Ghana's students cry out against government's economic squeeze

As the Ghanaian government has sought to reform its economy in accordance with International Monetary Fund and World Bank guidelines, it has felt a persistent thorn in its side: vociferous university students. For the second year running, three universities in this West African nation were closed mid-year after protests against the government's refusal to increase the students' food allowance.

Now students are back on campus, from Oct. 17 to mid-November, to take the exams they missed in July. But the food issue remains unresolved. And while the universities are now quiet, it is likely only a matter of time before the reunited scholars resume demonstrations.

In a country where labor unions have been cowered into submission, where party politics are not permitted, and opposition figures are regularly detained, students have become the last voice for ``the struggling masses,'' says Jones Osei Ababio, president of the University of Ghana Students Representative Council.

The students' power as an opposition force is strengthened by three factors: an existing structure - a Student Representative Council at each of the country's three universities, all coordinated by the National Union of Ghana Students; the fact that students live close together; and an atmosphere that is generally more conducive to discussion and debate.

Because of the transient nature of student organization memberships, student loyalties in Ghana can vacillate tremendously. In the past, students have sought the removal of a government, and are credited with helping to oust Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong from power in 1978. But in 1982, they helped to rally support for the current regime.

For now, student sympathies seem staunchly antigovernment, mainly because the government policy in question directly affects the students.

At the heart of the current controversy is a demand by the students that the government, which intends to remove all food and lodging subsidies in the education sector by the end of the year, triple the present university feeding subsidy equivalent to 23 cents a day. This sum is enough to buy one banana.

Around this revolves a broader debate sparked by the World Bank, which is using Ghana as a test case for its thesis that developing countries spend too much on higher education, which should be made to pay for itself.

The bank has sunk some $34.5 million into education in Ghana, the first loan it has given to reorganize an entire education system. The loan is part of a $463 million government restructuring of the education system, which has suffered from Ghana's troubled economy.

The World Bank has argued that Ghanaian resources for primary school education should be growing faster than at any other level. So the government advocated eliminating all food and lodging costs for students in secondary schools and institutes of higher learning.

But mere rumors of impending cuts led to widespread protests at the universities last February.

Some students accuse the World Bank of not wanting people of African nations to be well educated. Others say eliminating the subsidy would lead poorer students to drop out of a system already charged with becoming too elitist.

Because of agitation last year, which caused the universities to close twice, the government did not remove the food allowance. But students continued to demand a threefold increase in the subsidy and eventually boycotted classes. Campuses were closed in July.

No announcement has been made yet on whether the universities will reopen for the 1988-1989 academic year. But for now, students are back at school, and seem determined to stick to their demands.

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