Private universities have sprung up like mushrooms in Ghana. In 1999, there were just two but since then 11 new private universities and 19 private polytechnics or colleges have opened their doors.
In 2006, private universities enrolled 9,500 students or about 8% of all tertiary students, while the polytechnics had 24,660 students or 20% of total enrolments.
The growth of private tertiary institutions in Ghana is not unique. Similar developments have taken place in other West African countries such as Nigeria, Benin and Senegal, as well as in the East African countries of Tanzania and Uganda.
There are several reasons for this rapid growth in private higher education: first, Ghana's education sector has been deregulated following a general trend of deregulation in Africa in the wake of a wave of democratisation.
The process started in Ghana in 1993 when a structure for accrediting private universities was formed. The same year, polytechnics were upgraded to tertiary status. In the 2007 Ghana Education Reform, a goal was set to increase private sector participation in education services and aligned policies such as tax exemptions on imported books were created.
Minister for Education Alex Tettey-Enyo is reviewing the reform and has called for continued expansion at all levels of education and better cost-effectiveness in tertiary education. Last month, the Minister said more graduates were imperative for development "to achieve our developmental goals, Ghana needs more university graduates particularly in science and technology".
Second, the massive growth in private institutions is a result of the increased demand for higher education. Enrolments have multiplied more than 10 times over the past two decades in response to social and political pressures for access to higher education.
Between 1999 and 2006, student numbers doubled to more than 118,000. But universities have still not been able to meet the growing demand and many more students knock on the doors of higher education than there are places.
At the public University of Ghana, 22,865 students applied for admissions in 2008 but just over a third, or 8,774 students, were finally enrolled. Some youngsters who do not achieve a place in institutions seek admission in private universities.
Finally, the decreased capability of public universities has encouraged growth in private higher education. Funding of public higher education has declined substantially since the optimistic post-independence years when Ghana's first universities were founded - the University of Ghana in 1948 and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in 1952.
Consequently, tuition fees for tertiary education were introduced in 1988-89. Over the years, Ghanaian - and African - academies have been adversely affected by domestic occurrences such as economic turmoil and disruptions of democratic governments. The shift towards a global knowledge economy is also putting enormous pressures on African universities, just as on higher education institutions all over the world.
In many African countries a policy environment that pitted basic education against secondary and tertiary education reinforced the pressure. It was suggested that the economic returns on investment in higher education were lower than for primary education. Such findings - most often based on the spending and income tax of individuals, thus not taking other valuables into consideration - influenced international development policy to a large extent.
Luckily, opinion has shifted away from scenarios of zero-sum games, to a more balanced view that both are indispensable. Unfortunately, the change in perception has not changed actual financial support.
A study carried out in 2001 found that government support per student, in real terms, had decreased by almost 75% during the 1990s. Now government provides 70% of costs and public universities raise the remaining 30% from fees and donations. A survey in 2002 suggested that more than 70% of students were willing to pay higher fees for quality instruction.
What does the private higher education sector look like? Most private institutions are Ghanaian-owned and run but a few are offshore campuses of foreign universities. Few attract international students or lecturers, not even from neighbouring countries. It seems graduates of private universities also are less likely to emigrate.
Private universities are rarely a driving force in the internationalisation of higher education; rather they are locally anchored institutions with their own agendas. Many private institutions teach religion, business administration and information and communication technology - sectors that are booming in West Africa.
The private institutions fund their operation mainly through student fees. In March, the Conference of Heads of Private Universities, at their third annual conference Private University Education - Complementing government's effort in education, called on the government to grant tax relief to their institutions.
One of them, Ashesi University, focuses on software development but with mandatory classes in liberal arts and African studies. About half the students receive financial aid, the rest pay fees starting at US$2,700.
Emmanuel Acquah paid full fees and he graduated recently with big plans for the future, including running his own animation business. "I want to apply for a masters in animation abroad...but definitely, I see myself in Ghana in the future," Acquah said. He chose private education because of the more favourable teacher-student ratios and because he wanted to go into ICT.
But there are consequences of the expansion of private tertiary education. One major effect, which adds value to Ghanaian society, is the fact that private institutions are increasing access to higher education for many more students.
There are suggestions of a connection between a colonially-engineered curriculum and the chronic brain-drain from Ghana and other former colonies. Private universities may be helping to alleviate this problem, with syllabuses created for the African continent.
But with rapid expansion there are also fears the quality of instruction will be compromised. To address this, the Association of African Universities is supporting efforts to assure the quality of public and private institutions. Until that happens, students are navigating in unmapped waters.
Another concern is that the new private institutions draw staff from public universities and thereby cause havoc in the public sector. Also, when it comes to research and graduate studies, private universities play no role. Graduate training is marginal even in public universities, with only 7% of total enrollment.
Private universities, however, have come to stay in Ghana and other African countries, and for thousands of youths dreaming of a better life, this is a positive development. At best, private universities will educate entrepreneurs and employees for the African market, and in competing with the public universities they will raise the bar and lower the public costs of tertiary education.
The big question is who will educate lecturers for the expanding student body?
*More reading on private universities in Ghana
Manuh, Takyiwaa; Gariba, Sulley and Budu, Joseph (2007) Change and Transformation in Ghana's Publicly Founded Universities. James Currey, Oxford/Woeli Publ. Services, Accra.
Ministry of Education, Science and Sports website (2009):
Sawyerr, Akilagpa (2004) "Challenges Facing African Universities". African Studies Review. April 2004.
Teferra, Damtew and Knight, Jane (Eds) (2008) Higher Education in Africa: The International Dimension. QualiType, Ltd, Accra.
University of Ghana (2009) "Special Reporter: Congregation March 2009". 24 April, Vol 47, No 9. Available at: www.ug.edu.gh
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