In 2006, Michael Shattock, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, travelled to Ghana to advise what was probably the country’s most prestigious institution.
What he discovered at the University of Ghana, he says, was “absolute chaos”: it had 151 separate bank accounts, up to 10 students sharing a bedroom and not even a functioning water system.
Shattock stresses that the situation is now much improved. But Ghana as a whole is still bedevilled by the growing pains of a rapidly expanding higher education system that lacks proper funding, as well as a scarcity of jobs for graduates.
These problems are widespread across Africa and other parts of the developing world. But their scale in Ghana, otherwise regarded as a prosperous, oil-rich regional success story, is striking: after rapid growth in higher education enrolments throughout the 1990s and 2000s, some estimates suggest that graduate unemployment is running at 50 per cent.
As a result, 150 ministers and former ministers, university leaders, education experts (including Shattock), lecturers and student representatives gathered in the capital Accra on 8-9 May to discuss what should be done.
And the conference’s concluding communiqué includes a number of damning observations.
“There is no comprehensive national policy on tertiary education in the country,” it states, adding that despite an “exponential increase” over the past decade in the number of young Ghanaians going on to higher education, national policies have not been in place to ensure that this flood of new students addresses Ghana’s social and economic needs.
In addition, the communiqué states, higher education remains “grossly underfunded”.
Research presented during the two-day meeting supports these conclusions. According to Ivan Addae-Mensah, who was vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana from 1996 to 2002, there were just 9,000 students in Ghana’s three public universities in 1987. But by 2010, he says, the country had six public universities with 115,346 students. Burgeoning enrolments in newly created polytechnics, colleges of higher education and other specialist institutions, meanwhile, sent total tertiary enrolments soaring above 200,000.
Crisis in morale
During the 1990s, this huge increase in student numbers led to a “deterioration of teachers’ working conditions, remunerations, student accommodation and teaching quality in general”, while the morale of teaching staff and university management “declined tremendously”, according to a paper delivered by Kingsley Adu and Frederick Kwame Essien of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.
Public funding has rallied during the 2000s, which has stemmed the decline, they note. Between 2006 and 2010, funding per student more than doubled - albeit to a modest £970 a year, less than 40 per cent of the amount recommended by the country’s National Council for Tertiary Education.
However, the conference heard that Ghana is already spending a healthy proportion of its gross domestic product on tertiary education - 2 per cent in 2009, compared with the 1.3 per cent spent in the UK in the same year, as estimated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The conference agreed that there was an “over-reliance on government for funding tertiary education”, but Addae-Mensah puts it more bluntly: “We should not deceive ourselves that the oil revenue is the sole panacea for education funding.”
He, along with Adu and Essien, wants more money to come from student fees. Adu and Essien suggest trebling the proportion of fee-paying students to 15 per cent.
A healthy flow of foreign students into Ghana also offers some financial hope. Currently their fees contribute just over 5 per cent of the sector’s income, but Adu and Essien believe their contribution could double over the next five years.
However, this would mean that more than two-thirds of the sector’s income would still need to come from the government, and it also assumes that the central grant will double over the next five years.
Adu and Essien propose some more unusual schemes for raising money: for example, workers could be asked to donate the “leftover” pesewas - Ghanaian pennies - from their salaries to a pool that would provide loans for poor students, a scheme that has been nicknamed “pesewas from heaven”.
But Shattock believes the problem is “not just a question of money”. When he advised the University of Ghana, he found that it had “more money than it realised but it didn’t have its accounts done”.
‘A bit of chaos’
Not only has the boom in student numbers outstripped funding, but it has also fuelled a largely uncontrolled proliferation of private institutions. Fifty-one now exist in Ghana, according to Addae-Mensah, and he describes their expansion as “a bit of chaos”.
Because their enrolments are relatively small - just over 1,000 on average - “they have not made a serious impact on absorbing [students from] the secondary schools”, he says.
Some of these private institutions, particularly those located in the underserved interior of the country, are run by “fly-by-night US religious organisations” that are largely interested in training pastors, Addae- Mensah warns.
But a bigger problem, he says, is the “mission creep” of Ghana’s polytechnics, which have strayed from their original task of providing scientific higher education and moved into offering business and humanities courses instead.
Addae-Mensah calculates that 55 per cent of students at polytechnics in 1996-97 took science courses. Yet, by 2010, the proportion was just one- third, and in the universities it has flatlined at about four in 10. If too many students take humanities courses, he argues, “the type of manpower [needed] for the oil industry will just not be there”.
“Several institutions run just business administration and marketing programmes,” says Clifford Tagoe, who was vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana from 2005 to 2010. But, he asks, what will their students market if there are no graduates to produce anything?
The conference resolved to correct this subject “imbalance”, although it did not decide on an exact ratio.
Dealing with the glut
A glut of humanities students is seen as one of the reasons why Ghana’s graduate unemployment rate is so high - estimated at 51 per cent by Adu and Essien, who also blame “sporadic and very limited” engagement with industry for making Ghanaian graduates unemployable.
But even if Ghana’s students had excellent industry experience they would still fail to find jobs, according to a presentation by Tony Oteng-Gyasi, former president of the Association of Ghana Industries.
Human resources managers for Ghanaian companies always demand better- trained graduates, he says, but when they are pressed, “they would not employ a single extra graduate if they were better trained”. The private sector simply cannot absorb the number of new graduates produced each year, he argues.
Shattock thinks that regardless of what the government does, and despite a “Daily Mail, Daily Express-style” anxiety that too many young people are going to university and that Ghana is producing too many graduates, it is likely that in 10 years’ time a quarter of young Ghanaians will go on to higher education, a dramatic increase from the 9 per cent who do so now.
“Don’t worry so much that they don’t have jobs,” he says, predicting that because Ghana is “the most stable and probably the most prosperous of West African countries”, an expansion of well-trained graduates is bound to attract international firms and investment.
Conference delegates will now try to put flesh on the bones of their recommendations, with the aim of including them in a government white paper on tertiary education.
But whether the government will - or can - improve the management and funding of Ghana’s explosion in student numbers is unclear.
Addae-Mensah is not optimistic: “Virtually everything we have discussed here…has been said before…Our problem in this country is not the lack of policy documents. We have them in abundance. Our problem is how to implement what we recommend.”