ACCRA — To begin with, a third class from any university is not a particularly remarkable accomplishment, except where the numerical value of the figure three is construed to be weightier than one–naturally. Otherwise, it is only at the University of Ghana that a third class could be as good as a first class from another university.
On Radio Univers’ Campus Exclusive programme, the Vice Chancellor of University of Ghana, Professor Ernest Aryeetey, is reported to have told the university community that “A first class graduate from the University of Ghana must be capable and different from others from other universities.” (Reports Israel Boafo Bansah; June 3, 2015 ).
The Vice Chancellor was responding to student concerns about the university’s new grading system, which the students fear would make it difficult to obtain the high grades necessary for a first class grade point. The university don had explained that the grading system would position the premier university strategically, to enable the institution compete well with other universities in the world. Prof Aryeetey had been invited by the student-run FM station to share his vision and administrative policies and also interact with the student population and other right-holders of the university.
Now, let’s proceed with integrity (Integri Procedamus), University of Ghana’s motto. Do graduates from other universities in Ghana wish they had acquired their degrees from the University of Ghana, Legon? As students of the University of Ghana during the 1990s, we made jests about being the fortunate ones in the country’s premier university while our colleagues in the two other universities at the time looked up to us for academic scholarship. Indeed, during our matriculation, our Vice-Chancellor, Prof George Benneh, had told the 1995 freshmen that we were very privileged to be part of Legon’s academic prestige and superior tradition of excellence. We believed him.
Those days, it was strategic for university applicants to secure admission to other institutions while they waited for the University of Ghana admission offer. Those who would have already commenced lectures at the other institutions would abandon their programmes and make haste to Legon when they were considered for the late supplementary admission. We believed (at least I did) that Legonites were quite convinced that all universities were not equal, and that Legon was in a class of its own.
A first class was a rarity in the 1980s and 1990s. There was never a roll call for students graduating with a first class. One or two very bright students were cherry-picked among many good and promising talents. First class students did not only meet the required grade point; they demonstrated higher levels of intellectual curiosity and displayed brilliant flashes of thoughtful insight when they were challenged to a contest of ideas. They prevailed–within the university environment and at the workplace.
Suddenly, there was a list of first class students who were never first in anything except passing the multiple-choice questions to make the grade point. Employers and industry experts started asking about the real value of first class degrees when candidates continually put out third rate performance at work. That was when both academics and educational experts started to sit up. In those days, first class students walked employment corridors with academic favour and intellectual glory.
If there isn’t much of a difference between a first and a third class these days, then Prof Aryeetey just made a bold point from his ivory tower–to titillate the curiosity of the academic community to endeavour to look deep and see the first in a first class before the record books picks it up. At this rate, a third class from Legon would be just as bad as a first from any private or public university in Ghana.
What makes a good university, by the way? How different are the products of Ivy League universities in the Unites States of America and Great Britain from those who settled for institutions that are at the bottom in world university rankings. Like currencies and football teams, there are stronger and richer universities and there are others that flip-flop between intellectual bankruptcy and resource starvation. The Yale University in the United States, former President George W. Bush’s alma mater, is reportedly richer than the country of Sierra Leone. And this was long before Ebola.
While there are no guarantees that a Yale or Harvard Engineering graduate would be more successful than a graduate from the best University in Sierra Leone, we are almost unanimous that the Leone graduate has a lot of catching up to do to be able to access one tenth of the employment opportunities and other social privileges that are available to the Harvard scholar around the world. It is, however, not impossible for a Leone student to excel at Harvard or Yale.
Sometimes we wonder: Do good people make good universities or good universities make good people?
Ghanaians who have experienced good university education in OECD countries often came back home with sad tales about how miserable our university education has been for so long. What is the value of a first class from an overpopulated university where one lecturer teaches and marks the scripts of 600 students? Until previously, computer science students in Ghanaian universities didn’t have any good computers to test their theoretical understanding of computer applications and software.
Yet, some of them (I know one) graduated with first class degrees and received applauses and handshakes from Vice-chancellors and Heads of state. How often does the Balme Library restock its classical history and civilization sections with new material and quality research from Ghanaian professors? And just by the way, how many of our lecturers obtained their PhDs in Ghana?
Those who did may have taken a decade to complete their research while their counterparts in from Cornell and Princeton enjoyed the collaboration and support of faculty to finish in time. There are even speculations that due to the large student numbers in Ghanaian universities, lecturers do not get round marking all their scripts after semester examinations. The lucky students who are making first class degrees these days are lucky indeed.