GHANA: Graduate jobless up as universities proliferate

As Ghana's President John Atta Mills (pictured) broke ground last month to kick off the construction of two new public universities, aiming to fulfil a campaign promise that helped bring him to power, concern was mounting in government and higher education over a proliferation of private institutions and - with a booming student population - the prospect of graduate unemployment.

With the attainment of a degree seen as a status symbol, and growing numbers of university-qualified school leavers, there has been rising demand for higher education, fuelling growth in the number of universities in Ghana. But there is no national policy on employment.

Official figures given by the tertiary division of the Ministry of Education put the total number of universities in Ghana currently at 25. Of these, nine are public and the rest private. A number of private universities have sprung up across the country, claiming to be affiliated to other universities and advertising on the internet.

Meanwhile work has begun on the construction of two more public universities, in the Volta and Brong Ahafo regions, in keeping with a campaign promise that brought Mills to power.

"There have not been any studies to show the level of unemployment among graduates," said Employment and Social Welfare Minister Enoch T Mensah, in an interview with University World News. "With no statistics available we do not even know the extent of the problem, although we are aware [of it]," he added.

An unemployed graduate in Accra, Philip Lartey, reacted angrily, saying: "This all goes to show that the government does not know what it is about". Lartey (27), who graduated three years ago, told University World News:"It looks like no-one is trying to find an answer to the growing unemployment among graduates. No one talks about and it is like it does not exist."

Vice-chancellor of the University of Education, Winneba, Professor Akwasi Asabre-Ameyaw, said the institution's teacher training college produces about 4,000 graduates annually. "Out of this number, a great number do not get jobs because the Ghana Education Service has a quota on the number of teachers it can employ," he explained.

Public universities have increased their intake over the past few years because of dwindling budgetary allocations from government. "The decreasing subvention to the public universities has forced us to compete among ourselves to take more fee-paying students in order to generate money to run these institutions," he said.

The National Accreditation Board, or NAB, the body that gives accreditation to educational institutions, has publicly disassociated itself from the sudden increase in the number of private universities that it says are creating city campuses of existing universities that the board has not accredited.

Many of the students who are unable to enter public universities due to limited places available are willing to pay to study at private institutions. The unaccredited private institutions churn out large numbers of graduates that contribute to swelling the numbers of the unemployed.

Professor Charles Kwarteng, dean of the Graduate School of Research at Regent University College of Science and Technology in Accra, said: "It is simply a matter of business for the private universities as they are tapping into a new area that has become a boom market.

"There is no strategy around which area to graduate students to fit into the national economy, because the owners do not show any overall concern for national development."

But Kwarteng added that Ghana would not have been experiencing any problem with graduate unemployment "if the private sector was given the encouragement to grow in order to absorb more graduates". He said: "We are facing this problem because the private sector is not growing at the level that it should".

He said the private sector must be encouraged to generate jobs, because the public sector is "choked" with people who should have retired but instead are given contracts to continue working.

He gave another dimension to the situation, saying: "As a result of the economic downturn in Europe and the US, more Ghanaians who graduated outside have also come to join the employment queue and are preferred by most employers."

In addition, Kwarteng said, the country's aid policy must change. "The government must find a way of insisting that international contracts make it possible that more local personnel are employed to undertake projects that are financed with international funds."

But he is troubled by the future. He said that at the rate at which graduate unemployment is growing, "the country is likely to face serious crime problems, because with a high number of highly educated idle graduates, some may be attracted to turn to crime."

Lartey admitted that a crime problem is already here. "It has already started as many of the graduates have turned to computer crimes, because they want to simply keep body and soul together in order not to face public ridicule," he warned.