Private universities and national development
The involvement of non-State actors – religious organizations, corporate bodies and entrepreneurs – in the education sector in Nigeria antedated the country’s independence in 1960. But, while their participation was largely confined to primary and secondary education – a few polytechnics were operated by private proprietors – private sector operators did not extend their reach to the university level until the onset of civil rule in 1979.
As an extension of the opening up of the democratic space, the education sector was fully liberalized and several private interests floated “universities” in an unregulated manner. However, a blanket ban was imposed following the return to military rule in December 1983. The embargo was enforced by Decree 19 of 1984 and Decree 16 of 1985.
But, owing to the inability of public universities to cope with the demand for university education, the government reverted to the liberalization of tertiary education by Decree 9 of 1993. The decree set strict standards to be met before the National Universities Commission (NUC) could consider and recommend to the federal government applications for the licensing of private universities. The NUC developed and implemented a 14-step template starting with the submission of application and culminating in approval by the Federal Executive Council. Hence, it was not until 1999, six years after the promulgation of Decree 9 of 1993, that Babcock University, Ilishan, Ogun State, Igbinedion University, Okada, Edo State and Madonna University, Okija, Imo State were licensed as pioneer private universities in Nigeria. By September 2015, the number of private universities in Nigeria had risen to 61 and more applications are being processed for licensing.
We should note that there are several types of private universities: the faith-based ones, sponsored by religious bodies; the faith-flavoured ones established by private individuals; and the purely secular ones owned by private entrepreneurs. A striking feature of the private university sector is that most of the private promoters had either run successful primary and secondary schools or been involved in the education sector in other ways.
The mission-owned universities were mainly envisaged as the secular arms of their promoters’ religious outreaches. It appears though that, beyond the passion for expanding access to education, some sponsors were driven by ego in venturing into private university education. This is revealed by their style of funding or administering the institutions, which is at odds with established university traditions.
That said, private universities have come to stay in the face of great odds, including public scepticism. However, a key justification for them was the potential to offer an alternative to crisis-ridden public universities and to provide quality education in a stable and conducive learning environment.
For the record, at least since the onset of the Structural Adjustment Programme in the mid-1980s, tertiary education has suffered from a combination of steady decreases in funding by the government; the mismatch between the exponential increase in student enrolment and the measly additions of lecture room and hostel accommodation; the obsolescence of laboratory and library facilities; the emigration of poorly remunerated staff to the private sector and overseas universities; perennial strikes by staff unions and the attendant cessation of teaching for long spells of time during and between academic sessions; the rising incidence of anti-social behaviour among students (fatal clashes among student criminal fraternities, examination misconduct and drug abuse) and staff (sexual harassment, plagiarism, and examination misconduct), and a decline in commitment to research and academic rigour.
Given the worsening macroeconomic conditions, the decline in the value of the naira and curbs on academic freedom, talented and globally respected professors and scholars fled the country in droves. It was the crisis situation in the public universities that created the conditions for the government and the populace to give private universities a chance to make a difference.
The jury is out on the issue of the contributions of private universities to national development. But, a number of significant contributions cannot be denied.
First, they have indeed provided additional opportunities to prospective undergraduates who could not gain entry into the public universities. No matter how limited these opportunities have been, they have at least added to available ones in public universities. This is significant in the fields of medicine, engineering, architecture and law. Second, many of them have been able to introduce new courses of study which are either not available or are not well funded in public universities. Proprietors of private universities have been more alert to the demands of the labour market and parents for exotic courses that public universities might be unwilling to introduce for their novelty or cost.
Third, some private universities have even succeeded in carving a niche for themselves in certain specialist disciplines, where the concentration of funds and facilities has produced some noteworthy results. Fourth, given the limited resources at their disposal, managers of private universities have had to think out of the box to deliver results. Some have taken advantage of private sector managerial practices, which, coupled with the flexibility of governance and management practices, have made for speedy decision making and implementation. In this connection, some private universities have rationalized courses with sub-optimal student subscription.
