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The case for developmental universities

Over the decades, African universities, particularly the publicly funded ones, have played a significant role in developing human resources for state bureaucracies including ministries, departments, boards and agencies, the education sector and the professional class, such as lawyers, bankers, judges, engineers, doctors, accountants and managers.

Nonetheless, African universities have had minimal to zero impact on producing the people who can solve the developmental problems plaguing the African continent. In fact, the graduates turned out by these universities tend to perpetuate the status quo rather than transform the state organisations that employ them. They are imbued with a colonial sense of entitlement, lack problem-solving skills and demonstrate low levels of work productivity.

I want to argue for the conversion of existing classical African universities into developmental universities, using Ghanaian universities as a case study and addressing the question: considering the myriad social, economic and political problems confronting Ghana, what kind of university does it need?

The concept of a developmental university

The curricula, pedagogies and philosophical orientations of classical universities focus on preparing students for government employment.

Private classical universities, in particular, derived their core mission from merely expanding access to university education, focusing primarily on teaching, preparation of students for professional fields (such as human resources, accounting, management, information technology and theology) and on profit-making.

Under the market economy regime with its deregulation of higher education, some entrepreneurs have identified an opportunity for making profit by establishing private universities and university colleges in Ghana.

Ghana at this time needs “developmental universities”, not the classical universities that have dominated the higher education landscape since the attainment of political independence.

In a 1957 speech, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, laid down the following vision for developmental universities for Ghana and the rest of Africa: “We must seek an African view to the problems of Africa. This does not mean that Western techniques and methods are not applicable to Africa. It means, however, that in Ghana we must look at every problem from the African point of view…

"Our whole educational system must be geared to producing a scientifically-technically minded people. Because of the limitations placed on us, we have to produce, of necessity a higher standard of technical education than is necessary in many of the most advanced countries of the Western world…

"The university will be the coordinating body for education research, and we hope that it will eventually be associated with research institutes dealing with agriculture, biology and the physical and chemical sciences which we hope to establish.”

Though Dr Nkrumah made this speech 58 years ago, the core ideas are still as valid for our contemporary times as they were at the time he articulated them. In other words, developmental universities are research-oriented.

They have a strong established research culture from undergraduate to postgraduate level that contributes to the clarification, analysis and solution of local, regional and national problems. This orientation is reflected in their mission statements, management style and curricula as well as their pedagogies and assessment practices.

In 2006 the Uruguayan academic Professor Judith Sutz gave the following definition of the developmental university: “To increase their contribution to development through the production and distribution of knowledge, universities in developing countries need to transform themselves into 'developmental universities'.

"But to achieve this, other participants, such as industry and government, must also be prepared to take on new responsibilities. No ready-made model exists to guide these changes; they will require both creativity and the willingness to engage in thoughtful dialogue, both within and outside universities.”

Though teaching is part of the mission of developmental universities, it is not their dominant mission. Their dominant mission is research production, transmission and utilisation and preparation of students to engage in social and scientific research activities. It is through such research activities, as Dr Nkrumah rightly envisioned, that the problems of tropical Ghana in health, agriculture, sanitation, energy, food preservation and storage could be solved.

In this case, Dr Nkrumah envisioned Ghanaian universities as agents or nodes of problem-solving and production of knowledge, not citadels of privilege and consumers of scarce national financial resources without any reciprocal contribution.

In addition, a developmental university is not internally focused or stagnant but views itself as a developmental agent or node for development. Accordingly, it maintains partnerships with government, industry and community organisations.

Why developmental universities?

First, Ghana’s developmental problems as a nation-state are still present despite claims of economic prosperity and the discovery of oil. These include tropical diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis or river blindness, leprosy and Guinea-worm, grinding poverty, hunger, high infant mortality, poor urban sanitation, housing, malnutrition, low labour productivity, unsafe drinking water, dangerous road networks and dysfunctional bureaucracy.

These developmental issues require the establishment of developmental universities in Ghana that are committed to making a contribution to the solution of these problems, as Dr Nkrumah envisioned.

Second, the social role of classical universities in Ghana has always been that of the reproduction of colonial relations rather than any transformation of those relations. They do not empower their students to critically interrogate and critique the colonial stockpile of knowledge that has destroyed their students’ psychological health and self confidence.

Instead, they deepen such psychological problems by inviting students to genuflect and consume imported knowledge unthinkingly. Parroting knowledge uncritically, as has become a major characteristic of classical universities, has not helped Ghana’s developmental efforts. This is certainly what Dr Nkrumah meant by developing an African view for African problems.

This does not imply that Euro-American or Asian bodies of knowledge are valueless to Africa, but that some of those bodies of knowledge are irrelevant given the context of African problems.

