The global coronavirus pandemic has compelled universities around the world to re-examine current forms of teaching and learning, and importantly, to envision a future for higher education that is more equal, more effective and less pervious to shocks. By contrast, in Ghana, a new piece of legislation proposes to set higher education back several decades. It has compelled Ghanaian academics to move to defend basic academic freedoms that have long been taken for granted, even while grappling with the institutional, professional and personal impacts of a global pandemic.
The Constitution of the Fourth Republic of Ghana, in many ways, reflects lessons learnt from the attempts of autocratic and military regimes to impose political control on civil society, including academia. One of the worst episodes was in 1978 when university students, medical doctors, lawyers and other professional groups expressed their disaffection with the Supreme Military Council government through a series of general strikes. The regime responded with harassment and intimidation. For example, doctors, many from the University of Ghana’s medical school, were chased out of their official residences by weapon-wielding government-sponsored vigilantes. University students in Ghana, as is true in many other African countries, have historically been a political force and have, consequently, been the target of government aggression. On occasion, police have been sent onto university campuses to quell student protests, including recently in 2018.
The 1992 constitution (the third reiteration since Ghana became independent from British colonial rule in 1957) acknowledges this chequered history with an explicit recognition of ‘academic freedom’, among other fundamental rights, placing Ghana in a minority of 14 countries on the continent with such a provision. In spite of this, successive governments have sought to interfere in the running of public universities.
The Public University Bill (PUB) attempts a work-around of the provisions in the constitution that bars the president from taking the position of chancellor or appointing officers to institutions of higher education, research or professional training. The PUB seeks to effectively make the president the head of all public universities by having him/her name the chancellor, nominate the chairperson of the university council, and appoint the majority of council members. In addition, the bill allows the president to dissolve council ‘in a case of emergency’. This could result in the top administration of universities being suspended during a change-over of government, as happens in many public institutions in the country. Moreover, a sitting president might conceivably manufacture such a crisis for an immediate political end.
Even more inexplicably, clause 47 of the bill states, ‘The Minister [of Education] may give directives on matters of policy through the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission to a public university and the public university shall comply’. These directives cover a range of activities from research collaborations to the establishment of new academic programs. This clause, together with others, diminish the autonomy and capacity of public universities to respond to changing research priorities, funding opportunities, and student and faculty needs in dynamic national and global contexts.
The government’s justifications of this executive take-over of universities are far from convincing. The claim that universities are too diverse and that many have ‘veered from their core disciplines’ does not acknowledge that all changes to university curricula, administration and governance are done within existing laws and are overseen by regulatory institutions such as the National Council for Tertiary Education. The government’s second rationale is that universities have evidenced financial improprieties and must, therefore, be better regulated. The idea that public universities would fare better under the direct control of ministries and politicians who are regularly embroiled in corruption scandals is almost farcical. This claim also ignores the existence of the many laws and institutions whose job it is to address instances of financial malpractice in public institutions.
So what is the PUB really about?
Why has the government persisted in pushing a bill that has been harshly criticised by many in Ghana, including the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, as ‘dangerous’, retrogressive‘, and ‘totally unnecessary’?
The answer is, in a word, control. The PUB is one of many pieces of legislations introduced by the Nana Akufo-Addo administration that would revise the internal governance structures, regulatory structures, and admission processes of educational institutions, and grant the government unprecedented control over all levels of the educational system.
One possible explanation for the current administration’s pursuit of political control of the education system lies in the free secondary education policy it hastily introduced in 2017 and that will produce many high school graduates chasing limited spaces in the country’s public universities. The bill would allow the government to more easily overcome institutional resistance to the admission of students far in excess of the capacity of public universities. Cynics have also suggested that the government’s attempted take-over of universities is partly motivated by the current government’s ambition to name the University of Ghana after J.B Danquah, a Ghanaian statesman from the tradition of the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP). Whatever the motivation, the result of this dangerous bill will be to permeate universities with the same hyper-partisanship that is the bane of other public institutions.
