New bill prompts warnings over loss of academic freedom

Concerns have been raised over a new Public Universities Bill yet to be put before parliament in Ghana, with the former vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, Professor Ernest Aryeetey, warning it is likely to take away “every facet of academic freedom”.

In a written response on the new bill distributed to some media houses, Aryeetey, who is also the secretary-general of the African Research Universities Alliance, said: “The definition of academic freedom provided in the bill is too narrow as it focuses on the freedom of speech of lecturers.”

He said further: “If the minister of education can issue policy directives to the university, it will not be long before the minister determines who can be promoted and who cannot be. If the minister of education can issue policy directives to public universities then there is no need for them to have councils.”

Aryeetey said the process of undermining academic freedom starts in the bill with the appointment of a chancellor. The current practice is for public universities to appoint their own chancellors, but the bill seeks to take away that right by making the appointment of a chancellor the responsibility of the president. He said this was “simply a method of politicising the appointment of the chancellor”.

He said the new bill sought to make the minister of education the ultimate decision-maker for all universities and not their councils. He said it was “extremely dangerous” under the new bill that a public university could not enter into an agreement with any other institution, whether academic or non-academic within or outside the country, unless it was approved by the minister of education, in consultation with the National Council for Tertiary Education.

“This clause effectively takes away every incentive that any serious academic will have of looking for partners to engage in research. It also takes away a major function performed by a vice-chancellor seeking to be innovative.”

Resistance to the new legislation has also been expressed by the main opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC). Peter Nortsu-Kotoe, NDC member on the Education Committee of Parliament, told Accra radio station Citi FM that given the way the bill is drafted, the minority will not support it and that it is in Ghana’s interest to safeguard the semi-autonomous status of universities.

He described the bill as “an attempt by the government to control the management of public universities which is not the best”.

“It is going to take away that autonomy or freedom from the universities, so the universities are going to be managed like senior high schools,” Nortsu-Kotoe said.

Ghana's Education Minister Dr Matthew Opoku Prempeh has denied claims that the government is seeking to take control of public universities through the bill.

In an ABC News interview, Prempeh explained that the move is not aimed at stifling academic freedom but at bringing together under one policy all public universities to allow for a better regulated and properly defined scope of operations, as has been done in other countries across the world.