopia's ethnic groups and to decentralise higher education, the government carefully chose campus locations to ensure that each of the country's administrative regions had its own new university.
By ensuring that students are drawn not just from the surrounding areas but from across the whole of Ethiopia, it is hoped that these new institutions will foster a greater understanding of the country's vast cultural and ethnic diversity. The government recognises over 80 ethnic groups and languages.
“If you wander around the campus you will see that some students are coming from Gambella [in western Ethiopia], some from [the eastern] Somali region and some from Tigray [in the north],” says Sisay Getachew, a medical student at the new university in Debre Berhan, in Amhara region in the heart of the Ethiopian highlands. To know “these people is to better know Ethiopia. We assimilate our culture, we laugh together and we live together too. That is the advantage of having people from different parts of the country.”
The government's aim to become a middle-income country by 2025 has guided its higher education strategy. “The first enemy in the country is poverty. To get out of this poverty we have to invest in our human capital,” says Getachew Tefera, president of the new Debre Berhan University.
The government also decided to change the balance of subjects in all universities away from the humanities and towards the sciences in 2008, he explains. After conducting a comprehensive study of education systems in countries that have seen rapid economic development since 1945, the decision was taken to split admissions 70:30 in favour of science and technology, following the German and Taiwanese models.
“We have an agricultural-led economy but we have to change this to an industry-led economy if we are to become a middle-income country. Technology and science are the first priorities,” Mr Getachew adds.
In less than three years the government's new target had been reached - the ratio of science and technology enrolments to those of humanities was 71:29 in 2011 - 12, up from 63:37 in the previous academic year.
This pace of change - both in terms of the increasing student numbers and the dramatic rebalancing of the curriculum - has brought with it challenges, not least the difficulty of recruiting suitably-qualified lecturers. Although the total number of faculty members has increased from 8,355 in 2006 - 07 to 20,822 in 2011 - 12, analysts are concerned that the student-teacher ratio (currently 24:1) is too high.
Some have misgivings about the quality of the academic staff. “Enrolment in the post-graduate programmes is too low to support the expansion with qualified academic staff, specifically in the science and technology sector,” wrote Dr Rita van Deuren last April in a blog on the Maastricht School of Management's website.
“Often, assistant lecturers are recruited from the fresh bachelor graduates,” she noted. In addition, turnover is high and the problem is worse for universities in remote areas with limited facilities for lecturers and their families.
Getachew Tefera recognises that recruitment is a problem, especially in the departments of engineering and health. “There is a shortage but we are trying to manage it by having expatriate staff from India, the Philippines and even from France,” he admits. “We are working in parallel to upgrade the capacity of local staff by giving them training and educational opportunities abroad and in Ethiopia.”
All teachers receive three to five days' training each year, focusing on teaching methods and classroom management. They also have to complete a ten-month higher diploma in pedagogical studies - 19 lecturers from Debre Berhan graduated this year. In addition more than 50% of the faculty are pursuing master's and PhD courses.
Due to budgetary and time constraints, students were admitted while the new universities were still under construction. The government had hoped to finish building the universities within four years but, as so often happens with major infrastructure projects, the deadline was not met. While all 13 campuses are now fully operational and building construction has finished, work still continues on the electricity supply, water and sewerage services, as well as on roads and pavements.
The decision to admit students just 18 months after construction began and stagger the installation of key infrastructure systems (including water and electricity) had a detrimental impact on the education of the first two batches of graduates, admits Esayas Abebe, executive director of GIZ International Services (GIZ IS), the federally- owned German enterprise that managed the project and provided training to the government and construction industry.
Limited classroom space, uncompleted libraries, overcrowded dormitories, makeshift bathroom facilities and the general inconvenience of living and studying in the middle of a dusty and noisy building site were just some of the problems facing students when the universities first opened.
While acknowledging that conditions were difficult at times, the students from that first cohort of undergraduates accepted that there was no alternative. “At least I ... got the chance to study law. Without these new universities I wouldn't be able to study at all,” said a second-year student at Debre Markos University in 2009.
But will this law student and thousands of other graduates find jobs when they receive their degrees? Reliable unemployment figures are hard to find in Ethiopia. But one local economist, who wishes to remain anonymous, said the job market may be flooded with new graduates - as many as 80,000 a year.
Some go into the informal sector and others set up their own businesses. But many are forced to take jobs for which they are now overqualified. He cites the banking industry as evidence: university graduates are now working as tellers, positions previously filled by candidates with post-high school credentials only.
Ethiopia is spending 20 billion birr ($1.6 billion) on tertiary education this year out of a total budget of 155 billion birr ($8.24 billion), about 2.7% of its GDP of 736 billion birr ($39 billion) in 2011 - 12.
University is free to students doing courses in subjects that are important to the economy or social development, such as medicine or agriculture. In return for tuition and room and board, the students must “give service” in their fields for an unspecified length of time after graduation.
Though the effect of this university expansion programme on the economy is difficult to measure, it has transformed the towns and cities where the new institutions are located. “If you had come here five years ago you couldn't imagine a town like this,” says Mr Sisay, a native of Debre Berhan.
“If you wander around the town you can see new buildings, new roads. There are around 10,000 students here and those 10,000 students need service from the community - cafés, hotels, restaurants - which create jobs for the people living here. There has been radical change and development.”
Another aim of the university building project has been the training of skilled workers and managers for Ethiopia's construction industry. More than 90 construction companies, 44 architects and engineers, 17 construction management firms and in excess of 750 local small- and medium-sized enterprises took part in the design and fabrication of the 13 universities' 1,448 buildings.
GIZ IS gave on-the-job training to about 33,700 workers. The International Organisation for Standardisation, which regulates everything from bathroom taps to greenhouse gases, certified over 40 local companies.
“The government for the first time was spending a lot of money to build the capacity of private contractors,” enthuses Mr Esayas. “This has never been done before and it was not a small amount of money: the capacity-building component of this programme was more than €32m ($42.5m).” Previously in the construction sector if you had money and machinery you could register your company and start taking contracts, he says.
But standards in the industry have now improved dramatically. By the end of the programme, most of the contractors working with GIZ IS had raised their status to Grade 1, the industry's highest, making them eligible to compete for lucrative infrastructure projects. “While implementing the 13 universities we have changed traditional construction methods. We say that there are more than 350 activities that we have changed positively,” Mr Esayas says.
As well as improving the quality of construction, GIZ IS is also provided training to contractors on drawing up tenders and quotes, bookkeeping, handling staff, time and equipment management, and other administrative skills.
For Mr Esayas the university building programme has been an unqualified success. GIZ IS is trying to promote it in other developing countries.
“Without any hesitation I would recommend it because it has definitely contributed to the GDP growth of this country,” he concludes. Though Ethiopia's GDP has risen from $15.2 billion in 2006 to $39.1 billion in 2011 - 12, according to government statistics, it is difficult to say how much the new universities and their cohort of graduates have contributed to this growth.
Perhaps more importantly, the Ethiopian government has learnt invaluable lessons from the programme. It is ploughing the knowledge and experience gained into the construction of ten more universities and aims to provide even greater opportunities to its ever-growing and increasingly youthful population.