Act to create merger undermines academic freedom, say staff

A new parliamentary act that has merged the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ), the Ghana Institute of Languages (GIL) and the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI) into the University of Media, Arts and Communications (UMAC), with a new seven-member interim council, has been described as “indirect and blatant interference with the principle of academic freedom and independence, as guaranteed by the 1992 Constitution”.

This is according to a joint petition by the Academic Staff Association and the University Teachers Association of Ghana (UTAG) to the ministry of education, which believes the new institution mirrors sections of the controversial Public University Bill (PUB) 2020.

The University of Media, Arts and Communications Act, 2020 (Act 1059) was tabled in parliament three years ago but legislators decided to put it on hold in 2020, following public criticism.

Matthew Opoku Prempeh, the minister of education at the time, who introduced the bill in April 2019, said it was meant “to provide the procedure for the establishment of public universities, [set out] principles for the management of public universities, [determine] the legal status of public universities, the procedure for financing public universities and administration and supervision of the activities of public universities and related matters”.

However, the staff association and the teachers’ association said the “UMAC Act, which established the interim council [of the new university], reflects portions of the PUB, which was rejected by the academic community for its undue control and interference in the management of public universities by the government”, adding that, “the merger of the three institutes to form UMAC reflects the ‘harmonisation’ agenda by government in the PUB”.

What is the status of the new university?

They said the UMAC is not an entirely new university; referring to section 3(1) of the UMAC Act which states that, “the university, UMAC, is a holding university with constituent institutes”, explaining that the constituent institutes, which include GIJ, NAFTI and GIL, have been in existence and are still operating.

“In fact, GIJ was an accredited public university prior to this act and has all the elements of an autonomous public university. We, therefore, consider it inappropriate for the council to determine how the university should be run, without recourse to the existing staff, structures and policies in the three institutes,” they said.

The petition said “the exclusion of these groups, particularly the University Teachers Association of Ghana, the teaching staff associations of the three and the academic boards, gives government unfettered control over the management of UMAC.

“This indirectly makes the interim council a quasi government-controlled council, without any proper systems for checks and balances.”

They also said: “Considering the interim council is not a mere transitional body but one that wields enormous powers, it is not in the overriding interest of UMAC and its constituent stakeholders for the interim council to work without representation from these important parties,” adding that, “under the UMAC Act (Act 1059), the interim council shall perform the functions of the substantive council and decisions taken by the former have the same power as that of the latter which cannot be overturned”.

The petition said, since the interim council is charged to draft the statutes, guidelines and policies for governing the UMAC, denial or lack of representation of the University Teachers Association of Ghana and other essential internal stakeholders, including representation of industry, is inimical to the academic integrity and independence of the three institutes concerned.

They mentioned section 43 (5-7) of the act, which states that all enrolled students, academic programmes, assets and liabilities, and campuses of GIJ, GIL and NAFTI shall be transferred to the new university.

In addition, they contended that, “while government finds it expedient to absorb the properties of the three institutes, we find it rather inexplicable why the management, staff and students of the institutes could be sidelined by the interim council at this crucial stage of shaping the future of the new university”.

The petition further adds that, “this smacks of cherry-picking by government, and it is most unfortunate, inconsistent and gives room for the perception that this a deliberate scheme to control a public university in a manner envisaged by the botched Public University Bill”.

Concern over media freedom

The petitioners said that excessive governmental control over a media and communication university also “has implications for the constitutional provision of press freedom and independence”, adding that, there is “the danger of government using its absolute control of the interim council to dictate how journalists, media practitioners and communication professionals should be trained and, in an extreme case, determine who should be admitted to study and become a journalist”.

They said the membership of the interim council should be expanded to include the relevant institutions and associations indicated in the act as members of the council, stating that, “it should mirror the composition of the main council”.

“It should not be the case that government appointees are the only people to dictate the statutes and framework for running the university. That is against the letter and spirit of academic freedom and independence and amounts to gross interference by government,” they added.

The ministry of education declined to comment, but pointed out that the merger process has been ongoing.

Professor Kwesi Yankah, a former minister of state responsible for tertiary education, said in January 2019 that the creation of the university became necessary when the government observed that none of the [merging] institutions qualified to be an independent university [on their own].

Apart from GIJ, NAFTI and GIL awarded their degrees through their affiliated university, the University of Ghana.

“Government, however, believes consolidating the three institutions would enable them to award their own degrees, maximise resources and improve infrastructure,” Yankah said at the time.