Passion for Higher Education – Alumnus Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis shares insights into his work

Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis is an Associate Professor of Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg. He has been researching higher education issues in Africa since 2006. He completed his PhD at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, where he worked as a researcher since 2015. His research focuses on South-South partnership models, regionalisation and internationalisation of higher education in Africa, decolonization debates and economics of higher education. He did his joint master’s degree in Higher Education Studies at Oslo University in Norway, Tampere University in Finland and Aveiro University in Portugal. He is certified in two advanced level research trainings in higher education in the Netherlands at the Centre for Institutional Cooperation (ICIS) Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam; and training on Leadership and Management of Higher Education Institutions in Maastricht School of Management. Prior to his position at Bayreuth University, he was Head of the Quality Assurance Office, Head of Department and team leader at Mekelle University, Ethiopia. He has published a number of articles, book chapters and books on higher education issues, particularly theories of regionalisation, student mobility, cost sharing, harmonisation of higher education systems and decolonization debates in Africa. Currently, he is working on higher education transformations in Africa.

Emnet Woldegiorgis planned to pursue his doctoral degree in Europe. While he was browsing the web, he came across Bayreuth University and realised that the university in Bavaria would be a great fit. He was drawn to the interdisciplinary approaches of various institutions and never regret his choice of moving to Bayreuth. Even though Bayreuth is quite small, “it is a cultural melting pot with a rich history that attracts scholars from a wide array of backgrounds which exposes one to different ways of living that one wouldn’t otherwise have had a lived experience thereof”. Even the extracurricular activities persuaded Emnet to participate in a whole lot of events. The many festivities that Bayreuth city, the university and other organisations had to offer would complete Emnets time in Upper Franconia. There would be the Afro-Carribean Festivals, events at the Iwalewahaus or even string of concerts and performances by an assortment of artists from all parts of Africa and beyond. He was even drawn to the world-renowned 19th-century composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner whose operas are performed to much fanfare at the annual Bayreuth festival (Bayreuther Festspiele). It is the composition of Bavarian and cosmopolitan offers that complement the academic endeavors of many international academics. 

Being an academic in Bayreuth

“The cosmopolitan appearance and posture of the institution supplied one with fertile ground to explore research topics while taking an innovative approach. The sheer interaction with other young scholars in itself enriched one’s life experience”. 

It is not just the University of Bayreuth that offers many all-embracing encounters, but the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, where Emnet completed his doctoral studies together with several other scholars. He says: “BIGSAS provided full support in terms of academic activities including research, field work and the organisation of conferences, workshops and colloquiums”. Being part of a network at the University, Emnet strengthened his effort of pursuing the profession of being a researcher, while his own network grew intensively. By pursuing his passion, he met several other scholars in academia as well as established researchers, scientists, policymakers and even politicians. “I started publishing academic works while there, it was the springboard from which I presented my various works as far afield as the US, Canada, parts of Asia including Japan and of course Africa”. 

Even though there were also some challenges, such as learning the German language or feeling homesick in his first months in Germany, Emnet would always advise someone to go for a PhD. “I believe the PhD path is a profound journey of research and deep learning experience. I have derived great fulfilment in the course of reading and doing research at Bayreuth, which can never be replicated elsewhere in my academic lifetime”. Of course, conceptualising a research topic, deciding on a topic, formulating research questions, thinking about the right methodology and obtaining data from potential respondents may also present difficulties along the doctoral journey. Also, Emnet was hagridden by confusion and frustration during his studies. He changed and reformulated his research questions, methodology and theoretical framework a number of times. Still, he concludes: “the learning experience equipped one with the requisite skills to embark on a large scale research, accompanied with many benefits and opportunities”, for him  those centered around meeting people from the African Union, Association of African Universities and other big regional organisations. 

After BIGSAS – what happened and where is Emnet now? 

Towards the completion of the PhD there was a vacancy for a post-doctoral research position at BIGSAS for which Emnet applied. For three years he worked on a concept of partnership in higher education looking into different models of partnership between African and European universities. Born out of that endeavour was a book published in 2019 in collaboration with a colleague. The whole effort sought to forge partnerships in a practical and sustainable way which led to applying for European Union funding to establish student mobility between the participating universities in Africa and Europe, Germany in particular. The European Union provided funds to support the initiative. Directly after that programme he was recruited, still within BIGSAS, and became a research fellow within the African Cluster Project which was doing research on Academic Freedom in Africa. This stint lasted 6 months at which point he considered the move to South Africa after securing the position of Associate Professor of Higher Education at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies (AMCHS) at the University of Johannesburg.

What made him choose AMCHS as his next destination?

Same as Bayreuth, Emnet was attracted by its Pro Africa focus and its vision was well within the ambit of his previous studies and research so it was a natural progression. From inception the centre was decidedly Pan-African with a view to revolutionise higher education with a particular emphasis on social and economic development in Africa. The AMCHS is one of the leading research centres in Africa with scholars from different disciplinary and research areas. The centre works on challenging research questions in the area of epistemic access, the decolonisation debated, size and shapes of higher education, documenting the contributions of generations of African scholars, on digital divide, and the responses of higher education systems towards COVID-19 pandemic. The centre disseminates critical research through a book series under the auspices of the African Higher Education: Developments and Perspectives. It seeks to agitate for serious engagement by all stakeholders who are interested in African higher education. It also recognises the value of collaborations and as such fosters partnerships with organisations of a similar posturing.

