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Opinions of Saturday, 29 October 2011

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao

The Tragedies of African Democracies - X

The Tragedies of African democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good

Higher Education Cont…

In the area of university administration, there is no doubt that a few changes have taken place on Ghanaian university campuses, but there is the need for more reforms. Indeed some of these reforms do not really require money. It is about recruiting the right mix of staff, professionals who really understand the times and what university administration is really about. In the late 1990s and early 2000, it took, sometimes, over six months or a year to receive one’s transcript from the University of Cape Coast, the system I am so familiar with. This had nothing to do with whether one completed a decade earlier or one just completed six months before making the request.
The attitude of staff, who were supposed to be facilitators in assisting students to access some of these things, was simply abhorrent and reprehensible. I am aware of how former students who had not even found a job had to bribe some of these officers to avoid the frustrations associated with some of these procedures. In my own case, it took more than six travels to the university over a year’s period to finally access my transcript. A process that requires only making the request to the department that oversees that elsewhere, and it is done within the next working hour. It delayed my applications to graduate school for a year. Others narrate more serious holdbacks and frustrations with this process. It is even worse when one is asking for a letter of reference from some lecturers.

Today, ICT has made all these processes very swift and less cumbersome in students’ application and admissions processes. Transcripts and reference/recommendation letters are processed and received online. Some universities even have a specific requirement that make it mandatory for students to submit all these documents online. Failure to adhere to this requirement implies your application is automatically ruled out of the admission process. But laggards as we are, we are embedded in our outmoded ways of doing things and because there are no challenges to compel us to change, we are in no hurry to wake up to the realities of the times and what that means to the way we conduct academic business.

Let us look at this scenario. University of Ghana, University of Cape Coast, and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, all maintain an office in London with staffs paid to keep these offices running. As we tout remittance from abroad as the way to keep our economies running, does it not make sense that these offices developed a system of payment, whereby their products or alumni who are littered all around the globe could use credit cards and debit cards to make payments for transcripts they require from their former institutions back home? It may work this way, once I make payment with a credit or debit card and provide the address where the transcript should go, the details of this request would then be forwarded to the university in Ghana by email, where the request is then processed and send out to the intended destination. An online version of forms may also be available on the universities website which could be filled out by applicants from any destination – local and foreign – with the required amount paid by money order, postal order, or a check to the university. Even African shops, where I can walk in and buy my dry fish and cassava dough all have adapted to the network, allowing the use of credit and debit cards and even electronic checks, but not our institutions funded by the taxpayer.

Zeroing in on management of the universities in Ghana, I have decided to do some comparative analysis on a few fronts. Though university administration is way different from elementary schools and high schools, it provides some evidence to understand where we are. The question needs to be asked whether the autonomous nature of the state universities has made them any better than if they were under government control? Clearly, they would probably have been worse off. This assumption is based on the fact that, at the lower echelons of the educational ladder, all public schools are under direct government control, but do not tend to produce the desired results. The so-called policy expert on education – who stipulates how public education should be administered – do not have their own children in the system that produces more educational failures than successes. On the other hand, while I cannot make a blanket statement about all private universities in Ghana, Ashesi University, one of the youngest private universities in the country, is showing the way things could be done better. I visited the campus three times in 2009 when I visited Ghana on a holiday. Its model shows what could be done differently. That model shows what autonomy should mean in university administration, it should not just be a matter of being independent; there must be institutional checks and balances to ensure that things are done appropriately.

The student bodies on university campuses – especially the student representative councils (the SRCs) - which should be very proactive, ensuring that there is a congenial and conducive environment on the various campuses and the checks and balances are working, in order that lecturers are kept on their toes to produce results, have all become pseudo-political organizations and groupings – with the usual NPP and NDC – leaving the core elements of their essence – bulwark against eroding quality education to flounder.

Academic activism, institutional equity and a host of mechanism in western universities help keep campuses awake and make authorities answerable to their interest groups and stakeholders. This helps to ensures that university dons enjoy academic freedom – freedom of thought, conscience and the ability to produce research – without fear or favor. But in the Ghanaian cases, university education, which is supposed to be a tool for the emancipation of the individual, and equipping him with skills to contribute meaningfully to the advancement of himself or herself and for the advancement of society, has become a rite of passage for those who venture or brave the storms to acquire it.

