The West African nation of Ghana has experienced a decade of sustained growth, outpacing that of nations such as Taiwan and South Korea. Its education expenditure relative to income is double the average for Africa, yet as in many developing nations, challenges remain. Today ICEF Monitor takes a close look at those challenges and needs, as well as the nation’s education sector as a whole.
Ghana’s education sector
Children in Ghana attend primary school for six years. The official language of instruction is English, however, students are exposed to French and local languages from an early age.
The vast majority of Ghanaian students attend public boarding schools, many of which are highly competitive; there are only six international private secondary schools in the country, collectively graduating about 300 students a year and offering the International Baccalaureate or A-level curricula.
Junior Secondary/High School lasts three years, as does Senior Secondary School. The latter was introduced in 2007, expanding the system to four years but not otherwise changing the curriculum. This policy was reversed after three years. In 2010 there were no graduates, and in 2013 two cohorts graduated.
Ghana’s higher education system is comprised of polytechnics, universities, university colleges, academies, and tutorial colleges. In all, there are 140 accredited institutions, according to the National Accreditation Board. These schools offer four-year Bachelor’s degrees, as well as two- and three-year diplomas. The latter are not equivalent to Bachelor’s degrees, but undergraduate transfer credit can be awarded.
Admission to Ghanaian universities is competitive, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering, mining, law, business and pharmacy. According to the National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE), during the 2012/13 academic year:
- 109,298 students were enrolled in public universities;
- 47,294 in polytechnics;
- 26,159 in private universities;
- 27,580 in colleges of education;
- 5,048 in other public specialised institutions.
These numbers represent an increase from previous years, but facilities are struggling to meet the demand, a situation made even more dire thanks to last year’s double cohort. Otherwise qualified candidates sometimes must take supplementary admissions tests, or are turned down completely. Competition from students who apply from neighboring Nigeria adds pressure for locals seeking places.
Despite the lack of slots for students, only about 5% of Ghana’s age-eligible population actually moves into higher education, a very low percentage compared to developed nations. And while local universities bestow Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhDs, those degrees are not universally recognised in other countries.
There is also concern among academic observers within Ghana that the education system – considered one of the best in the region – falls short of meeting the highest international standards, and may not completely equip students to function in a global economy.
As for its research and science and technology institutions, it has been said the system is “stretched thin and overburdened in relation to available resources, leaving many of the country’s important science institutions unable to carry out their mandates effectively.”
Emmanuel Amoah-Darkwah, Vice President of the Economic Business Group Africa, has been critical as well, recently writing of graduates in agriculture working as bankers, and citing other degree/career mismatches. He describes business and liberal arts graduates as being produced in excess, and STEM fields as neglected.
The UK NARIC (National Recognition Information Centre) partly echoes those sentiments, pointing out that Ghana most needs graduates in geology, geophysics, and engineering. They also note that existing workers are in need of qualifications from professional bodies such as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), and others.
A 2011 British Council study suggested that Ghanaian students need access courses or A-levels that facilitate progression to the undergraduate level, and that polytechnic graduates often require one-or two-year undergraduate degree top-up courses. At the postgraduate level, affordability concerns mean that students gravitate toward one-year Master’s programmes.
The arrival of international branch campuses may help Ghanaians meet more of their academic needs. Last year Missouri-based Webster University, which is accredited by the United States Higher Learning Commission, opened a campus in Accra, and Britain’s Lancaster University has also opened a branch in Ghana.
More middle class Ghanaian families are investing in their children’s higher education, a fact reflected in higher numbers of students attending schools overseas. Most students are self-funded, but there are a number of scholarships for African students to support their study abroad dreams.
A distinct advantage Ghanaian students have in terms of international study is that, though there are over 70 different tribal groups in the country, each with its own distinct language, the official language of instruction and lingua franca is English, which can ease qualified students’ transitions into overseas academic environments.
As of 2012, 7,845 students went abroad for their studies. According to the US Embassy website, more than 2,800 Ghanaians are enrolled in over 600 US institutions in all 50 states. The website describes their influence as “significant,” as each year’s new cohort is awarded over US$5 million in financial assistance, and Ghanaian students at both secondary and university level routinely gain admission to the most competitive universities in the United States.
Given the prevalence of French in schools, tertiary study in France is not uncommon, but numbers are small. In 2012/13, 268 Ghanaians studied in France.
On the inbound side, all Ghanaian universities operate on a modular semester system as a means of attracting international students. Nigerians make up the largest percentage of foreigners in Ghanaian universities, and number anywhere from 75,000 to more than 77,000, according to some estimates. They contribute approximately US$1 billion to the Ghanaian system, and numbers are expected to rise in coming years.
International students in Ghana come from 62 other countries, but the numbers are small; only 906 according to 2011 NCTE data.
Many universities have committed to drawing more internationals, for example the University of Ghana, which already attracts American and European students, has a goal of building a 10% international student population.
In addition, nine public universities in Ghana and 25 in France recently signed an agreement to cooperate in research in various fields and to exchange findings. Ghanaian and French students will also collaborate on studies and visits with the goal of increasing student and lecturer mobility.
Ghana’s Ministry of Education and the Ghana Education Service have enacted numerous policies in recent years aimed at supporting education, including pushing for free primary and secondary education by 2015, building new schools, improving infrastructure, raising teacher quality, and increasing the affordability of tertiary education.
Other moves over the last twenty years have included upgrading polytechnics into higher education institutions, establishing the University of Development Studies, creating the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund), revamping the regulatory system, expanding distance education programmes, and modifying the student loan system.
However, the country faces finance problems that may hinder its ability to pay for planned projects. Acceptance of a proposed US$156 million loan from the World Bank’s International Development Association may go some way toward achieving the government’s goals, but the budget situation remains dire. Ghana is poised to become a World Bank middle-income country by 2015, which means the questions concern spending, rather than economic growth.
The Senchi Report, produced by a group of Ghanaian economists, criticises President John Dramani Mahama and his National Democratic Congress for depleting public finances and undermining a government commitment to tackle the economic challenges still facing the country. President Mahama has accepted the report’s conclusions and vowed to use it as a blueprint for economic management.
On education, the report makes several suggestions, among them:
- forming liaisons between educational institutions and industry in order to make training programmes more relevant;
- review technical and vocational programmes of educational institutions;
- set up a body to monitor, evaluate, and reform the use of funds transferred to public sector institutions such as the GETFund.
The report notes that Ghana’s finances are constrained by structural inefficiencies. Specifically, the 2013 budget contained expenditures on two items – a wage bill and interest costs on the public debt – that together used 82% of total government revenue, leaving a mere 18% for all other expenditures.
However, observers such as Convention People’s Party official Nii Armah Akomfrah have called the Senchi Report’s recommendations nothing more than “a regurgitation of the same old failed policies,” and said they won’t change Ghana’s situation even if all the recommendations are implemented.
Some additional ongoing challenges for the Ghanaian education sector include:
- limited participation rates for low-income students, women, and minorities;
- difficulty recruiting and retaining young academic and research faculty;
- inadequate research capacities;
- inadequate facilities to support science and technology education;
- more applicants than slots in universities;
- a need for quality teacher training on a large scale;
- youth unemployment – for graduates and non-graduates.
These domestic challenges combined with the increase in the number of families willing to spend on higher education means the country is expected to be a strong sender of international students for the foreseeable future.