Opinions Tue, 25 Oct 2011

The Tragedies of African Democracies - VIII

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


“In barely a month, the Don of the premier University, atypically, has resorted to the court of the people once more. With 50% graduate unemployment, I can hear his voice of intellect saying the center cannot hold for long.”

This section examines the continuous failures in the educational sector taking a critical look at primary and higher education over the last few years. It draws on some personal experiences and examples of what other countries have done to prepare their students adequately for the challenges and the competitions ahead of them in the real world.

Higher Education

While some Ghanaians bastardize the Ghanaian educational system for the systemic failures in the economic sector resulting in high unemployment rates across the country, others blame the global economic order as a causative factor. It is very imperative to do some somber but critical reflection as a nation than the continuous blame game and pointing of fingers. Understanding the development equation is a step toward solution, as there are no magic wands in the development equation. The admission of defects within the educational system is a critical step toward finding solutions.

Having lived through three different democratic governments - the NDC I, NPP, and the NDC II - my conclusion is that if politics is about improving public services, then that improvement has not occurred in the education sector under all these regimes, for education to serve as a tool to liberate the other sectors of the Ghanaian society. There are no doubts about the gaping defects in the Ghanaian educational system. If the objective of education is to equip the individual with the requisite skills and knowledge to function as a member of a working community, then we have failed as a nation in training students for the task. As the horizon expands and our communities are enmeshed into a global market place, jobs and talents know no boundaries any longer. In a globally competitive job place, where the employer is looking for employees who can add value to his/her investment, we have continuously churned out graduates who can hardly create or add that value, let alone compete with their counterparts from equally developing countries like China, India, and a host of other emerging economies.

It is good to make these comparisons because, as we lack the technologies, skills and the creativities to engender our own jobs to improve our lot, the very few jobs that are emerging in the Ghanaian economy are mostly the outcome of investments from entrepreneurs from these economies who understand the value of every cent they spend on an employee.

Let us for a moment consider the issue of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) as a prerequisite for any contemporary job. Even though I considered myself ICT and Internet savvy, compared to my contemporaries back in Ghana, when I arrived in England to study for my first master’s degree, it was obvious that I needed to undergo a complete ICT training to be able to cope with the scope of work that was unfolding. There was no way I could have competed with my counterparts who came from China, Malaysia, India, and other developing countries.

I remember my own Information Retrieval Course at the University of Cape Coast, which was supposed to equip one with the requisite ICT skills as one progress into the occupational and academic worlds. Looking back on that experience makes me laugh loud - what a joke it had been! The librarian who taught the course came to class with a photo of cable and a mouse which he displayed on the blackboard for us to apparently catch glimpse of what a mouse was. This was a second year university level course in 1999, for which I earned an A but did not even know how to turn a computer on or open a word document. The pedagogy was as obsolete as it was deficient!

While this is not to attribute the unemployment problems and other systemic failures to ICTs, as there is evidence to suggest that it has already been assigned powers it does not have, there is no gainsaying about its place in the contemporary economy. Implying that the more one is equipped with its skills, the better one fared in the emergent knowledge economy.

This is not to berate the ability of the Ghanaian student to compete with any of his counterparts anywhere. Apparently, once he/she adapts to the technological requirements, which have largely become the basis for academic communication and expression, he or she is able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his counterparts on that front. But the ability to adopt these technologies in finding solutions to the everyday situations that confront us in our environment is just a step above adaptation of the skills for their own purposes and for academic applications; it requires being a problem solver which my educational experience in Ghana as a whole did not provide.

Having gone through both the British and American educational systems, I will point out that the educational systems in these two countries are a definite parameter in appraising progress or development in these countries. While I will credit the American educational system for its mentoring-based orientation, which gives opportunities to students to contribute to the running of their institutions, I do appreciate the British educational system for its rigor, too. Some argue that the latter has been debased in recent times as a result of it’s over commercialization.

It must be noted that American universities are specifically structured in ways to prepare the individual for the real world with practical application to work. From the first grade to the higher institutions of learning, students are exposed to finding solutions to real life issues. At the higher institutions of learning, they assist in running almost all university-related businesses. For instances, at the Center for International Studies, at Ohio University, where I studied for one of my masters degrees, graduate students perform recruitment exercises regarding incoming students, students create content and update the department’s website on regular basis, students serve as front desk personnel for the center, they serve as research assistants, and also market and teach department’s online programs among other important roles. Beyond the center, on the larger campus, the university transport system is partially managed by students, the dining services are also manned by students, and the research laboratories are all manned by students, sometimes with very minimal supervision from permanent staff and lecturers or without supervision at all.

In this regard, students have a hands-on experience as they step into the world of work. It is important to note that, most of the projects students work on are also directly related to their training and that gives them a head start as they prepare to launch their own careers.

These opportunities also offer the poor American student and his/her international counterparts access to education they otherwise would not be able to afford. For the American who has access to loans from the banks, the part-time jobs on campus supplement the loans. In this sense, parents do not have to be over burdened with the educational finance of their children. For some international students, especially from the African continent, it is a lifeline to their very existence on campus.

Taking up responsibility does not start with graduate school in the American educational system; taking up responsibility is imbued within the American culture, and it only naturally permeates the educational system. At the lower echelons of the academic ladder – high schools and colleges - students volunteer in hospitals, nonprofit organizations, and in organizations engaged in career related activities that inspire them. This does not only expose them to what these careers are about in very practical terms, it offers them the opportunity to give something back to the society of which they a part, while learning at the very formative phases of their lives about the importance of public service. This is not for self-aggrandizement, but a conduit for letting out the creative and expressive energies for enactment of values, faith, and commitments through work, volunteerism, philanthropy, etc. Who would have thought that Christina Green, at nine, killed in the Tucson shooting that targeted Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman from Arizona, would be inspired by public service even to her grave? Her eulogies speak volumes: she was a member of the students’ council of her elementary school and a volunteer at a children’s charity.

