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Steady hand on flagship university’s tiller of change

With a career enriched by international experience, first as a postgraduate student in Germany and then as a member of academic networks, Professor Ernest Aryeetey has steered the flagship University of Ghana steadily into the wider world since becoming vice-chancellor two years ago. This, and the pursuit of excellence through change, define his leadership.

International exposure and networks provided access to resources, research collaborations across Africa and the world, and an extraordinary string of contacts with Africa’s economic leaders in government, the private sector and academia that enriched his research.

Since clinching leadership of the rapidly expanding University of Ghana, Legon – student enrolment has more than trebled since 2000 to reach 38,000 – Aryeetey has actively encouraged young academics to study abroad and to compete at the international level, and has found funding to support them.

University World News interviewed the high-flying professor, with a gentle disposition underpinned by steely determination, to learn about his path to the top of the premier university of fast-developing, democratic Ghana in West Africa, and his thoughts on university leadership.


Aryeetey grew up in Ghana’s capital Accra. “It’s the only city I’ve really known,” he says, “except for the short periods that I lived outside, doing graduate studies." The middle of five children, with two brothers and two sisters, he went to school in Accra and then to the University of Ghana, where he studied economics and statistics.

He obtained a masters in regional planning from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, and went on to study at the University of Dortmund in Germany, where he graduated with a PhD in 1985 before returning home.

The following year, Aryeetey took up a post as a research fellow at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) at the University of Ghana, spending 75% of his time on research and 25% on teaching. After five years he was promoted to senior research fellow.

Five years later he became an associate professor and, three years after that, a full professor of economics – a career trajectory that his colleagues called “fairly rapid”. He was director of ISSER from 2003 to 2010, and a senior fellow and director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

“I benefited significantly from very good mentoring. That’s what made it possible. And I was very early in my career a part of several international networks, which made it much easier to find access to resources to do work, and also benefited from these networks in terms of publishing outlets,” he says.

“So I had a lot more going for me than many of my peers did.”

When he was director of ISSER, Aryeetey says, “we were able to mobilise more resources from outside. We were able to do more research. We were able to expand considerably the research base, in terms of the number of people doing research.

“There was significant change in that seven-year period, and I believe strongly that it was our achievements at the institute, in terms of the change we brought there, that propelled me to this current position as vice-chancellor.”

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How much do you attribute your achievements to having studied overseas?

“Studying abroad for four years exposed me to a number of international opportunities.” Aryeetey realised the value of joining international networks, which he has done throughout his career, and says that in a sense “if I had not been to Germany to study I wouldn’t have known much about networks.

“It is something I always recommend strongly to my colleagues; that it is good to do a part of your studies at least in a foreign university.

“I have been a major beneficiary of a consortium of economists working in Africa, the African Economic Research Consortium, which is based in Nairobi. Back in 1988 I was one of the pioneer young economists from Africa who became a part of this regional network.

“Through this network we were able to lock into other networks in the US, in Europe and also here in Africa. I can proudly look back to more than 20 years of engagement with this network and say that I know almost every senior African economist in every country in this region. Largely because most of them have been part of this network.”

Thus, Aryeetey says, networking has been essential to his growth and development.

“It is something I bring into my job as a vice-chancellor very seriously. Without the networks that I’ve been a part of, some of the resources that became available to me would never have been available. So clearly, going international and being part of networks is the way academics – especially from developing countries – have to go.

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Please describe higher education in Ghana.

Higher education in Ghana has grown considerably in the last decade, Aryeetey says. From a starting point of only one public university, the number increased to three for many years. In the last decade, several more public universities were established and now there are eight.

There are also more than 50 private universities. “By law, all these private universities are required to be affiliated with an established public university, and so many of them tend to be affiliated with us.

“That is quite a big challenge in the sense that we have to supervise all that they do for five years. It requires considerable time and human resources,” he says. And it is a challenge exacerbated by rapid growth in student numbers at the University of Ghana.

