Learning from criticism and listening to student feedback

The University of Ghana, Ghana’s sacred ivory tower, is the largest, oldest, leading university in Ghana. It was established in 1948 as a university college by the British colonialists in the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Until 1957, it was an affiliate of the University of London, which was responsible for monitoring and supervising its academic programmes, administration and awarding degrees.

Presently, the University of Ghana has a student population of approximately 41,000, including 700 doctoral students.

The University of Ghana Business School (UGBS) is one of the many schools that comes under the University of Ghana. According to its website, it focuses on developing world-class human resources with the competencies to meet the national development needs of Ghana and also global business challenges.

According to the website, UGBS uses quality teaching, learning, research and knowledge dissemination to achieve its purposes. The UGBS boasts membership of an international network of business schools, including the Association of African Business Schools (AABS) and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

In August 2019, during the 70th anniversary celebrations of the University of Ghana, Senyo Hosi, chief executive officer of the Ghana Chamber of Bulk Oil Distributors and an alumnus of the university, levelled a barrage of criticisms against the university’s managers, leaders and lecturers/professors.

Among them, he characterised the university as a place for acquiring degrees rather than an education and skills.

In more unrefined language, the alumnus alleged that the university churns out graduates who lack the capacity to think and that as a businessman he would not hire any of its MBA graduates.

Hosi’s criticisms won him a litany of commendations as well as condemnations. Almost a year on, tempers have cooled off. The time has come for reason and reflective learning. To write off Hosi’s criticisms as simply the rants of a proud, arrogant man or as tantrums misses a great learning opportunity.

No capacity to think?

Ironically, Hosi has three degrees from the University of Ghana, including an MBA with a specialisation in finance. Thus, it may sound contradictory that he criticised the university – and even more so when he stated that graduates from the University of Ghana lack the capacity to think. Does that include himself? Is his negative experience at the university systemic or anecdotal? Whatever it is, Hosi’s criticisms could hold some suggestions for how to transform the University of Ghana.

Throughout human history it is not uncommon to hear certain people criticising their experiences of their former educational institutions. Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Kwame Nkrumah and Kofi Abrefa Busia of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, to mention just a few, are examples of people who were critical of their educational experiences. Consequently, Hosi’s criticism of the University of Ghana is not historically unique, nor does it deserve condemnation in itself.

People who have experiences of a particular educational institution may be voicing genuine concerns. Accordingly, Hosi’s experiences should be given credence and subjected to critical evaluation.

In the real-work world, Hosi might have realised the grave shortcomings of his formal business education, particularly his lack of relevant skills and capacity to perform effective analysis, critique or problem-solving. Alternatively, he might have observed other University of Ghana MBA graduates displaying those characteristics.

Does the University of Ghana foster in its students the capacity to think? What is its pedagogical strategy for developing students to become critical, creative, autonomous thinkers?

It should be noted that generally the Master of Business Administration (MBA) qualification and its associated business schools at universities have been a subject of frequent criticism in Europe and America. Holders of the MBA qualification have been criticised for lacking practical business skills, norms of ethical behaviour, people management skills and dispositions, problem-solving abilities and cross-cultural sensitivity, deemed critical for modern business organisations.

The MBA programme’s pedagogical orientations have also been labelled worthless. A Canadian professor of management at McGill University, Henry Mintzberg, has called for the disbandment of the MBA programme.

Professor Mintzberg has been a scourge of conventional management education. He asserted that management is a practice, not a science or profession. And that management is learned by practising it. He also asserted that it is impossible for young people, without managerial experience, to be trained in the classroom to become managers or leaders.

Further, Mintzberg and many other management experts have been very critical of the case study method, the most popular pedagogical tool used in the MBA programme.

They argue that the circumstances of specific cases are not generalisable to other cases; problems are succinctly defined as if that is what happens in the real world of management practice; and that implementation plans are merely written on paper. In fact, implementation is an important part of the process and the culture of leaving it to the imagination as happens in case studies is a dangerous pedagogical flaw.