It works in ways that medical schools, law schools and other university programs recognize these contributions in their admissions processes. Though not a requirement, it may be a tie-breaker in the process, as it goes a long way to boost a student’s profile in the admissions process. It also offers students a first-hand experience in their chosen areas of study to understand the dynamics of what they are aspiring to pursue at the higher levels. This way, they are able to determine early enough whether their potentials and interest are compatible with their aspirations.

As a Faculty Advisor (FA) for the National Youth Leadership Forum on medicine in Washington DC in the summer of 2010, it was not surprising for students to turn up to their FAs after medical school visits – where they had the chance to visit the operating theaters to watch live sessions, interact with physicians, and medical school students, and watch the clinical processes – to indicate their lack of interest in medicine. These experiments also strengthen the resolve of others. The overall effect is that it introduces these young people to their chosen trajectories early enough to make decisions that are to affect the entirety of their lives in the long run.

Another important aspect of the growing up experience for the young American is the gap year, which students spend out of school to do some work, travel, and volunteer abroad. While not all Western societies accept this as useful to the transition between adolescent and adulthood, it offers some practical lessons to students about how to manage their lives as independent young adults.

At the professorial level, the adage goes: “you publish or perish.” Lecturers are under constant pressure to produce research. If you fail to meet this standard, as the adage is self-explanatory, you are nudged out of the academic system. There are other strict requirements that complement the research requirement. These are the ability to win research grants and also evaluation from students about a professor’s performance in determining a lecturer’s quality of work. Indeed, these requirements keep lecturers on their toes, not only to be abreast with innovations in their areas of expertise but accountable for their actions in the lecture room. It ensures students are not unnecessarily victimized and so on. While it is not without its own problems, as some senior faculties use it wrongly to frustrate their junior colleagues, there is no doubt these measures make a university or any academic institution in the West a place of learning and innovation.

Let us imagine that after every six or so months new textbooks are produced or updated in almost all disciplines or the various programs. The implication is that there is constant revision of notes in consonant with developments in industry and lecturers must adapt. Failure to adapt implies denial of academic tenure.

In service learning projects, students under these schemes are supposed to work on specific projects as part of the requirement for most programs. Considering a student in communication studies, he may launch a communitywide health communication campaign program, work on a political campaign for a politician or, in my case, organized the Athens chapter of “Reform Immigration America,” in conjunction with a team of my course mates, a campaign that dovetailed into the national campaign. A student in Computer Sciences, perhaps, may design a specific program to solve a problem in systems administration at the operating theater at the main city hospital. These are practical ways to introduce students to the practical aspects of the theories they imbibe in the classrooms.

On the issue of accountability, anyone familiar with the Ghanaian educational system should not be a stranger to the master-servant relation that exists between lecturers and their students. Woe betides you a male student competes with a lecturer over a female student. It is even horrendous for female students to rebuff sexual overtures from a lecturer. Being a product of the system, I know these things existed and still do. This is neither to say there are no scrupulous academics on Ghanaian university campuses nor to imply Western university campuses are insulated from some of the scandalous activities that occur on Ghanaian university campuses from time to time. But in the case of Western universities, when they do occur, the price is so dear that it serves as a deterrent to warn others from indulging themselves in unethical relationships with students.

As undergraduates in Ghana, we were aware that same lecture notes were repeatedly given out to students who copied them like religious scribes under instruction, without question. Therefore, while students in Western institutions are trained right from the word go to understand that the lecturer is just an academic facilitator, and a bulk of the work rest on the shoulders of the student, lecturers in Ghanaian universities spoon feed students with recycled antiquated lecture notes that have no bearing whatsoever with contemporary developments in industry. To wit proverbially: “the universities are a true reflection of a country’s development much more than anything else. If all a university student learns throughout much of his educational training is to take notes and obey authority, feels intimidated to politely question a lecturer’s perplexing or wrong premise, or tuned to regurgitate a lecturer’s note in exam, and is barked at into submission for any perceived misdemeanor, that culture is perpetuated in an exact or worse manner in industry. In a recent column for the Washington Post, Emily Wax described that as a hero worship which does not always create the best environment, and when students went off to work, they often feel too intimidated to offer ideas. In other cases, they might even replicate the worse form of this deportment where they go on to work.

Let us assume that a student who experienced this situation becomes a customer service officer or is at the front desk for a company that provides utilities such as water and electricity or becomes a cashier at the bank, she soon forgets that she is the first point of call for customers, and her visage or countenance portrays the health of that company or institution he/she represents; and her countenance might turn off the customer or make the customer feels at home. But because she has no understanding of this important role, per training, that the customer comes first in everything or that the customer is “king” and there are standards of behavior in dealing with customers, (or what is referred to as “best practices”), she degenerates into a demigod who must not be corrected. For example, customers who dare draw her attention to the fact that they had been waiting for more than 20 minutes, while she was on the phone with a friend in a conversation that has nothing to do with the business of the day, must be straightened up, repeating the master-servant relationship that existed between him/her and his/her mentors all the way through her training.

Those demanding the fuller version of the articles should wait until I host them on my block. 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