For those who had a taste of the country’s educational system in the 1960s, ‘70s and even early 80s, they normally describe it as the good old days, compared to the system since. So, what aspects of it made it the good, as compared to what some describe as the ugly today?
In an interview with him the other week, the Minister-in-charge of Tertiary Education, Professor Kwesi Yankah, recounted some of his personal experiences as an undergraduate in the 1970s.
A former Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Legon, Professor Yankah recalled that the academic standard at the universities in the 1970s was very high. According to him, they had what was called First University Examination (FUE) where if a student failed in the exams he or she was kicked out. That, he said, was to ensure that those who started the university programmes were of good quality.
He explained that most students at the time did three courses during the first year and in the second and third year they specialised. However, those who did Bachelor of Arts General carried all the three subjects depending on their capabilities.
He said tertiary students enjoyed free tuition, free meals and were given allowances. The allowance was within the range of 32 Cedis. “At that time we felt we were big. Some used the allowance to purchase big books and for their own upkeep. Others used it to look after their parents,” he stressed.
However, in his estimation a lot has changed. “Funding has changed, boarding is no longer free, free meals has been abolished, new courses have also been introduced. Even though currently university tuition is supposed to be free they have tried to introduce some hidden fees that make it difficult for students to pay,” Prof Yankah indicated.
He explained that in principle free compulsory tertiary education will be good, which in the end will boost the quality of the country’s human resources.
The Education Act of 1961 made primary education compulsory, and for that matter, a parent who did not send his/her child to school was liable to a fine. The Act also made provision for the establishment of private educational institutions.
The Act delineated the responsibilities of central and local governments regarding the financing of education. Central government was to be responsible for teachers’ salaries. The building, equipment and maintenance of all public primary and middle schools became the responsibility of the local authorities. So primary education in the 1970s was virtually free.
A surge in enrollment at all levels
The effect of the Education Act on enrollment was dramatic. Enrollment in public primary and secondary schools more than doubled within the period. Children long past the normal school entry age of 6 entered primary school in response to the policy of tuition-free primary education and children who had dropped out of school were able to re-enter at the point where they had left. Gains were made in the enrollment of girls.
There was further rise between 1972/73. The gross enrollment rate (GER) in 1970 was estimated at 62% at the primary school level. The GER continued to increase during the 1970s so that by 1980 it stood at 80%.
Although there was an increase in the numbers enrolled in school and in the gross enrollment rate there was a concern about the quality of the output of the education sector. A UNESCO report on education in Ghana published in 1970 had this to say: “Generally Ghana’s education services are not producing the kinds of quality manpower needed by the economy. The educational system is not providing an adequate base in English and Mathematics and offers little exposure to practical work.”
So to get round the constraint of insufficient physical infrastructure to accommodate the rising enrollments, a two-shift system was introduced in 1968. In the 70s due to the high level of education in Ghana, a group in the United States organised an essay competition for secondary schools in Africa, code-named: “Inter-African Annual Essay Competition,” which saw Ghanaian students being always being among the top three to be selected. The top three winners were sent to the USA to live with host families for three months. Former MP of Ahafo Ano South, Mr. Stephen Balado Manu, won one of the essay competitions.
Students spent more years in school in the 70s
The education system introduced during the colonial period required that students spent at least 8-10 years before they could enter secondary school. In the 7-Year Development Plan concerns were raised about the length of time it took to complete secondary school. To address this issue it was proposed that children should be selected to secondary school after six years of primary education. The middle school system was to be replaced by continuous schools that would offer courses of a vocational nature. Some continuous schools were established but no significant changes were made to the primary and middle school system.
However, a new educational system was proposed in the Five-Year Development Plan for the period 1975/76-1979/80. It aimed at reducing by four years the length of time taken by the average child from elementary school to the end of secondary school. It also aimed at introducing a curriculum with a large practical content aimed at equipping the individual with skills relevant to the needs of the country. The new education system was to be implemented in September 1974. In this new system the middle school was to be phased out by 1982-83 academic year and replaced by the Junior Secondary School.
