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23.08.1999 Feature Article

OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM AND ITS DISCONTENT.

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Santa Cruz, CA. August 23, 1999. It is probably appropriate to say upfront that I am nonpolitical but not apolitical. To help you understand this, I have a brother who is a prominent member of NPP but the rest of my family (to which I have near inseparable relationships) in my village is a group of staunch NDC supporters. Oh yeah, my paternal uncle and guardian has so much admiration for J.J. that he named one of his sons after him. If you asked the political figure I admire in Ghana now, I would say I'm leaning towards Dr Charles Wereko Brobbey. Thus, in short, I am just a dyspeptic and saturnine guy who wants to speak his mind. Period! So my mind I speak (and I thank Adu-Boahen, the forgotten hero, for making it possible for me to do so)! Hopefully this helps to give readers a bird's -eye view of where I'm coming from. But irrespective of our political or nonpolitical leanings, at least we all seemingly agree that the problems in our education system are reaching crisis level: tertiary education is crying for funding; facilities and infrastructures are crumbling in our institutions at all levels; there are not enough books, lack of teachers as well as lack of motivation for those in the system, falling standards, etc. Is it nice that in this rarest of circumstances the politician and the non-politician, the Government and the Opposition all acknowledge the problem? Do they? The current "Education Crisis" is a reflection of the muddled thinking (the kind of thinking that feeds on ad hoc and piecemeal approaches to issues) that permeates our national politico-economic landscape. And poor Ibn Chambas! They have made him the "Garbage Man" (GM) of the NDC Administration so the fretful students could punch-bag him when they became peevish. But you wonder why IC continues to cling on to the GM. Maybe, just maybe, the lyrics of A.B.Crentsil's "Wotwe ahoma na se ammaa, biribi so mu ..." could offer some insights. When one takes a historiographical look at our governments, past and present, with an exception of few (and I mean extremely very few), one sees mostly schleps dressed like superheroes in bad homemade outfits. We see governments that have pitched their tents in the Palace of Ineptitude (POI). We see governments based their economic policies on shibboleths (fine phrases) rather than on hard thinking and substance. We see individuals who came ranting and raving presenting themselves as "superheroes". However they were superheroes without superpower mojo. In other words they were SUPERZEROES! Discussion about education in Ghana is usually steeped in a wallop whipsaw of emotions and ironies, ironies that are not easy to iron out from our national psyche. For those who were products of the system in the 1960s and most part of 1970s the deterioration in our tertiary institutions in particular seems like a chimera to them. Most of them cannot simply understand why a government could let this happen! And even if you are a product of the system in the 1980s and early 1990s, you are constantly being nagged with the question of whether or not you could have had a university education if you had been asked to pay fees. That is precisely the question my best buddy in my village Yaw Kwarteng-Amaning (my best source of all things infotainment from my village) threw at me in one of his letters. Such kind of questions, however flawed and fallacious they are, make you feel ambivalent about the whole issue. If you flip-flop the coin, you see past student leaders who championed the same kind of yentua and mmobrowa (really?) demonstrations against previous governments in the present government that is asking students to pay for their education, and this, to many, seems very ironic and perhaps double-standards. In addition you see people we pay to fix our problems, including those of education, declaring no confidence in their own policies by sending their kids to schools abroad. It makes many a Ghanaian wonder where these people place education in the national priority bracket. And they have the sheer chutzpah to tell us that there is nothing wrong for political leaders to have their children educated in schools abroad. But isn't this a government of Notorious Daredevilry and Chutzpah (NDC)? Nobody is saying political leaders have no right to educate their kids where they choose - even if we can muster the courage to gloss over the moral dimension of such a choice. What they did not tell us about, and what Ghanaians want to or would be interested to know, is how they foot the bill of their children's education abroad! If they tell us that they do that from what we pay them, then they must be real magicians. Oh I almost forgot that in Ghana almost everybody is a "magician"! However, perhaps the mother of all the ironies is that we have drawn for ourselves a "blueprint" romantically dubbed VISION 2020, but we are acting as if reaching that goal is sublimely attainable without a functional education system. It is exceedingly dangerous for people to argue that because previous generations did not pay fees, university education should continue to be free. This argument is fallacious, and silly to put it kindly! It reminds me of a similar train of thought exhibited by the Speaker of the House in the heat of national debate on whether or not we have to buy a new presidential jet - the infamous argument that if the Minority leader has a new car then the president can have a new jet. In much the same way, the bromide that "education is a right but not a privilege" is contorted, misapplied and misconstrued in its meaning. This is an April Fool's prank always invoked by students and their sympathizers to make their argument against fee payment sound palatable. Sorry guys, fess up! For once the government is right about this. That does not mean it is not wrong about other aspects of our education system. The problem is that because Rawlingstocracy has a history of approaching its task with the subtlety of a gang attack, it failed to offer the issue for proper national discourse. Hmm, the Mother of Gorilla Tactics! For example why is Parliament which is responsible for legislating law in the country not debating the issue of university/tertiary education fees payment on the floor? Some Parliament of ours! It is turning into some