Making tertiary education relevant for the job market; should the assessment regime be revised?

The recurring debate that Ghana’s tertiary educational system “is not fit for purpose” has garnered attention and the discourse keeps creeping up every now and then. One of the major highlights is, should I say, the famous or infamous Senyo Hosi’s “outburst” in August 2019 that: “I have three degrees; all from the University of Ghana. I won’t hire anybody [from UG], it’s simple.

And it’s a matter of substance: what do you churn out? You are churning out people with degrees, not people with an education, not people with skills on how to live; that is the problem…”

From the way I understood it, Senyo Hosi sought to somehow fault our tertiary institutions for not providing students with the right skills needed for the job market.

As controversial as it may be, this assertion by the CEO of the Chamber of Bulk Oil Distribution caught the attention and indeed generated perhaps the longest and widespread discourse on the subject for days, including being featured on the popular JoyNews discussion programme, Ghana Connect.

For some reason, the controversial subject matter has resurfaced and this time around, with a reported statement by the Rector of GIMPA, Prof. Samuel Kwaku Bonsu. Prof. Bonsu is reported to have said on Joy FMs Personality Profile on 4th November 2021 that, “Our graduates are not good enough for the job market because they are fixated on making the grades rather than focusing on gaining knowledge.”

Just as it happened in the case of Senyo Hosi’s outpouring, reactions to Prof. Bonsu’s assertion has been greeted with a huge backlash on social media. As expected, about 95% of the social media reactions would rather put the blame squarely on our institutions.

In essence, the social media critics were suggesting that, if graduates are truly fixated on gaining marks and not knowledge, as asserted by the learned professor, then the institutions must be held responsible. Indeed, many of the critics were outraged and held the view that, it was a misplaced priority for a highly-placed person in academia to be insinuating as such.

While the critics have the right to disagree, unfortunately some of the comments attacked the personality of the Professor, which I think could have been avoided. Be that as it may, is it really the case that, our graduates are fixated on gaining marks and not knowledge?

I was still struggling to reflect on the merit of the statement when I was hit with an escalation of the discourse as another important personality, the Broadcaster Bridget Otoo, is reported to have lamented just six days after the Professor’s assertion on Ghanaweb that, when she left Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ), she could not write a single report, although she had earned a degree in Communication studies.

From all indications, she seems to also suggest that the training she had at GIJ was “crap” and not fit for the job.  Thus, we have this situation on our hands where three very important personalities in the country with very rich diverse backgrounds as CEO and industrialist, an acclaimed academic and a respected broadcaster/beneficiary of the system, respectively suggesting that our educational system might not be “fit for purpose.”

This is definitely instructive and should be worrying. In academia, we may say, there is triangulation in the position taken by the three personalities and hence cannot be ignored. Reading through the literature, I get the sense that, if it is true that our students are fixated on passing examinations instead of gaining knowledge, then one of the areas we could turn to for corrective action is the assessment regime in place.

This is because from educational psychology perspective, it is established that, students are generally motivated by the assessment regime in place which also tends to influence their learning preferences.

Thus, if the suggestion that students are fixated on passing examination is valid, then the plausible explanation will be that, the mode of assessment might be encouraging that. In this case, the obvious question may also be, shouldn’t the institutions then be held responsible? Well, that might not be as simple as it seems.

Generally, students are always in a state of trepidation when the word assessment is mentioned. As such, no matter how good an assessment mode is intended to be, the literature suggests that, most students care about their grades and would therefore be pressurized to strategize in rather focusing on passing the assessment.

This is what is called the BACKWASH EFFECT in educational psychology by Professor John Biggs, a renowned educational psychologist and writer. According to Professor John Biggs, “Students learn what they think they will be tested on.

This is backwash, when the assessment determines what and how students learn to the detriment of what the curriculum is intended for. In a poorly aligned system, where the test does not reflect the objectives, this will result in what is also called surface learning.

There is therefore the need for assessments not only to focus on contents but to include gaining authentic experiences. Apart from including topics that will earn students’ authentic experiences, institutional assessment policy also matters. In this context, the two main options are either standard-based testing or criterion/norm-based testing.

Standard-based assessment is set to pre-defined qualitative statements that outline difference performance levels expected from the student while in criterion/norm-based assessment students are graded by comparing and ranking them using the percentage score, as we commonly do in our examinations.

The criterion/norm-based assessment has the advantage in simplicity and use for a large class. It is however disadvantaged in encouraging students to learn towards gaining knowledge for application. According to the literature, standard-based assessment is the preferred mode for focusing students’ attention in not only passing examinations, but also gaining knowledge.

