A dire situation unfolds across public universities, where students face the harsh reality of declining food quality and quantity, a problem seen as a manifestation of a broader crisis across the higher education system. Over the past three years, college students have seen a reduction in the variety and portion sizes of meals, compounded by rising food prices. It forces many to reconsider their meal plans, despite the universities' billions of Birr in annual budget. The struggle to maintain adequate food services amidst inflation is a common thread across the country's higher education institutions. With a paltry daily food budget of 22 Br for a student, universities are barely keeping up with the rising cost of living, which outstrips the nominal increases in their budgets.

Guche Gule, the recently appointed president of Wolaita Sodo University, has had to alter the cafeteria menu to include cheaper staples like rice and pasta more frequently due to the soaring costs of traditional ingredients. At Arbaminch University, 500Km south of the capital, the crisis has led to the breakdown of established supply chains. Student leaders say the University is now buying food directly from vendors as temporary relief after the primary food supplier withdrew due to the untenable economic environment. Dila University has cut its academic year by 15 days to stretch its budget further, uncovering the depth of the financial woes faced by these institutions.

The situation is exacerbated by a national policy that has not adjusted adequately to the economic realities. Despite a recent increase, the daily meal allocation of 22 Br for a student is grossly insufficient compared to the rising costs of essential commodities, leading to significant nutritional and academic repercussions. Samuel Kifle, acting president of Addis Abeba University, advocates for a more targeted approach to financial aid, urging scholarships for the neediest students and a thorough overhaul of the subsidy system.

In response to the escalating crisis, a consortium of public universities has been actively lobbying the federal government for increased funding. The Ministry of Education has formed a committee to explore long-term solutions, including the possibility of university autonomy and the introduction of student loans and financial credit systems — strategies that aim to address the dependency on state subsidies. The broader economic context cannot be ignored as the federal government wrestles with a budget deficit and prioritises austerity measures, including debt servicing, which consumes a considerable share of the national budget. Its fiscal conservatism affects higher education institutions and the broader economy, challenging the sustainability of public higher education in an era of acute fiscal constraints and calls for solutions to preserve the academic future of the country's youth.

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PUBLISHED ON Apr 28,2024 [ VOL 25 , NO 1252]

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