Of course, Ghanaian classical universities offer degree programmes in engineering, medicine, management, economics, psychology, anthropology and sociology, but they are not designed to develop and sharpen students’ critical and analytical skills to question prevailing practices and the body of knowledge and ideas embedded in imported learning resources.

Third, Ghana has many research institutes under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, such as the Food Research Institute, the Crops Research Institute, the Animal Research Institute, the Institute of Industrial Research, the Oil Palm Research Institute, and the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute.

These research organisations are waste pipes, lying dormant and in dire need of leadership in scholarship, research and applied knowledge to make them productive and contributors to the country’s development. It was the vision of Dr Nkrumah that Ghanaian universities would work in conjunction with these research organisations to produce knowledge for developmental purposes.

Sadly, this vision of developmental universities has not been translated into policies, let alone action plans.

Indeed, the lack of a comprehensive national higher education policy with links to national development plans has compounded the problem, allowing Ghanaian university leaders to chart their own path while at the same time demanding an injection of public funding and investment.

Furthermore, the emergent consensus in research literature is that investment in economic infrastructures, education and human resources development and technology transfer are grossly insufficient to ensure economic growth and development in Africa. Consequently, many aid organisations like the USAID are targeting African universities as conduits for development in their specific countries.

Unless Ghanaian universities are converted into developmental universities, the efforts of these aid organisations will be in vain. In fact, knowledge production and utilisation is a crucial tool for minimising, if not eliminating, underdevelopment problems in Africa.

With the abundant endowment of natural resources and cheap labour, it is impossible to overcome developmental problems in Africa without the contributions of local intellectuals in the form of knowledge production and utilisation. While not all Ghanaian intellectuals are found in or are affiliated with universities, a vast majority of them are; hence, their knowledge production and transmission is crucial for national development.

In line with the current discourse on African university transformation, it is not surprising that the former secretary general of the United Nations Kofi Annan added his voice to calls for the establishment of developmental universities in Africa: “The university must become a primary tool for Africa’s development in the new century.

"Universities can help develop African expertise; they can enhance the analysis of African problems; strengthen domestic institutions; serve as a model environment for the practice of good governance, conflict resolution and respect for human rights; and enable African academics to play an active part in the global community of scholars.”

As a matter of fact, a classical university is converted into a developmental university when it becomes a primary tool for generating knowledge for national purposes.

Its courses and pedagogy engage students to develop expertise, analysis and problem-solving via field, laboratory and literature research. Its faculties have a well-planned research agenda and are active participants in global discourses as researchers, scholars and practitioners in their individual fields of specialisation.

In addition, its academics are passionate advocates on regional, national and continental issues, not only in academic publications but also on television and in the daily, weekly and monthly media.

Lastly, university graduate unemployment in Ghana has now reached a national crisis point. It is argued that Ghanaian university programmes are mismatched to the job market requirements; hence university graduates do not possess the prerequisite skills like analytical, communication, problem-solving and team-building skills.

Nevertheless, it is not the courses alone that are irrelevant to the job market. The teaching strategies that are used to deliver the course contents are completely out of date and do not contribute to the development of student employability skills.

The professor-dominated teaching practices that characterise Ghanaian classical universities offer students practically no opportunities to develop and hone their analytical, communication, problem-solving and team-building skills.

In developmental universities, by contrast, students develop skills in how to read literature critically, evaluate and synthesise the information from a variety of sources rather than having the professors read the texts for them and dictate notes to them to copy and consume. These skills are crucial for a research culture which is at the epicentre of developmental universities.

In addition, in such universities students are not passive recipients of information or knowledge; instead they participate actively in classroom discourses through presentation, debate, reflection, discussion, questioning, critique and group work. Again, these pedagogical strategies are integral to the culture of research.

A comprehensive national policy

Successive Ghanaian governments in the post-Nkrumah era have failed to lay down any precise, comprehensive national policy framework to guide and regulate the establishment and operation of universities to ensure they contribute to the economic, cultural and political development of Ghana – that is to say, any university that is allowed to operate in Ghana should have a mission, research agenda, corresponding curricula and pedagogy that contribute to the fulfilment of national needs, priorities and aspirations.

This assertion is being made mindful of the fact that the Ghana National Accreditation Board, or NAB, was established in 1993 to issue accreditation certificates to higher education institutions that satisfy its standards and regulations and also to conduct periodic external quality assessments of those accredited institutions.

Nevertheless, the NAB policies and regulations are hotchpotch documents which are not aligned with any national development plans.

The absence of a comprehensive national higher education policy framework has made it increasingly difficult to hold university leaders to account for the developmental role of their institutions. It is from a comprehensive national policy that the NAB would derive its accreditation and quality assurance criteria for universities in Ghana.

Eric Fredua-Kwarteng recently completed his doctoral studies in educational administration and policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.
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