people's personal avenue for pointless showboating of verbosity, panegyrics, and irrelevant self-defense. At the epicenter of the contention between the government (and university authorities?) and students (and parents?) about university fees are two things namely, (1) the difference between private cost-benefit and social cost-benefit of (university) education; and (2) the distinction between private goods and public goods. These basic differences, which require economic grounding to understand, are not usually too-well articulated by both sides of the aisle. In economics, private goods are goods whose consumption only affects a single economic agent. For example if Super O.D consumes a particular ball of kenkey, it excludes Maame Dokono from consuming the same ball of kenkey. A good that people can be excluded from consuming it is called excludable. A good is nonrival if one person's consumption does not reduce the amount available to other consumers. Rival goods are sometimes called diminishable. Ordinary private goods are both excludable and rival. Goods that are not excludable and are nonrival are called public goods. Examples are streetlights national defense roads etc. There are many in-between cases. Let us consider for example GBC TV broadcasts. This is nonrival - since one person's consumption does not reduce another person's - but it is excludable since only people with access to TV can watch the broadcast. This type of good is called club good. There are also goods that are not excludable but rival. Given these definitions, one can see that education is inherently a private good but has been treated as though it is a public good in Ghana. At Independence we took the political decision to provide education publicly. It has taken us so long to realize that the socialist educational policies of Nkrumah in the fledging stages of our nationhood have become painfully unattainable in our present-day Ghana. So the freeloading must freeze! There is no question that an educated population has a lot of advantages, both direct and indirect via externalities, to a society. Here are a few of those advantages: Education has long been recognized as the cornerstone of development; As societies move from the physical economy to the knowledge economy, increased productivity and intellectual flexibility and adaptability of the labor force will largely determine how well a country can compete in world markets characterized by changing technologies and production methods; Through increased value and efficiency of labor, education helps to emancipate the poor from the pangs of poverty - it's education that provides hope and reality of escape from the lower-tiered, less-favored social and economic strata to those above; It has a very important bearing on social cohesion, peace and tranquility through both vertical and horizontal integration: it gives people effective chance to move from lover to higher levels and thus help eschew or minimized social discontent; also by integrating children with disparate social and ethnic groups early in life, education contributes in no small way to nation building and tolerance. Education allows people to govern themselves intelligently - it's the way to defeat the evil forces of ignorance and repeated errors and not cower to the cannon of authoritarianism. Democracy is a natural consequence of education and economic development. For the individual, in addition to some (if not all) of the above benefits that can be appropriated, education helps to build self-esteem and self-discipline needed to survive the social and economic pressures of the world; opens windows on the pleasures of knowledge - language, literature, biodiversity, cosmic wonders, art, music, the appreciation of the diversities and idiosyncrasies of our world. Given the role played and opportunities offered by education as summarily intimated above, it is imperative that a responsible society ensures that every child must have access to and be required to receive a good pre-university education (elementary and secondary). We must subject our children to the discipline essential thereto. This must be the primary task of society. It at this level that the bromide "education is a right and not a privilege" becomes applicable and meaningful. For this reason, pre-university education should largely be treated as a public good rather than a private good. While our educational reforms rightly identifies the need to shift our educational goals from the liberal arts to science and technical education, we haven't been doing enough to attract our fecund minds to pursue careers in science and technical fields. The recent confusion about the status of polytechnic education in Ghana attests to this. Even though general education offers a lot of benefits, most studies have shown that if we invest in education purely as a means to stimulate economic development, only a limited outlay of general education beyond the achievement of literacy may be justified. But technical education is quite different. There is a potentially high payoff to training technicians such as electricians, mechanists, construction workers, draftsmen, etc. But over the years, we have been holding such skills in low esteem and considering them to be inferior to training in the liberal arts. As a result, technical education has been constrained by low budgetary allocations, inadequate teachers and low teacher salaries, as well as societal prejudice against potential students. This discourages people from entering the field. In the connection, society's resources must be geared toward the elimination of stark disparities in elementary and secondary schools in the urban areas in one hand and rural communities on the other. Is it not an indictment of our system of social justice to ask students who go to school under some trees in some rural communities to take the same examinations as those who enjoy education in modern or near-modern facilities in the urban areas? Is it not social injustice for students at some rural SSS with dilapidated buildings, no qualified teachers, etc to write the same examinations as students at say Achimota School or Opoku Ware School or St. Augustine's? But you never hear debate about this - not even from the National Union of Ghanaian Students (NUGS). To me that is where the debate on education should be directed. This is not to say that higher education - university and the like - is not important to the social and economic wellbeing