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Speeches & Transcripts

The Quest for Excellence in Higher Education: Making Legon a World Class University in Africa

November 14, 2011

Obiageli Ezekwesili

As Prepared for Delivery

ACCRA, November 14, 2011—Thank you for the very kind introduction. Honorable Minister of Education, the Distinguished Chair of the University Council and the Vice Chancellor, students and faculty, fellow participants, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, it is wonderful to be back in Accra and to enjoy the unique warmth of the hospitality that only Ghanaians offer so well when they say and truly mean that heart-warming word of welcome: “Akwaaba!”

Let me take a brief minute to acknowledge a couple of my many outstanding friends. Let me express a sincere word of thanks through my good friend the Honorable Minister of Education to the Government and the people of Ghana for the welcome but more importantly for the huge investments they have made in education in this country. Hundreds of thousands of Ghanaian teachers who benefited from it went on to bring education to millions across Africa.

Remarkably, the Government of Ghana already spends about 30 percent of its budget on education (almost 9 percent of its GDP) which is higher than the world average of 18 percent of budget or 4.3 percent of GDP. The good news is, therefore, that you have done and are doing a lot. The bad news is that India, which has expanded its education budget by 31 percent since 2010 is still doing better than Ghana. So it is important to pursue the reforms needed to grow the economy even faster, to help expand the fiscal space for new spending in higher education and to squeeze more efficiency from current spend.

Please permit me to also acknowledge my brother, Professor Ernest Aryeetey for his outstanding work here as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Legon. It is appropriate for me to do the proudly Ghanaian thing by telling Professor Aryeetey as you say to your friend and brother here in Ghana: “Charley, you have really done us proud!”  And, let me say one more thing to Professor Aryeetey.

Charley, you have gotten to that point where only few achieve in their life time… the point where you no longer belong only to your country of birth, but to Africa… where you speak no longer for Ghana but for Africa… where you fly not only the Black Star of Ghana - as important as that is – but also you fly the many rainbow flags of Mother Africa. You are, I believe, in the league of Africa’s finest intellectuals... I would dare to call it the African Intellectual Hall of Fame to which belong the likes of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Cheick Anta Diop, Kofi Annan, Ali Mazrui, and only a few others... My thanks to you, but also to the outstanding faculty members whose hard work and devotion to the extraordinary students of this university combine to make you an excellent Vice Chancellor.

Now, as our people say, when an African praise singer lauds your achievements, he or she is about to ask you for a favor or is expecting you to lavish them with money. Indeed! We are gathered here today because we want to ask Professor Aryeetey and his colleagues, the Government of Ghana, the private sector, Ghanaian families and students to do more for us all and to ensure that they deliver on the promise of a world class university here at Legon.

Honorable Minister, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I could give you another speech, explaining the many things all of you already know. But what use would another speech be? We all know what we must absolutely do – and not only do, but excel in doing – for Legon to gain “world class status”. So, instead of boring you with another speech rehearsing those points, I thought I should cut to the essential. Later, I would like to challenge you to think out of the box as you take on this challenge, but first let me begin by drawing your attention to three key findings from one of our most recent reports (Accelerating Catch-Up: Tertiary Education for Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa) on this issue.

First, the report concluded that a more knowledge-intensive approach to development is not an option for Africa. It is likely the only path that will lead to sustained development. The good news is that many Sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana, have realized this and are embarking – as you are doing here today with Legon – on the path to laying that foundation for a competitive Ghana in a knowledge-based, globally interwoven and interdependent global economy. High youth unemployment across Africa – where seven-to-ten million young people join the ranks of job seekers every year – places a particular burden on us all – governments, communities, private enterprise, development partners – to create jobs and expand income-earning opportunities for youth, especially girls and women. Yet, with a secondary enrollment rate of 45% and tertiary GER of 6%, applications for admissions outstrip supply by a large margin. Thus, while there is nothing wrong with investing in a few institutions towards world class status, we must not lose sight of the need to build a diversified system that offers adequate opportunity to the vast majority of young people in an affordable manner.

Second, we need to pay more attention to quality and relevance of higher education to economic growth and competitiveness, even as we continue to expand access to tertiary education and ensure that universities have more dynamic and visionary leadership at the helm. Our progress in this area coming from a very low starting point means that only about six percent of Africa’s potential tertiary age group is enrolled in tertiary institutions compared to a world average of 25.5%.  In fact, nine of the ten countries with the lowest tertiary enrollment in the world are in Africa.

