In fulfillment of a major campaign pledge in the 2012 presidential elections, President John Mahama in his State of the Nation Address to Parliament on February 25, 2016, announced his government’s decision to convert six (now possibly 8) of Ghana’s ten polytechnics from higher diploma awarding institutions into degree awarding institutions, with a name change from polytechnics to“technical universities”.
On April 5, 2016, the President followed up with what was described as an official launch of the conversion at the Takoradi Polytechnic. While the relevance and processes of the conversion (including the selection of polytechnics)have remained a subject of intense debate among social commentators, educationexperts,alumni and students of the various Polytechnics,and even political activists, there has been very little interest shown in understanding the substance of the conversion and its potential implications.
Questions on substance
The question of substance is extremely important in the broader context of the evolution of Polytechnics in Ghana. Polytechnics in Ghana have had a long history of unsuccessfully arguing out their equality or equivalence with the traditional public universities, whether in terms of conditions of service for their teachers or in terms of job placement for their students. The Polytechnic Teachers Association (POTAG), for example, has for years been pushing for same or similar conditions of service offered teachers in the public universities (University Teachers Association of Ghana – UTAG).
Similarly, the Ghana Union of Polytechnic students (GNUPS) has, for several years, demanded job placement for polytechnic graduates at similar levels as those offered graduates from the traditional public universities without success. In fact, until recently, in apparent demonstration of condescension towards Polytechnics, some public universities refused to allow graduates from the Polytechnics transfer credits from their HND programs towards their bachelor’s degree programs. In practice, this has meant that Polytechnic graduates (depending on whether they were SSCE or A Level holders), for some time, had to do 4 or 3 full years in order to earn a degree in the same programs completed at the HND level.
In this context, the conversion of Polytechnics into Technical Universities is generally expected to be widely celebrated across the Polytechnics, as it purportedly brings to closure the debate on their status vis-à-vis the traditional universities. Indeed, there is some evidence of celebration among some of the polytechnics. Koforidua Polytechnic,for example, hasalready changed its name (on the website) to Koforidua University of Technology, prior to the completion of the legal processes required for the conversion. While the celebration is warranted, in some sense, some important questions remain to be answered regarding the substance of the conversion i.e. precisely what it means to be a technical university rather than a polytechnic and how a technical university, in that sense, compares with the other universities, especially the public universities in Ghana. Does the conversion really bring the Polytechnics at par with the other chartered Public universities?Does it matter that the polytechnics are called technical universities rather than universities of technology or just universities? For example, will Koforidua be asked to change its name from Koforidua University of Technology to Koforidua Technical University? If so, what will be the difference?
While these questions arouse genuine curiosity and underscore the need for a more concerted effort at public education on the conversion, broadly speaking, the more important question perhaps concerns the status of the new, proposed technical universities vis-à-vis the traditional public universities.For example, will Koforidua University of Technology be truly equivalent to the University of Ghana or the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in the technical sense of a University? Will the technical universities be allowed to run degrees run by the traditional public universities in Ghana? In other words, will the technical universities be allowed to run Bachelor of Science (BSc) Degrees or full professional degrees such as Bachelor of Architecture or Bachelor of Engineering as done by other universities? Or will they be limited to only Bachelor/Master of Technology (B.Tech/M.Tech) Degrees? How will degrees offered by technical universities compare with degrees offered by the traditional universities? Will they be equivalent or inferior? For example, will M.Techdegrees from technical universities meet entry requirements for PhD admission in the University of Ghana or the KNUST?
Technical Universities as Second-class Universities?
It is fair to predict that while some may find these questions instructive, others may consider them unnecessary, proceeding on the simple assumption that the very mention of the word “university” in technical universities should be enough to confirm that the technical universities and their degrees will be equivalent to other public universities.
But that assumption may be wrong. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that Government may not be thinking about the technical universities as equivalents, in terms of status, to the traditional public universities or universities in the general sense. There is some evidence to suggest, indeed, that government is conceptualizing the technical universities essentially as second-class universities, universities in name but polytechnics in substance.
Two seemingly insignificant facts lend credibility to this view.The first lies in the fact that rather than individual Bills, government is presenting a composite Bill to Parliament on the technical universities. And this may, in fact, not be so insignificant; it represents a serious deviation from the process of creating public universities in Ghana. The approach, historically, is to present separate bills on each proposed university. Government is yet to ever present a “universities bill” in the creation of universities in Ghana. In fact, this is why even though the Universities of Health and Allied Sciences and the Energy and Natural Resources were created just about the same time, they each had their separate Bills in Parliament and eventually their separate Acts and Charters. In this sense, presenting a composite Bill for all the technical universities means that unlike the other public universities which have individual, separate charters to operate as independent universities and award their own degrees, the technical universities will have a collective charter; and none of the them will be independent enough to grant its own degrees without recourse to an external, supervisory body.