of a nation. It would be obviously preposterous to say that to put it mildly. Beyond the pre-university level, however, there must be full opportunity for achievement as far as aspiration seeks and ability (not financial) allows. And public resources must be made available for this purpose. But these resources must be available as supplementation for the provision of infrastructures and facilities and their constant maintenance, faculty development, research activities and all things that help to promote an atmosphere of congeniality and conduciveness for higher learning. Thus higher education cannot be treated as a purely public good - it exhibits the conditions of rivalness (or limited supply), excludability (thus available for a price) and rejection (not demanded by all). The cost burden of higher education, must therefore, be shifted from the taxpayers to the ultimate beneficiaries of higher education, parents and students. After all the true taxpayers in Ghana the rural (especially cocoa) farmers and their wards are rarely beneficiaries of higher education. To understand why I describe (cocoa) farmers as the "true taxpayers" consider this: to generate maximum revenue, successive governments in Ghana have been driving a wedge between international and producer prices of cocoa, consistently paying farmers far below the international price of their produce. A June 1998 IMF Working Paper prepared by Ales Bulir shows that producer prices in Ghana were generally lower than the long-run planting cost since the mid 1970s. Producer prices averaged more than 50% of the international prices in the 1950s and early 1960s, less than 40% in the late 1970s before rising to over 40% in the 1980s. In the 1990s producer-international price ratio was below levels prevailing in other countries such as Brazil, Malaysia, Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire. In the last two countries producer prices have averaged 60% - 80% of the international price. This is just an anecdote of how farmers have been overtaxed to provide revenue for public expenditures including education (somebody should write about the over-taxation of our cocoa farmers in particular!). But how many farmers are real beneficiaries of tertiary education? We would be very interested in a survey on this! It is not uncommon for people to argue that students and their parents cannot pay fees because income levels are low in Ghana. It is true that income levels are low in Ghana compared to other developing, semi-industrialized and industrialized countries. But it is equally true that the fees students are being asked to pay are comparatively lower. The other painful truth is that in Ghana, university (tertiary) students hardly contribute to their education at all - the vast majority of them rely on parents and or on the magnanimity of relatives. The usual argument? There are not sufficient jobs in Ghana. This is partly true if one talks about white collar or blue-collar jobs or jobs in the formal sector. There are potentially a lot of jobs in the informal sector. For those who are wondering about what these jobs are, let me give you some examples: car washing or detailing, farming, dish washing, iced water selling, sale of secondhand clothes, shoe-shinning, etc, etc. I know you have probably branded me "a crazy person" already. I am not crazy. There is nothing wrong with doing those jobs to earn money to help finance your own education and prepare your future! It may not be far from the truth to say that the Ghanaian students, especially at the tertiary level, are disdainful about those jobs, which to them, are the preserve of the "uneducated". There is nothing called "dirty" money in the world! The ugly truth is that when we get past the borders of Ghana, and come face-to-face with the realities in our "new" countries, we are prepared to do the same kinds of job to survive! Interestingly, people are willing to spend summer abroad to pick apples or do the similar jobs so they can parade around campuses as been-tos and flaunt their new-found "wealth". Ask anybody that had their education abroad (without a government scholarship) about how they did it, and they are very likely to tell you that they flipped hamburgers at McDonalds or Burger King, washed dishes, detailed cars, etc - the same kinds of jobs I mentioned elsewhere. Thus the realities of our times require that we find ways to supplement governmental with non-governmental revenues. In trying to shift costs to the students and their parents, the government, as required by social justice, must establish a parallel system of financial assistance for those who have the aspirations and ability for higher education. This system should be aimed at maintaining accessibility and providing equity. There are a number of ways to do that including (a) payment of tuition and fees, (b) introduction of mean tested grants and loans, (c) active private sector participation in higher education (d) encouraging entrepreneurial activities by our tertiary institutions, (e) encouraging philanthropy (f) another forms of revenue generation that tertiary institutions may deemed appropriate e.g. Education Lottery, investing the Stock Markets. Asking students to pay for tuition and fees has an inherently built-in mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecy for improving the quality of education at the tertiary institutions. How? By giving a price to education, students like any consumer of any product, would want to buy education of the highest quality. It will compel students to be very prudent in the choice of programs they want to pursue - students will choose programs with relevance to them and their future aspirations, programs that are more likely to help them get jobs so they can pay recoup the cost of their investment in the form of tuition and fees. People would not go university for university sake and thus just pursue any programs of little or no relevance to them. Naturally some courses may die away, and new ones emerge. It would also compel university authorities to look for better quality teachers. It would give students the opportunity of evaluating their teachers and have a say in which teacher they want and who they don't want. It will compel teachers to give off better quality teaching. It will compel institutions to improve the efficiency of delivery of all their services. To maintain accessibility in the face of tuition and fees, the government should introduce mean-tested