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Churches lead the way

Churches have taken the lead in the establishment of private universities to fill the void left by a deteriorating public university system.
Sam Sarpong

Tertiary education in this country has never been the same since the latter part of the 1980s when the government called on the private sector to assist in promoting it.

From 1992 to date, eight more universities have been given the go-ahead by the National Accreditation Board (NAB), which overseas the accreditation of tertiary institutions.

These new universities are less endowed in terms of amenities when compared with the traditional public universities like University of Ghana (1948), Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (1951) and University of Cape Coast (1962).

Nonetheless, they are filling a vacuum that has been created as a result of the inability of the public-run universities to meet the demand for tertiary education in the country.

Apart from the amalgamation of some diploma-awarding campuses in 1992 to establish the University of Development Studies and the University College of Education, the government has not been able to establish a university since 1962.

The public sector's inability to meet this demand has seen the emergence of a small, but growing, private tertiary education sector, mainly driven by religious bodies and private individuals in association with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

The latest to join the fray is the Catholic Church, which has established the Catholic University College. The university is expected to give the church an opportunity to provide a complementary Catholic education to students.

"It will provide students the opportunity to study in an environment that stresses the acquisition of high skills, ethical and spiritual formation," says Archbishop Peter Turkson, President, Catholic Bishops' Conference and Chancellor of the university.

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church, International Central Gospel Church (ICGC), the Methodist Church and an Islamic body have started their universities whilst the Presbyterian Church is currently finalising plans to make its university operational.

So much is the desire to establish institutions of higher learning that by the end of 2000, 80 applications had been lodged with the NAB for the establishment of tertiary institutions. These came mostly from the churches.

This figure even alarmed the then Education Minister, Ekow Spio-Garbrah, who expressed concern about the churches' whipped-up interest in university education. Spio-Garbrah had argued that much needed to be done at the pre-tertiary level rather.

But the churches say they are responding to a felt need in tertiary education hence their present lurch. "It is our committed goal to contribute meaningfully to the manpower development of our nation by making university education accessible to a large number of qualified students," explains Dr Anderson Mensah, acting Vice-Chancellor of the ICGC- supported Central University College.

The truth is that the best pre-tertiary institutions are those run by the churches and their foray into university education is, therefore, meant to complement their existing programmes.

In the past decade, Ghana's expenditure on education has been between 28 and 40 per cent of its annual budget. The government has always faced difficult choices as to whether to shift resources to lower level institutions or provide them at the tertiary level.

The moral issues have been sharp. Should government spend more on the privileged few in the universities or rather concentrate on sending the less fortunate children to schools?

The Education Minister, Professor Chris Ekumfi-Ameyaw acknowledges that, "funding continues to be one of the challenges facing education in Ghana."

Available statistics indicate that government's budgetary allocations to the country's universities have not kept up with their ever-increasing requirements. Worse still, these allocations do not get to the universities on time. The universities themselves generate very little income.

A way round this problem has been the much-touted cost-sharing policy adopted by government recently in which the students pay user-fees for the use of academic facilities. Although this initially was greeted with demonstrations and a disruption of the academic calendar by students, it has now sunk in and students now pay the fees, albeit reluctantly.

Although unsustainable financial arrangements lie at the heart of Ghana's tertiary education problems, they are not the sole source of its woes. The demand for qualified academic staff to teach in the universities and polytechnics has reached the point where it now outruns the supply, and staff/student ratios are deteriorating. Besides, there is a huge brain drain as a result of uncompetitive salaries, whilst a number of senior members of staff have gone on retirement.

This problem is clearly illustrated by the age profile for academic staff at the University of Ghana. Only 15 per cent of the academic staff are aged 40 years or less. In contrast, 40 percent of the staff are between 51 and 60 years. Strikingly, 11 per cent of the staff are over the age of 60 and already past the age of retirement.

Beyond cosmetic improvements, the public university structure has not expanded appreciably over the past few years. This has brought in its wake, deterioration in conditions and quality as too few facilities and a small number of teaching staff are made to handle a large student body.

The inception of private-run universities is therefore coming at a time when tertiary education is going through a time of introspection and reflection. With a shift in paradigm, these new universities are mainly faith-based, flexible and worker-friendly and just enough to attract a breed of adherents.

"Here, our moral career and professional career and our values are not separated but are both integrated and internalised, thus putting our lives and our faith in proper perspective. Our guiding principle is the Divine Spirit, the risen Christ and the Living God," says Mensah.

Ekumfi-Ameyaw agrees that such 'devout' leaders, executives, analysts and entrepreneurs are essential to meet the challenges of the day and serve as positive influence on the society. "I consider this to be very relevant because there is the need to inculcate discipline and moral values in our youth. I would like to urge the CUC not to relent in this duty since it is vital to the development of our nation," he says.

But tuition fees do not come that easy. Some even charge $5,000 for a year's programme, which is far beyond the means of many people here. But there are a number of factors' that attract students to these private institutions. The curricular at these private institutions are more applied and job-relevant. They include more flexible timetabling that sees courses being run year-round and on morning, afternoon and weekend sessions. Both of these innovations have allowed employed individuals to study without having to leave their jobs.

In spite of these, Ghana's tertiary education enrolment still falls short of providing education for the very many its expects to help out. "Our present facilities are filled to the maximum and last October we were compelled to take the painful decision of rejecting a large number of well-qualified students," says Mensah.

The difficulties in resolving the problems in education are numerous and varied in Ghana but the inception of private universities is helping to off-load the burden of government.

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