RE: What Makes A Good University?

Fri, 6 Jul 2007 Source: Tawiah, Benjamin

In what seemed like a well researched account of tertiary education in Ghana, Mr Ben Otoo’s article that appeared a Ghanaweb recently, was revealing as it was provoking.

The university interscholastic league works just like the football or basketball leagues is a sports-crazy country. The same way that football teams are rated by the division they play in, as well as their standing on the league table, universities also have their league table. Thus, there are premier universities, first division institutions, those who play in the championship and second division institutions of higher learning. There are also those who are the equivalent of what we call colts in Ghana.

The Times newspaper of the UK, presently rates Oxford University second in the premier division, with Cambridge University clutching the first position. Kwesi Botchwey’s Harvard University, and Yale, are well known premier division institutions in the USA. The global university league, I am told, has the first 18 positions on the premier table reserved for universities in America. In that sense, Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge, UK) do not compare with any top class Northern American university. Even then, as a Rhodes Scholar ex-President Monsieur Bill Clinton, saw wisdom in crossing continents to Oxfordshire, the county where Oxford University is located, for some academic work. By George, Bush is a Yale, and we know what that means in Iraq.

The University of Ghana, as was published on Ghanaweb recently, is rated higher than the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and for that matter, better, at least in terms of scholarship, than all other universities in the soon to be oil-rich West African country. Ashesi University, a relatively young institution, is rated among the first 100 institutions in Africa. I didn’t check where Cape Coast University falls on the African Universities league, because I have never believed in their regressive grading system. The university, where Dr Aidoo Tony once lectured, has stuck to a grading system that requires of students the academic equivalent of the unmistakable faithfulness of a Catholic priest’s chastity vows, to graduate with a first class. Only God knows if their medical school will not pass historians as doctors.

Not that the University of Ghana is any better; the African premier university league recognises South African universities in the top positions. It will be absurd for any right thinking man who knows a thing or two about universities, to contend that Legon, a university whose vice chancellor is presently receiving threats from his student, is better than President Kufour’s Oxford University. I am an alumnus of University of Ghana (1998 and 2000), and I lived in Oxfordshire for three years. So, I do know a thing or two about the two learning institutions.

The university interscholastic league is compiled using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Learning, national funding councils, information from heads of academic institutions, alumni and the institutions themselves. The Times newspaper bases its ratings on a seemingly objective criteria: 100 marks for teaching excellence, 150 for student satisfaction, heads/peer assessment (100), research quality (200), A/As level/higher points (250), employment (100), first class degrees awarded (100), student ratio (100), dropout rate, among others. International reputation and social responsibility are also considered.

Other newspapers have their own rating systems. Most of them do not recognise the Asantehene’s proud alma mater, London Metropolitan University. They are always battling for the last position with Thames Valley University, a Kimbu Sec-Tech equivalent, if you ask me. The Sunday Times’ current rating has a big N/A (Not applicable) sign against London Metropolitan. The paper says: ‘‘Data withheld from the Sunday Times.’’ This is no insult to Nana Osei Tutu II at all. I hear he was the University’s guest at a very big function only recently.

It would be easier to say Kufour is a better leader than Tony Blair, than for any Ghanaian to imagine that the quality of teaching at Legon could be better than Oxford’s. Does teaching excellence refer to the quality of lecturers at the institutions, i.e., their academic qualifications and where they obtained them or it means the excellent delivery of subject matter, or perhaps, the importance of the modules delivered in relation to the prospects it offers students. Student satisfaction means a lot of things at any time. At the University of Ghana, where students of Commonwealth Hall, fill toilet bowls to the brim with ‘you know what I mean’ or wreak faecal havoc on the grounds behind the registry when there is water shortage, student satisfaction will mean something different from what happens at Oxford, where luxury accommodation, complete with swimming pool and sauna, are affordable. So if a researcher asks an Oxford student his assessment of the teaching quality at his department, he is likely to give a very high score. At Legon, the lecturer-student ratio is, perhaps, 1 to 735. I hear the lecturers do not mark assignments.

Let’s look at it another way. Almost all the lecturers in Ghanaian universities trained abroad, in premier league universities. Our faith in foreign qualifications mean that, any buffoon with a Cambridge degree will be appreciated by employers than the holder of a degree from Mensah Otabil’s Central University, where very good courses are taught. If the vice chancellor of Legon was Lord Craig Attenborough or the Duke of Westminster, his views will count more to the Times newspaper than VC Prof Tawiah-Ntsiful. The paper awards 100 marks for the assessment of the heads of universities. In the West, colleges headed by whites are deemed better than the Asian or black owned ones. So, it has become strategic for ethnic minority colleges to appoint a white, any white at all, to their academic board. When they don’t find a white registrar, they manage to recruit a Lithuanian or Polish receptionist.