Third, is the clear message from the study is that we need to embark on “business unusual” in order to bring about the game-changing transformations in tertiary education that our countries need. The crucial reforms needed, include the need to restructure tertiary education away from the universities founded to serve a colonial administration (where a bulk of students study English and French while faculties of engineering and agronomy have a handful of students only). The reforms should promote regional collaboration to achieve excellence particularly in science, technology and innovation. Institutions like the African Development Bank and us at the World Bank, as well as private foundations and the private sector need to support these reforms to ensure that they help fulfill Africa’s development promise. We at the World Bank incubated the Nelson Mandela Institute and we are currently supporting the Burkina Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering through a $5 million credit to the government of Burkina Faso. There is the Arusha Higher Education Hub under development in Tanzania and the Pan African University Initiative of the African Union with which the Bank is in dialogue. Reforms are also needed in the governance structures of tertiary education systems, which are too fragmented in many countries and the need to reform vocational education in ways that more directly involve the participation of the private sector.

However, we chose to proceed, a few things must be clear. One is that not every African country can afford to invest in quality tertiary education and world class research in all fields of study. We need to leverage our collective strengths across national borders and build linkages with existing pools of world class knowledge – including linking African tertiary institutions with each other and with other institutions around the globe.

We need to be clear, too, that not all post-secondary institutions are universities. There must be room for community colleges. Not all universities should automatically qualify to grant master’s and doctoral degrees, for instance. We also need to work more collaboratively with the private sector so as to produce graduates with the right skills for the job market.

The founding father of this country, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah is known for his admonishment to all Africans: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and the economic kingdom will be added onto it!” I may be wrong, but I dare say that Dr. Kwame Nkrumah made the assumption that Africans would prioritize achieving the education kingdom as a pre-requisite for reaching all other kingdoms. That explains the emphasis and the investments Ghana put then and has continued to put in education... from primary through secondary to tertiary education.

It is, therefore, appropriate that we are meeting here in Accra, Ghana, to discuss one of the goals we have laid out in our World Bank strategy for support to Africa’s development, which is to get as many African universities as possible to attain world class status. It is good to begin in Ghana because too many African countries have benefited from the knowledge dispensed by tens of thousands of Ghanaian teachers who fled military dictatorship into other African countries, bringing Ghana’s signature export service to Africa: excellent teaching. Coming back to the source of that knowledge here in Accra to begin this new effort at building world class universities is consistent with the African proverb which says that “any river that forgets its source will definitely dry up”.

During this conference, you will be invited to help find solutions to the many questions that University of Ghana, Legon, must answer before transforming into a world class institution.

A first question is to understand what a world class university is or is not.

World class universities are known for their very high concentration of talent (faculty and students); they have an abundance of resources (enabling them to offer a rich learning environment and to conduct research); and they enjoy favorable governance features that encourage leadership, strategic vision, innovation, and flexibility. The results they produce, according to a 2009 book (The challenges of Establishing World Class Universities) include highly sought-after graduates (the majority of whom find jobs as they graduate), leading-edge research, and dynamic knowledge and technology transfer.

Why should we bother to set up world class universities? In today’s global knowledge-based economy, it is ideas and innovation – largely driven by universities - that are the new sources of growth, economic development and wealth creation. Our friends at CNN have an expression for it: “Smart is the new rich”. Elite universities play a key role in training skilled workers to be fluent in the latest technologies and to apply their learning to industries, making a broader range of products that win ready customers worldwide. It is such universities that stimulate innovation, trigger creativity, and will contribute to the production of new varieties of goods and services, as well as crops and sources of energy that can create millions of jobs, speed progress toward reducing poverty, curb vulnerability, build the resilience of African economies, help achieve food security, fight disease, pandemics and improve health.

Ghana is the perfect example of how the expansion of access to higher education is interlinked with the solid economic growth and sharp declines in poverty that Ghana has experienced over the last decade. Not surprisingly, the country has seen its number of public and private tertiary institutions grow to over 120 today, leading to a 13-fold increase in enrollment from 14,500 students to over 150,000 by 2010.

How will a world class Legon University be distinguished from its competitors? Our studies are clear that world class universities are distinct from their competitors by the fact that the former have a strategic vision and leadership; and that they rely on four main sources of financing, instead of just tuition or just government funding.

They rely on (i) government budget funding for operational expenditures and research, (ii) contract research from public organizations and private firms; (ii) the financial returns generated by endowments and gifts, and (iv) tuition fees. Abundant money and international prestige creates a virtuous circle that allows elite universities to attract even more top professors and researchers.

