In the Introduction to his English translation of the great Chinese classic, The Art of War, Thomas Cleary recounts the story of a renowned physician in ancient China. According to the story this physician who came from a family of healers was asked which of his kinsmen was most skilled in the art of healing.
He replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house”.
“My other brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighbourhood”.
“As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”
The moral of the story is that, in life as in medicine it is always better to anticipate undesirable situations and nip them in the bud or avoid them totally where possible. The physician in his humility recognizes that even though he was more famous than his brothers, their methods of early detection and healing were superior to his.
In August 2013 his Excellency the President established a technical committee under the able leadership of Dr. George Afeti to work out modalities that would lead to the conversion of our 10 Polytechnics into Technical Universities. This move has die-hard supporters and equally intractable opponents. The proponents of the policy change argue that it will improve the image of technical education and training and encourage more young people to enter into it. The opponents on the other hand fear that the change could lead to polytechnics losing their focus and offering more courses in the humanities instead of concentrating on the technical courses.
Ghana would not be the first country to convert its Polytechnics into universities. In the United Kingdom, the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 converted Polytechnics into independent universities. In our quest to do what is best for Ghana, and avoid costly and painful surgery on our educational system in future, it may be useful to see how technical education has fared in the UK since 1992.
19 years after the reforms in the UK, the Guardian of 17 June 2011 reports that Employers’ were raising concerns over skills shortages with nearly three-quarters of firms having difficulties finding people with the requisite technical and specialist skills. The Guardian also sites a paper prepared by a UK think-tank, Policy Exchange which argued that “training in technical skills has been neglected since the conversion of polytechnics in 1992, which has harmed social mobility”.
The newspaper report ends by quoting an Oxford academic, Donald Fraser who called for 100 universities to be turned into polytechnics.
The aim of this article is not to advocate against the proposed move, but rather to urge a sober examination of the developmental and manpower needs of the country and the role polytechnics can play in this regard.
The Accra, Takoradi, and Kumasi Polytechnics were established by the government of a newly independent nation that was eager to industrialize rapidly. Several decades on, the need for a highly skilled middle level manpower to drive the economy is even more urgent. It is for this reason that the Polytechnic Law of 1992 mandates our polytechnics to provide tertiary education through full time courses in the fields of manufacturing, commerce, science, technology, applied social science, applied arts, and to encourage the study of technical subjects at the tertiary level.
Critics of our Polytechnics have argued that the quality of polytechnic education is not up to the standards required by industry. However with the introduction of the Competency Based Training (CBT) mode of training being championed by the Council for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (COTVET), there is a new opportunity for polytechnics to dramatically improve the quality of graduates they churn out. CBT unlike the traditional mode of training is practical and employer centred, which means that training is delivered with an eagle eye on the needs of industry, from curriculum development to the instruction of key competencies and standards.
There is also the need for polytechnics to widen and deepen their links to industry to enable them adapt more quickly to the changing needs of the labour market. This should start with a sound analysis of the labour market, and its needs in terms of competences.
They must also resist the temptation to introduce more courses in the humanities since there are enough universities doing that already.
Ultimately these institutions will not be judged by their names (polytechnics or technical universities), but by the role they play, or fail to play in the socio-economic development of Ghana.