That this retrogressive bill is being proposed by an NPP government is unsettling. It was Professor Albert Adu Boahen, renowned historian, founding member and one-time presidential flag-bearer of the NPP, who led a fierce, and often lonely, fight against a ‘culture of silence’ in the public space, including in academia, under a military government that birthed the current opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC). In an interesting twist, former president and NDC aspirant in this year’s general elections, John Mahama, has made a public pledge that, should the bill be passed into law, he would immediately repeal it upon assuming office.
Unwilling to have academic freedom be reduced to an expedient political campaign issue, Ghanaian academics have mounted a vigorous campaign to have the bill withdrawn by the executive or rejected by parliament.
What can you do to support the campaign?
Consider adding your signature to a petition against the bill that has garnered more than 2,500 signatures from university faculty, administrators, students, and concerned citizens in Ghana and around the world. Also join us in a social media campaign using #DropthePUB.
Please see here for more info on the authors Nana Akua Anyidoho and Akosua Adomako Ampofo
Photo credit: Political Science Professor at University of Ghana, Dr. Evans Aggrey-Darkoh gives a class lecture in Accra, Ghana on October 14, 2015. (By Dominic Chavez/World Bank CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This is to save ‘Mother Ghana’- I am very proud of you- Nana Akua and Akosua….THUMPS UP. Your names are engrossed in history with the piece
This Bill is indeed dangerous, retrogressive and ill-thought! ~DropthePUB
I think the article looks good on face value but its arguments lacks context. It sounds convincing when it compares it to the experiences of the past. Again comparing it to the past but refusing to compare the context of the decisions then and the context of the decisions now, makes a very weak argument.
Nkrumah and Rawlings, and other presidents who pushed for more government control in the education system was in the “context” of the dying need of the development we needed and the human resources that was required as a country that gain independence with high illiteracy rates.. Removing that context and judging the failure of government control in our education system (which by the way was due to inadequate finance as a country which regain independence, IMF& World bank’s structural adjustment policies requirements, etc) isn’t right. Currently the authors have not produced the context behind the decision of this PUB but has written it solely on the government wanting to gain control. I think as researchers we have to look at context really well, link it the development needs and not judge it on face value. Currently I see this article from a propagandist perspective.
Again the authors judgment on the free SHS as producing alot more SHS graduates with limit spaces in universities is a loose argument. What would you want, an unemployed illiterates or unemployed literates? Which of these two will be of value to the community? Who can even make the right decision interms of voting arguing from the intellect point of view? Which of these two can read and understand policies especially a country with high illiteracy rate? Which of them have the opportunity to grow in intellectualism looking at the linkage of poverty to academic achievements? So again thier arguments lacks context and it’s too much of face value and lacks the depth need.
I think the article requires a rethink, produce an argument that looks at context, the good and down sides, for the readers to decide. It should be pitch in the propagandist way.
This dangerous bill,if passed would infringe on academic freedom and affect the positive impact being made by the academia on national development
A very informative read. This is an unacceptable and wholly illogical move by NPP.
What the story fails to address is the wanting corruption and misuse of public funds at the public universities in Ghana. It has become a practice for Vice Chancellor of public universities to buy themselves very expensive mercedes benz cars few months to their retirement, so they can retire with the car given to them to take home. The University finds money for such things but never seem to find money for basic things like the flow of water in many departments, cleaning of lavatories (go and check out the University of Ghana Graduate School Building). Audit upon audit reports have pointed to malfeasance etc, and yet the Universities have resisted all forms of correction. The Ghanaian taxpayer is subsidizing the gross inefficiencies and mismanagement in public universities. And you expect government after government to look on? Enough is enough…..
Ghana does not need a new law to ‘control’ public Universities if a Vice-Chancellor is misspending. By that logic every public institution in Ghana would need its own law. What the government should do, if a VC or any other public officer is deemed to have misappropriated funds, is to apply the law– EOOCO, the Auditor general, etc. Ghana is really good at making laws and very weak at implementing them
We are grateful that the government has heard the cry of Ghanaian parents, students, academics and CSOs who submitted a large number of opinions and submissions to parliament, and has suspended this bill. We were promised a listening government. We were also encouraged to be citizens and not spectators.
Ghana shall prosper