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Opinions of Sunday, 21 July 2019

Columnist: Isaac Ato Mensah

Ghana's proposed public universities bill-what we know

The raging debate over the public universities bill leaves so much to be desired.

Ministry of Education (MOE) reps and university dons are needlessly attacking each other.

It is not at all clear which principles if any are in the picture.

Let us examine the philosophy behind the proposed bill.

We have surmised four main objectives.

First; uniform conditions of service for all staff of Ghana’s public universities.

Second; a uniform financial management regime. Universities are spending without regard to the Public Financial Management Act.

Third; uniform governance structures. Fact: this aspect predates the KNUST and UEW internal disputes.

Fourth; miscellaneous matters.

It is the essence of the second and third objectives that some academics have said will stifle academic freedom.

But let us examine carefully the issue of academic freedom and the proposed draft document.

The main trouble the Ministry of Finance faces here is how to reign in expenditure, planned expenditure and outstanding debt owed by public universities.

The Public Financial Management Act 2016 (Act 921), states in section 72 (2f) that the public debt management office shall supply “a list of outstanding supplier’s credit agreements and finance lease agreements and the financial terms of the agreements” to Parliament.

There are also provisions were Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are required to submit all agreements which will result in debt to the Minister for Finance for prior approval.

To address this problem, at several meetings of the MOE held in Accra, Dr Matthew Opoku Prempeh, the Minister for Education, took ample time to explain the situation to members and invited guests.

There are specific instances whereby some public universities have entered into contracts which have created public debt.

The same situation occurred before the Volta River Authority (VRA) and Ghana National Petroleum Corporation (GNPC) were restructured.

Interestingly, at one such meeting, most of the MOE staff and guests present thought there was a bill out there for which they asked for copies.

“There is no bill,” the Minister responded. Indeed there is no bill.

A bill is properly so called when a proposed piece of legislation has gone through the consultation stage by the sponsors, been presented to Cabinet for consideration, has been approved by Cabinet, submitted officially to Parliament, duly acknowledged, and laid before the House through a First Reading.

The distribution of the draft bill against an apparent common understanding to keep it confidential away from the usual public noise unfortunately unnerved the spokespersons for the MOE, and they have on occasion used the word “mischief” to describe the critics of the proposed bill.

That posture has not been helpful.

For the MOE and government communication generally to improve, incumbent party spokespersons must be debarred from speaking in the name of MDAs. If the directors cannot invite the media to their offices for interviews, they should write and publish.

The proposed bill, still being drafted has made provision for annual estimates for public universities.

The draft suggests that a public university shall prepare and submit its annual estimates of revenue and expenditure through the National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE) to the Minister for Education at such times as the Minister may prescribe.

It importantly adds that the Minister may ask that the documents required should be in the manner that will suit the requirements of Act 921 of 2016.

It will be great to hear out how this will or will not stifle academic freedom.

Written submissions should appear in the media and in research journals.

That is the constructive and enlightened way to conduct public business.

And for the MOE this is the least they can do.

Prof Ransford Gyampo, a University of Ghana lecturer and an outspoken critic of the proposed bill, has written his views and published same.

To call him and other critics “mischief” makers who are “politically motivated” when the NCTE and the National Accreditation Board (NAB) have not been able to convince the public through a similar written argument is inappropriate and it says a lot about the appointees of the MOE in charge of promoting this otherwise noble objective.

Let us quote Prof. Gyampo and then tell you what we know.

“The [draft] Bill provides for a Centralised Admissions Platform even though there is no evidence anywhere in Ghana that the decentralised system currently in operation is defective or malfunctioning.

This is another illustration of taking away every initiative that universities may have,” wrote Gyampo in paragraph six of his critique as published on ghanaweb.com on 9 April, 2019.

What the professor is asking for simply is evidence. In all fairness if he is given evidence we believe he will be convinced as to “best practice” as stated in his article.

What we know is that this proposed Centralized Admissions Platform has excellent aims including reducing cost to applicants from buying several application forms; preventing tertiary institutions from over selling application forms only to tell applicants when admission season is closed that they did not qualify; and most importantly helping MOE to tell in real time how many applicants are opting for STEM programmes for example, so that proactive interventions could be made.

Now to the second objective; a uniform governance structure.

Truth be told, there is documentary evidence that the suggestion by the MOE to appoint the same number of persons to constitute the university councils was as early as February 2017, long before the KNUST and UEW governance crises.

What is new is the proposal that the President of the Republic of Ghana shall appoint the chairpersons of those governing councils.

This also some have argued will stifle academic freedom. Here again, let us hear out written arguments for and against how academic freedom will or will not be stifled.

What we also know is that Dr Matthew Opoku Prempeh and Dr Yaw Osei Adutwum, his deputy, are accurate, eloquent and erudite when explaining themselves.

It is unfortunate that Prof Kwesi Yankah, Minister of State for Tertiary Education (at the MOE) has not published anything toward explaining current educational policies and reforms.

Hardly do any of the directors and executive secretaries of the agencies under MOE write and publish to explain what the Ministry is doing.

Let the written arguments begin; the discerning public is ready to evaluate the facts, evidence and reasons in order to make an informed judgment.

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