Higher education in Ghana – Legon still tops them all!

Fri, 11 Sep 2015 Source: Amenyo, Kofi

Like much of the rest of the world, university students in Ghana are about this time getting back to their studies. The higher institutions have reopened. The WASSCE results have been released. Many of our youngsters will be taking their places at our higher institutions for the first time. They have a lot of institutions to choose from. A few of them are state owned but many of them are privately run for various reasons. What is the quality of education they will be receiving once they take up their places at these institutions?

From the many rankings of universities that are now available, our youngsters who will enter our premiere institution of higher education, University of Ghana at Legon, will receive the best education that is available anywhere in Ghana. This is according to the first ranking of African Universities and Higher Institutions by Africans which was released recently. 1,447 universities and higher institutions in Africa were ranked based on their research publications and citations from the last five years (2010 to 2014) and on their Internet/Web Presence. Rankings were also made for individual countries. Sixty-two universities and higher institutions were ranked in Ghana. Legon topped clearly with a score of 37.83 points, well above second placed KNUST (31.58).and UCC (22.87), University of Education, Winneba (14.62) and University of Development Studies, Tamale (11.11) in that order.

It is clear from the rankings that the state run universities are the best in Ghana and in the order in which they were established. The University of Ghana is the oldest and. It was established in 1948, when our forebears, perhaps disappointed that the colonial office did not site an intended university for its West African “possessions” in centrally placed Accra but placed it in Ibadan, decided to set up their own – in the same year as Ibadan went up. Legon started as an affiliate college of University of London which supervised and awarded its degrees. Thus, right from its inception, the standard was kept as high as that of a top British university. It was built along British lines with traditions that British universities observed – halls of residence, Great Hall, JCRs, SCRs, tutorials, debating societies, three terms that were called Michaelmas, Lent and Trinity, etc. (things the modern university has largely dispensed with). Legon’s motto is, of course, in Latin: Integri Procedamus (Let us proceed with integrity).

The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) was founded in 1952 in the Ashanti capital. The Gold Coast was unique in having two universities for a population of roughly five million before its independence. KNUST was primarily established as a technology based university. Its motto is in Ashanti Twi and the Chancellor is the Asantehene.

The University of Cape Coast (UCC) was established in 1962 principally to provide qualified teachers for the many secondary schools that the CPP government had set up across the country. If UCC was the “real” Nkrumah university, then the University of Development Studies in Tamale and the Winneba University of Education can be said to be Rawlings’ universities. For a long time, Ghana had only three universities until Winneba and Tamale. The law didn’t permit private universities to be set up and enterprising individuals limited themselves to the establishment of commercial schools and technical colleges.

When the law was relaxed to allow private universities, they mushroomed all over the place. The best of these private, according to the rankings, is the Valley View University at Oyibi. It is just outside the Ghana top 10 at place 11. Just like with basic and secondary education in the colonial days, the missions have also engaged in the establishment of higher institutions. Even though some of the very best secondary schools we have had in Ghana are missionary based ones, the mission universities are not (yet?) among the very best.

But our best university is not even among Africa’s top ten. When the Times Higher Education (THE) for the first time created a top 15 for Africa in a pilot project this year, the list caused a lot of controversy. Obviously, every university thought it deserved a higher place on the rankings than they got. South African universities dominated this list and Legon came in at position 12 behind universities like Makerere (3rd), Port Harcourt (6th) and Nairobi (8th).

Now that Africans have created their own rankings (African Universities and Higher Institutions Ranking) there is reason to regard it with some respect. The requirements and purposes of African universities may be slightly different from foreign ones. The 2015 list is topped by the University of Cape Town which also tops the THE list. Legon comes in at place 14. The University of Ibadan (UI) and the University of Nigeria at Nsukka are both ranked higher than any in Ghana. KNUST comes 29th; UCC 56th. Only these three Ghanaian universities made it into the Africa top 100. (See full list here http://ranking.journalsconsortium.org/).

It is interesting to note that Nigeria’s best is better than Ghana’s best on this list. The universities at Ibadan and Legon were established in the same year. Both started life as colleges of the University of London with Legon weaning itself from London in 1961 – two years before UI did the same. Each has produced some of its nation’s best achievers over the years and trained others from other African countries too. But Ibadan, arguably, seems to have the edge over Legon. Its list of prominent alumni shines brighter than that of Legon. It has produced one of Africa’s four Nobel Laureates in Literature in the person of Wolé Soyinka. Chinua Achebe, J. P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Niyi Osundare, Kole Omotosho, Elechi Amachi, and many others in other fields walked through the halls of UI. Such things count to raise the status of a university.

If Ghana’s best universities are not really among Africa’s best, then they are even further away from the top league on a worldwide basis.

The first ranking of the world’s universities was published in 2003 by Shanghai's Jiao Tong University. It was based on the excellence of research produced by the universities. Since then, many organisations and institutions have published such league tables using a wide variety of metrics. The most popular ones today are Times Higher Education World University Rankings (https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2015/world-ranking#/sort/0/direction/asc) and Quacquarelli Symonds (both used to do it together).The Shanghai University continues its rankings and calls it Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). Its 2015 rankings can be found here http://www.shanghairanking.com/ (try searching for Ghanaian universities on that list). The Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) is also another often cited ranking unit (http://cwur.org/). Try searching for Ghanaian universities here too.

On all the worldwide lists, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford, Columbia, Princeton, Cornell, and Yale are almost always somewhere there in the top ten. It is clear that the USA has the largest number of the world’s best universities. Both the ARWU and CWUR score perfect total points of 100 for Harvard and rank all other universities according to their departures from this perfect score. Harvard is, thus, the gold standard of universities. QS also scores a 100 for the best university but in its latest rankings, it is MIT that is the gold standard (http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2014#sorting=rank+region=+country=+faculty=+stars=false+search=).

University rankings have become a very serious business even if they are still controversial. There are now rankings by a wide variety of categories – by subject, by faculty, by graduate studies, Phd programmes, by region, and by a host of trivial other factors. The Times even has one for the BRICS countries. Each of the ranking institutions uses slightly different methods which are explained on their websites. The British based bodies rank British universities relatively higher than their positions on other lists

African universities do not perform well on any of these global lists. Even allowing for the fact that there may be biases against African universities, one can still safely say they are not among the best in the world. Most of the African universities that make it into these rankings are from South Africa (a country that was ranked second to last in the OECD study of basic education that ranked Ghana last). Of Ghana’s universities, only Legon gets a mention. In the latest QS rankings, Legon’s undergraduate programme is ranked at number 700+ – an amorphous category that includes all others not in the top 700.

But what is really the quality of a degree from a specific university? Some of the old ones depend on their names. Some less known ones can be very good. Requirements differ. This is especially so for post graduate programmes including the all-important PhD programme. Requirements have also changed over the years. In the distant past, PhD candidates were only required to master their supervisor’s thoughts and theories which they regurgitated at their defences. Later, they could branch out on their own and have their own disciples. Today it is different. One is often required to make some original contribution to knowledge – a very tall order! Many people, these days, go for a compilation of papers, some of which may already have been published, rather than the monograph which nobody reads after the defence. Only few doctoral theses these days are ground-breaking works that are cited ever afterwards. The question is: how does a PhD obtained in a Ghanaian university compare with one obtained in the same field from one of the foreign universities that consistently top the world rankings?

The pressures on Legon are great. The university has expanded tremendously over the years. There are now more colleges, faculties, institutes, centres, and what have you. It has extended its original humanities and arts based curriculum to include more technology based ones and now boasts of being one of the few universities in Africa offering courses in nuclear physics and nuclear engineering. Wow! You can now study Chinese language at Legon. A new collegiate system has bundled together many departments under what are now called “Schools” headed by “Provosts”. There is an increasing Americanisation of our universities.

With nearly 40,000 students enrolled, lecture rooms are crowded and, in some courses, lecturers have to grade up to 800 examination papers. This is a far cry from 1978, the year the present Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ernest Ayeetey (aka Blackman) graduated with a degree in Economics and Statistics. Prof. Aryeetey will retire from the Chancellorship next year, having completed his maximum allotted time. Both students and his colleagues have attested to the fine job Prof. Aryeetey has done in maintaining the high standards of the university. Among these is his tightening the screws on the grading system so that it will be just a bit less easy to get a first class than it was a few years ago.

Whoever takes over from Prof. Aryeetey will have to maintain and improve on these standards. Whatever he (or she) does, Legon’s gap ahead of the others is huge and it will take some beating. It will remain, in the foreseeable future, our best institution. But, as an alumnus, I will so want to see it climb the Africa list and be in the top five. Integri Procedamus.

Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi