Feature Article of Saturday, 20 October 2012

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin

Re: Polytechnics Are Not Competing With Universities

In a not so carefully worded account on www.ghanaweb.com and www.myjoyonline.com, Mr Isaac Mensah sought to offer a botched interpretation of the segment of the NDC 2012 manifesto that proposed an upgrade of polytechnics to technical universities that would award degrees to students. Isaac had contended that “This shows how are not serious with our educational system to the extent that those in charge don't seem to know the difference in purposes between a Polytechnic and a university (unedited).” He continues: “Currently, over 90% of the programmes currently offered in polytechnics are not Technical/Technology related, From Marketing, Accounting, Insurance, Statistics to Business studies etc. Basically, strip down replica of the programmes offered in the University (unedited).” In the light of the above untruth, Mr Mensah concluded that “Polytechnics have lost the focus and now seems to be in competition with Universities in terms of the reading programmes (unedited).”

Mr Mensah would be reminded that polytechnics in Ghana have a clear mandate to provide tertiary education in manufacturing, technology, commerce, science, applied social science and the applied arts (Polytechnic Act 2007(Act 745). They were designed to address Ghana’s employment and human resource capacity challenges by producing hands-on entrepreneurs and skilled middle level mangers to enhance the productivity and development of the Ghanaian economy. Polytechnics are, therefore, not in the shadows of the universities; they are happy being polytechnics: They are independent and autonomous bodies accredited to run degree programmes. Currently, most of our polytechnics offer and award Bachelor of Technology degrees to deserving students.

Apart from providing the much needed technical training, polytechnics are committed to the improvement of scholarship and the overall intellectual capacity of tertiary students. There are partnership schemes and exchange programmes between our polytechnics and many tertiary institutions of repute in and outside the country. This practice encourages the sharing of experiences between the teaching body and the larger student population. Indeed, in jurisdictions where industry and academia put more premium on technical knowledge rather than on the theoretical understanding of concepts, it is normal for university graduates to enrol on courses at polytechnics and community colleges to acquire the practical skills for the world of work. This is not because university education is inadequate; it is because theory alone does not do the job.

University education is great. It is even greater where there is closer collaboration between industry and academia, as Ashesi is doing. But polytechnics do not wish to become universities before they can discharge their mandate of producing skilled professionals. The concept of education is a continuum. When tertiary education rankings rate one institution above the other, they do not seek to break the continuum and pit one institution against the other in terms of quality and prestige; they only mean to evaluate the specialisations and strengths of those institutions in relation to their mandate. The strength of polytechnic education is the practical training it emphasises.

As our economy strives to make bold attempts towards industrialisation, it is strategic to make our oil and gas discovery count towards our development as a middle income country. The government of the day recognises the necessity of polytechnic education in this effort, and has recently constructed a six million dollar petrochemical and hydraulic laboratory (the Amatrol Project) at the Takoradi Polytechnic, to facilitate the training of skilled personnel for the oil and gas industries. To achieve the 90% local content policy in the sector, it is imperative for government to adequately resource polytechnics and other technical institutes with modern infrastructure and more laboratories.

Has polytechnics lost their focus because they offer courses in Accounting, marketing, statistics and Business studies, as Mr Mensah intimated? Polytechnic education is structured to offer complete practical training in many professional callings. The objective is to make an accountant out of the accounting student, and not merely to school the student through the principles and theories of accounting. In the field of work, polytechnic graduates have often distinguished themselves with their hands-on application of problem-solving skills. Where they have found themselves in other tertiary institutions for advanced education in their chosen trades, the polytechnic student has been observed to command a competitive advantage because of their practical experience. So, while the HND is never an end in itself, in the same way that further learning does not stop with the attainment of any university degree, an HND grad may opt to enrich their knowledge with additional training in any tertiary institution.

Today’s fast moving, technology-driven world demands hands-on skills for survival in the employment market. In many industrialised economies, the trades are often in higher demand, and usually pay better. In the Canadian capital of Ottawa, there are only two universities and more than a dozen technical training colleges that function just like our polytechnics. Even now, the Ontario provincial government continues to debate whether there is the need for more universities when the main drivers of growth and development have been people with hard skills. The focus of Ghana’s education, besides the free SHS that the NPP is proposing, and the comprehensive 100% accessibility reforms that the NDC is advancing, should be practical training of professionals with technical knowledge. . Finally, Mr Mensah worries that polytechnic graduates are not absorbed by the construction, manufacturing and production industries, where jobs are given to Chinese and Indian companies. On the contrary, these sectors have relied heavily on the experience of skilled personnel and artisans from our polytechnics across the country. From project conception through execution to maintenance, locally trained skilled personnel have partnered and complemented the expertise of local and foreign contractors. They have made these contributions by combining skills with wisdom for development, as per their strategic mandate.

Benjamin Tawiah, Ottawa, Canada