The problem is, when I type my surname-Tawiah-on my computer, it immediately underlines it, and offers me suggestions such as Taiwan or Tania. The computer thinks my name is a mistake. And that is exactly how many of us think. Most Ghanaians will prefer a village university in Taiwan to the Catholic University in Fiapre, Sunyani, Brong Ahafo. The reality, however, is that, a London University may be better than Valley View only in terms of the aesthetic presentation of its prospectus.

It will surprise many to know that, it would be easier for a Ghanaian graduate to secure admission onto an MBA programme at Oxford or Leicester University in the UK, than at the School of Administration of University of Ghana. Most of these premier league universities care about an international student’s ability to pay their exorbitant fees than whatever becomes of them after graduation. And it is very difficult to fail here, because they don’t care where a student produces his dissertation from. They will not check, the same way that they will not check your references. The suspected political motivation notwithstanding, the NDC MP, Haruna Iddrisu, would still be keeping his M Phil in Sociology degree if he had done it at Oxford, because he would have travelled with it back to Africa, where Oxford may be concerned with researching into their poverty alleviation strategies than degrees awarded to their former African students. They will only contact you if you still owe them tuition fees. My next box roommate at Commonwealth Hall, University of Ghana, settled for an MPhil programme in Adult Education at Legon, when the same university refused him admission for a Master of Public Administration course. Before he would finish the programme, he had managed to obtain an unconditional admission for an MPA-PhD programme at a premier university in the UK. The university also gave him the chance to apply for a scholarship. And he is not alone. A very mean lady, who didn’t know what to do with her ISCA qualifications in Ghana (she had passed only five papers), recently graduated with a proud MBA from Thames Valley University, UK. She admitted she never dreamt of the possibility; she had no previous degree.

I have said it on this forum before, and I will say it again that, the MBA programme currently offered at GIMPA, is 95½ % better than the University of Leicester’s distant learning MBA course that was administered by some London colleges. As if the language of instruction was Twi, many Ghanaians patronised those colleges. Most men found their wives there. And I maintain that, I am proud of my English degree, which I took when Mr Alosius Denkabe, was head of the University of Ghana’s English department, than my Master of Laws degree from Middlesex University, UK. The University had advertised that it was the 20th on the league table at the time I was applying. When I graduated, it had fallen to the 88th position. At the same time, their library and other academic infrastructure had been refurbished, and they had recruited more qualified teaching staff. So, do these university ratings matter at all?

Sure, ratings matter, because a middle-aged woman who would defy a fibroid complication to produce identical twins, is more promising than the tired second wife of the coconut farmer who has ten children. There are good universities and there are very bad ones. So, you ask yourself: why do lecturers from third division universities aspire to graduate to the premier division. It comes with prestige and a lot of money in research grants. Science laboratories in good universities look like the engine room from where God created the universe. And research means going out to search for raw material excellently (r: raw material-search), because they are properly funded. In a bad university, research means searching for recycled searches (re for recycle).

That is why very good universities in the USA demand a good score in the Graduate Aptitude Test, as a requirement for admission onto a master’s degree program. These universities have reputation, and they want to maintain it. Some demand an IELTS score (International English Language Testing System), Toefl’s hi-tech brother.

In employment circles, it will take a digitalised version of the Holy Spirit anointing for a Tweapease University graduate to get preference over an Oxford product. In Ghana, Motown and Presec graduates go to university with a certain complex. Soon, they realise the word university was coined, perhaps, out of universal: it is for everybody. Admittedly, I had wanted to go to Kwabotwe when I was not a born again Christian in class 6. When I became born gain, I realised I would have been an academic liability if I had left Sunyani Secondary School, where my mum still works.

Presently, I teach English as a foreign language and Journalism on part-time in a London college. The college markets herself on the platform of her strategic affiliation to a good university. Do you know where that university is? Bulgaria. Yet, there are Ghanaians studying there, instead of University of Ghana or Kimbu Sec- Tech. Ask me too, why I am teaching there, instead of Tweapease L/A, near Asuom.

BY: Benjamin Tawiah,
Freelance, London.

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

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin