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Opinions Thu, 27 Oct 2011

The Tragedies of African Democracies - IX

The Tragedies of African democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good

Higher Education Cont…

Higher institutions in the United States have even attained what may be referred to as a market-driven education, whereby the beneficiary chooses what he or she is interested in learning with regard to courses and programs. For example, a student, very much aware of his/her own career interest from the word go, chooses which courses would lead him/her where he/she desires to head in life. So you have interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary programs that may cut across the arts, business, and the sciences. It is all tailored by the student in consultation with his/her advisor, but the interest of the student is ultimately paramount to the final decision that defines the final components of the program.

It is even more remarkable watching lecturers at great efforts promoting their courses for the next quarter. Flyers are prepared by some of these lecturers before the end of the current semester or quarter with synopsis of the course a lecturer would be mounting the following quarter and what students stand to benefit from pursuing such a course. It is simply like the work of the public relations officer or a marketer who tries to catch the attention of his prospective clientele. If this is not a replica of the of the democratic free market spirit, then I doubt what the democratic free market concept would mean when applied to education. Freedom of choice contingent on interest and quality of the knowledge to be acquired becomes paramount to the decision to enroll.

On the other hand, in the Ghanaian context, I remember my own experiences at the University of Cape Coast and that of other students. I was offered a bachelor of arts for my first degree. Being a trained teacher, I thought that might not have a direct bearing with my previous experiences as a teacher. I petitioned the university to alter my Bachelor of Arts to Bachelor of Education, so I could bring my previous learning and teaching experience on board to shape my new experience. But as it were, these are not decisions the learner controlled. You are proffered a course or program of study by a higher authority somewhere that thought and decided what program was good for you.

Then there is the overbearing side of the educational experience at all levels of the educational process. The lecturer is a thin-god and has that overarching power to make or unmake a student. Some lecturers could even come to class and announce right from the beginning of the course how none of the students would be awarded a high mark of A in their course, as though grades were not to be earned based on the quality of students work. I thought that was not only draconic but preposterous as well. There were courses in which not a single student could make an A or even a B+. In other instances over 50 percent of successive students were failed by same tutor continuously. Although the option of contesting a grade, as in every academic institution, was available, it was not an option students would want to pursue for fear of becoming a target for other lecturers, as it were or as students always suspected. Indeed, the structures for contesting a grade may make a student doubly vulnerable, as lecturers continuously protect and defend their own.

While some may argue that obtaining high grades in a class should not be the overriding desire of students, as the real test of what is learnt is in the real world of practice, there is no gainsaying that the competition at all levels of society implies that the student with the best grades would always have his first or best foot through the door before any others could be considered. Assuming that by obtaining a B in a final semester’s course reduces a student’s performance to a second class lower or a third class. When that student considers further studies at the graduate/postgraduate level, where the admission requirement and the prerequisite for funding are pegged at second class upper, that student is automatically ruled out of the competition. Similar cut of points pervade recruitment processes and so on.

An example of how important grades can be and are in academic circles was when the university of Cape Coast took a decision to modify its grading system in 1997. In spite of overwhelming students’ protest against the upping of A from 70 to 80, the university authorities had their way and students had their say.

When the first batch of students who were assessed with the new marking scheme graduated in 2000, nine students in that year group obtained first class with a few hundreds obtaining second class and a majority obtaining third class. In the same year, over two hundred students who graduated from university of Ghana with a marking scheme that pegged A at 70 obtained first class. The point is that although the course content, marking scheme, and academic rigor vary in the two academic institutions, the final class of a student may place the student who graduated from Cape Coast University at a great disadvantage, regarding cutoff points.

Unofficial explanation for the wide disparities in the final class of the graduating students of the two institutions was that the strength of the entry grades of students were different for the two institutions, implying students graduating from university of Ghana were admitted with stronger grades. Let us assume for a moment that such was the case. Interestingly, just four years down the road, in 2005, the same vice-chancellor who superintended the migration of Cape Coast University’s grading system from 70 percent to 80 percent for an A becomes the president of the Methodist University of Ghana, a private tertiary education provider. Thirty-one of his first batch of graduating students, out of a total of 155 students, graduated with first class.

If entry grades are things to go by, one begins to question, by what magic wand did the students of the private university, a university which lacked all the material and human resources, excel so well. At any rate, a high proportion of students – perhaps 90 percent or more – who entered private universities in Ghana were students who could not meet the competitive grade requirements in the state universities and other state supported tertiary institutions, except a few working people and others who for reasons of proximity could not afford to leave their jobs to attend state universities which may take them away from their jobs. Therefore, the premise that entry grades determined outcomes with regard to class or grades was not applicable at the Methodist University four years on. I quizzed a friend who was tutoring there about this and his response was that “remember a private university runs on fees paid by private individuals, if you fail them they aren’t gonna pay the fees, and how do you operate without funds?”