The education sector entered a crisis phase in the 1979 with the GER declining to about 70%. The sector suffered from a decline in the supply of teachers as teachers left the sector and country to find more remunerative employment elsewhere. There were shortfalls in the supply of learning and teaching materials and a failure to maintain the physical infrastructure in schools. Real per capita incomes had been falling in the late 1970s and early 1980s and as households faced hardship the response was to withdraw children from school.
The public sector was the main provider of education at the primary and tertiary level. At the secondary level, although most of the senior secondary schools were public schools, the vocational schools sub-sector was dominated by the private sector.
Educational structure in the 70s
The structure of the education system in the 1970s before the reforms was such that to complete pre-university education could take between 13 and 15 years. This variation in the number of minimum years was because there was essentially a three-track system in place. Children who managed to complete primary schooling could take the middle school track and end their education after completing four years of middle school.
It was possible to skip middle school and enter secondary school after sitting the Common Entrance Examination in primary 6. The alternative was to do one or two years at Middle School before sitting for the entrance examination to secondary school. The reforms replaced the three-track system with a one-track system. All children were expected to go through a minimum of nine years of education, i.e., six years of primary and three years of junior secondary education. They could either enter the world of work or continue to the secondary level.
The current educational system
Ghana presently has a 6-3-3-4 educational system. Pre-school is not compulsory. Children are expected to enter the first year of primary school at age 6. The first nine years that make up basic education consists of primary education of 6 years and 3 years of junior secondary school. Basic education was supposed to be compulsory for all children of the relevant age group.
Unfortunately, universal primary education was not achieved in Ghana at the time. An official selection process occurs at the end of the ninth year of basic education when all pupils take the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). Individuals who want to continue their formal education have the option of attending senior secondary schools, technical schools or vocational schools.
The reforms began in 1987 with the intake of the first set of Junior Secondary School entrants. The senior secondary school system began in 1990 and the first examination was taken in 1993. The middle school system was phased out in 1989 when the last set took the Middle School Leaving Certificate. The ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level systems were phased out in 1994 and 1996 respectively.
In the 1970s teacher training took place at the secondary level. Graduates from the middle schools entered teacher training colleges and obtained a Certificate ‘A.’ Specialist courses were available at the post-secondary level for secondary school graduates. The technical institutes also had placements for middle school certificate holders.
Meanwhile, many children from well-off backgrounds began attending private primary schools to gain direct entry to secondary education. Thus, whilst the majority of Ghanaian children were going through a 6-year primary, followed by 4 years middle and 7 years secondary education, making 17 years of pre-university education, a minority from well-off backgrounds were doing 13 years of pre-tertiary education. Competition, selection and choice began to take root in primary and middle school education which limited access to secondary education, especially for children from disadvantaged and poor households (Addai-Mensah, Djangmah & Agbenyega, 1973).
Enrollment into the universities in the 70s
The attainment of university education was the ultimate goal of most Ghanaian students in the 70s. However, the nation’s three universities at the time were able to admit only a small fraction of qualified applicants because of limited facilities and faculties.
Before one could enter the university in the 70s he or she went through the Ordinary and Advanced Level (O and A) examinations. And so, one had to have good A’ Level passes to enter the University of Ghana (UG) – basically one had to have 3 A’ Level subjects with at least one ‘C’ where the grades ranged from A-E, with A being the topmost grade.
It is also relevant to mention that even though a number of the social science and humanities courses taught at the universities overlapped, there was a degree of specialisation regarding the courses that each university offered. For example, students seeking degrees in public administration were most likely to seek admission to the University of Ghana, Legon, while those with interests in Science or Maths based disciplines such as architecture, pharmacy, agricultural science, engineering, and fine art preferred the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ashanti Region.
The University of Cape Coast was known for training graduates to teach in the nation’s secondary schools.
The university academic year (two semesters) run from late September through early July, and majority of students spent four years working toward their first degree. Somewhere in the middle of the 70s the total number of students at UG was in the region of 1,500. It was therefore, a big privilege to qualify as one of the 1,500 out of the hundreds of A ‘Level students from across the country, for admission into Ghana’s premier university.