A world class Legon University will be an environment that fosters competitiveness, scientific inquiry and academic freedom, critical thinking, innovation and creativity. In line with the findings in a study of 11 leading public and private research universities in nine countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, a 2011 World Bank study (The Road to Academic Excellence), stresses that a world class Legon University will also have a high concentration of diverse and talented academics and students. Leadership, governance and management are key levers. Visionary leadership, appropriate governance, and effective management make it easier to generate and manage additional resources, which, in turn, support building up a world-class group of professors and researchers and attracting talented students.

How to build a world class university. Universities either upgrade or start anew when they want to embark on the path to academic excellence. Many studies also show that world class university status is more easily achieved with niche programs. You would have to determine which niche programs here at University of Ghana, Legon, would work the best. This was the approach taken by the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Pohang University of Science and Technology, the Higher School of Economics, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

This is going to be hard work, but success can come early. If it does, please remember that it is usually fragile and easily reversible, as the study of the University of Ibadan suggests. Then there is the never-ending challenge of achieving a harmonious balance between equipping students with technical skills and rigorous methodologies and imparting the ethical values needed to pursue scientific inquiries in a socially responsible manner.  That said let me leave you with five messages, challenging you to think outside of the box.

First, I have a message for faculty, alumni and those Ghanaians who are keen to give back to their country through their service to this university and others. Every one of you needs to be the inspiration that the students here seek. You have to be capable of detecting and nurturing their talent, and work to ensure that students have the very best environment in which to be daring, inquisitive, inventive, and eager to find practical solutions to the problems of our time. Faculty members here have – in most cases – returned from studying abroad to teach here. You have to find ways of combining with alumni who live abroad and to take advantage of today’s technologies to do what Ethiopian doctors in the United States and Europe are doing to train doctors through an Italian Government Trust-funded ran by our Diaspora Program.

Although adequate, predictable funding from diverse sources is an important ingredient of a world class university, it is heartening to know that the best lecturers do not join this profession or serve our universities for the salary their jobs pay. Lecturers in world class universities do their work well not for the salary. Besides, nothing can quite compensate the long hours you must spend planning classes; the hours you must spend delivering lectures; the headaches you must; the load of extracurricular activity you must embrace; they patience you must show when students do not get it; the time you must spend grading papers; ensuring that each student gets the best feedback on why they got it wrong, and that the high-performing ones understand what they need to do to continue to improve. The University of Ghana, Legon, will become a world class university if you accept yours as an often thankless job... in fact, if you accept it as a vocation to help build a better Ghana for generations unborn. That said, Legon does need to make sure that your pay grows in attractiveness – partly by ensuring the efficiency of its current funding and by finding new and innovative approaches for raising revenue from non-traditional sources, including from the financial markets and international partnerships that provide grants for scholarships, fellowships, study tours and research.

Second, I have a message for the private sector. Universities train students not for themselves but in the hope to make them skilled workers, inventors, entrepreneurs, etc. What that means is that the private sector – perhaps more than every other sector – has a very high stake in the final product being of world class quality. What that means is that universities and funding for universities cannot continue to be the business of only governments and individuals in the education sector. Students who get trained in “big book” but graduate unable to translate what they learned in the university into a contribution at the workplace and in society do not render a service to the private sector which needs to work more with universities like Legon to offer opportunities for students to intern, to get exposure and experience, to develop the habits needed to be successful in the modern workplace. There will always be students who go through university, without any university going through them.

Third, I have a message for those who may be tempted to believe that university drop-outs can only be a failure to our society. Many of your students may not succeed with a formal education, but do not pass them off for failures. An Akan proverb puts even better: “Do not conclude that someone is rich just because you saw him/her head to the farm in a beautiful piece of “Kente” clothe, because it may the only piece of clothe that person has”. There is a University of Life that is perhaps just as important as the University of Ghana, Legon.

Think about it... Where would the world be without Gerard Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, all of who either did not go to or dropped out of college? Gerard Ford built the automobile working part-time after coming home from his regular job as an engineer. He did not learn the trade in some faculty of engineering. The co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs (God rest his soul) and the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, both dropped out of college and built their dreams and wealth leading to the millions of jobs they created indirectly working out of the garages of their parents. World class status universities, no matter how good, will see students drop out.

What I call the University of Life thrives all across Africa today. Anyone who visits the market at Circle here in Accra must marvel at the young girls and men there who repair, reconfigure, unlock cell phones, mend cutting edge flat-screen TVs and other electronic gadgets. They are in the image of the millions of African youngsters in retails or in mechanic shops across Nigeria, Ghana and other countries, who know everything there is to know about a motor vehicle engine. They have everything but the diploma in engineering... The well-known West African business woman without whom retail is impossible across Africa, such as the Nana Benz of Ghana, Togo and Benin, know everything about trade – including trade with China – but they are not recognized as holding a Masters in Business Administration. A Fela Ransome Kuti or a Kodjo Antui may write and play the best music in their genre, yet be challenged by diploma-holding, academic musicians who have not written or sang a note all their lives.

