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Opinions Sat, 28 Jun 2003

Are Some of Our Universities Serious?

It is a known fact that most Ghanaians who study abroad do not return to work in Ghana for various reasons. It is always interesting to meet a Ghanaian who has just arrived from Ghana and talk to him/her about his/her plans. There is a familiar pattern to the story. It goes something like this: when I complete my studies, I will work for about five years to enable me save some money and then return to Ghana to settle. I can assure you that plan works only in very rare cases. In majority of the cases, after graduation, they do not return to Ghana to settle and work.

Since my first journey abroad, it has always been my intention to return to work in Ghana. My main reasons were to be close to family and also contribute to the development of my country. I have had conversations with many Ghanaians studying in developed countries regarding returning to work in Ghana. I have always argued that the country needs all of us to develop and that the developed countries achieved their economic success as a result of the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents. While we Ghanaians remain in the developed countries waiting for the economic situation to improve in Ghana before we go home, the country is also waiting for us to come and contribute to its development. Note, however, that I am not advocating for every single Ghanaian to return to work in Ghana. There are various reasons why Ghanaians decide to stay abroad, and I do not intend to de! lve into all of them. There is a misconception by most Ghanaians who have not lived in the West of how life is like in developed countries. A friend told me about a Ghanaian who recently arrived in Canada to start his graduate studies. My friend asked him the usual questions as to when he would return to Ghana. His response was: Ghana? Forget it. Who comes to heaven and returns to earth?

The fact that many graduate students do not return after their studies reduces the pool of potential lecturers that the universities can employ. It's often been reported that the universities in Ghana have difficulties recruiting and retaining young lecturers. There are past and recent newspaper reports by almost all administrators of our public universities. Statistics have always been provided that suggests that about 45-60% of lecturers in Ghana are above 50 years and that if young blood is not injected into the system, in the next 10-15 years, the Ghanaian lecturer would be an endangered species. The main reason for this has always been given as the poor conditions of service of the lecturers, which makes teaching unattractive to the current youth. This, I must admit, is part of the problem. But are there other factors that may be equally important? Is it possible that! the university administrators are contributing to this situation and then turn around to use the lack of lecturers as a tool to negotiate for better conditions of service? So what could the universities be doing wrong? A few months ago, one MP dropped a hint that the universities themselves are partially culpable for the lack of lecturers. He mentioned that he taught at KNUST for over 20 (or so) years and was not promoted to senior lecturer despite the fact that he was qualified. I will present below my personal experience with a university in Ghana. To focus the article on what happened rather than where it happened or to whom it happened, I would conceal the identity of the university, and call it University of X (I choose X because it is my favourite unknown variable). I will also use my pen name, Daniel Kangaarkaat.

In 1997, I applied to the Vice-Chancellor (VC) for study leave with pay, which was approved for an initial two years. Let me make it clear that apart from my salary at the university in Ghana, University of X was not responsible for any other costs related to my programme. I even paid my own airfare abroad. After the two years, I was expected to write a report of my progress to the VC for renewal of my leave. As part of the contract, I was also expected to return after I complete my programme and serve the university for at least three years, which I agreed. In 1999, three months before my study leave expired, I wrote a comprehensive report to the VC of my progress, and requested that my study leave with pay be extended till December, 2001, which was my anticipated completion date. I have not received a reply to that letter till today. However, my salary was paid by! the university till December 2001.

In February 2002, I received a letter signed on behalf of the registrar of University of X that my study leave expired in December 2000 and I had neither reported to work nor written to extend it. I was asked to refund the money that the university had paid to me as salary from December 2000 to December 2001. I was furious for a few reasons. One, how could my study leave have expired in 2000 since I had requested for an extension to December 2001? Even if the extension was not granted, then it should have expired in October 1999 and not December 2000. Furthermore, if my request was not approved, why did the university not write to that effect? I wrote to the university registering my disappoint at the way they were going about things and pointed out that it might be a mistake on their part. I also submitted a series of questions including why I should refund the mon! ey. After all, I had not refused to return to the university, in fact, I had not even completed my studies. I also asked them why they were paying me a salary if I was not on study leave between December 2000 and December 2001. The reply to my letter contained no response to my questions. The five-line letter contained a total amount that the university had paid to my account for the one year they claimed I was not on study leave. I was asked to refund this money as soon as possible. Interestingly, the amount was inflated, and I did them a service by correcting the figure for them and asking them to explain the discrepancy. Was someone pocketing the difference? I wrote another letter with another series of questions such as: what is my status with the university if I am being asked to refund the money? I had not completed, so did they expect me to stop my studies and come home? I never got a reply to those letters.