More on AMCHS: What is the Institution currently working on and which projects have been completed recently? 

AMCHS has a number of projects that are in motion at present, chief among these is the Generations of African Scholars which is our flagship project and is projected to be completed in 2025 having been initiated in 2020. Alumnus Emnet Woldegiorgis is heading this project which essentially seeks to document the contribution that African scholars have made to science, innovation and technology and higher education in general. The subjects of study have been carefully selected from across the continent, and include thought leaders such as Archie Mafeje, Bernard Magubane, Thandika Mkandawire and Eduardo Mondlane (Southern Africa); Valentine Y Mudimbe, Jacques Depelchin and Alex Kagame (Central Africa); Mahmoud Mamdani , Ali Mazrui and Catherine Odora Hoppers (East Africa); Chinua Achebe, Joseph Ki-Zerbo and Kwame Nkrumah (West Africa); Samir Amin, Nawal el Saadawi and Ibn Khaldun (North Africa); and Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon and Ali Mazrui (Global Africa).

We urge fellow scholars to produce books and chapters in books on the aforementioned contributions. This endeavour will see the placement of the African voice at the centre of the solutions to African problems as it should be.

AMCHS has completed a number of projects recently two of which are: Knowledge and Change in African Universities: Challenges and Opportunities which was sponsored by the Ford Foundation. This project examines Universities in Africa on their processes from research to dissemination. The second project is: Higher Education Transformation in South Africa. The focus area of this project is the complexities and dynamics of higher education transformation in South Africa, the project seeks to rethink the transformation of the country’s higher education in the context of Africa and the global world.

And on which projects is Emnet working?

“I’m currently editing a book titled “Higher Education In The Face Of The Global Pandemic”, which brings together scholars from across Africa to examine coping mechanisms of higher education institutions and systems during the Covid-19 pandemic”. While the decolonisation debate is continuing to be a hot topic in Africa and beyond, Emnet contributed to a book published in 2020 whose title is “Decolonisation of Higher Education in Africa: Perspectives from Hybrid Knowledge Production”. The book discusses decolonisation and hybrid science and facilitating the involvement of indigenous knowledge systems in African higher education.

The argument is that the Eurocentric model adopted by learning institutions is not comprehensive and therefore calls for a unified Euro and Afro outlook in order to reach the desired outcomes. Emnet consequently has also published an article whose central question is: How can we conceptualise the debates of decolonisation in a space which has never been colonised?

A reference list of the abovementioned recent works that Emnet is involved in:

  • Woldegiorgis, E. T. (2020) Re-Thinking Inclusive Higher Education for Students With Disabilities: A Proactive Approach Towards Epistemic Access in Ethiopia. In Social, Educational, and Cultural Perspectives of Disabilities in the Global South (pp. 235-250). IGI Global.
  • Woldegiorgis, E. T. (2020). Decolonising a higher education system which has never been colonised’. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-13.
  • Woldegiorgis, E. T., Turner, I., & Brahima, A. (Eds.). (2020). Decolonisation of Higher Education in Africa: Perspectives from Hybrid Knowledge Production. Routledge.

Lastly, how is the Alumnus coping with the pandemic currently, on an academic but also personal level?

Sadly, the pandemic took its toll on Emnet. His move to South Africa couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time. When he arrived in South Africa in March 2020, the South African government announced that it would institute lockdown measures just a week later to mitigate against the yet unknown effects of what came to be a devastating pandemic. While he was new to the country (luckily, he knew Johannesburg from former visits), securing accommodation and procuring sundry supplies was challenging for him. “I was plunged into a crisis before I could obtain the necessary orientation to thrive properly”. This continued to be a challenge on a professional level as well, as he was unable to meet his new colleagues and adequately interact with them. Notwithstanding, Emnet managed to overcome these hurdles, as well as to execute and complete his assigned projects. However, Emnet received devastating news from his home country Ethiopia. His mother had passed away during a time where he was unable to leave South Africa to be with friends and family to mourn. He is now bouncing back, as is the South African routine. Emnet Woldegiorgis has already proven in the past that he can adapt quickly to new environments. His character is one of resilience, perseverance, passion and the urge to always learn something new and to take up current debates and advance them through his expertise. Despite some setbacks, Emnet has never failed to seize opportunities and, with his years of experience and contribution, has made a lasting impact on debates around higher education in Africa. 

We are excited to follow his future steps and projects!


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3 Responses

  1. Meseret Tsige says:

    Interesting narration. Good to know that you had great educational experience Emnet. You also reminded me of my stay in Norway as a PhD student. Happy for you.

  2. Damtew Negash says:

    Excited to read it. I know Beemnet as an undergraduate student at Addis Ababa University, back in 2000. I am happy for you Be-emne!

  3. Zimare says:

    Great job Prof. We look forward to see you with more amazing works. God bless

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