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Opinions of Sunday, 3 February 2008

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin

Bogus Universities and Dodgy Degrees -Part II

Sometimes, the process of acquiring a university degree is like choosing between contempt and mockery: either of the two is tolerable because shame is a state of mind. At the end of it all, the piece of paper, wherever it came from, vindicates the Machiavellian objective. And to be fair, a university degree, once gotten, looks more promising than a disputed chieftaincy title. So, rather than being a dignified pursuit, degrees are acquired through various means by blockheads who cannot put a title to a poem.

These days, degree awarding institutions are as widespread as charismatic churches. While the UK boasts of prestigious world-acclaimed universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, there are thousands of private colleges that also award degrees in popular disciplines. These colleges usually rely on their affiliation to some known institutions of higher learning. Others claim partnership with anonymous institutions that bear a resemblance with well-known universities. And most of the time, the affiliations are planked on marketing and PR considerations than on anything academic. The consolation is that the degree would be awarded by the affiliated institution, and it carries the same respect as those obtained from the prestigious institutions. So, an African immigrant who is eager to acquire a university degree on a small budget, would find it strategic enrolling on a course at Westminster College, because the college pretends to market itself as an affiliate campus of Westminster university. Besides, it sounds very much like the latter.

Often the trouble is with the affiliations. City Banking College, the London Bridge based institution which ran some of Leicester university?s MBA programmes, was closed down when the university became alarmed at the dent the low standards at the college was having on its image. The college was peopled by lots of Ghanaians, most of whom combined work and academic activity in very bizarre, often laughable circumstances. Yet they managed to satisfy the academic requirements and got MBA?s awarded by the University of Leicester. It is debatable whether students who undertook their studies at the Leicester campus in Leicestershire, would be better than those who had to make do with the scholarship-repelling surroundings of the London Bridge College. But a degree, whatever the colour, bears a seal, and in the Leicester case, it is understood that the private colleges do the teaching while the University does the marking and awards the certificates. What is not clear is why the fees charged at the private colleges are sometimes three times cheaper than what the main universities charge.

This leads to an even greater transgression. The word affiliation is not to be construed as a synonym for the Christian belief in the Trinity, where God, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one. Affiliation does not transfer the prestige one university has onto another, the way God?s spirit moves freely in the Son Jesus; affiliation is to be understood in terms of a subsidiary of a sort, or worst still, a ?percher.? Of course, there are times that a small university that is survived by its affiliation to a bigger one could work its way to attain enviable levels of scholarship, as the Oyibi based Adventist-inspired Valley View University has done. But generally, affiliations in the academia and even in the world of business have something of the night about them.

It is common knowledge that while students who patronize small ?affiliate? colleges may be of a competitive quality, teachers at these colleges do not sometimes match the quality of the caliber employed at the big universities. In London, it is possible to find a job in a bogus college as a teacher without an interview or any recommendation, but getting onto the academic staff of a good university is a laborious process. Indeed, most students who have received tuition at some private colleges have concerns about the quality of their teachers. And if a filter leaves an imprint on that which it filters, as it usually does, then the quality of the teachers will tell on the students.

Still, the fact remains that there are students who would excel anywhere. NPP presidential aspirant Nkrabeah Effah Darteh was thought a phenomenon of a sort when he enrolled at Achimota School and became a senior prefect; he had come from a poor village elementary school in Jinijini, where his father was a catechist. Folks believe he picked his good English and great acting skills from Achimota, even though the converse is actually the case. I have sat under the ministration of pastors who never received any formal education but preach in flawless English. Often the caliber of the individual matters more than where they train and the discipline they follow.

