Academy adds voice to concerns over universities bill

The Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS) this week added its voice to criticism of the Public Universities Bill 2020 currently before Ghana’s parliament, calling it “dangerous and uncalled for” and “a recipe for total chaos in our tertiary education system”.

In a statement, GAAS said the autonomy that past vice-chancellors of all public universities fought for over the years would be reversed by the bill, “if it is indeed passed into law”.

Concerns over the bill have been raised in the past by a range of stakeholders, including more recently the University Teachers Association of Ghana, which said in a letter to the Parliamentary Committee on Education dated 14 May that it is worried about the powers granted to the president “to control the appointment of the chancellor of a public university through the back door, in clear violation of article 68 of the Constitution of Ghana”.

The bill provides for the establishment of a university council, the size and composition of which suggests it is “designed to be an instrument for exerting government control over the public university instead of being a forum where the different stakeholders of the university and independent minds meet to reflect on what is best for the university in the pursuit of its agreed mandate”, GAAS said.

Structure of council

Of the 13-member university council, the president would nominate and appoint the chair and five others. There are also three other people who represent government agencies associated with the Ministry of Education and directed by the minister of education. In effect, nine of the 13 council members would be government appointees representing government interests.

The academy said: “The domination by government of the university council effectively ensures that government can run the university through its proxy, the university council … This structure, and the motivation behind it, effectively take away any independence the public university may have.”

They drew attention to the constitutional provision which states that the president “shall not, while he continues in office, hold the office of chancellor or head of any university in Ghana”. GAAS also poured scorn on parts of the bill which proposed that the power to appoint people to hold or act in an office in a body of higher education, research or professional training vests in the council or other governing body of that institution or body.

“The spirit of the Constitution … is that by the government not appointing persons to manage such institutions, those institutions would be free to pursue their mandates without worrying about what would happen to their managers in case of conflict with the government and-or change in government. This is particularly important with regard to the appointment of the principal officers of the university, namely the chancellor, the chairman of council and the vice-chancellor,” GAAS said.

Proposed commission

The academy also drew attention to a clause in the bill that permits the minister to “give directives on matters of policy through a proposed Ghana Tertiary Education Commission to a public university and the public university shall comply”.

“In the history of higher education in Ghana, the purpose of a higher education council has always been to create a buffer between the Ministry of Education or government and the public universities,” it said, adding that the “proposed arrangement provides another layer of control by the minister of education in the affairs of public universities”.

GASS said there were other provisions in the bill which meant that many traditional roles played by public universities through their respective councils could now only be performed with the approval or supervision of either the minister of education or the proposed Ghana Tertiary Education Commission, including the establishment academic units as well as academic or non-academic research collaborations, networking and research, and the acquisition, sale, lease or mortgage of property.

“It is extremely disturbing to the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences that researchers can proceed with research project agreements only with the approval of the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission,” GASS said.

In its letter this week, the University Teachers Association of Ghana said: “After a careful clause by clause analysis of the bill … in its current form [it] will create more problems for the running of the universities than they seek to resolve.”

Academic freedom

It said the bill will curtail academic freedom as established in the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, freedoms which, it said, thrive “on the pillars of institutional autonomy, self-governance, individual rights and freedoms of academics and students, and tenure for academics”.

“We are also concerned about the powers granted to the president to control the appointment of the chancellor of a public university through the back door, in clear violation of article 68 of the Constitution of Ghana,” it said.

“Equally concerning are the powers being allocated to the minister of education to issue directives to run the university and the provision to ‘subtly’ control the admission process in the universities,” the association stated.

The Ghanaian government has previously defended the bill, saying it seeks to harmonise the governance, administration and accountability structures of public universities. At a meeting arranged this week to obtain comment on the concerns elicited by the bill from the office of the minister of state in charge of tertiary education, Professor Kwesi Yankah, this writer was referred to the minister of education.