Professor Ernest Aryeetey: ‘Get politics out of universities’ARUA) also hopes that universities, through their research, will increasingly persuade governments to see them as partners in policy-making.
He cannot be wrong because he has seen it all. From being the former director of the Institute of Statistics, Social and Economic Research (ISSER), hosted by the University of Ghana, he was appointed the vice-chancellor of the same university. Currently he is the secretary general of ARUA, a network of universities in Africa.
In December 2022, Stellenbosch University in South Africa awarded him an honorary degree and he talks to University World News about this and challenges in higher education.
UWN: You have just bagged an honorary degree from Stellenbosch University in South Africa. What does this mean to you?
EA: It means a lot to me. It is my first honorary degree from a university in Africa and just not any university, but Stellenbosch, which has a rich history and tradition in the region, so the recognition from this institution means the work we have been doing over the years has been acknowledged by our peers. That, in a way, reflects the growing interest of South African universities in other countries.
UWN: You have seen it all. From being a lecturer, researcher to vice-chancellor. Who is Ernest Aryeetey?
EA: I am just an ordinary academic, who has been fortunate to be given responsibilities at different points in time. I started work after school at the University of Ghana, as a research fellow.
I was in that position for five years before I was promoted to senior research fellow, which I did for three years before becoming an associate professor and then a full professor.
I later became director of ISSER. I think my success to a very large extent was due to what we were able to achieve at ISSER, where we transformed the institution from one that was not going anywhere and didn’t have much international recognition by bringing in young people who were ambitious and aggressive to build careers for themselves.
We were able to change things and started getting grants. That is how, in my view, we were noticed in Ghana. In the 1990s, everybody had written off the universities and people were creating think-tanks to do the work that the universities should be doing.
What we did at ISSER proved that given the right resources, universities can compete against any think-tank. I believe that propelled me to the position of vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana. It was like telling me, whatever you can do at ISSER, come and do it at a bigger institution.
UWN: Was it a choice to remain in academia, or was it academia that found you?
EA: I went into academia because I was very curious. I have always been a researcher, looking for answers to questions. The type of research that I did was motivated by my own experience as a child.
What I saw at the marketplace influenced the kind of research questions that I raised. I did a lot of research into informal finance because, growing up, near the black market scene in Accra, I saw susu collectors, an informal traditional banking system in Ghana, and wondered how their work affected banking operations and that encouraged me.
I have been in academia because I am very interested in finding answers to questions. Academia thus provided me with the opportunity to do what I really like to do. On top of that, I like to communicate with younger people, which is why teaching became an important part of my life. So, with that interest in teaching and research, the only place to be in is academia.
UWN: What was it like when you were appointed vice-chancellor?
EA: I was very, very excited. The fact that my peers found me a credible person to hand over the entire university to lead was exciting to me. It has never been my dream. When I joined the university, I was not expecting to become the vice-chancellor. It was far away from my thoughts, and I never worked towards it. By the time I became vice-chancellor, I thought I have seen it all, been at the university for over 20 years, I knew its challenges and opportunities and what its potential was, and so, in accepting to do it, I knew I could do it.
UWN: There are some people who say there is a need to train university administrators. Do you think you were prepared?
EA: I was prepared. I had no doubt in my mind that people who administer universities or those in administration are trained professionals. But I don’t think you need to be an administrator to be a vice-chancellor.
The position demands someone who has the authority of knowing how the work is done. You must know how research is done. The job is also to encourage and support people to do their work as lecturers, researchers and administrators.
There is no way you can adequately motivate these sectors if they don’t believe that you know how to do research. I have heard many people argue that anybody can be a vice-chancellor.
By the time I was a vice-chancellor, the critical meetings were those with the academic board to plan the academic programme of the university. You will not be taken seriously if they know you don’t know how to teach… you don’t do research.
But I was very effective with the management of the academic board because I spoke from experience. It made them sit up. If you are just an administrator, the academics are not going to take you seriously.
For this reason, I believe there should be a well-trained professional to support the vice-chancellor. Such professionals don’t have to run the university because an all-rounder must be put in charge of universities. But a good visionary academic who understands management can support the vice-chancellor.
When you have a good academic [as a vice-chancellor] who does not understand management, there will be a problem. If the person knows management but does not understand the core business of the university, which is basically academic, there will be a problem.
UWN: Looking back, what would you say was your legacy at the University of Ghana?