In fact, a comparison of the wording in the Technical Universities Bill and the University of Ghana Act 2010, for example, is extremely revealing inthis regard. Article 2 (1) of the University of Ghana Act 2010 (Act 806) states: “Without limiting its other powers, the University [of Ghana] shall have power to award its own degrees including honorary degrees, diplomas and certificates. “ Contrast this with Article 4 (1a) of the Technical Universities Bill: “Without limiting its powers, a technical university may award degrees, diplomas, certificates and others as may be agreed upon by the Council of that technical University established under Section 4 of this Act, and approved by the national body responsible for accreditation. Clearly, on the basis of this evidence alone, it is difficult to assert that the proposed technical universities will be equivalent, in terms of status, to any public university in Ghana; they will be inferior universities! In fact, they will still be polytechnics, regardless of the name change. The real danger, here, is that by becoming technical universities as has been proposed, the path for these polytechnics to become “real universities” gets really blurred and uncertain.
The second evidence lies in the fact that the titles for the administrative heads in the technical universities will be different from the title of the administrative heads of the other public universities. According to the Technical Universities Bill, administrative heads of the technical universities cannot call themselves Vice-Chancellors as is the norm with other public universities (new or old) in Ghana. This may sound trite to some; but it may not be by accident that heads of the technical universities will not be called vice-chancellors. In fact, when the Polytechnics were converted from technical institutes to polytechnics, the title of their administrative heads changed from Principal to Rector. Changes in titles convey ideas about new roles and status. Thus, by consciously avoiding the introduction of the title “Vice-Chancellor” for the heads of the technical universities, and in combination with the earlier points, it is hard to argue that government is thinking of the technical universities as full-fledged universities at par with their traditional counterparts.
But the conceptualization (intentional or not)and actual design of the technical universities as “inferior” class of universities raises serious questions that can only get amplified with the passage of the Technical Universities Act. In addition to the questions asked earlier about status of the degrees to be awarded by the technical universities, there may also be additional questions about the status of graduates of the technical universities (in terms of job placement, career progression, and even academic advancement) as well as about the status of the staff of the technical universities especially in terms of conditions of service. Not only these; but what exact pathways exist to grant the technical universities full-fledged university status, and what are government’s plans regarding this eventual transition?It may be important for government to clarify its positions on these key questions.
Conversion to Polytechnic University Colleges (PUCs) may be a better option
Rather than creating second-class universities out of the polytechnics, it may be important to evaluate alternative pathways for the elevation of the polytechnics. The first is to consider making the polytechnics full-fledged, independent degree awarding universities with their own separate charters. The idea is to make each polytechnic a separate university equivalent, in status, to all other public and private universities. This will mean, of course, that government must replace the composite Technical Universities Bill, with separate Bills for each of the 6 or 8 proposed polytechnics to be upgraded. This will effectively answer most of, if not all, the questions raised in this article. A second alternative is to adopt a middle ground position by converting the polytechnics into Polytechnic University Colleges (PUCs). Given the manpower and infrastructure bases of the Polytechnics, there should be no problem with their conversion into polytechnic university colleges. In fact, almost all the Polytechnics in Ghana have more resources (broadly speaking) than several of the private university colleges and most also have experiences working with other traditional public universities as mentors. In this sense, conversion of the polytechnics into PUCs could be pursued without major insurmountable challenges.
In fact, Kenya provides very useful lessons in this respect. For example, the history of the Technical University of Mombasa and the Kenya Technical University shows that both institutions (and I am sure others) were initially converted from technical institutes into polytechnics (just as was the case in Ghana); they were subsequently elevated from polytechnics to polytechnic university colleges and then eventually (individually) to full-fledged technical universities with their own separate charters. As full-fledged universities, both institutions enjoy broad acceptance and respect and offer a range of degrees – B.Tech, Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng), Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) and Bachelor of Commerce (B.Com) Degrees just as other universities in Kenya and the world. They are not limited to offering justthe B. Tech Degree, which at the Kenya Technical University, is lower than the “full professional” degrees such as the B.Com, B. Arch., etc.
In view of the above example, a better path to the conversion may be to elevate the polytechnics first to the status of polytechnic university colleges (PUC), rather than making them second-class universities as the present conceptualization of the technical universities seems to suggest. Making the polytechnics polytechnic university colleges holds four distinct advantages. First, it provides each polytechnic a clear path towards eventual attainment of full university status. Second, it provides each polytechnic the space and time to progressively build their capacity and address existing deficiencies in preparation for becoming full universities. Third, the PUC approach removes the political pressure on government associated with the conversion of the PUCs into full universities; each polytechnic university college may have to demonstrate that it is ready to be on its own. Fourth, the PUC approach also builds on existing collaborative arrangements between the Polytechnics and some older, bigger public universities.
Proceeding on the present trajectory of converting the polytechnics into technical universities without a clear definition of the status of these technical universities relative to their traditional counterparts, especially in terms of the degrees they offer, is likely to introduce a lot of challenges within the educational sector and even the labor front once the celebrations stop. It may thus be important for government to rethink its approach to the conversion. It may also be important for the various associations in the polytechnics – POTAG, PAAG [Polytechnic Administrators Association of Ghana); GNUPS; CORP [Conference of Rectors of Polytechnics]; GAPA [Ghana Association of Polytechnic Administrators] and importantly, alumni associations to be fully engaged in the discussions on the substance issues of the conversion into technical universities.