Furthermore, the MBA programme is designed and delivered by administrators, lecturers and professors who are researchers, theorists and scholars with publication track records, not practitioners with a history of successful business management records. Given this background, critics argue that the MBA programme is theoretically oriented and, as a result, students graduate from the programme without any deeper understanding of the business world.

A copy of Western MBAs?

Certainly, some of these criticisms are applicable to the MBA programme that the UGBS offers. The fact is that the programme is a carbon copy of the MBA in the Western world. In addition, the UGBS’s MBA, like other MBAs offered in other African universities, suffers from other defects.

First and foremost, it ignores the fact that the economies of individual African countries are dominated by what is often called ‘informal businesses’ that are unlicensed or unregistered, small in size, owner-managed and provide employment only for the owner.

The number of such businesses is almost 70% in Ghana, 66% in Nigeria and 54% in Tanzania. And the International Monetary Fund estimates that the informal sector accounts for between 30% and 90% of the non-agricultural employment in Africa.

Additionally, in Africa, politics and institutions shape and influence business performance. For this reason, an in-depth understanding of politics, institutions, public policy and negotiation strategies is more important than business acumen.

Lastly, it is a fact that Africa has the fastest-growing population of young people, but that little is known about the characteristics of this demographic. That is because local or national data collection is an uncommon activity in Africa. Consequently, business decision-making is tough and subjective. Yet in African MBA programmes it is assumed that business leaders and managers have access to data to make decisions about finance, marketing, production operations and human resources.

Academic credentials vs competencies

In his criticisms of the University of Ghana, Hosi stated that the University of Ghana is a place for acquiring degrees, not education and skills. Degrees are academic credentials, while education has to do with the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and beliefs, along with transformation of any experiences where it is deemed necessary.

Academic credentials are evidence showing one’s achieved award. The award can be a certificate, diploma or degree. Certainly, there are many students who enrol in university programmes not with the purpose of developing their competencies but with that of acquiring mere credentials. Thus, academic credentials and education/skills are not necessarily compatible.

Unfortunately, the culture of glorification of academic credentials relative to competencies (knowledge, skills and dispositions) is deeply ingrained in African societies. It permeates the recruitment process, government statements, media discourses and private conversations.

This societal culture exerts massive influence on what happens at African universities. The fact is that universities are a subset of society and that what happens in the larger society is also likely to happen at universities.

However, an institution’s culture demonstrates where the emphasis is placed: competencies development or academic credentials? The signals will come from lecturers/professors’ and administrators’ behaviours.

For instance, if lecturers/professors award course grades on the basis of students who can pay the highest bribe or who come from a higher socio-economic class; on the basis of sexual favours from female students or tribal affiliation or membership, that indicates that the institution places a higher premium on academic credentials than it does on the development of competencies.

Moreover, if lecturers/professors’ performances are not periodically evaluated and course contents, delivery approaches and assessment practices are not regularly reviewed, an institution is more likely to place greater emphasis on credentials than it does on the development of competencies of its students.

The day Africans shift their mental focus from academic credentials to competencies would mark the beginning of a big social revolution. There would be practically no incentives for any Africans to obtain phoney academic credentials from abroad, including doctoral degrees. This is because people would ask them competency-based or performance-based questions rather than worshipping their acquired credentials.

Tertiary education students would be more serious about their studies and not look for ways and means to secure favours from their instructors in order to get high grades.

Recruitment into public service and parastatal organisations would be based solely on what prospective employees know and can do rather than on the basis of their academic credentials. Instead of asking what their educational background is, they would be asked competency-based questions.

Relevance to today’s needs

One of the most poignant criticisms Hosi levelled against the lecturers and managers at the University of Ghana was this: “I beg you, you guys are not doing anything that is relevant for the future.”

He further challenged the lectures and managers to “stop living off the University of Ghana’s past glories and take the first step towards transforming it. If you want to fix it, forget about these 70 years”.

