…And of what use is our university education?

Thu, 6 Oct 2016 Source: James Kofi Annan

By James Kofi Annan

Simpa Panyin went off scripts for two straight weeks. It was due to (as our politicians will say) circumstances beyond my control. Whiles away, many things have happened, so I wanted to return with an explosion, to make it up to you.

Unfortunately, today I am very sad, and so all my plans have dissipated. I feel Ghana is losing it at every level. We need drastic measures; we need unconventional approach to address the deplorable quality of the education of our youth, honestly.

This morning while I was trying to put final touches to my script, a young university graduate (let me call him Martin) approached me for a job. He claimed to have been trying to reach me for months, and that he has written countless job application letters to my office, but none has borne positive fruit. So when he saw me at Run-Off, (my restaurant), he thought that was his biggest opportunity to talk to me.

I admire Martin’s persistence. So somehow I decided to give him audience. He brought out several certificates, including his second upper class degree university certificate, certificates in a number of other short courses, a number of workshops he has attended, and finally he brought out his resume and application letter.

The application letter was not dated. He wrote Challenging Heights as Challenging height. The heading of the application letter was “Employment”. The first sentence of the letter read: “Dear sir, I will like to apply for employment in your outfit as an employee of your company, and I promise to give off my best when I am employed”. Remember he has already written the salutations before the “Employment” heading. The letter continued thus: “If I’m employed I will work consciously to safeguard your interest, and deliver to your satisfaction…”

By the time I got to the end of the third paragraph, I had given up on him, so I decided to put Martin’s application letter aside, and just have a conversation with him, to get to know him more. I discovered that Martin, although obtained second class upper, never read even a single book outside of his course work. On his CV, he had stated that his hobbies included reading, but this reading, I got to know, related only to his course materials.

The former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Professor Ernest Ayitey, is reported to have once said most graduates coming out of our universities are not employable. I hold that view too. As an employer myself, I have constantly been embarrassed by the poverty of knowledge and skills coming out of our universities.

I have come across graduates, both from the universities and polytechnics, who are so self-intimidated, so much so, that I wonder the amount of impact the university education might have had on their confidence levels.

Of course during my time, in the late 90s, the same was said that educational standards were falling. But the quality then, I believe, was obviously higher than the quality now.

University education is about the holistic person packaged as a tool to change the world. It is about being a vessel through whom change happens. University education is about standing up for the discovery of truth, the discovery of life, a count in me, the gain pursued. It should not be about the gathering of certificates.

Whatever we have done, from basic school, to Senior High Schools, to the university has been to root in our children the tragedy of having in their hands unemployable certificates acquired through the force of society’s expectation of glorifying individuals who are able to gain university education, and as a mere route to ending personal poverty.

Therefore our students have deprived themselves of the richness of reading, they have deprived themselves of the quest for success, they have deprived themselves of the inquisitorial drive to discover themselves outside of the ordinary. We are so clothed with the convenience of mediocrity, so much so that we have confined our minds into mere lazy thought orbits.

The craze for short codes, text messaging, pictures, and social media in general, have made a worst story out of the situation. Although reading is still respected in the west where the new media was invented, we the consumers of such media seem to have abandoned, nearly completely, any interest in reading for pleasure, and for knowledge.

Rather we have deployed the new media not as tools to develop ourselves, but as medium of wasting our time, as a medium for destructive tendencies, as platforms for absurd short hands.

I am proud to mention that I was a good reader during my time at the University of Ghana. I read anything and everything that I laid my hands on.

I did not have the means to buy the books I wanted to read, yet I took a personal responsibility to make library my friend. I read newspapers cover to cover, I read books, never mind how long ago it was written, I read them. I read more than hundred times books which were not related to my course work, and if you care to know I once read a whole book, cover to cover, on medicine!

So although I was a student of Psychology and Political Science, I did not care so much about them as much as I cared about reading other things that made the world so beautiful, to satisfy my emotional energy. These developed my confidence and levels of vocabulary, and helped me to be creative.

Just a couple of weeks ago I visited two friends of mine in America; Lisa Halsted in San Francisco and M. Night in Philadelphia. What I discovered made me realized how I have failed in my reading habit, although I thought I was a good reader.

Lisa’s husband, Scot, and M. Night, are both extremely busy business entrepreneurs with brutal work and other related schedules, one into film and television while the other is into hospital investments and a big time swimmer. I was shocked to the bone when I discovered, separately, that they both read over 50 books each year!

A few years ago I built a 50-capacity seated modern community library in Winneba. I stocked it with over 8,000 adult and children’s books, and did a lot of publicity to encourage Senior High School students and graduates to patronize the facility. I wanted to promote reading in our youth, and I wanted to promote the quality of literature in Winneba.

I have definitely been successful in promoting the library amongst children. I have been pleased with the massive patronage of the library by school children, even during weekends.

Unfortunately the many secondary school graduates in the town, the many university graduates who hail from the town, they all seem not interested. Their end goal is not the knowledge they have to acquire, their end goals seem to be the certificates they are waiting for, and the employment they hope to gain. They seem to be so uninterested in the very habits which will help them to achieve their goals better; they rather tend to seek a back door to success.

Students in Ghana seem too obsessed with first class, second class and so on. Too many students are under the false believe that first class will give you the quick job. I have told my daughter that I am not interested in any so called first class.

If she ever obtained first class, then it should be that she earned it as a complete university product. It should not be that she only read her course books and passed and got a first class. That is not the way to earn a first class, that is not even the way to obtain a third class, that is academic dishonesty.

As we graduate with all the best classes in this world, and display our certificates, we turn to think that just because we hold those certificates, then we are deserving of employment, we are deserving of some job titles. I receive calls from all manner of relatives, friends, friends of friends, begging for me to employ their brothers, their sisters, their children, and so on.

Don’t beg for jobs! Any graduate who is unable to go out there, on his own, to search for a job of his own is not worth the employment he seeks. These are lazy uninitiated young people whose dependent limited knowledge destroys productivity.

I don’t know how many times we need to remind ourselves that things do not work that way. University education must not be only the pushing of papers, and reproduction of what the lecturers stood in front of us to teach. University education must not be a waste of time and resources.

University education must be a combination of the university environment, and what we made of it. It must include our own education, it must include the building of our own confidence, the classroom must only serve as a guide to exercise our skills, and apply our knowledge.

Columnist: James Kofi Annan