There are also a number of other tertiary institutions in Ghana such as polytechnics that “more or less behave like universities, so the higher education landscape has changed considerably in the last decade,” Aryeetey says.

By 2008 there were nearly 130,000 students enrolled in public institutions, and around 20,000 students in private universities in Ghana – an increase of 103% and 69% respectively in the six years to 2007-08 – according to research by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) in South Africa.

Despite such expansion, only about 10% of the school-leaving age cohort gain admission to tertiary education. In 2007, public expenditure on tertiary education was 2.1% of GDP.

With government spending unable to cover expansion, institutions have increasingly generated private funds, according to CHET, with students paying for lodging and use of academic facilities. Income generated internally by the sector, as a percentage of the total revenue, increased from 27% in 2003 to nearly 35% in 2007.

There are, says Aryeetey, issues with quality and with accreditation, largely because of rapid expansion and inadequate resourcing of groups responsible for these areas.

“But I think by and large, many people appreciate the enormity of the challenges facing the higher education board and the higher education system in Ghana. It will take a long time for us to overcome the difficulties associated with a rapid expansion of the higher education system.”

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Please tell me about your university.

The University of Ghana is the oldest in the country, established in 1948 as a college of the University of London, “ostensibly to produce the required human resources for the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known,” Aryeetey says.

“Being the oldest university, there is a lot of expectation. Everybody expects us to provide leadership in academic training. So we do more research than everybody else. We have a much larger student population than everybody else. Currently we have 38,000 students, including more than 6,000 distance education students.

“We have the largest campus. We have the most infrastructure in terms of higher education I believe in West Africa. It is a fairly large campus, quite beautiful I must say,” he continues.

“Apart from working to produce graduates for the job market, we work very closely with the government in terms of providing policy advice. So we have a number of research institutes and these are designed to provide policy support for government and also provide some of the findings that facilitate the work of industry.

“Through these partnerships with government and the private sector, we are able to enhance the relevance of what we do as a university.”

Aryeetey says the university takes extension work and community engagement very seriously and has a lot of contact with the public. Most academics are engaged in one way or another with the community through service.

The university has a faculties of science, arts, law, social sciences – “by far the biggest” – engineering, agriculture and consumer sciences, and one of the region’s best-known colleges of health sciences including medical, dental, pharmacy and nursing schools and a medical research institute. There is also a business school.

How do you support internationalisation at the university?

“I push my younger colleagues especially very strongly to be a part of networks. We provide support for attending conferences. Since I’ve been vice-chancellor we’ve increased the budget for that more than 200%,” says Aryeetey.

“We support people with fairly small amounts to buy air tickets to go to conferences. We encourage our young colleagues to write papers for these conferences. We put a lot of pressure on them to publish internationally.

“I always encourage them to believe that it is nice to be able to compete with your peers back home. But it is even better when you’re competing with others outside. That’s where the competition is stiffer.”

The University of Ghana requires every academic to have a PhD. “Now we’re pushing it a lot more strongly. And we support all our young lecturers who are capable to take scholarships and go outside to do their PhD.”

Currently, he says, the university has postgraduate students in South Africa, all over Europe, and in the US and Australia. “Apart from providing the support, we make it a lot more difficult for those who have no strong desire to go out.”

There is also support for departments to recruit foreign academics, and to attract visiting scholars. “We believe that not only should we be going out, but we should make it easier for outsiders to come in and work with our students and faculty members. It is through cross-fertilisation that we can improve the quality of our work, whether in teaching or in research.”

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How would you describe your style of leadership?

It is easy to run the University of Ghana, Aryeetey reveals, because its statutes “tell you in a very direct way what you can do and what you cannot do.

“The requirement to consult other people is laid down by statute. So whether you like it or not, even if you are an autocrat, you have no choice but to consult. By nature I have no difficulty with working to achieve a consensus. So most of the things that I seek to do, I begin by thinking them through and trying to market them to my colleagues.”

