Counting the cost of the strike in Ghana’s HE sector
Public universities in Ghana are relied upon by the government to spearhead its agenda on quality higher education provision and also to facilitate the participation of its citizenry in the knowledge economy.
These mandates make public universities an attractive arena for highly knowledgeable and skilled personnel and a hub for vibrant labour unions which constantly engage the government on their conditions of service.
Public universities’ staff normally belong to one of four major labour unions. These are the University Teachers Association of Ghana (UTAG), a professional association for lecturers; the Ghana Association of University Administrators (GAUA), a professional body of administrators and professionals; the Federation of University Senior Staff Association of Ghana (FUSSAG), an association for senior staff, and the Tertiary Education Workers Union (TEWU), a trade union representing workers in the education sector.
Even though these unions serve different constituents and normally compete in obtaining better conditions of service for their members, which normally breeds jealousy among their members on campus, they are united in using strike action as a weapon to push their employer (government) into surrendering on issues that concern their conditions of service.
Bone of contention of the latest strike
The UTAG, GAUA, FUSSAG and TEWU accused the government of overly altering their working conditions and intending to selectively apply the same conditions without their knowledge.
Specifically, any time government adjusted upwards, the fuel allowance of the university staff automatically affected their vehicle maintenance and off-campus allowances. This has been the convention ever since these allowances were introduced in the public universities.
Additionally, the unions also claimed that the selective application of the agreement deviated from the status quo and is likely to introduce disparities as the benefit that comes with the new directive is applicable to duty bearers only at the universities.
To the unions, the action taken by government is not only unacceptable but has created a class system in the public university sector.
This triggered a strike action by the four unions from 17 October to 14 December 2022 when the employer assured them all outstanding issues related to their conditions of service would be resolved. As the strike ended, the consequences for both internal and external stakeholders of public universities became clearer.
The cost of the strike action
Overwhelming workload upon resumption
The staff of public universities, upon declaration of strike action by UTAG, GAUA, FUSSAG and TEWU leaves behind a pile of work. These workloads remain uncleared in their absence and pile up as the strike actions proceed.
For example, students’ research project supervisions are halted, board meetings are postponed, works on committee reports to university authorities are suspended, grading of assignment tasks are paused, and requests from the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission (the higher education sector regulator) are not attended to.
Upon resumption, staff are met with a backlog of unattended workloads, with the current ones competing for their attention. In their quest to amend the damage the strike action may have visited on both internal and external stakeholders of the universities, the staff, together with management, set short deadlines for overdue activities.
This normally leads staff to endure significant stress in clearing up all these backlogs in their respective offices and in responding to the short timelines of university authorities.
Postponement of graduation ceremonies
Universities use their graduation ceremonies to confirm that the socialisation of their potential graduates is complete and that they are quality assured.
However, the recent strike action by the four unions has led to the postponement of the graduation ceremonies for both graduate and undergraduate students. This clearly suggests that the confirmation of the graduates as newly qualified professionals has been deferred.
Scholarships and academic mobility programmes
The strike action initiated by the four unions seems to have prevented students from applying for scholarships and participating in academic mobility programmes. The postponement of the graduation ceremonies meant that students could not have access to their certificates at the time that these programmes opened to enable them to apply.
For example, the application deadlines for the OR Tambo Research Scholarship, the EU-ECOWAS Scholarship, and Erasmus Mundus scholarships were affected.
Furthermore, to apply for scholarships and participate in academic mobility programmes, applicants require documents, including reference letters, transcripts, certificates and certified copies of certificates. It is clear that the strike halted the administrative operations of the universities, making the acquisition of the above-mentioned documents impossible.
Disruption of the academic calendar
The academic calendar details activities and events throughout the year. For example, dates for lectures, examinations, publication of results, writing of supplementary examinations, departmental, faculty, college and academic board meetings.
The calendar is made available in advance to ensure that all events and activities proceed precisely as planned and without meriting further communication. However, strikes, unplanned as they are, like the November to December 2022 strike action, disorganised the schedule of activities captured in the calendar of the public universities.
Resumption of work after the strike resulted in the readjustment of the academic calendar in order to achieve the annual set goals of the universities. The readjustment of the calendar and the role expectations that come with it normally stress staff in their quest to meet the university management expectations.
It is documented that only 10% of graduates find jobs after the first year of graduating from a university in Ghana, according to 2020 information from The Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research.
This implies that the strike action that has led to the postponement of graduation ceremonies from November 2022 to the first quarter of 2023 for most public universities means that the job acquisition time for graduates from public universities has been extended unconsciously and is likely to exceed the first year after completing their studies.
It is also likely that, by the time students graduate, employers may have filled the available job vacancies with graduates from private universities and applicants who obtained their credentials from overseas. This has the potential to derail the career aspirations of graduates from public universities.
We have, through this article, projected that, even though the strike action of the four labour unions occurred at the time most of the public universities had vacated, it had serious consequences for some students. It is also clear that the strike did not only affect students and the government.
The strikers, themselves, were negatively impacted because, upon resumption after their strike, they were compelled to work to meet the expectations of the university management per their readjusted timelines. In their quest to satisfy the desire of the university management, it seems most strikers underwent stress.
So, although strikes are targeted at the employer and students are tagged to be the ones who suffer, it is not always the case. The effect of strikes on strikers, themselves, is often ignored.
Patrick Swanzy (PhD) is an education quality specialist, Raymond Selorm Anyasu is a masters student in science education and Emmanuel Sasu Boakye a masters student in mathematics education. All three are based at the department of teacher education, Kwame Nkrumah University of Technology, Ghana.