If for more than three decades what our institutions of higher learning have done was to produce university graduates and graduates from other tertiary institutions who could not fit into industry, what sense does it make to continue to do things the same old ways when we already are aware of the results our old ways are going to generate? We cannot continue to do things in the same old ways and expect different results.

Global development in the foreseeable future is clearly mapped out for any curios mind. There is no rocket science here. There is no way any African country south of the Sahara, save South Africa, would make that tremendous leap to lift its people out of poverty and the level of human degradation most have fallen into, if immediate steps are not taken to reform educational curricula across board. A quick jaunt around any engineering school in most of the developed countries informs any perceptive mind about the global economic and political changes that we are going to witness on a massive scale in as early as the next two decades.

In his classical development literature, “the Bottom Billion, Paul Collier warns that Africa is diverging from the rest of the world. He points out that, with current global development trends, about four billion people would be lifted out of poverty in the next few decades, and nowhere is this massive transformation taking place than in Asia. “By 2050, the development gulf will no longer be between a rich billion in the most developed countries and the five billion in the developing countries; rather, it will be between the trapped billion and the rest of human kind,” he pointed out. His geographical label for them describe them as “Africa +,” with the plus being places such as Haiti, Bolivia, the Central Asian countries, Laos, Cambodia, Yemen, Burma, and North Korea. These countries at the bottom coexist with the twenty-first century, but their reality is the fourteen century: civil war, plague, ignorance, and they are concentrated in Africa and the rest scattered elsewhere.

In this regard, if something can be done to remedy the situation, education would form the cornerstone of that rescue package. As it is now, even any rescue package that involves aggressive reforms might take at least a decade or more to start yielding results. This reform must lay emphasis on the sciences.

This is the area where Asian countries - especially China and India - are in their dominant numbers across the gamut of engineering programs in institutions across the western hemisphere and even in their own countries. They have not only outpaced the West in this area of academic endeavor, they have equally outclassed students from the West in most cases. And the speed with which all these transformations are taking place is just marvelous – perhaps with the speed of lightning!

I have argued many a time that we in the social sciences do not produce the tangibles; we play with data; we make projections; and we contest principles, rules and theories. It was not out of sheer revulsion for the profession of law, a profession that shaped the outlook of the current US president Obama, Barack Obama, that he said “ what America needs is more engineers and not lawyers,” in one of his recent public speeches. The hard sciences and the array of engineering programs are at their lowest ebb for the American born or across the western hemisphere, and a worrying trend with huge implications for the American economy and economies elsewhere in the West. In his famous book, the Audacity of Hope, we learn about how dismayed the then Illinois senator was when he visited Silicon Valley, the hub of American innovation. “Finding American-born engineers, whatever their race, was getting harder—which was why every company in Silicon Valley had come to rely heavily on foreign students,” he said.

Indeed, the engineers produce what is tangible. They transform our living conditions in very tangible ways – whether for good or for bad - and those in the social sciences and the humanities shape the end product of the hard sciences and how they fit within society without creating a disjoint between man and nature. The social scientists, therefore, dabble with data and make projections. While both are important, the right mixture is good for a country’s development. Where one seems to upend the other, there is an imbalance. Programs must learn to cooperate with industry and employers to understand the skill sets required by industries in order to tailor their programs to suit them. This can only happen when we begin to discuss education in all its forms as both political and social issues, and not personalities as political and social issues. But we have failed to discuss the role of education in the modern society, and particularly its connection with economic purpose.

In Ghana, for our lack of appreciation for the sciences, the trend now is to acquire a foundational degree in the engineering programs and turn around to acquire a higher degree in banking or finance. Very intelligent and creative individuals who should be working in areas of the economy where creativity and high thinking are the hallmarks, have converted their engineering degrees into MBAs and other business degrees where it pays better and it is easier to rise through the ranks to managerial levels.

A friend intimated to me that as a result of the low regard for the sciences in Ghana, if you hold an MBA or any of the business related master’s degrees and enter the job market the same time with someone with a master’s degree in any of the engineering programs – assuming you graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering or industrial engineering - the propensity that the MBA holder would rise three times as much by the end of your careers, is evident. Why then strain your brain in an engineering program, while with a lesser effort in a business school your chances in the real world of work are much brighter and better?


The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, immigration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines – Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.
By: Prosper Yao Tsikata
Email: pytsikata@yahoo.com