Polytechnics prepare for growth but face prejudice

With the University of Ghana preparing to stop offering diplomas, one would have expected polytechnics to be jubilant over less competition and more courses. But they are sceptical about benefiting because there is widespread public belief that universities offer the only tertiary education worth having.

“We should have been enthused but we are not because of the age-old perception that a university diploma is better than that awarded by a polytechnic,” JVK Afun, chair of the Conference of Rectors of Polytechnics, or CORP, told University World News.

Currently, polytechnics are not able to attract full quotas of students for some of the courses they run “because many people would rather turn to universities”, he said.

Addressing a graduation ceremony of 5,046 students earlier this month, University of Ghana Vice-chancellor Ernest Aryeetey announced that the last batch of admissions to diploma programmes at the institution would be in the 2015-16 academic year. There had been a management decision to phase out all diploma programmes, he said.

Ministry of Education officials said the university’s decision was intended to enable polytechnics to take over the awarding of diplomas for courses that some are already running.

Afun, who is also rector of Ho Polytechnic in the Volta Region, said this was in line with policy and with the mandate of polytechnics to train students for diplomas. But it will not be plain sailing.

“What we foresee is that some private universities might take over these courses, and this is purely because most students prefer to study for diploma courses in a university.”

Against this background, it looks as if the coming years will pose challenges to polytechnics as they prepare to take over diploma courses.

Some polytechnics are already running both diploma and higher national diploma courses – which have different admission requirements – and are confident in their ability to offer more, and higher level, qualifications.

Negative perceptions

But they will have to find ways to change public perceptions of their status – a problem echoed across many African countries, where a university degree is seen as the fast ticket out of poverty and into the middle-class, and where there are still considerable differences in earnings and status between holders of degrees and diplomas.

“To be able to change perceptions, we need to educate all stakeholders – especially employers – to know that polytechnics train people to have a hands-on approach to jobs compared to their university counterparts,” Afun said.

This seems an especially tall order in Ghana, where a university degree has become all that is required to land a job.

Afun said, however, that some employers were beginning to recognise value in the differences in skills and performance between graduates from universities and those from polytechnics. “This is one way that confidence in polytechnics could be built.

“Unfortunately, some polytechnic graduates themselves are not helping the situation because of their craving for university education, to gain respect as a result of the long-held perception.”

One polytechnic graduate who studied building technology, Edward Farkye, said: “Most employers l have approached do not see me as a quality material because I did not train in a university.

“So it is my dream to add value to myself by entering a university. The fact is, if I don’t I will just end up on the lower rung of the ladder, and no one wants that in life,” he told University World News.

Polytechnics to offer postgraduate education

Afun admitted that this has been a problem for efforts to expand and develop polytechnic education in Ghana. “It is sad but true that some polytechnic graduates move on to further their education in universities after their higher national diploma, in order to be awarded degrees.”

But he was optimistic that plans polytechnics have put in motion to improve their image over the next few years will work to change unhelpful perceptions of the quality of their education.

“We intend to create opportunities for our graduates to study for postgraduate and doctoral degrees to so that we can be seen to be on a par with universities,” he told University World News, adding that “this is the only way that we can bridge the existing gap.”

Farkye is doubtful. “The whole educational system needs overhaul, and this must go side-by-side with some improvements in the workplace so that higher national diploma holders do not become just side-kicks to their degree-holding colleagues.”

University becomes more research-oriented

The University of Ghana’s decision was not just about cutting down diploma courses to pave the way for polytechnic growth – its dream is to become more research intensive.

Vice-chancellor Aryeetey said the country’s flagship institution was introducing more postgraduate courses, in line with its objective of focusing more on postgraduate training and research. The University of Ghana is also broadening the range of disciplines on offer.

Several new programmes have recently been introduced at graduate and undergraduate levels. They include bachelor of science programmes in information technology, actuarial science and agricultural extension, a masters in climate change and sustainable development, and another in research and public policy, Aryeetey said.