To the extent that these idiosyncrasy and manipulations pervade our educational system and presumably others elsewhere, I think it is just appropriate for graduate schools in the United States and elsewhere to employ the Graduate Record Exams (GRE) scores as a prerequisite in evaluating students for admission in their programs. Although there are no direct links between test scores and a student’s performance in graduate school, test scores provide a basic platform for admissions officers to compare the performance of students from the thousands of universities around the globe who may be seeking entry to their universities.

Returning to the grading system, what was unfathomable however was that the same institutions teach that as a teacher if half your students are failing or your students cannot pass your examinations, then there must be something wrong with your teaching methods, but ironically the same institution accepted some of the terrible grades lecturers submitted without raising an eyebrow – after all who cares?

This situation, in most cases, brought visiting American lecturers and other western lecturers into conflict with the unprincipled system. I recollect how two visiting lecturers from the United State and a friend had to fight the whole establishment to ensure that her grades were not altered. She taught the management accounting course in 1998/1999 academic year at the Cape Coast University Business School, then under the social sciences.

When she arrived, she asked the department to design the course content or outline but was given the freehand to do so. She designed the course outline, which was accepted and approved by the department. Three or four months down the road – at the end of the semester – when she completed marking, grading, and submitted her grades in which about a quarter or more of the class made As, the head of department refused to accept the results/grades, urging her to slash the grades, ensuring that no one was awarded an A. The simple explanation was that nobody makes an A in that course. I, like anybody else who heard the story, thought the reason adduced for asking for a slash in the grade was going to be “students’ performance was below expectations.” But as pointed out, the simple reason was that nobody makes an A in that course, period! The lecturer who taught the course thought that was preposterous and unfair to her students, therefore she stood her grounds. This issue travelled the entire administrative structure of the university, ending up on the desk of the vice-chancellor of the university.

She threatened to contest the issue in court or go public with the manipulations of the invisible hands. At the end of the day, her courage and resilience prevailed and the grades were left untouched. Her basic argument was that based on course content taught – stipulated course expectations and outcomes of the examination - the students performed beyond her expectations. Therefore, the whole situation did not make sense to her. She thought some of the so-called lecturers were just savages who did not deserve that honorable title of being lecturers and had no business being in the academic environment, where handholding and leading the way for students is supposed to be the hallmark; not intimidation, imposition of ideas, overt threat of failing students, undervaluing of students’ academic contributions and so on, phenomena which will never make a student an independent thinker who can challenge assumptions and postulate his or her own ideas, ideals, and theories – the true values of the academic endeavor! It is a tragic development that teachers and lecturers surrender the autonomy of their students – for such students are not taught how to question, how to object, how to think critically about their society. They are taught that the institution is an authority not to be challenged.

One may argue that lack of infrastructure and the high rate of student-tutor ratio may be the cumulative effect of some of these draconian measures by tutors to accommodate the high numbers in the face of limited resources. While I cannot pretend to be abreast with current enrolment figures, I know it has never been better. It should rather be hitting the roofs with same institutional facilities. In my days, it was not uncommon to have a tutor lecturing 400 students for a single course. If that lecturer had two or three of such class sizes, then he or she would be doing about 800 or 1 200 students per semester, as the case normally was. This was also reflective in residential facilities on the university campuses. A room meant for a single occupancy about 30 or so years ago now accommodates four or more students. There is no doubt that the workload related to managing all these students – especially in the face of both limited facilities and human resources - concomitantly undermines the quality of education. A final year student I spoke to in the process of writing this book painted even a direr picture of the situation. “These days, the lecture halls are so budging that you don’t even get to hear the voice of the lecturer from outside the windows where you might be hanging and peeping through the louver blades. Ironically, even churches, with small premises, unable to accommodate all their members, recognize the need to provide television sets outside their premises to transmit the message outside for those who could not get a place within the walls of the church,” shed fumed. The point is that if the universities which are supposed to lead the way in innovation cannot make use of these basic facilities to overcome some of their infrastructural constraints, then I am terribly sorry they can learn from the churches.

A former schoolmate – whose father was a lecturer at the University of Cape Coast once told me that he was surprised that final grades appeared on the grading boards at the beginning of the semesters, when the previous semester’s grades are supposed to be released, while he is aware the dad had not mark the final papers. They were still wrapped as he placed them in one of their kitchen cabinets after collecting them after the finals. The conclusion we drew from that incident was that, if you present yourself to a lecturer in your first paper as a dim-wit, that impression would be the foundation for his assessment in subsequent papers you may write for him. He or she – under pressure to present grades – may just refer to your previous performance and award grades befitting the first impression you made when you wrote that first paper. This way, some really intelligent students who failed to impress their lecturers in their first papers may have to pay the price in other courses mounted by the same lecturer.

Those demanding the fuller version of the articles should wait until I host them on my blog. Keep tuned in…

The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, immigration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines – Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.

By: Prosper Yao Tsikata

Email: pytsikata@yahoo.com

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao