The emergence of the global pandemic COVID-19 has changed the livelihood of students and teachers worldwide.
The long-term impact of the global pandemic COVID-19 on our educational system is yet to unfold.
As the spread of coronavirus in Ghana lingers on, Universities have been faced with many uncertainties and questions regarding the future of higher education that remain unanswered while dealing with a plethora of other issues.
Pre-eminent among these issues is the introduction of a controversial Public University Bill aimed at disrupting the foundation of higher education in Ghana.
This Bill which will provide for the establishment, governance arrangements and management of public universities and related matters will when passed into law not only undermine academic innovation and creativity, but also result in loss of institutional autonomy, self-governance, and individual rights and freedoms of academics and students in public universities.
The rationale and philosophy behind the proposed Public University Bill according to the memorandum of the bill is that;
(1) ‘Public universities have veered away from their core discipline’, even though their roles and objectives were clearly defined at the time of their establishment. Therefore, there is a need to regulate their operations in a better way. (paragraph 3 of the memorandum)
(2) ‘Almost every year reports from the Auditor-General reveal grave improprieties in the utilization of resources.’ (paragraph 4 of the memorandum).
Recognizably, public universities in Ghana are semi-autonomous thus government exerts control over matters of public universities to a certain extent. Assuming there is sufficient evidence to back the claim from office the Auditor-General regarding the improprieties in the utilization of resources by public universities, I believe there are enough existing laws to hold to account and/ or punish perpetrators who have mismanaged public funds.
The Criminal Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29) which enlists the various criminal offenses encompasses causing financial loss to the State.
Article 88(3) of the 1992 Constitution mandates the Attorney General with prosecutorial powers to prosecute persons for stated financial impropriety.
The Auditor-General is also empowered under Article 187(7) of the 1992 Constitution to disallow any expenditure which is contrary to law and further surcharge persons responsible for incurring or authorizing such expenditures.
According to the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), the solution to the alleged ‘grave improprieties in the utilization of resources’ is to enforce existing laws and make the prosecutorial and accountability systems work, and if any of these existing laws including those establishing the various public universities are problematic, the relevant sections should be amended.
There is therefore no need for the introduction of a new bill when there are existing laws to check these alleged irregularities.
Apparently, no evidence has been presented by the framers of the bill to adequately substantiate the claim that almost all public universities have “veered away” from their core discipline; neither is there any veritable proof that existing laws that regulate public universities are defective and require a new law to mitigate them.
Rather, the government should in an appropriate manner ensure strict compliance and accountability by supporting regulators in the education sector to effectively perform their mandate and not introduce a new bill that will entirely seize control of the higher education system to the governing political interests in Ghana.
The bill also proposed the establishment of a 13-member University Council of which 6 representatives including the Chancellor and Chairperson and three others would be nominated by the President and government agencies respectively.
This already gives the government a majority of 9 members when it comes to decision making and voting rights.
The unintended consequence of this provision in the bill is that the President can easily exercise control through its government-controlled University Council which would, in turn, result in loss of institutional autonomy and academic freedom since faculty members may be faced with the outcome of being targeted for repression and institutional censorship should they speak or write to express scholarly opinions, facts, and ideas that are inconvenient to external political groups and government authorities.
The results thereof will be a clear violation of article 21(1)(b) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana considering the fact that most decisions and activities of higher institutions would have to be subjected to executive approval.
Clause 5 of the bill which talks about the governing body of the University i.e., the University Council, of which the President will appoint 6 members is also a clear violation of Article 195 (3) of the 1992 Constitution:
‘The power to appoint persons to hold or act in an office in a body of higher education, research or professional training, shall vest in the council or other
governing body of that institution or body.’
This constitutional provision clearly bars the President from making such appointments to the University Council and thus vesting such powers in an executive president would be a constitutional breach.
The bill further allows the President to dissolve the University Council and reconstitute it in the case of an emergency in Clause 5(5).
This provision could lead to staff in top administration of public universities being fired or suspended should there be a change in government or a sitting president deciding to invoke the dissolution of the Council through a manufactured crisis since the term “emergency” is open to interpretation and can be abused.
Perhaps what is more appalling to student leadership in the bill is Clause 39(3)(a) which provides that “the constitution and other governing instruments of the Students’ Representative Council shall be drawn up by the students subject to the approval of the Academic Board;”
Universities all around the world have statutes (i.e., handbooks) that regulate the conduct of students. Constitutionally, all students have freedoms of association in Ghana and when it comes to students’ governance and making laws that dictate the affairs of students’ leadership, the bill can suggest that the SRC constitution should be in conformity with the statutes of the University, but not intrinsically subjected to the approval by the Academic Board.
Clause 40 of the bill provides that ‘there is established by this Act, a Centralised Applications Processing Service for the processing of applications for admissions for all public universities.’
Obviously, there is no evidence to show that the current decentralized system for application processing is defective.
As a matter of fact, the current system of admissions has worked quite well over the years.
This proposed centralized system of admissions may just undermine admission processes and reduce it to political meritocracy, ‘whom you knowism’, clannism, and what have you as seen in many other government-controlled sectors in the country.
Clause 47 of the bill also states that ‘The Minister of Education may give directives on matters of policy through the proposed Ghana Tertiary Education Commission to a public university and the public university shall comply’.
This particular provision in the bill abdicates the control of the affairs of Public Universities to the Minister responsible for Education as matters on policy cover a range of activities including the establishment of academic and non-academic research collaborations, the commencement of new academic programs, acquisitions, research funding etc.
It is instructive to know that the most obnoxious clause in the bill in my opinion is Clause 48(b) which grants the minister responsible for education the power to amend the name of a public University by a legislative instrument. Should this bill pass in parliament, the incumbent government would be granted the ticket to name the University of Ghana after JB Danquah as it has always been its ambition.
The University Teachers Association of Ghana (UTAG), Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS), former Vice-Chancellors, and other relevant stakeholders from the academic community have expressed gravely their concerns and strongly kick against the proposed bill. According to them, the bill when allowed to pass in its present form will create more problems than it seeks to solve.
Ghana’s Public Universities despite facing numerous challenges have gained unprecedented reputation globally for academic excellence and enviable achievements.
It will be a great disservice to our nation if the fundamentals of higher education are disrupted by the introduction of this Public University Bill.
I, therefore, make a clarion call on the government to listen to the relevant stakeholders and forsake this bill. Let’s not fix what is not broken!!!
Source: Mathias Domlan | UGAHSA JCR VICE PRESIDENT 2019/2020