New kinds of councils needed for evolving universities

About a decade ago, Clifford Tagoe was just weeks into his new position as vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana when he made a radical proposal.

The university’s academic programming had deteriorated. Its governance was in disarray. And to top it off, the previous vice-chancellor had been asked to step down after failing to rectify ongoing struggles with institution-wide examination malpractice.

Ghana’s oldest and most prestigious university was in a shambles.

So in 2007, with permission from the university’s council and Ghana’s Ministry of Education, Tagoe invited a visitation panel of 16 higher education experts from Canada, India, Nigeria, Jamaica, France, Ghana, the United Kingdom and the United States to carry out an independent audit of the university’s operations.

No university in Ghana had ever attempted such a large-scale self-assessment.

“Before I took office, it was clear in my mind that the laws [of the university] had to be reviewed,” said Tagoe, who is now chair of the National Council for Tertiary Education, or NCTE, which advises Ghana’s Minister of Education on administrative and financial matters related to higher education.

“The time had come to have a full audit of everything that we do concerning students, faculty, staff, resources, academic programmes – everything. We needed to be jolted into action.”

After two weeks of extensive observations and discussions, meetings with key stakeholders, and interviews with students and faculty, the visitation panel submitted a 127-page report to the council of the University of Ghana with recommendations on how to improve the institution’s management.

Many of those recommendations were later ratified by Parliament, marking the first time that the University of Ghana’s laws were amended since it became fully independent in 1961.

Need for new kinds of councils

Today, with the rapid expansion of higher education institutions, there is a growing need for similar internal audits and new kinds of university councils.

As higher education globally continues to adapt to external economic, social and political pressures, universities in Ghana – and throughout Africa – are becoming increasingly cognisant of the need to review institutional governance, much like the University of Ghana did back in 2007.

“With many more institutions, supervising university operations is certainly different from the past,” said Paul Effah, president of Radford University College in Accra and project director of the Senior Academic Leadership Training, or SALT, programme.

“This is why if you are not careful, quality can be compromised.”

SALT is a NCTE-affiliated initiative that has trained hundreds of university council members and heads of department since 2010.

On 1 September SALT helped organise the Board Leadership Development Conference with the United States-based Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, or AGB, to expose alternative governing practices to more than 180 university council members from public and private institutions around Ghana.

The training session was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which also helps to fund the Africa edition of University World News.

The conference featured Joseph Burke, president emeritus at Keuka College in New York and an AGB consultant, who shared best practices to increase capacity building among Ghanaian council members.

“My objective is not to give this group an American or a US perspective, but to give them some basic principles for all governance models and then allow them to chat within their own councils about what’s best for Africa, Ghana and their unique culture and governmental systems.”

Burke added that although university councils in the US and Ghana often talk about many of the same issues – including lack of funding and increased bureaucracy – councils in Ghana, and across Africa, face a unique challenge.

“Some [of Ghana’s] councils have just established themselves in the governance arena, so they’re just starting the process. In parts of the US, we have institutions that have been around longer so they’ve been practising governance for a longer period of time,” Burke said.

There’s also a tendency for university council members in Ghana to see themselves as delegates, rather than contributors to the greater good of the institution, according to Paul Effah.

“If you see yourself as a delegate, you cannot do business as a collective entity,” he said. “If you have people who stick to positions, you cannot proceed.”

Changing landscape in Ghana

Higher education around the world has experienced a dramatic restructuring of governance and finances thanks to diminished state funding and increased competition with the growth of both public and private institutions. The situation in Ghana is no different.

“The way we deliver education has changed over time,” said Eric Danquah, council chair of the University of Mines and Technology. “This has called for a change in the governance structure of tertiary education institutions.”

In 1962, just five years after gaining its independence from the United Kingdom, Ghana had only three public universities. Now there are 10 along with 70 private institutions, according to the country’s National Accreditation Board.

And in its 2014-24 strategic plan, the University of Ghana noted that its government funding dropped from more than 90% of its spending to about 55% in a decade.

As a result of this expansion and drying-up state revenue streams, universities today are operating in a much more demanding and complex educational climate than in the past.

That’s why the University of Ghana took a top-down approach in an attempt to adapt, according to Effah, specifically reshaping its governing council by increasing its size and diversifying its composition. The visitation panel suggested these changes in its report.

At 15 members, the University of Ghana council “is smaller than the governing bodies of many universities of similar size, where a figure of around 25 might be more usual”, the report noted. “Moreover, the membership lacks expertise in professional areas and, where it exists, it is only by accident of who is nominated or elected.”

Need for expertise

In response to these recommendations, the university council implemented a policy that would enable the university to recruit up to four people with specific skills and expertise in areas the council lacks.

For the University of Ghana, one such area was its finance department. After the visitation panel, the council replaced its two financial consultants, both of whom were academics, with two external private sector financial experts.

Registrar Mercy Haizel-Ashia said this change made the department more effective and transparent. At the end of 2015, the university’s financial statements were up to date and accessible to the public for the first time in years.

“Because we now have experts, our future is more fruitful,” said Haizel-Ashia.

Technology makes it even easier for councils to seek external support, according to Osei Darkwa, president of Ghana Technology University College.

“Because of the impact of technology, it is possible to co-opt members who may not physically be in the vicinity of the university,” Darkwa said. “Technology allows you to bring in expertise from all over the world.”

For instance Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, is a University of Ghana council member. When he’s unable to fly to Ghana to attend council meetings, he joins by satellite. It’s another way university councils can take advantage of a more globalised and interconnected world.

“When you bring in people from the outside, they draw attention to structural and operational things that need to change,” said SALT project director Paul Effah. “You need to subject yourself to scrutiny.”