He says most of the changes that he’s introduced, he had been considering for many years and had spent time developing before sharing them with colleagues. “There’s very little that I do that anybody can call a secret. Everything that I think about, I talk about publicly. And I get people to volunteer comments, and to be part of the things we seek to do.”

He provides the example of the university’s efforts over a number of years to decentralise. “We struggled with the best approach.” One route considered was establishing colleges, to devolve decisions and enable departments and faculties to raise resources independently.

For several years a new structure was debated, with various ideas thrown overboard due to lack of consensus. Since being in office, Aryeetey has encouraged more debate and people to come forward with ideas.

“These ideas have been discussed, debated and more or less dissected in so many different ways. To the point that I believe now that there is emerging some consensus on how we might decentralise and how the college system at the university might be developed.

“Almost every senior academic at the university has had input on some committee that will contribute to developing an aspect of the college system. So by the end of the whole process, it will be fairly easy to say that ‘Yes, we did this all by ourselves, we did this together’,” he says.

“I do initiate many things. But I ensure that their development is done by consensus. And that’s the way I’ve always operated.

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Are there particular people who have influenced your leadership style?

“Yes, my biggest mentor was the first African vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana. Professor Alex Kwapong. He, very early in my career, more or less adopted me as a young protégé and helped me with thinking about my career at the university,” says Aryeetey.

“We spent quite a number of evenings talking about the university. He shared with me his own experiences, to the extent that by the time I decided I wanted to be a vice-chancellor, I knew from him what the requirements were. I learned a lot from his history and I learned a lot from his experiences.”

“There are many others who have contributed, not in direct ways, to nurturing me. Simply observing the way they have operated. Their discussions on the history of the university. Their discussions of their own work, their own achievements, have been a source of inspiration for me. But Alex Kwapong stands out as easily the largest.”

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How do you go about making big decisions?

Aryeetey says: “For many things I have to take decisions on, I give myself a couple of days in which I go over very different scenarios in terms of the likely outcome. And I think about these things carefully.”

After he has consulted people – “I always tell them, I’m not obliged to take your suggestions or your advice, but I do respect them” – Aryeetey makes up his mind, communicates his decision clearly and documents it thoroughly.

When he makes a decision contrary to advise offered, Aryeetey always tell people why. “I say, well even though I didn’t take your advice this time, it is a high likelihood that next time I will take your advice. So don’t stop giving me advice!” he says.

“When I make a decision it is very decisive. I don’t like being seen to be sitting on the fence. And I don’t like giving the image of indecisiveness. I like people to appreciate that I have to reflect on things carefully. But you shouldn’t take too long in doing that. So very little stays for too long with me.”

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What have been the most successful aspects of your leadership?

There have been a number of achievements in the past two years that Aryeetey is proud of.

The first was the difficult task of moving students from traditional halls of residence, which had become over-populated, into new residences. Student accommodation had become a major problem, as student numbers soared and provision of facilities did not keep up.

Four years ago the university took out a sizeable bank loan to put up new student residences, and because of the expense of building them, the new halls are more expensive to live in than the old ones.

“It met with a lot of resistance from student leaders, but in the end we managed to prevail upon the student body that it was in their interests to do that,” he recalls. “The fact that we were able to do it without too much interference from government, was for me the biggest achievement that we’ve managed to chalk up in this two year period.

“So today I can look at the University of Ghana and I can say, any student that we take who has interest in staying on the campus, will find decent accommodation at a price that is not beyond your average student. And even where students cannot afford it, we have put in place mechanisms for assisting them to pay for these things,” says Aryeetey.

Another achievement has been transforming the graduate school system. There are new PhD programmes, structured differently from in the past, with coursework and improved supervision. The PhD restructuring was part of attempts to internationalise programmes.

“If we are going to be competitive globally, there was need for us to have a graduate programme that was internationally respected. And we were not going to achieve that with the old system.

“It took effort and resources and bringing people from outside to explain to my colleagues really what was required of us and how we could do this. Today we have, in my view, probably one of the best-structured PhD programmes in Africa.”

