The first time I heard about the issue of the University of Ghana taking tolls for use of its tiled roads, I knew the university was up for a big, long tussle. The banner headline that ushered in the news said: LEGON TO IMPOSE ROAD TOLLS ON USERS. Anybody who is familiar with News Framing knows that the University was given an unfavourable framing with somewhat micheavous undertone. Why IMPOSE? How about the word TAKE, or even CHARGE? And, as expected, the word IMPOSE would become the catchword anytime the issue about the Legon tolls come up in the news. In this country, a few media houses set the agenda for the rest. And so the cascading impact on anybody who depends on the media for news on the Legon tolls can be expected.
The University was thus forced to suspend the toll charges, but it recognised that it still had the responsibility to restrict movement on its campus for obvious reasons. In line with this, only the main entrance of the University would be open for traffic. Those wishing to use the other entrances needed to seek express permission to do so. Those who would be approved to use the other entrances would be given stickers as means of identification.
Do you know, however that up to date, there are media houses that still tout that one needs a sticker to enter the University? No, I do not think the media are being mischievous in this particular situation. Rather, the journalists they send to cover events hardly take their time to understand the issues before they put them out.
But this article is not about the media. It is about us as a people and our penchant for resisting anything or anybody who wants to think outside the box. No, I am not talking about how we pushed Nkrumah away only to hail and worship his remains years later. I am not talking about how we readily threw our culture to the dogs only to realise years later that the West, whose culture we imbibed hook line and sinker, was wrong after all. I am talking about how one man, with his team, who has made it a task to see the University of Ghana 'put on its best cloth', is being haunted. I agree with Manasseh Azure that we love to resist 'strong' leaders in various institutions, and yet these are the very men/women we need if we were to build strong institutions (apologies to President Obama).
There was once a time in the history of Briton where funding for the BBC became topical. The Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative Government wanted to extend the free market wave to the broadcasting sector. The belief was that competition impacts on quality. Again, some commercial media entities argued that it was unfair for the BBC to be given an undue advantage in terms of funding. Why can't the BBC also woo advertisers to finance its operations like the rest do? They asked. But the Brits fought against any attempt to commercialize the BBC. They were ready to continue funding the BBC so as to insulate it from any external pressures. And so it turned out that the Peacock Committee, which was set up to review the BBC's finances fell short of recommending advertisement on the BBC. Yes, that was the zeal with which the Brits protected the BBC. It was a national asset, a heritage, a pride that had to be protected and they would do that even if it meant spending their last shillings.
The University of Ghana is, no doubt, a pride, an asset, a heritage that has to be protected. If you grew up in Ghana, chances are that you either had your certificate programme, first degree, second degree, or doctorate degree at this University. Even for those who don't belong to the above category, you may be married to a Legon alumnus/alumna or have one as a relative, employer/employee, etc.Yea, of course you may not have pursued tertiary education, but don't forget that excursion you took to that beautiful campus when you were at the elementary school. And need I mention all the 'big men' who troop to the car park of Volta Hall on Friday nights for reasons best known to them only? The point I am making is that there is a Legon in everyone of us.
I spent close to ten years at the University pursuing education. I have met several foreigners – some, students on exchange programmes – who visited the University and were marvelled at the sheer architectural design on a such a vast area. The University is, no doubt, a national asset and a heritage which has to be protected.
But would Ghanaians exhibit that same patriotism that the Brits marshalled to save the BBC? Is a Ghanaian ready to contribute 'something small' for using the tarred road at the University? The University celebrated its 60th anniversary a few years back. Do we want to visit the University on its 100th anniversary, having to dodge potholes?
My good friend and current Deputy Education Minister Hon. Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa wrote a book titled State of Coma. Those were his student activism days at Legon. In that book, he likened the state of our universities to a person in a coma waiting (probably struggling) to be resuscitated. In the book, he blamed university authorities and governments for turning a blind eye to the funding of tertiary education. He criticised how they took the easy way out for tackling problems which had resulted in the quagmire in which the universities find themselves today. He talked about how the University of Ghana converted balconies into inner rooms instead of building new halls. How authorities encouraged 'perching' instead of trying to resolve the accommodation issues. Those were the days when we were 12 people in one single room at Akuafo Annex B (Room116). Akuafo Hall was not my hall of residence; I was 'perching' at a friend's who already had a 'percher' because I could not get a room at my hall – Legon Hall– in my first year. That small room had five beds for five students. We would have been ten if each student kept one percher. But two students, Emmanuel Oduro and John Mark, had two perchers each. As to how we managed to stay there, I leave that to your imagination.
It must be put on record that as far as residential facilities are concerned, the last government that undertook any major infrastructural work is the Acheampong government which put up the storey annexes. Now that is a long time back!! Since then, the University seems to have been left on its own to fend for itself. Of course, during his time President Kufour built the Akuafo Annex C and D and there have been one or two GETFund projects, but these can be considered a drop in the ocean looking at the University's infrastructural needs.
Well, interestingly, Mr Ablakwa finds himself in no other place than the Ministry of Education today. The Ministry has requested a report from the University on the issue and I am waiting for the decision the Ministry would take.
If you have visited Legon lately, you would attest that now accommodation problems belong to the past. The management of the University decided to act. They secured a loan facility to build a fleet of magnificent hostels close to the Noguchi area. The expectation was that government would reimburse the University, but that is yet to happen. And since hostels, lecture theatres and road networks do not drop from the sky, somebody somehow has got to pay for them. The money would have to come from the government, parents/students or the public. Don't talk about corporate Ghana. They are too busy funding other things. So if the public is unwilling to tell government to honour its responsibilities, the buck would definitely stop with it. Unless, of course, we expect the University to engage in some cattle rearing venture to pay for those facilities.
And so I ask: Have the VC and his team not decided to take pragmatic measures to solve problems at Legon? Have they not decided that instead of putting sign posts that read (BEWARE OF POTHOLES/ROUGH ROAD AHEAD) they would tar the roads for easy and smooth movement? It is instructive to note that the University extended the road project beyond its campus to communities such as the Staff Village and the University Hospital (which serves communities around it). I know people who boldly display Harvard or Oxford stickers on their cars after spending three days undertaking a course or exchange programme there. Well, for your information, Harvard did not drop from the sky. And if we desire, we can also make Legon a Harvard.
It is my opinion that that the brouhaha that greeted the University's toll charges was needless. We cannot eat our cake and it. It is either we tell government to honour its responsibilities or we shoulder that responsibility ourselves. After all, even if the government decides to pay for the roads it would only be giving back monies it took from us.
The University has responded to the education ministry. My only hope is that lawmakers would take their time to read and not only fashion their opinions around what the media tell them. I have heard some MPs bastardising the University's decision. I would be surprised if these lawmakers did any independent checks aside the half-baked and sensational stories the media have churned out. Some even suggest that the power and autonomy that the University enjoys be limited. Well, I am not sure about limiting the powers of the University, but there is one thing I am sure of – that we should raise the bar for whoever wants to become a lawmaker.
I know I am in the minority as far as the general issue of funding tertiary institutions and the specific issue of the Legon toll charges are concerned. But I am comforted by the fact that the majority is not always right.