Access to education still depends on who can pay

Marketisation of university education without bridging historical gaps in access to quality secondary education across Ghana has widened social and economic inequalities between north and south regions, and among rural and urban areas, according to a new study.

The study, titled “Leaving No one Behind in Ghana through University Education: Interrogating spatial, gender and class inequalities”, is one of several emerging studies on how higher education is currently affecting social inequalities in developing countries.

In principle, the government is expected to promote equity in access to university education, irrespective of gender, class, ethnicity, geographic location and physical disabilities, but ability to pay has become the norm, according to the authors, Dr Jasper Abembia Ayelazuno and Dr Maxwell Akansina Aziabah.

Ayelazuno is an associate professor of communication and cultural studies at the University for Development Studies (Nyankpala campus) and Aziabah is a lecturer and a quality assurance officer at Simon Diedong Dombo University of Business and Integrated Development Studies.

The study was financially supported by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Barriers to inclusion

“Even in circumstances whereby the government’s Student Loan Trust Fund claims its interest rate is subsidised relative to the private commercial banks, the rate is still high for students from low income and poor families,” Ayelazuno told University World News in an interview.

He explained that borrowers have to get guarantors who meet specific criteria set by the student loan scheme, a condition which may exclude the poor and marginalised who may not get guarantors to enable them to access the loan fund.

What is emerging in Ghana and other Sub-Saharan countries is that the demand for higher education has resulted in expansion and growth of universities, but unplanned massification has set barriers to inclusion.

In their study, Ayelazuno and Aziabah said the problem started in the 1980s at the behest of the World Bank, when the Ghanaian government wiped out the generous higher education scholarships and subsidies, shifting most of the burden of funding university education to students and their families.

“Since then, university education in Ghana has been subjected to budget cuts, leaving public universities to make up for the shortfall in funding through various methods of generating funds internally,” reads the study, published earlier in 2021.

Unequal access starts early

Public universities in Ghana and Sub-Saharan African countries such as Kenya and Uganda adopted extensive marketisation of their academic programmes by rolling out income-generating programmes such as business and administration, law, medicine and pharmacy.

Such programmes are often oversubscribed by applicants who can afford to pay full fees through dual-track tuition policy, popularly known as parallel degree programmes.

This means applicants with the highest grade are partially funded by the state, while those whose grades meet the minimum entry requirements gain admission on a fee-paying basis.

“In simple terms, students who have the resources to pay, but do not make the cut-off for admission on a subsidised fee-paying basis, are admitted as fee-paying students,” Ayelazuno said.

Although the drive for marketisation degree programmes in public universities in addition to establishing many private universities has increased access to higher education in Ghana, the argument by Ayelazuno and Aziabah is that the poor and marginalised groups are left out.

According to the study, inequality of access to university education in Ghana starts early. Children from rich backgrounds receive quality primary and secondary education, while their counterparts from poor households attend low-quality schools.

The government has established community day senior secondary schools across the country in an effort to reduce high school inequalities, but the quality of secondary school education in the rural and northern parts of Ghana is relatively low.

“Most of these schools lack resources, particularly physical facilities and learning resources such as libraries, laboratories, textbooks and good teachers,” Ayelazuno said.

What this means is that, whereas the higher education sector of Ghana in the past four decades has recorded exponential growth in the number of tertiary institutions, the window of opportunity for access to university by the poor remains very low.

Spatial inequality

In 2020, Ghana had 24 public universities and 89 private tertiary institutions.

Although private tertiary institutions far outnumber public ones, data from the National Council for Tertiary Education show public universities’ share of student enrolment far outweighs that of private tertiary institutions.

In the 2018-19 academic year, total enrolment in both public and private universities reached a high of 348,845 students. Of this number, 81.4% enrolled in public and 18.6% in private institutions.

But the main concern, the study argues, is that, although expansion of university education may indicate the opening up of higher educational opportunities in the country, the reality is more complex as it hides the structural inequalities that determine who goes to university.

In terms of spatial inequality, in 2020 only one public university was located in the northern part of Ghana, and the rest in the southern part of the country, with some of them running distance education centres in the north. The number has now increased to three.

According to the study, Ghana is still embedded in a colonial situation whereby rural areas and other marginalised parts of the country are more or less seen as sources of cheap labour.

“This point is illustrated by the uneven distribution of universities between the south and the north as well as by the low quality of primary and secondary education that students receive in the north and rural areas relative to many of their southern counterparts in cities and towns,” noted the study.

The study points out that, to date, there have been few quality primary and secondary schools located in the rural areas that can produce highly qualified candidates to compete for admission to university based on merit.

Highlighting challenges of inequality in higher education in Ghana some years ago, Professor Akilagpa Sawyerr, a former general secretary of the Association of African Universities, described the situation as follows: “With our present education system, over 70% of our future doctors, scientists, engineers, architects, pharmacists, agriculturists and other professionals in the humanities including lawyers, accountants and administrators, will emerge from just about 10% of our schools.”

Although the current developments of establishing more public and private universities may be seen as the way forward to close the higher education inequality gap, the study argues, the ability to pay will continue to dictate who reaps the greatest benefits from products, services and other commodities from academic markets.