EA: There were many things that we tried to do. Some of them worked, while others didn’t work. I will not say ‘legacy’, because for me, what fills me with pride was giving young people the chance to prove themselves, for instance, encouraging them to go and do their PhDs and supporting them as well as providing them with the incentives to come back [to the university]. Also, motivating them with grants to get more into research and to write papers for conferences.
So today, when I look back at the University of Ghana, and I see all those young people that are steadily rising through the ranks in the system, I feel pleased. If we had not incentivised them, those young people would not be there today. Currently, the University of Ghana has 75% of its lecturers with PhDs, which is the highest in Africa. So, I am happy that I was part of the system that made it possible.
UWN: What did you not get right during your tenure as vice-chancellor?
EA: There were many things we didn’t get right. This was because we always encountered pushbacks. The biggest problem that we faced was the government trying to have political engagement with universities.
This was something I fought strongly against and will fight against. As a result of that, a lot of things that could have happened properly didn’t take place because the university was a divided place as we had a people divided along political lines.
Thus, simple decisions could not be taken because there was a political group telling another not to accept [ideas or changes]. A lot of tensions that took place were all motivated from outside. So, it made administration difficult. It made working with your colleagues difficult. For this reason, we need to get politics out of our universities.
UWN: You are now secretary general of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). What does it do?
EA: ARUA is a network that began when I was vice-chancellor. The motivation came from the realisation that African universities are not taken seriously, even by our governments, because they don’t think we are able to do the type of things that should inform policy-making.
So, what it means is that you can be at the University of Ghana and may have been publishing research and papers, but the Ghana government doesn’t pay attention to what you write about. When they make decisions, they will rather go to some European or American who has written something and quote them extensively, or because the World Bank says something is important.
So, the idea was [to look at] how do we work together to strengthen each other and through this we make more impact? We all talk about the Sustainable Development Goals, of these 17, only one or two are attainable by most African countries.
For the rest, the only way we can come close to attaining them would be if we change our agriculture, change the way we deliver health, and to change the way we can achieve this is by applying new knowledge – and it takes money to apply new knowledge.
We also know that individual universities cannot do it on their own. That is why we wanted to come together [as a network of research universities in Africa] to find answers to our challenges by sharing resources. The main motivation was to work together to enhance research in our region.
UWN: So basically, ARUA is in existence to help universities do research?
EA: Yes, to do research and better research, vigorous and relevant.
UWN: What would ARUA want to do in Africa?
EA: We would like to see many more universities doing research and we would like to see the research culture in the region change. We would like to see governments take us more seriously.
Today less than 3.5% of the global knowledge takes place in Africa. We want to increase this from less than 3.5% to 5% within the shortest possible time. We want to see the number of Africans who have done PhDs increase and who are in universities to be involved in research.
Africa needs lots and lots of PhDs not just for the title, but for the work they are supposed to be doing. We want to see our government pay more attention to what we are doing.
We want to see the private sector in Africa relying more on research and development from Africa. Many of the firms in Africa that would like to use research and development buy it from Europe and North America. We want to see this change. We want to see our central banks use more of our economists, increasing the number of people who can work with African governments and [the] private sector.
UWN: In order to achieve what you have set out for yourselves, how have you directed ARUA so far?
EA: We have created Centres of Excellence and we have 13 of them. Very soon, we will have 20, and each of these bring people together to work on projects. So, the centre in Nairobi, Kenya, for instance, focuses on communicable diseases.
Its primary objective is to mobilise all Africans who work on communicable diseases to develop projects which will be done in their own countries, working together to find answers to our challenges.
We have carefully selected the 13 Centres of Excellence to resonate with the Sustainable Development Goals. If they are successful, Africa becomes successful because we are able to find answers to questions that African governments have.
UWN: There must be some challenges, what are they?
EA: There are many. Finding money is not easy. When it began, our largest funder was the UK Research and Innovation. With COVID-19, we saw how the pandemic affected their funding and they haven’t recovered yet.
So, as we look into the future, we have to look at a more diversified portfolio of funders. I remain optimistic that because of the nature of what we are doing, we will be able to increase the number of funders that we need.
We are working with the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, if that becomes successful, it will help us build the infrastructure that we need. It will help develop the programmes that we need and assist us to grow extensively.
UWN: How have African governments responded to ARUA?
EA: Not much. The biggest success we have had is in South Africa where the government, through South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF), provides a lot of support for universities and their partners. In other countries, we haven’t seen similar support forthcoming.
We are working through the science-granting councils to encourage African governments to set up similar structures like the NRF. We have also tried to get the attention of the Africa Union. In fact, getting African governments and their institutions to buy into what we do has not been easy.