However, it is also disadvantaged from the perspective that, it demands a lot of work in setting the standards and also in communicating the feedback to the students. Also, in educational psychology, four learning styles have been identified namely: diverging, assimilating, converging and accommodating (DACC). This is known as Kolb’s learning style.

Depending on which style is dominating, students learning preferences would normally exhibit those who are good at viewing concrete situations from different perspective, to those who are more interested in concepts and ideas. There is also those who are attracted to technical skills and those who have the tendency to learn through hands on experience.

Generally, students tend to direct their energies towards the dominant style which also influences their learning preference. There is evidence to suggests that students may also possess every style to some degree. This means that, ultimately, the teaching and learning environment is best when it offers students opportunities to explore all four learning experiences including the dominant style. It is established that, standard-based assessment offers the appropriate space to enable students gain these teaching and learning experiences.

Based on the above, one would then argue, why is it that are our educational institutions have been slow in adopting the standard -based assessment? Indeed, herein lies the bigger problem. We are in a country where educational infrastructure has not expanded to meet the needs of the growing population. What kind of assessment of assessment are our institutions expected to design for students exceeding class sizes of for instance 100? There is obviously going to be the challenge of designing the assessment for such a large class and also in providing feedback. Some lecturers are indeed handling student classes of 200 plus.

Obviously, the type of assessment that would open the students to different learning styles would be limited, if not impossible. So, the question is, does the educational environment including space and infrastructure provide opportunities for lecturers to allow students to explore the dominant styles whilst at the same time enhancing their skills in the less dominant learning styles?

This might be the root cause to the current problems that we are facing, as suggested. If so, how then do we begin to seek solutions.  It is perhaps high time we begin to have serious discussions about our assessment policies vis-a-vis the appropriate classroom size and also how to engender the larger economy to offer variety in best practices in our industries. We also need to hasten our attempts of expanding access to tertiary education and also decentralize academic programmes to all parts of the country be it the district, municipal and metropolitan levels. There would also be the need to expand access to training and recruitment of staff, to help reduce the student – staff ratio to acceptable limits.

Again, there is also the larger question of whether the economy has expanded well enough to provide authentic experiences in industrial practice. Notwithstanding the fact that students are exposed to some practical sessions in our institutions, this cannot be enough, as the students required a more extensive practical experience to gain the requisite hands on experience.

After all, after school, the graduate has to work outside the school environment. However, the bigger question is, is our job market-ready enough to support the provision of opportunities for students to gain the requisite authentic experiences. In order for students to gain the requisite experience relating to their professional development, they need to have opportunity to work as interns in iconic companies modelled on international best practices.

With the Ghanaian job market largely characterized by informal practices and small-scale family businesses, there is definitely much to be desired in preparing the grounds for students to acquire competitive on the job skills, matching global trends.

Engendering best- practices in the economy is the surest way to have students gaining authentic experience and that lies outside the scope of what institutions can do. In this context, it is also important that this debate is not centered on only tertiary education.

What happens to those in the basic and secondary schools? With the lamentations that Ghana’s educational system is “chew and pour,” this transcended from the basic into the tertiary education. Perhaps, one will argue that, the Educational Ministry has over the years put in some measures to help address the challenges, but is it also not a fact that, there is still a lot more to be done since the issues are still prevalent. In 1973, the educational system went through reforms which was geared at transforming the bookish nature to a more practically oriented system.

This led to the establishment of the Dzobo Committee, which led to structuring the educational content in 1974. Again, in 1981, there was a review of the 1974 reforms by the PNDC, with the same vision of providing facilities for engendering opportunities for authentic experiences in the educational system at all levels.

There are still ongoing reforms in the basic and secondary culminating in introduction of new subjects and the removal of some. For instance, the Ghana Education Service (GES) as I understand it, has since 2019 been seeking for reforms towards introducing a standard-based curriculum at the primary schools thus from kindergarten to primary six, towards engaging pupils in critical thinking skills.

If there is the view that, our educational system is indeed in a limbo, then there is an obligation for this new framework to be expanded to at all levels in the educational sector. The problem is that, our experiences in many of these reforms have tended to suffer challenges during implementation.

The major task will be how to navigate these perennial difficulties for pragmatic solutions, because the longer the status quo persists, the more it may become disincentive for the teeming Ghanaian youth and a danger for their future aspirations and development.  In the end, we may all have ourselves to be blamed for letting our future leaders and the nation down.

By Prof. Divine Ahadzie



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