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Opinions of Sunday, 21 August 2016

Columnist: Enimil Ashon

Did Professor Aryeetey speak too late?

It is a habit of the human mind. We usually expose ourselves to information that agrees with our biases. Ask Professor Kwame Karikari. He will give you a lecture on the theory of reinforcement in communication.

Listening to the immediate past Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Professor Ernest Aryeetey, speak against the conversion of polytechnics into technical universities, I jumped out of my seat, snapped my fingers - the way Archimedes may have done and shouted ‘Eureka’!

The learned professor was making sense. Perhaps it’s because of my own bias against the conversion, but I thought I had never heard a more sound reasoning. To arrive at the conclusions he made, he asked himself two foundational questions. One: What is the role of a polytechnic? Two: What is a university set up to do? If the university is for research and polytechnics are to produce the skills needed to convert research into tangible technologies, why do we need to call polytechnics universities for them to play their role?

In making some of his statements, the professor himself had anticipated his crucifixion at the hands of people who would feel offended by his reference to certain individuals desperately in need of the title, Professor, to be seen to have reached the pinnacle of learning.

That is academia politics, and I will not go there.

I know that what I am doing is an exercise in futility: it won’t take us anywhere, seeing as the decision has already been taken. I wade into the argument only to entreat Ghanaians to ask ourselves one question: What have been the tangible benefits, so far, of our efforts, in the producing scientists? I concede that government is a key variable, particularly in a country like ours where budgetary allocation to research institutions is sufficient only to pay salaries; a country where the money for actual research comes from development partners.

Be that as it may, is it not a wonder that our science education has not helped us to scratch even the surface in terms of getting our society to produce its needs? Close to 200 years after the invention of radio, how come we are not producing radio sets in Ghana? Beyond Sanyo and Akasanoma (which assembled radio and TV sets in the 60s (mark the year – 1960s!), we are stuck. At the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), there are many instances of individual student brilliance. Some of the student inventions – of course, with the help of some lecturers – are simply amazing. All they need is a little push.

I know all of that, but has it not struck all of us why KNUST, for example, lives in darkness when power from Akosombo goes off? Even forgetting about dumsor, why should KNUST and the polytechnics, in the 21st century, have “Electricity Bills” as an expenditure item in their annual budget when after so many years of turning out science graduates, they should have been producing alternative power sources, at least, to light their own campuses and power their laboratories?

The strongest argument for the conversion of polytechnics into technical universities is that the job market discriminates against Higher National Diploma (HND) holders. But I ask myself: Why not? Is HND the same as a degree? Were the students, in their admission letters, not told they were studying for HND? Does the conversion mean that we are doing away with the title, HND? If everybody becomes a degree holder, who will constitute the intermediary? What shall be the name of their certificate?

I have always lived in dread of the future because as we are witnessing at the KNUST and polytechnic campuses, the production of graduates and post-graduates in the Humanities is far outpacing that of pure scientists. In justifying the introduction of the humanities into the KNUST curricular, it was argued that the Arts and Humanities played a complementary role to that of Science and Technology “by addressing the question of Social Insertion without which raw knowledge provided by pure science …… cannot be meaningfully harnessed for development”.

If that is the case, why don’t we rather go for a system, as exists at the African University College of Communication which has a Department of Afrikan Studies not necessarily to produce specialists in African Studies, but rather, as the founder, Mr Kojo Yankah, envisioned, to have a situation where every student, no matter what their majors are, must have a modicum of knowledge of the African society in which they are being taught and produced to function – just as Kwame Nkrumah started at the University of Ghana.

O, yes, I know that many world-class science and technology universities offer, also, the humanities, including religion and divinity. The example is given of the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which runs undergraduate and post-graduate programmes in Philosophy and Religious Studies, not to talk about Tokyo University, essentially science and technology biased, which now has a Department of Philosophy and Religion in the Faculty of Letters.

I grant all these. My fear, however, is that we are reaching a future when the populations of students offering Humanities at our science colleges will far outnumber those offering the pure sciences. It is already happening at KNUST where the College of Social Sciences boasts the highest number of post-graduates!!

Already, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research ( CSIR) is warning that science teachers and researchers are becoming an endangered species; hence, its introduction of the Science and Technology College to turn out post-graduates in the sciences.