This criticism relates to issues of relevance and purpose. According to him, what the University of Ghana lecturers/professors and managers are doing is teaching pedagogies and management policies and practices that are irrelevant for the future of the students.

Nevertheless, the University of Ghana might have been relevant and served a significant purpose in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and even in the 1980s. These were post-independence times in Ghana when the prices of cocoa and gold, the main exports of Ghana, were stable and the government had embarked on employment expansion in the public services and parastatal organisations.

The University of Ghana’s main preoccupation during that period was with preparing students for government and parastatal jobs that were easily available, often bringing with them luxurious bungalow houses, free cars, house help, a gardener, a chauffeur and other generous fringe benefits. During those times all that mattered was having a university degree and the specialisation was unimportant.

However, the University of Ghana may not be relevant or serve a useful purpose in the 2000s when government and parastatal jobs are inadequate for the increasing numbers of university graduates and when university graduates either have to create their own jobs or compete for limited jobs in the private sector.

Further, information and communication technologies have become ubiquitous, rendering obsolete the pedagogical practice of having students copy volumes of lecture notes, expecting students to be passive recipients and absorbers of knowledge and lecturers/professors to be the sole source of knowledge.

Reforming the University of Ghana

Another part of Hosi’s criticism concerns reforming the University of Ghana. He wants the old lecturers/professors and administrators to be thrown out. Certainly, an educational institution becomes irrelevant and purposeless if it is fixated on its past glories and fails to reform itself in alignment with current expectations of what it means to be university educated.

For instance, current expectations are that graduates are capable of creating knowledge, critiquing knowledge and practices, communicating knowledge, working effectively in a collaborative environment and identifying and solving problems. These competencies are vital in that the purpose of university education in Africa is no longer preparing students for available government and parastatal jobs.

Hosi sees the old lecturers/professors and administrators as an impediment to making the University of Ghana’s offerings relevant and wants to get rid of them. He might have been misled to believe that those old people perpetuate the status quo which he construes as unprogressive.

However, this is a grave misconception of old lecturers/professors – that they are incapable of being critical and creative educators. As a matter of fact, there is no empirical research or accumulated wisdom to show that young lecturers/professors are more progressive educators compared to old ones.

Of course, many lecturers/professors at the University of Ghana never retire and tend to stay on beyond their retirement age owing to their inadequate retirement incomes and benefits.

In addition, the comparative low remuneration and benefits of the lecturing/professorial profession makes it difficult to attract young people. Thus, if the old people were removed, who would replace them? It is not enough to fix flawed pedagogical issues in the University of Ghana without addressing lecturers/professors’ low pay and poor benefits.

That said, the reactions of some University of Ghana lecturers/professors to Hosi’s criticisms indicate an absolute satisfaction with the status quo. For example, Professor Ransford Gyampo wrote the following via GhanaWeb: “Every year, a huge chunk of our students receive scholarships from the best schools in the world to pursue postgraduate studies. Afterwards, many of them are hired to work there.”

The critical questions are these: Has the University of Ghana now made the number of postgraduate scholarships that its graduates receive a part of its key performance indicators? Every year how many of the university’s graduates receive postgraduate scholarships abroad? I bet the number is not more than 10%. So what happens to the 90%? What are Ghanaian universities’ outstanding local or national achievements beyond churning out graduates whose quality Hosi questions?

Since the University of Ghana is a public university located in Ghana, I am more interested in its local and national impact, not its so-called international competitiveness in securing postgraduate admission for its graduates. Ghana invests a large amount of its meagre resources in public universities, including the University of Ghana. It is reasonable that Ghana receives impactful returns that benefit its society and economy.

Hosi’s criticisms of the University of Ghana represent the voice of students who are dissatisfied with the university’s offerings. That voice counts. A periodic survey of graduating students might assist in providing information for progressive changes at the University of Ghana.

Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educator and policy consultant in Canada.