Private universities have the potential to ‘take over’

Some investors in private universities are cutting corners by not maintaining quality assurance levels, short-circuiting official quality assurance bodies and procedures and generally giving a bad name to the sector. But there are exceptions, according to the acting chairman of Ghana's Council of Independent Universities.

Kwaku Ansa-Asare told University World News that universities that are underperforming are commonly founded by people who invest in the sector without a clear understanding of tertiary education. He said those that do not meet required standards seek the patronage of politicians in order to avoid going through the rigorous standards set up by the National Accreditation Board.

In an interview published by University World News last week, Secretary General of the Association of African Universities, Etienne Ehile, said corruption and unnecessary threats to officials of accreditation bodies were affecting the quality of some higher education institutions across the continent.

Ehile said because of corruption some universities owned by "the rich and famous", as well as politicians, are established without the minimum requirements. Some accreditation bodies also face threats if they refuse to open unbefitting institutions.

Ansa-Asare, who is also the founder and rector of MountCrest University College in Accra, said it was fear of not being able to attract students that forced some owners to bend admission rules. In addition, if they maintained the required standards, they might lose students and therefore not make enough money, he said.

“Unfortunately, the CIU [Council of Independent Universities] is not able to crack the whip on erring members because of the patronage they receive. In addition, we are united because if we even call meetings, most of the members do not even bother to attend,” he said.

Out of the 70 institutions that are members of the CIU, Ansa-Asare said only 30 are functioning. Even among this number (30) it is not clear how many might be affected in any accreditation evaluation by the National Accreditation Board.

However, there are government efforts to stop the rot. Private universities will, from September this year, be required to post a bond of GHS2 million (US$446,000) as an assurance that they will not lower standards, said Ansa-Asare.

“This is very expensive for most of the private universities and we have not yet been told what will happen to those who do not meet the condition,” he said.

Referring to his own institution of MountCrest, Ansa-Asare said: “We have proved that doing the right thing pays because, if we maintain the standards required of us, the students who we admit will also not have the incentive to do the wrong things.”

He listed private universities Ashesi, Valley View, Pentecost, MountCrest, Methodist and Central as some of the few that have been performing well so far.

“The Methodist University [College] is running a PhD programme in mathematics, Ashesi University’s technological programmes are the best and the institution has even won the African award for excellence,” he said.

In addition, Garden City University College has been granted seed money from USAID to improve its facilities because the institution is doing well in the provision of education in health care.

Ansa-Asare said one of the problems that most private universities have to face has to do with finance. “It is very expensive to run a higher institution and if you do not have the resources, it is very difficult because universities are driven by resources such as human resources and teaching aids, which need money.

“Unfortunately, the government’s attitude towards private investment in the sector has not been encouraging. For instance, the Ghana Education Trust Fund, which was set up to assist in the development of education, is not accessible to private institutions and with our very low income, we are forced to survive on the benevolence of individuals,” he said.

Another problem he identified is unfair competition from the so-called mentoring institutions. “Every new university must be affiliated by law to one of the older ones. But the relationship has become that of master-servant, and instead of sticking to their role of providing guidance, they have neglected this and have started competing with the private universities they are supposed to mentor by setting up satellite campuses to compete for students,” he said.

Ansa-Asare said he was hopeful that a planned merger of the National Accreditation Board and the National Council for Tertiary Education to form a new body called the Education Commission in July will help remove ambiguity in the performance of the two institutions.

The new commission is likely to be properly resourced to enable it to properly monitor and evaluate tertiary education in the country.

With the government’s recent introduction of free senior high education, more young people will be needing places in universities. Ansa-Asare said: “Private universities will rise to the occasion. In fact, if we acquaint ourselves well, we should be able to take over tertiary education in the country.”