“Perception is Really Important”
Notes From an Interview with Prof. Kwesi Yankah
Dr. Kwesi Yankah is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Ghana, where he also served as the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University until August 2011. He spent the Fall 2011 semester at U-M as a visiting professor in the Department of Anthropology and presented a well-received talk for the Africa Workshop. In this interview with Dr. Henrike Florusbosch, Professor Yankah addresses the state of higher education in Ghana and on the continent at large.
As a higher education administrator in Africa, what do you see as the most pressing concerns for African universities?
The main policy-level concerns at the moment are continuing low literacy rates across the continent and a lagging commitment of governments to higher education, coupled with a low participation rate. Yet the biggest challenge might be how African universities are perceived. Take university rankings: none of the universities in the top 300 are in Africa, and only five African institutions appear in the top 1,000—all five of these being in South Africa. On the one hand, many African universities have now become part of global networks and are able to attract international students. Yet on the other, most of the international students come for only a semester or a year, except some from other African countries. This tells you much about the perception of African universities outside the continent: they are considered not to be up to the standards that students from elsewhere want to get their degree from them. This, in turn, shows that we are not fully integrated into the global network of higher education.
The number of faculty holding doctoral degrees is typically low across the continent—and in some countries, the percentage of those with doctorates is even declining. What accounts for these numbers, and are there any differences depending on the country, discipline, or type of university?
There is a big difference between public universities and private ones. Many new universities have sprouted up in Ghana and elsewhere, and most of these are private. For those newer universities, the percentage of faculty holding doctorates does not surpass 30%, while at an institution such as U-G the percentage currently stands at 68%. The problem is that most universities cannot afford to make having a PhD a prerequisite for teaching, because the human resources are simply not there. But the requirement to have a doctorate in order to work as a lecturer is in fact on the books for all Ghanaian universities, both public and private. However, in practice it has not been possible to adhere to this rule—at least not until recently.
I do think the numbers are likely to improve. At U-G, for example, we have appointed only PhDs as lecturers for the past two years now—new hires without a PhD are appointed as assistant lecturers. So, we are going back to the policy that was always on the books, and insist on strict compliance. U-G is also taking a more active role in facilitating that those who have been appointed as assistant lecturers do in fact obtain their PhD. In two years, over fifty faculty members have received fellowships allowing them to work on the PhD, and we also try to boost the faculty’s capacity to write research proposals that will be competitive in an international arena.
What are the most important obstacles facing graduate students in Ghana and across the continent?
The biggest problem is resources. There are various shortcomings in the general academic infrastructure, particularly in regards to library and bibliographic resources, limited Internet access, and poor science labs. Lack of human resources is a problem as well, because some supervisors don’t have a PhD themselves. Moreover, supervisors often lack the time to properly advise their students and do not have easy access to the results of new scholarship being done around the globe. Those working on their PhD while also teaching face the difficulty of not having enough time to devote to their writing, as some of them are teaching five course or work extra jobs to make up for their low salaries. For those who embarked on their PhD right after getting their Masters, graduate school might have been only a “stop-gap measure” to avoid unemployment, so they may be not all that interested in their projects.
Research shows that the proportion of women with higher degrees has slowly started to increase at some universities across the continent, including U-G. What has the University done that might account for this increase, and what other measures would you still like to see?
Our numbers of female students and faculty have indeed gone up at all levels, mainly as a result of the policy of affirmative action for women that we instituted in the mid-1990s. Since them, the number of female students at U-G has risen from 29 to 43%. For prospective students, affirmative action takes the form of preferentially admitting well-qualified women. Some of these students might not otherwise have gotten in, because each year the U-G has to reject even highly qualified applicants. At the faculty level, we have implemented policies such as preferential housing allocations to female faculty, better childcare options, explicit language against sexual harassment, and active recruiting of female administrators.
The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) recently instituted a fellowship program in response to “the shortage of well-trained faculty now reaching crisis proportions in African higher education.” Do you agree that we have reached a crisis?
The problems I have outlined so far are definitely large and require cooperation with other institutions and funding agencies to solve them. But I want to stress that we are not just sitting back with our arms crossed. At U-G, we are implementing a lot of new initiatives—such as the implementation of the rule that faculty need to have a PhD—that aim to address our various challenges. Another thing we are working on is retention of junior faculty. In the past, a major challenge for African institutions has been that the students we supported to get their PhD abroad did not return. Lately, this trend has been slowing down; at the same time, we are doing a better job linking up our scholars in the Diaspora with their home institutions. We now have a program in place—funded by the Carnegie foundation—that allows Diaspora scholars to spend a year teaching at universities in Ghana. Another Carnegie-funded project at U-G has focused on strengthening our libraries, mainly in the areas of acquisition and improving access to electronic resources. Such resources are key to training the next generation of African scholars and improving their publication agendas.
Speaking of publication agendas, what hindrances exist to high-level research and publication for Africa-based scholars?
This is another area where perception is highly relevant. The general perception is that African-based scholars have low scholarly output, and that their scholarship is mostly descriptive and lacking in theoretical founding. Thus, African-produced scholarship is often turned down when it is presented to so-called international journals. What we need instead are African-based publishing options, with African scholars on the boards who understand the parameters within which knowledge is produced. The University of South Africa Press (USAP) is a wonderful example of this, and the U-G is in the process of setting up a partnership to publish jointly with USAP. The biggest issue is that our scholars do so much knowledge construction—but it is not disseminated properly. Many of our dissertations, for example, remain unpublished, which even leads other scholars to copiously quote from these without acknowledging the sources.
Besides serving in administrative roles at U-G, you are also a linguist. What do you think linguistics and other humanities fields can contribute to the future of Ghana?
The humanities play a tremendous role, and luckily our universities and various funding agencies recognize this. Whenever there is a need to be analytic, make a coherent argument, express yourself clearly, or learn about society, you need to use basic humanities skills. At U-G, we have found that communication skills are crucial for students to succeed, be it in the form of fluent English expression or technical communication; the use of language is key, and this is at the core of the humanities.
What joint initiative between U-M and U-G would you like to see happen in the future?
First of all, let me note that U-M’s African Presidential Scholars program (UMAPS) has really worked well in the last few years. It is good that the field of eligible disciplines has been broadened to include fields like medicine, because African Studies is much broader than commonly perceived. The big thing I’d like to see happen in the future is for us to find a way of sharing access to library and other academic resources. Working here as a visiting scholar this semester, I find the biggest difference is the accessibility of so many resources, particularly through electronic databases. Finding a way where U-M could share its access to these electronic databases with its African counterparts would make a huge difference for our faculty and students.