financial assistance and adequate loans programs. But the difficulty of measuring family "need" or "means" because of nonexistence of data on family incomes in Ghana, as well as the issues of moral hazards and adverse selection associated with loans make it very problematic to implement these programs. With regards to mean-tested financial assistance, we may have to involve local agencies (not only governmental but non-governmental agencies) which because of their proximity to and local interaction with prospective students and their families, can offer a fairly rough estimation of the level of incomes of parents of students being considered for need-based assistance. The default rate of loans is so high that it makes the loans program highly ineffective. That is the reason why the government has been very reluctant to increase the amount of loans given to students. While we continue to stick to the withholding system via the national social security system, we have to explore other ways of recovering the money or reducing the rate of default. This means we should encourage private sector participation in the loans programs both in the administration and collection of loans. We would have to learn from the positive experiences of countries like Columbia and the Dominican republic which have demonstrated that it is possible to design and administer financially sustainable programs if effective collection programs, appropriate interest rates and income contingent schemes can be made operational. Since it is obvious that public tertiary institutions cannot meet the growing and differentiated demand for higher education, we should encourage the provision of tertiary education. The availability of private institutions not only helps absorb excess demand, but also helps provide the competition needed to enhance the quality of education. While it is encouraging to see attempts being made recently to establish private universities, we need to do more in this direction. With society's needs becoming increasingly diverse, there is the need for diverse education and training. This means that we have to encourage our tertiary institutions to establish strong partnerships with potential employers to meet the demands of our society. The advantages of such partnerships is that they bring about technology transfer, apprenticeship schemes or internships, dual forms of training (meshing theory with practice), etc. Tertiary institutions should be encouraged to become more entrepreneurial than before given that government subvention is not enough to run these institutions. Both students and faculty can be involve in this direction to generate extra income for the institutions through sale of services and specialized courses. I am very convinced that if faculty members were asked to generate income and keep say 50% - 80% of what they generate in addition to their monthly salaries, there would be enough incentive for most of them to do that, especially in the holidays. Burton R. Clark writing about university entrepreneurship in a 1998 study of some universities in the OECD countries titled "The entrepreneurial University: Demand and Response" observes that ...."the entrepreneurial response offers a formula for institutional development that puts autonomy on self-defined basis: diversify income to increase financial resources, provide discretionary money, and reduce governmental dependency; develop new units outside traditional departments to introduce new environmental relationships and new modes of thought and training; convince heartland departments that they too can look out for themselves, raise money, actively choose among sustainable specialities, and otherwise take on an entrepreneurial outlook; evolve a set of overarching beliefs that guide and rationalize the structural changes that provide stronger response capability; and build a central steering capacity to make large choices that help focus the institution." Another way of supplementing governmental revenue for tertiary institutions is through philanthropy. However in Ghana, I am not sure about our tradition of philanthropic giving and thus how much we can rely on this. But we can encourage people to charitably give to tertiary institutions if we offer adequate incentives to do that. Such incentives may include favorable tax treatment for charitable contributions. They may also include immortalizing the names of such philanthropists in whatever form institutions may deem necessary - naming a building, a library, or a Junior Common Room after them, statues , etc. We should encourage institutions and individuals to sponsor courses, chairs of departments of individual professors. For example Lomlava can sponsor a professorship in a Department of Agriculture in one of the tertiary institution. How about Lomlava Professor of Food or Darko Farms Professor of Poultry or Pioneer Nails Professor of Metallurgy or S.S.B Professor of Banking etc, etc? There is a symbiotic advantage in such sponsorships - it offers the sponsors a chance to popularize and legitimize their products as well as self-esteem and the institutions a source of revenue. Talking about philanthropy, institutions should start organizing their alumni and update their addresses with the hope of appealing to them to contribute their quota to the upkeep of these schools and alumni should develop the culture of giving back to their alma maters. Lastly I would like to suggest that Parliament gives our tertiary institutions the legal backing to run special Education Lottery and Raffles with the sole purpose of generating extra income for the running of those institutions. We should encourage educational institutions to invest in Stock Markets in Ghana and around the world as portfolio diversification. It must be said that our entire tertiary education system requires reforms - reforms in management, curriculum, etc - to meet the challenges of modern society. Financial reform is only one of the many reforms needed. It strains credibility to assert the truth which is the lesson to be learned from the Education Crisis that ad hoc approaches never solve problems and that if we do not want to trip over our own shoelace then we have to seize the opportunity offered by the crisis to take the bull by the horns once and for all.

I take my namaste!

Maxwell Oteng
Maxwell Oteng, © 1999

The author has 28 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: MaxwellOteng

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