I make this point not to undermine the importance of a formal research-based university education, but to stress the need – especially to the government and business - for solid higher vocational schools and training. Africa is unique and its universities have to be as well. They will make a difference if faculty members become an inspiration for the students who walk through the gates of this campus. Being an inspiration is to recognize that we must listen to all, even the dull and ignorant. As the Desiderata says: “They, too, have their story”.

My fourth message is for students. My three sons are in university now, so I would like to tell you what I tell them. The University of Ghana, Legon, or any other university – Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Nsuka, Nairobi - cannot attain world class status unless the students work hard and strive to excel at all times. New ideas are hatching in your minds. Innovations will come from you. The next inventions – the next iPad and the next on-line sensation - like Facebook or Twitter – are at your reach. The passion to build the new Ghana, to search for and find solutions to the problems of our time must inspire you to achieve.

Let me tell the story of a teenage girl in the United States and hope that it inspires you. Some of you may have heard the story of the 16-year old girl from Richardson, Texas in the USA, who taught herself Chemistry over the summer holidays. She had not yet done those Chemistry lessons in class but because someone in her family took seriously ill from cancer during the summer, she decided to study Chemistry in the hope of finding relief for the patient. When she applied what she had learned, it turned out to be a major breakthrough. She had discovered how to use light to kill cancer cells. Now doctors, hospitals, research laboratories and banks are interested in working with her to advance her discovery.

My fifth and last message is a very short and simple one for government. The examples I have cited of success despite dropping out of university challenge you and the Government of Ghana, Honorable Minister, to work harder to create the environment that made it possible elsewhere for Gerard Ford, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – and soon the 16-year American girl I just mentioned – to succeed and to thrive in spite of dropping out of college or in spite of making a discovery early in life.

What can we do with research grants that we are not yet doing to ensure that those from the University of Life here in Ghana and all across Africa can bring their own innovations to life? A key part of success will come from belief in the creative genius of Ghanaians a trust that young Africans can find solutions where our generation has failed.

A second part of my message to government is that world class universities will not emerge in Africa unless governments accept that universities must be run freely by education specialists; not political appointees; and that universities must be the laboratories affording rights for students and faculty to experiment; think independently and express themselves freely.

Given the important role that government funding and government schools play in molding the minds of children who later end up in universities, it is important that governments realize firstly that they will never have enough money to fund tertiary education alone. That means that it needs to redefine and limit its role to creating an enabling environment for private sector participation (policy, strategy, tax incentives, labor laws, access to student loans, etc.). Governments need to put in place adequate regulations and to set standards and accountability mechanisms. Given government’s heavy involvement in funding basic education, it is important that it gets this right. If we botch pre-nursery, nursery, primary, secondary and high school education, we cannot expect the input into our universities to be good and should not be surprised if the output is less than world class. We can and must ensure that students arrive at university ready to learn; that they receive a quality learning experience while at school; that they leave with adequate knowledge and work-and-life skills to contribute effectively to the well being of their communities and nation.

Finally, governments can play a role in ensuring that university education serves as a ladder for even the poorest in our societies to climb out of poverty. So, wherever the poor but talented cannot afford college, governments, scholarships, support from alumni and private enterprise must sponsor talented but poor students seeking a world class education.

Honorable Minister, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, in closing let me go back to what my invitation to this conference said. My letter of invitation asks if the Africa Region of the World Bank would work with the University of Ghana as a partner to make Legon a world class university that serves the needs of the entire region and is capable of assisting other universities to grow in a similar manner.

Let me answer that in two short sentences. “You do not even need to ask. You have the full support of the World Bank, and that means the World Bank beyond the Africa Region as well”.

Just for your information, between 2004 and 2011, the World Bank has been supporting innovation in teaching and learning in Ghana through the Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund (TALIF) for a total of US$35 million. University of Ghana received almost 20% of the grant through 50 grants with a value of about US$6.5 million. The Bank is now considering a new generation of TALIF to focus on S&T, research and graduate education. The Bank will initially provide technical assistance to support Government efforts to develop a strategy for sustainable financing of higher education in the country.

Honorable ministers, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I wish thank you once again for the invitation. I wish you fruitful discussions during this conference and look forward to receiving the outcomes of your deliberations.