Aryeetey hopes the strong PhD system will attract more international students to the university, from Africa and from abroad.

There have also been governance changes. “We’ve improved the financial management of the university considerably. We’ve enhanced the transparency of records-keeping. And all of these changes have worked, in my view, for a better environment at the university. It’s a lot more transparent than I’ve ever known it to be.”

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What have been the greatest challenges, and how have tackled them?

There are a number of challenges, says the vice-chancellor.

A major problem for African universities is finding the resources to do what needs to be done. “Public universities in Africa are such that, even though the government is supposed to pay for more than 80% of your total expenses, very seldom do you get any more than 30% of what’s required.

“So vice-chancellors have to spend a lot of time looking for additional resources and that can be extremely time-wasting. But that’s something that we do.”

Another major challenge, he says, is getting people to accept the need for change – a problem everywhere. “Spending time to negotiate with different categories of staff or students and even with government, how change will be pursued, has been one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever had to live with.

“But it’s been a very worthy enterprise. It’s been a very interesting exercise, which I’ve enjoyed in so many different ways. And I’ve learned a lot from my interactions with people. I’ve learned a lot from trying to convince a sceptical audience about the need for a particular change to take place.

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How are your relations with government? And what about with autonomy?

The relationship with government, Aryeetey says, is defined by the act of parliament establishing the University of Ghana. The university is publicly funded, independent and has a council with the authority to make decisions regarding the university’s future.

“In practice it doesn’t always work that neatly. You have government officials who either do not know the statutes or do not accept them easily.” Some, he says, believe the university has too much authority over the way it runs.

“So you find tensions between ourselves and one ministry or the other from time to time. We have to stand firm to ensure that we don’t get bullied into doing things that we are not required to do.” Over the years the government has threatened to withhold funding if, say, the university did not increase student numbers. “We struggle to ensure that it doesn’t recur.”

But while there have been tensions, Aryeetey says the university has not faced the challenges in relationships with government of some African countries. “Government understands my position I believe, and appreciates what I’m trying to do at the University of Ghana.”

There has been no “major denial of support” from government. Indeed, government has been quite supportive in many ways. There are individuals working for government who may not be that supportive, but usually for selfish reasons.”

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What are the major leadership lessons you’ve learned?

“There are many things,” Aryeetey says. “Leadership is not something that you acquire in one day. To be a good leader, you first of all must be in a position to solve the problems of others. Leadership is about solving problems. If you’re a leader and you can’t solve people’s problems, then really they don’t need you.”

The challenge for any leader is to be able to determine which problems require attention, and which can be dealt with by others. “So the quality of a good leader has to include the ability to tell what is important and what is unimportant and make sure there are no mistake in making that determination.”

There are many people who try to influence leaders. A good leader must be able to tell what kind of influence is acceptable and which is not. “At the end of the day you have to take responsibility. If you let others influence you unduly, they would not be there to take responsibility when the time comes.”

“I’ve learned how to work with different people. I’ve learned how to say no to people and be firm about it. And I’ve learned also that if you’re going to be taken seriously you have to seen to be fair to everybody. So being fair and firm are attributes that any good leader must have.”

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What advice would you give to African university leaders?

“They must believe strongly in change. They must believe that in the pursuit of change, innovativeness must guide them. They must, however, not pursue change just for the sake of change. The change must help them to have better institutions,” Aryeetey comments.

In pursuing change, leaders must be fair to all people – but they must not forget about the rules of the university and must not be lax.

“You also have to be seen to be firm. So when decisions are made in a consensual manner, you must ensure as leader that they are implemented. And that in the implementation, people don’t get done favours. You do it the way your rules allow you to operate.”

People, Aryeetey explained, appreciate consistency in behaviour and leadership. “They begin to trust you. And when they trust you, they give you all the support that you need. It takes time to build support. It takes time to build trust. You don’t take one decision today, and tomorrow reverse it. Be consistent.”

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