Minister calls for ‘rethink’ on higher education funding

The way in which tertiary education is funded across Africa needs a rethink because the present model, which was introduced in the colonial era, can no longer be sustained, according to Ghana's Minister of State in charge of tertiary education Kwesi Yankah. Concerns around the sustainability of higher education in Ghana are growing in anticipation of increased enrolment in the wake of a recently introduced free senior high school policy.

Speaking at the Vice Chancellors Ghana conference held earlier this month, he said: “The trajectory for funding higher education in Ghana and many African countries can be traced to the colonial era where there was the obvious need to train pioneering civil servants and technicians to fill the gap created by the departure of colonial masters,” Yankah said at the conference held in Accra from 5 to 6 April under the theme of “Funding Public Universities in Africa – The new paradigm”.

He said there was a need to develop human capital for national development so governments at the time provided funding emoluments for staffing, administrations and capital expenditure, and even maintained students over the years.

However, in today’s globalised world where healthcare, food security, climate change, education and other issues fiercely compete for state funding, rising expenditures and economic downturns were bound to lead to a general decline in state resources. “It is not surprising that the slice of resources available to fund higher education has diminished across the globe,” he said.

“The ripple effect on local economies is obvious and has constrained governments the world over, forcing them to pull back on public spending and challenging nations to discover innovative ways of revenue generation.”

Despite these circumstances, Ghana has done relatively well as could be seen in its allocation to education which, over the past five years, had received between 20% and 27% of the national budget, representing 6% of gross domestic product.

Yankah said discussions about funding the sector tended to suggest the sector was overly obsessed with inflows and inputs for publicly funded institutions, “relegating to the periphery the equally significant theme of output”.

He said the same pattern tended to dominate public discourse about strikes and protests by parties in African higher education systems. “Truly legitimate demands for salaries, upward adjustments and restoration of allowances, and increases in subventions, which are clearly critical to the survival of tertiary institutions, are justifiable.” However they could not be argued in isolation from other critical factors in the equation, he said.

Yankah challenged stakeholders in the tertiary sector to move their discussions from funding to how to improve productivity based on deliverables such as publication outputs and innovations.

He said Africa has been “bashed, trashed and humiliated” for its performance in institutional global rankings. In the area of research, Africa had also been the “whipping boy” because although the continent represents 12% of the world’s population, it contributes less than 1% of global research output. Latin America and the Caribbean did better with 3%, while Europe produced 27% North America 32% and Asia 31%.

However, with the continent’s move towards a knowledge economy, there had been some improvement as more African scientists were now contributing to research papers in international journals.

Between 1996 and 2012 there had been an increase in African contributions to scientific journals from 12,500 to 52,000, and Africa’s share of global research had increased from 0.44% to 0.77%. “These are stories that must be narrated by local voices and we must market our scholarship on the world stage by standing up to be counted,” he said.

He said the expansion of secondary education in Ghana following the introduction of the free senior high school policy would have a significant impact on the growth and enrolment ratio of higher education from 2020. Under these circumstances, the current funding model was not sustainable. This applied to both private and government institutions, he said.

“It is clear that our current funding of public and private [higher] education is not sustainable. While government cannot wholly foot the bill for higher education in the public sector, private institutions cannot also rely on tuition fees alone as the two models have serious implications for the mandate and overall output of higher education.”