A polytechnic by any other name
The 2007 law upgraded polytechnics into higher education institutions to make tertiary education more accessible to the population. It defines the goals of polytechnic education as the provision of full-time tertiary programmes in the fields of manufacturing, commerce, science, technology, applied social science and the arts.
The act also requires polytechnics to provide opportunities for skills development, research and publication of research findings and it mandates polytechnics to award degrees like bachelor and masters degrees.
Finally, it allows polytechnics to “pursue other areas as may be determined by the authorities of the polytechnics”. Compared to the Polytechnic Law of 1992, Act 745 gives polytechnic authorities more flexibility and autonomy to operate according to the dictates of both education and job markets.
As part of the plans to convert polytechnics into technical universities, in August 2013 the government tasked a committee to construct appropriate conversion plans. In May last year the committee submitted to government its report, in which it made 10 recommendations.
The government has also tabled a Technical Universities Bill in parliament to give it the necessary legislative backing.
Though the government has not spelled out fully what the problem is that it is trying to solve with the conversion of polytechnics into technical universities, we analyse the government’s sale pitch on the issue in this article.
The government contends that the country’s polytechnics have lost focus of their mandates as technical or technology institutions and are offering predominantly business management-oriented programmes such as marketing, accounting, hotel management, secretarial studies and real estate.
However, our view is that polytechnics have little or no control over the demand for those programmes in the education and job markets. They need to meet this demand in order to improve their bottom line, given chronic government underfunding.
Moreover, polytechnics rely on secondary and other technical-vocational schools as feeder sources for students to enrol in their programmes and there are three times more secondary schools in Ghana relative to technical schools. Thus, more than 75% of polytechnic entrants are secondary school graduates.
A larger proportion of secondary school graduates have a preparation in the social sciences and humanities rather than in science, mathematics or technology. This is because most secondary schools have ineffective science, mathematics and technology programmes.
Others have hardly any science and mathematics teachers, nor facilities for teaching and learning science effectively. Along with this is the psychological and historical belief among Ghanaian youths and adults alike that science is irrelevant and that mathematics learning requires a cognitive talent.
Hence, these students opt for accounting, marketing, hospitality and management studies programmes at polytechnics. The technical-vocational schools have their own social stigma as places where academically less able young people or those with hands-on aptitudes are dumped.
Economy key factor in student choice
The structure of the Ghanaian economy is also a key factor in student career choices at polytechnics. Polytechnic graduates whose career choices are in the business management field are more likely to get a job than those who studied a subject in the scientific, technical or technological fields.
We argue that converting polytechnics into technical universities would not alter these epistemological realities on the ground in the immediate future. The word ‘university’ or ‘technical’ is not likely to change young people’s perceptions, the structure of the Ghanaian economy or under-enrolment in science, mathematics and technology courses at secondary school level.
The government also argues that technical universities would serve as a bridge between the world of science and industry. This symbiotic relationship, the government contends, would allow technical universities to utilise industry resources to promote innovation and technological advancement in Ghana.
The question is this: could an education institution bearing the name polytechnic be capable of accomplishing this goal? The government sales pitch also makes assumptions without any check on the reality in Ghana about the types of manufacturing industries available or the opportunities available to the proposed technical universities to establish such relationships.
Even the country’s premier technology institution, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology or KNUST, has not succeeded in achieving that for two main reasons.
Firstly, the number of technical or technological industries in Ghana is very limited. One of the pressing problems of polytechnics is the insufficient number of technical industries to absorb their graduates after graduation.
For this reason, some scholars have suggested that the government should re-establish the state-owned industries of the 1960s in order to provide jobs for technical or technology graduates. Other scholars have suggested that polytechnics should set up their own technology firms to manufacture their inventions.
Secondly, most of these few existing technical industries do not have the resources available for student learning or experimentation. This is one of the chief reasons that industrial attachment for polytechnic students has been perfunctory and of limited benefit.
The proposed technical universities would face the same set of problems. That is why we believe that converting polytechnics into technical universities does not automatically solve these basic problems. A name change in this context does not benefit Ghana.
The government also asserts that technical universities would provide training for medium- and high-level employability skills and contribute to alleviating youth unemployment and poverty and creating wealth. Again, these are merely lofty and grandiose hopes and are entirely unrealistic at present.
First and foremost, studies have indicated that metropolitan residents have a much greater chance of accessing polytechnic education compared to district residents. Ghana has a larger district level population than metropolitan city population as there are only 10 metropolitan cities compared to 210 districts.
However, it is district residents who face more poverty, unemployment or under-employment. Converting polytechnics into technical universities would not increase accessibility to their programmes nor would poverty and youth unemployment be positively impacted.
If polytechnics, with their career-focus courses and programmes, have been unsuccessful in reducing youth unemployment and poverty and creating wealth, how could we assume that the proposed technical universities could be successful in achieving these feats?
In other words, the name tag ‘technical’ or ‘university’ is not a silver bullet for creating jobs and wealth, nor for reducing poverty and unemployment in rural and urban communities.
Furthermore, the government posits that the proposed technical universities will help the country to realise its vision of training highly skilled graduates who can aid economic development and growth.
The polytechnics are doing exactly that although there is room for improvement, considering the innovative products polytechnic students are able to create. For example, Koforidua Polytechnic and Kumasi Polytechnic were able to invent the ‘fufu’ pounding machine and Kumasi Polytechnic came out with a solar-powered wheelchair.
What polytechnics need is adequate investment in science, technology and computer laboratories and workshops, not a new name tag, although a study has reported that some polytechnic students have demanded that a new name tag which includes ‘university’ would give them a measure of the same respectability accorded to university students in the country.
Certainly, Ghana is a country of university education worshippers – that is why the rate of establishment of private universities has been increasing exponentially. It does not matter what one learns at a university; what matters most is that one has attended a university or has a university degree.
In Ghana, the word ‘graduate’ is appropriated and used exclusively for university products as if the country has a different English lexicon from those used in other countries with English as their official language. Nonetheless, it is a grave mistake for the government to feed on this misplaced elitism and harness it for political gains.
In fact, polytechnics do not need to become universities before they can discharge their mandates effectively as institutions dedicated to producing engineers, technologists and technicians for the country’s development.
Some researchers have even suggested scrapping the applied social science component of the polytechnic mandate as a surgical transformation to allow the polytechnics to maintain their technical or technological purity.
The government asserts that technical universities will be different from so-called traditional universities in that the former focus on technology development, innovation and technology transfer, while the latter set their sights on fundamental research and cutting-edge technology development.
It also argues that technical universities are responsive to industry needs and learner interests whereas traditional universities are responsive to disciplinary approaches to learning and promotion of scholarship. It contends that technical universities are skills-driven while traditional universities are knowledge-driven.
This catalogue of comparison is fruitless in that most universities have core roles of teaching, research and service. It is less important what a university adds to its name. That is to say, a cow is a cow no matter what name we give to it! All cows have salient characteristics that distinguish them from other mammals, a tiger for instance.
So it is for universities. Unfortunately, in Ghana there is no legislation or policy in place that specifies the exact roles and functions of universities to distinguish them from other institutions of higher learning.
Lastly, to classify one category of university as oriented to skills acquisition and another to knowledge acquisition is only possible theoretically. The fact is that most universities the world over have a mix of knowledge and skills built into the content of their courses.
Admittedly, some universities tilt the balance in their course offerings in favour of knowledge acquisition, but this does not imply a complete neglect of skills development.
Francis Ahia is assistant professor, curriculum, teaching and learning in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Canada. Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is based in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.