Private universities face many external and internal challenges. The major external challenge is the preparation towards attainment of National Accreditation Board's (NAB) accreditation standards. This will be discussed later on in the article. Currently, there are two other major external challenges facing the private universities apart from meeting NAB regulations and these two are somehow linked: the competition for students among the public and private universities and the affiliation of the private universities to the traditional public universities.
The unwritten perception in this country is that parents would prefer to admit their children and wards into the traditional public universities rather than into a private one. There are two basic reasons for this. The reality that at the undergraduate level at least, school fees at the public universities are relatively lower compared to the private universities and secondly the perception that standards at the public universities are relatively higher. This could also affect the standard of students admitted into the private universities since the good grade students are likely to apply and be admitted into the public universities, all things being equal. If a private university should survive, it must institute full cost recovery which means charging relatively higher fees which must also be competitive with those charged by similar private universities. So when it comes to school fees, the private universities are in a Catch -22 situation. They must watch over their shoulders and take notice of the fees other private universities are charging, their internal cost structure as well as the economic market conditions.
Students admitted into private universities expect to be rewarded with quality knowledge and at the same time awarded graduating certificates for all the school fees they pay. As a result, proprietors of private universities may be caught by the bug to lower examination standards so that their students will successfully pass out with certificates since it is likely that a private university with very high examination standards where the failure rate is very high is likely to suffer poor admission rate. This is supported by the current trend in the whole country in both public and private universities where many of the students who are pursuing programmes, especially post-graduate programmes are more interested in gaining certificates rather than knowledge. This is an untold secret known to all the universities in this country.
Indeed, should one critically examine the structure of most post-graduate programmes in this country, the harsh economic and social conditions in this country many citizens are confronted with, the background of students admitted to pursue the programmes, the schedule of the working and the private lifestyles of the students, then I can hazard a guess that the pass rates we are witnessing from our universities are purely artificial and should be far lower than what should be on the ground.
In the very past, University of Ghana was the only university in this country. The university was forced by necessity and the nationalist aspirations to open centres in all the regional capitals of the country to provide tuition for the unfortunate souls yearning for higher education. Currently the situation has changed. Now there are universities, both public and private, scattered all over the country. For purely commercial reasons all the public universities and some private universities have established centres beyond their traditional enclaves. These state universities with campuses all over are competing for students with the private universities which are required by law to be affiliated to the state universities thus creating an unfair competition for students.
How can a public university with a campus at say, Kasoa, find itself competing for students with a private university it is mentoring also based in Kasoa? It breeds an unfair competition. The time has come for the National Council for Tertiary Education to examine this phenomenon very carefully. Above all it cannot be guaranteed that these public universities can maintain the same standards on all their campuses especially when it comes to the quality of lecturers employed outside their tridiagonal domains.
Many of the private universities came out with innovative schemes to source for students from outside the borders of the country, especially from Nigeria and some of the nearby Francophone countries. However, the student numbers have dried up because of the unfavourable economic conditions in those countries which make it difficult for school fees to be transferred into the country. All the above stated factors are heavily negatively affecting the admission numbers of students into our private universities and by extension affecting their financial sustainability. These came on top of income tax imposed on the private universities. Happily, the current government has agreed to abolish the tax. It must also be stressed that the unfair practice of the public universities exploiting the affiliation mechanism to charge unreasonably high affiliation fees have serious financial implications for the private universities. The mechanism must be regulated by the appropriate authorities.
The affiliation process established by NAB does not draw any distinction between a public university and a private university. This is all well and good even though it puts the private universities into some disadvantage. While the private universities may have genuine complaints and concern in some aspects of the NAB process, proprietors of private universities must also bear in mind that they are not only dealing with the destiny of students entrusted to their care but are also formulating the future of the nation when it comes to manpower development. So they cannot use any short cut mechanism to achieve their objectives. As I have stated earlier, establishing a university cannot be treated like a wayside “check-check” chop bar. However that does not mean that genuine entrepreneurs should not be listened to and solutions found for their problems.
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BY Kwame Gyasi