ACCRA — In April last year, I broached a boring and controversial subject about the quality of our university education, questioning the not-too-smart idea to convert all our polytechnics to technical universities. Comparing Ghana to Canada, where I lived for several years, I alluded to the urgent recommendation from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives to slash university enrollment by 30%, in favour of technical education at the polytechnics.
In the Council’s report, Prof Ken Coates, a public policy expert at the University of Saskatchewan, proposed that “Canada needs to shift away from this open-access approach—based on the idea that everyone ‘deserves’ a degree, or at least the chance to try to earn one—to one that is based on achievement, motivation and compatibility with national needs.” Praising “Canada’s superb and growing polytechnics system,” the academic argued that “its administrators and educators work closely with employers, focus on career-ready programs, and adapt quickly to new technologies and changing workplace requirements.”
Prof Coates observed that “the current generation of young people is defined by a sense of entitlement and an expectation that their lives will somehow unfold along a predetermined and positive trajectory.” We have supported the unfortunate prognosis that a university degree is the surest way to personal achievement and career success. We have put HND and other polytechnic qualifications at the backburner, looking down on technical skills and eventually denying competent people the opportunity to advance their own careers and contribute to national development.
In the process, we have not made time to improve on the quality of our university education. Prof Coates captures the sentiment succinctly: “So long as the economy was capable of absorbing large numbers of generalists, allowing universities to claim a huge income premium for their graduates, there was little or no need for universities to re-appraise their own program priorities.” This is how we lost big on quality–at both levels.
To be fair, Prof Coates’ context is very different from ours. There are too many universities over there, so they can afford not to build anymore. Every Canadian province has a few world class universities that will place well in any competitive global rankings. Some of these universities were once polytechnics that were upgraded to universities. Ryerson University in Toronto, where I was denied admission to a PhD programme, was once a polytechnic. Today, the university’s joint PhD in communication and culture is the toast of academia everywhere. Their Rogers Communication centre is one of the best I know in the developed world.
Now, let’s confront the real tissues of the issues. Why was there ever the need to upgrade Ryerson to a public university? Will the university command the same level of respect in academia if it had remained a polytechnic? Indeed, I wouldn’t have sought admission there if it was a polytechnic offering good scholarships. There is so much you can do with an average degree that a first class HND cannot do. More than a fad or a requirement for white collar employment, a university degree sets a person apart. It used to be a badge of honour and respect. It was not an undertaking for simpletons.
Well, degrees these days do not carry the same respect and honour they brought to our professors of old. The managers of our education have for long complained about the poor quality of today’s graduate. Employers have lots of difficulty assessing the employability and professional competence of our graduates. We hear some university graduates cannot put together a good cover letter and a resume for a job. There are recent cases of fraudsters who design university degrees and sell them to cheats. However, there some very smart graduates who would always salvage our degrees.
Polytechnics want to be called technical universities that can award degrees. Their lecturers want to enjoy the same privileges as the lecturers at our traditional universities. Experts have been dispatched to each of our 10 polytechnics to inspect the governance structure, staff quality, faculties and other necessary facilities to assess the readiness of the institutions to be converted to universities.
Last week, President John Mahama launched the conversion of polytechnics to universities. Six polytechnics that have already satisfied the conversion requirements would be upgraded in the academic year 2016/2017. These are Takoradi, Ho, Kumasi, Accra, Sunyani and Koforidua polytechnics. The Minister of Education, Prof Opoku Agyemang, has assured that the four other polytechnics are being assessed, to speed up the processes involved in the conversion.
It’s been a long struggle for our polytechnics to get this far in their conversion journey. Their most persuasive argument has been that they have all the structures and academic resources to function as a university. One of their lecturers told me he wonders why “private universities that are housed in uncompleted buildings, with no laboratories or permanent lecturers, have been given accreditation to operate as universities when polytechnics have been calling for this for a long time.”
He observed that his students were not proud of the disciplines and the technical vocations they were preparing for. “They had their eyes on university education, where they had to start from level 100 with the juniors they left behind at the SHS level. It is not fair.” Elsewhere, it is possible to enroll on a Master’s degree course with a polytechnic qualification, without going through a three year bachelor’s programme.
What do employers think about polytechnics? Job advertisements in newspapers usually require a degree. HND and other technical qualifications are required for low-paying junior positions. I am even aware that a company in Ghana that engaged polytechnic graduates later sacked them for failing to obtain a degree after an agreed period. They were doing their jobs very well. Should it matter that they do not have a degree?
There are no small roles or small parts in the performance equation; it is skills that matter. Scholarship is another thing and those who need it know where the libraries are. Where do technical universities fit in a world where autodidacts are celebrated for groundbreaking technological inventions while university dons have their portfolio of degrees to show? What has any Ghanaian professor or researcher ever invented?
Our polytechnics are applying to add to the woes of the university system, and it seems too late to stop them. If the conversion is a matter of names and labels, then they may need a more ambitious label than a university. Otherwise, they are only as good as polytechnics pretending to be universities. Maybe we need a Ghanaian Council of Chief Executives to speak on this. The Canadians have spoken for their polytechnics.