Despite the fact that they stopped paying my salary in December 2001, I was still patriotic and willing to return to the University of X. But things would only get worse. I defended my PhD thesis in August 2002, and in October 2002, even before my convocation, I wrote to the VC of University of X, informing him that I had completed my studies and was willing to return soon to continue with my teaching and research. I had spoken to a few friends who were also on study leave from Ghanaian universities. I was told that it was standard practice for the university to pay my airfare and ship my academic belongings home. So in my letter to the VC, I indicated that I would need help with my airfare, shipping, and if possible help in identifying suitable accommodation in the city where the university is located. These are standard practi! ces in the universities in Ghana and I was neither asking for preferential treatment nor imposing these as conditions of my return. Even if the university had said they did not have money to help out, I would have still gone home.

As it became standard practice of University of X, I only received a letter seven clear months after I wrote to them. The letter was exactly six lines long. The first two lines said something to the effect that they had received my letter and noted my intention to return under some conditionalities. The first thing I wondered was whether the one replying to my letter had actually read it, and if he did, did he understand the content before replying. The last 4 lines said that the university had resolved that when I return to Ghana, then I should come to them and get fresh application forms and apply to the appointments and promotions board for consideration. I said immediately to myself: "over my dead body". There is no chance in hell that I will re-apply to that university, not after a! ll that they have taken me through. I even wondered whether the person who wrote the letter actually believed what he was writing. Did he really expect that I would take my family and pack to Ghana to wait for his appointments and promotions board to determine whether to give me a job or not? Was I really that desperate? Why should I re-apply for a position that I have technically not lost (or at least not officially informed I lost) in the first place? Was the university suggesting that my appointment was terminated before I completed my programme? The funniest part of the letter was that apart from it being on an official letterhead of the University of X, the signatory did not state the capacity in which he was writing the letter, or on whose behalf he did so. I only happen to know from previous interactions that he is an assistant registrar at the university.

Maybe, all this would not have been that bad, if the department I left was beaming with lecturers with very little work to do. I was the only lecturer in my field of study, and currently there are about 7 courses in that area, with no single full time lecturer at post to teach. My understanding is that every year, the university gets part time lecturers from another university who come and spend 2-3 weeks to complete the syllabi, which usually requires a full semester. Forget about the field trips and the practical components of the courses that students are expected to take. This is the way the university trains its graduates in that field.

Given the quality of logic that has guided the decisions of the university administration till date, I will not even be surprised if after a few months, I get another letter from the University of X telling me to refund the money they paid me in salaries. I bet they have not even realized that by their action, they have terminated my appointment and breached their side of the contract. At that time, I will tell them to go to any court of their choice and deal with my lawyer. They will lose more money and pay my legal bills.

So is this situation an isolated case? I happen to know quite a number of lecturers that went on study leave that did not manage to return, due to circumstances similar to mine, although not exactly the same in every case. Next time you hear the university administrators telling the press that the only reason the universities are unable to attract young lecturers is because of the poor conditions of service for lecturers, you should take such a statement with the same pinch of salt as Bush and Blair's statements about the threats posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Now that the University of X has relieved me of my contractual obligations, I am free to sell my skills to the highest bidder, and this time, the University of X is not one of them. I guess the only ones having the last laugh now are those who had told me all along that there is no point in trying to return to Ghana. Even if I return to Ghana, I will go to another institution.


Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.


Canada

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Columnist: Kangaarkaat, Daniel