Fifth, even though the numbers do not match their public counterparts, private universities have contributed to developing human capacity in many areas of national need. Given their comparatively low enrolment figures and staff-student ratio, and the culture of discipline, private universities have mastered the art of getting the best out of students who are given closer attention in a competitive and conducive learning environment.
These students have proved their mettle in entrance examinations to postgraduate schools in Nigeria and abroad, several winning competitive scholarships and besting the products of much older public universities. During internships and in professional examinations, products of private universities have ranked among the best. Sixth, in a very significant way, private universities have helped to stem the tide of capital flight well before the intervention of the current recession.
Parents who could have spent their hard-earned foreign exchange on their wards’ education in inferior offshore universities in neighbouring countries opted to invest in their education in credible Nigerian private universities. During the current recession, many have found a safe berth for their returning wards in private universities. Seventh, in several ways, private universities have pressured their public counterparts to respond to the competition for quality staff by private universities.
On the one hand, knowing that talented staff now have alternatives in private universities, public universities are more careful in managing the careers of their staff. On the other hand, private universities absorb retired but still active staff of public universities. That way, most private universities have taken advantage of the accumulated and varied experiences of academic leaders in various disciplines, who are also tasked with mentoring young lecturers. Eighth, at least in the faith-based and faith-flavoured private universities, a modicum of decency and civility underpinned by faith-induced ethical values are instilled in students. Many of these universities offer courses in civic education, ethical values and leadership. Ninth, private universities led the way in instituting entrepreneurship as an integral part of university education.
The results are mixed but, on the average, private universities have engaged in healthy competition with positive results in these respects. Tenth, whatever may be said about the grandisose structures on the campuses of older, public universities, private universities have set the pace in creating aesthetically appealing campuses with iconic architecture and beautiful landscapes, which rival some of the best-funded first-generation public universities.
Finally, private universities have demonstrated to the whole world that the maintenance of a stable academic calendar, and the ability to design and implement five-year strategic plans, which used to be the norm in Nigerian public universities up to the 1970s and are commonplace in other countries, can be re-instituted in Nigeria. This was the initial selling point of private universities which promised and consistently guaranteed that their students would matriculate and graduate in the stipulated time frame.
Yet, the foregoing does not apply uniformly to all private universities. Indeed, the public is aware that some of the gains of a stable academic calendar, low staff-student ratio and enforcement of discipline have been offset by shortcomings in governance and management practices in private universities. Poor funding by corporate and sole proprietors is the bane of those universities where the owners fail to make good the pledge of giving subventions till the universities could stand on their feet.
Consequently, several private universities, like some state universities, owe workers’ wages or pay irregularly, have been unable to relocate to their permanent site and have defaulted in providing facilities commensurate with the chronological age of the institutions. Concerns have also been raised by the low quality of governance practices in many of these institutions, characterized by overbearing and meddlesome (religious and secular) proprietors, boards of trustees and governing councils, inexperienced managers and whimsical decision making.
It has also been observed that, quite often, private universities lower the bar in appointing their professorial and non-professorial academic staff and, even senior management staff, either to accommodate the whims of their owners, reward unqualified staff (on the grounds of personal loyalty or religious status), and meet the minimum requirements for NUC resource verification or accreditation of programmes.
A few nomadic and ambitious young academics have exploited job openings in private universities to hop across several of them to get to the top in a few academic sessions without the requisite grounding. In spite of shrill denials, it is also alleged that external forces put pressure on management and teachers to award the high number of first class honours that seems to dominate the graduation lists of many private universities. The haste with which many private universities have started running doctoral programmes and awarding PhD degrees has also caused disquiet in many quarters. As well, the choice (and number) of honorary degree awardees by many private universities has devalued the nobility of the ivory tower and its time-honoured practices.
Private universities are national assets that do not belong exclusively to their owners. Their counterparts in the leading countries of the world enjoy respect and occupy a pride of place in the comity of universities. Private universities have contributed to deepening and broadening the pool of human capital in Nigeria. But they need help in various areas for them to achieve their true potential.
• Prof Olukoju is former Vice-Chancellor, Caleb University, Imota, Lagos State