Saving private universities

BY: George Afrane
Quality education can only come from competition among the private sector operators

It started during the Busia regime - the cost-sharing policy, that is. Confrontation between students and the ruling government was the right of passage for freshmen in those days.

You looked forward to it.

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You knew that at some point in your stay at the university, you would be part of an ‘aluta’, and the university would be closed, and you would be sent home.

If we weren’t fighting against paying fees in those days, we were fighting against military rule or something equally ponderous, in our opinion. The academic calendar was always distorted.

In the beginning, university students in Ghana enjoyed free tuition, free food, free accommodation, free everything, basically.

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By the time I got to the university in the mid-70s, they were still bringing delicious snacks to the study area for our enjoyment during the morning break.

Then government started to cut back on expenditure on tertiary education.

The snacks were the first to go; then the free food was first replaced with coupons and then eventually cut off completely and the dining halls were privatised.

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Free single-room accommodation was replaced with pairing, then sardine-packing and eventually paying-hostels.

But there were fights all along the way up to the Rawlings era.

Every change was resisted by students, and the schools were predictably closed and re-opened and closed and so on.

I believe it was the long 1995 shutdown during the Rawlings era that broke the cycle.

Both students and lecturers got tired of staying at home. We convinced ourselves that military leaders, most of whom did not attend university themselves, could not appreciate the need for the existence of such institutions and therefore could not care less if they were opened or closed.

So the lecturers called off their strike, and students came back with the intention of finishing and getting out of the ‘godforsaken’ place as soon as possible.

A different era - where students and lecturers choose to concentrate on their own destinies rather than bother with the government - was born at the universities, and this has largely persisted up till now.

Cost sharing

One major by-product of government eventually getting the upper hand of the turbulent 70s to 90s period was the acquiescence of students to bear part of the cost of their training at the tertiary level.

The government had introduced the students’ loan scheme to support students back in the 70s; but back then it was used mostly for entertainment.

By the 90s, user-fees had been introduced, and some students needed the loan to do more than ‘chilling’.

The National Council for Tertiary Education, while approving a 10 per cent increment in fees on a yearly basis, did not monitor or enforce the recommended levels.

Once the students were paying the fees and subvention to the schools were on whatever-it-could-afford-to-give basis, government turned a blind eye to the activities of the managers of tertiary institutions.

That situation has, unfortunately, also persisted up till now. It has contributed to the sharp rise in student-lecturer ratio, which is not surprising considering the fact that the two quantities that make up the ratio – the numerator and denominator - are controlled separately by entities with diametrically opposed objectives.

University managers want more money to manage their schools, and so they admit more students and open campuses all over the country (thereby increasing the numerator), while the government wants to spend less on emoluments and so it restricts - sometimes even halts - the employment of more lecturers (thereby decreasing the denominator).

Having fought so hard to push part of the financial burden of tertiary education onto the public, government now seems to have lost its way.

It seems to have run out of ideas. Resort to taxation is certainly not the way. The best way to relieve further the financial pressures on government in the education sector is to use the private sector, especially at the tertiary level.

The presence of the private universities is a god-sent opportunity which should be used by government to not only pull back further from the tertiary level financially but also to enhance quality.

Quality education can only come from competition among the private sector operators.

Recently the Minister of State in Charge of Tertiary is reported to have said on radio that students with grades D7 and E8 should be admitted to universities.

Public universities are bursting at the seams and quality is down, so why should we admit more people there? The fact of the matter is that we train more people of the university-type than we need as a country, and everybody knows that.

Targeted approach

A targeted approach is needed with the objective of enhancing the student intake of private and technical universities.

In order not to let these schools continue to harvest students from the admissions leftovers of public universities - which will continue to make them unattractive as second-class schools - some of the programmes offered by the public universities, and which the private schools can handle easily, must be deliberately and systematically ‘broken off’ from the public schools and given to them.

This can be done through defunding of these programmes.

Public universities can be pressured, through defunding, to revert to the original mandate for which they were set up.

They cannot be allowed to run courses ‘all over the place’ and in the process produce graduates that the economy does not need.

Managers of public universities can no longer be allowed to continue to do whatever they like with these public institutions.

In his radio interview, the minister was said to have proposed that there should be a debate on these issues.

In deed, there is a lot to be discussed and decided at the tertiary level, but this cannot be done at a public forum or on the radio.

In the 80s, government set up a Universities Rationalisation Committee headed by Mrs Esi Sutherland-Addy – if I remember correctly - who visited all the universities on a fact-finding mission and afterwards made recommendations.

The terrain has changed drastically.

Whatever decisions need to be taken now have to be based on current facts and figures, and this will require another committee of a similar nature to go round and gather the necessary information to put together a good plan to regulate the chaotic tertiary sector.

Placement, however, is not the only issue that needs attention.

Going on the premise that all money collected at each public institution is pubic funds, the following issues need attention too: Why must the same employer pay people with the same qualification different salaries at the same level?

Why must the same employer pay different allowances for the same tasks at the same level? Why must the same employer allow the use of different promotion criteria for the same level? These are some of the questions that need to be examined and dealt with.

The committee’s work needs to be done before the free senior high school (SHS) graduates start pouring out of the SHSs in a few years’ time to complicate matters.