Even so, where an individual trains their brains in formal education is as important as the quality of the person they decide to marry after the training. If the clich? holds true that behind every successful man is a good woman, then it is even truer that great institutions train the best brains. In the UK, universities are rated like football clubs: there are premier institutions, the championships, league one universities and the least competitive ?league two. The fees they charge are also rated according to their places on the university league table. If Cranfield University charges ?30,000 for her MBA programmes, it is because the quality of teaching there is supposed to be better than the apology at the Commonwealth Law College, an Asian-owned private college in Aldgate, London, where ?4,000 could afford a desperate immigrant an MBA. The modules of the discipline may be the same everywhere, but it is difficult to imagine that the quality of graduates from the two institutions would be the same. Yet, they all juggle along and manage to make do, often much ado, with what they have. So, in the end, who loses?

University rankings, I have come to observe, do not matter much in the making of a good graduate. While Cambridge always competes with Oxford for the first position in any UK university ranking, a solicitor friend who has experienced the often over-hyped scholarship at Oxbridge, as the two are usually called, is confident that South Bank University, a poorly ranked institution in London, where she received her first class LLB Honours degree, prepared her better. That is the least surprising, because my English degree from the University of Ghana, makes sense to me than any of the higher degrees I have received from universities in the UK. So, while KNUST requires her MA Economics students to defend every chapter of their dissertations before grey-haired weirdo academics, many students in London have the liberty to transport a stolen dissertation from any part of the globe to their colleges. Usually, no defense is done. It is a good sign of development that lots of private universities are springing up in Ghana, as if the Com Centre revolution is being reborn. These are very good avenues that would absorb otherwise brilliant or perhaps not so brilliant students who would usually be unjustifiably rejected by the public universities in the republic. It also means that students who want a career in business administration are not forced to settle for a programme in archaeology or classical civilization studies, otherwise known as ?Shadow? in the University of Ghana. As it happens in the west, Ghanaian students now have the opportunity to choose from a wide range of academic disciplines across various learning institutions. In any case, what is the point in studying for a degree in Religions when the student has no interest whatsoever in the orthodox caliphate. Choice means that instead of waiting for a year to reapply, he could enroll on a good degree programme in finance and secretaryship at Mensah Otabil?s Central University. And so far, there have not been any complaints from employment circles that today?s private university graduate is low quality, except the already known fact that standards are generally low in this generation.

But choice, especially unbridled choice, sometimes means that certain important considerations are sidestepped when taking vital decisions. University education is not fashioned to necessarily reward graduates with a vocation; it is a ?universal? training process that could indeed make an accountant out of a salesman and a lawyer out of a buffoon. So, Archaeology may well be what an ambitious student needs to become a good journalist. It is a good knowledge he could draw on if he finds himself reporting on the environment. Indeed, many of the most fantastic copywriters have no formal qualifications in marketing; their only qualification is the creative juices that allow them to conceptualise a thought and process it into a customer-arresting message. That selling strategy is what eventually sells the product, not their credentials.

One important reason students and guardians have often given for patronizing private universities is the flexibility they have in choosing courses they desire. These institutions have schemes that allow working students and even lactating mothers to enjoy academic work while concentrating on their private activities. It is a thoughtful process that in the end would make a mature student a better manager of time, because they are able to make the best out of two things, a privilege that eluded graduates of yesteryears.

But this has come at a price. If the general feeling is that very few students with excellent grades would turn down admission to a public university, where they will pay very little tuition fees for a competitive programme of study, and offer to pay huge fees at a private university for the same programme, then the pendulum tilts better somewhere. Of course, it is not always the case. And why is every private university student studying business administration, marketing and finance? If brain-nourishing courses like philosophy, linguistics and history, go extinct in the next generation, we may well not have another George Sydney Abugri for a long time. The multi-award-winning journalist understands the language of English just as he has a ?logical? brain for mathematics and science, for he had taught those subjects in Bawku for a decade. Very few graduates of today have the mental discipline to break free from their areas of specialization and venture into novel territories. The Business Administration graduate, whom I charged to monitor my writings in the Ghanaian newspapers, is not aware that the Graphic is a daily newspaper; he thinks it comes out only on Mondays. As we go private, we should ensure that our universities serve the public good.

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