It was a small community and so students could know each other easily and quickly. There was a lot of freedom, compared to the secondary school life they had just then left. Because they were not many, one would easily be recognised if you failed to attend lectures. It was easy to approach lecturers for help. There was a lot of activity on campus for one to engage in. It was a community of its own with bubbly activities during the weekends and which ranged from sports, religious, entertainment and of course various academic events.
A former student of the University of Ghana, Legon, Madam Vicky Wireko-Andoh, in an interview, described her days at Legon as happy moments.
“I have always maintained that we had the best of university privileges in the 70s and early 80s. Those were the days when we enjoyed free allowances paid to us and which we used to call “Millions.”
She explained, “In my time, it was something like GH¢3 today, but at the time it was three million Cedis. We really went into town with our millions. We went on trips to Lomé, Togo, just to shop on weekends, buy good books or go to the campus shop to spoil one’s self. The men used to take their women out to some of the high-class discos in town.
…We also enjoyed spacious campus accommodation. In my first and second year at UG, staying at Volta Hall, then the only female Hall, we stayed in pairs in a room at the Volta Hall Annex. However, in the third year, we were given single room accommodation, where one enjoyed all the privacy one needed. For some of us, it was the first time to occupy a room to oneself because even at home, we were sharing rooms with a sibling or two,” Mrs. Wireko-Andoh happily receounted.
During meal time students were served three meals per day. Sunday dinners were always special. “We had roast chicken with roast potatoes or yam balls. We were even served desserts like ice cream which was scooped neatly into a dessert bowls. In the dining room at Volta Hall, we had waiters and waitresses who waited on us at meal times in their white uniforms and white napkins.”
She continued, “The university facilities were more than enough to meet every student’s needs. For example, the Balme Library was adequately stocked with enough space to stay all day to do one’s research. Indeed, those days were some of the best parts in one’s life,” Madam Vicky recounted.
However, Emmanuel Takyi, a third year Statistics student of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science had a completely different story to tell.
He said that a closer look at the state of the country’s educational system may not be too pleasant, especially with university education.
According to him, compared with the 70s and late 80s where university students enjoyed virtually everything free, current students are confronted with several challenges and unavailing situations that has not been resolved over the past decades.
“In fact the problems are enormous ranging from poor sanitation, sky rocketing fees for programmes of pursuit, overcrowded lecture halls where lecturers sometimes use mega speakers, overcrowded hostel rooms and mushrooming of student hostels. It is important to also say that some programmes have really lost touch with the national goal and agenda, yet our traditional universities continue to offer them to students without modifying these courses,” he said.
Takyi maintained that student-staff ratios in the public universities were astronomically high to the extent that sometimes a student may never have access to interact with a lecturer one-on-one throughout his/her 4-year study.
He continued: “Do you remember in July this year Parliament had to come in to condemn the practice, for which some public universities were charging from GH¢500.00 to GH¢1,000.00, and some GH¢ 50 for late payment of school fees? That is the state of our current tertiary education compared to the 70s.”
It was during General Acheampong’s regime that the provision for free textbooks was revoked. This was done because of an ailing economy at the time. It was to do with abolishing the student allowances (millions) and replacing with student loans. A demonstration that ensued led to the closure of the universities for a couple of weeks.
A loan scheme was introduced to address students’ concerns. But the issue of university funding was revisited in the 1980s, when the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) administration called for cost-sharing in education. Supporters of the plan reminded critics and protesters that the economic privatisation and reforms that characterised the 1980s were consistent with the education policy. Students’ protests notwithstanding, the universities announced admission fees for first-year students in the latter part of the year.
From all accounts, the educational system in the 1970s and early 1980s could be described as one that literally pampered student and gave them the latitude to develop their academic and individual potentials. Things unfortunately changed as tertiary educational intakes grew and the economy could not withstand free tertiary education in this country.
Today, even with the mushrooming of private universities and with a few more public universities added, facilities in our higher educational institutions are squeezed and the cost of education keeps rising. The question would always be asked, educational opportunities, then and now, which was the best? The answer perhaps lies in the eyes of the beholder.
By Kofi Owusu Tawiah