‘Nigerian environment disabling scholars from breaking new grounds in research’
Prof. Debo Adeyewa is the Vice Chancellor of Redeemer’s University (RUN), Ede, Osun State. In this interview with UJUNWA ATUEYI, the professor of satellite meteorology assesses the present state of the education sector, asserting that Nigeria has the capacity to become the skills capital of Africa, but an inhibiting environment is its main challenge, among several other issues.
Most Nigerians seem to have lost hope in the country’s education system, so much that even in the face of economic recession, the quest for overseas education still flourishes. What could be responsible for this?
Most Nigerians still have a lot of respect for the education system in the country up to the secondary level but their confidence is in the private institutions. The challenge we have is at the tertiary level. Most parents would prefer to train their children overseas if they have the means for three reasons. First is the perception that things have fallen apart at the tertiary level in terms of quality. Second is the notion that a university education abroad would fetch a better future for their wards in terms of securing a good job within or outside the country. For these parents, improving employability and entrepreneurial prospects are the issues.
The third is purely elitist. For this category, the quest for overseas education has become a status symbol. The pursuit of overseas education for their children is as a result of their ostentatious lifestyle to showcase their wealth among their peers. But I have come across some parents who could afford to train their children abroad but insist on having them trained in private universities in the country due to the assured quality, discipline and the enduring high moral value in these universities. There are still very good and high performing universities in the country like RUN. The advent of private universities has not only restored hope but dignity in the system through the quality of educational services being offered by these private institutions.
Are you saying private sector involvement was an intervention?
The private sector involvement was a huge intervention in the education system. They have made a lot of positive impacts. Can you imagine the fate of primary and secondary education without the private sector intervention in the country? It is quite obvious that public primary and secondary education has collapsed.
Although the situation of public university education is better due to some interventions by the government, but private universities have actually redeemed the image of the university education, providing succour and alternatives for those who would have sought alternatives outside the country as a result of the battered image of public institutions, due to disruptive activities of unions and errors of omission or commission on the part of government leading to the instability of academic calendar, indiscipline, deteriorating facilities, etc. Private universities have therefore contributed tremendously to the positive growth and development, which the education sector has experienced in recent times.
Do we now have enough public/private universities in the country?
In terms of number, one would be tempted to say that with over 150 Universities (both public and private), we have enough. However, we do not have enough in terms of quality. The emphasis should be on quality, not on quantity. Government is not helping by creating more public universities because they are not able to fund them properly to attain the required quality. Generally speaking, access is still a formidable problem because about 50 per cent of our universities are private institutions and their total enrolment is less than 10 per cent of university students in the country. The low patronage is due to the huge differential in fee regime. A pragmatic and effective way of increasing access would be to empower students to access the numerous private universities that have the carrying capacity but low patronage. Government would be seen to be progressive by putting up policies that could increase the infrastructural quality of both public and private institutions as well as empower students to attend private institutions.
So far, would you say the country is feeling the impact of private institutions?
To a great extent, Yes! Private universities have made significant impacts in bringing hope to the falling standards and academic instabilities that had become the trademark of university education in Nigeria. This is even more apparent at the lower levels (primary and secondary) where most times, winners of competitions at local, regional and international levels come from private institutions.
Private universities now produce graduates who are disciplined, competent and confident. In research, private institutions are providing solutions to age long problems even without governmental support. The most formidable challenge of these institutions is lack of adequate funding and governmental encouragement and support in terms of access to funds and increased enrolment in spite of available carrying capacity. The impact of private institutions would have been more discernible.
How would you scale research and development in Nigerian varsities?
On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate research and development in Nigerian universities as four on the average. Some universities could be rated three (poor) while a few could be rated seven (very good). A research university cannot be rated below seven. So we have only few research universities in Nigeria. As a regional powerhouse in West Africa, this is below expectation.
Our scholars are talented and endowed and most are ready to work and make the required sacrifices but don’t have the enabling environment. Government is not ready to invest in it. Some of our researchers have to travel abroad to access needed laboratory equipment or collaborate with foreign partners to be able to engage in meaningful research. We are addressing this issue critically in Redeemer’s University.
Is the country reaping the benefits of research development as it ought to?
The appropriate answer is no! There are several factors responsible for this. Research and development has not been given the vantage position it deserves. Although there are several research institutes in the country, which are placed under the Ministry of Science and Technology, the research outputs are feeble and there is little or no linkage with ongoing research in universities.
Also, since most academic staff conducts research for promotion and not for impact, there are numerous publications emanating from many research endeavours that are not really exploitable. Furthermore, the research products are not properly documented, disseminated and utilised. The resultant effect of all these is the observable low impact of our research activities. The implication of this unfortunate situation is that the country will remain an importer of research products of other countries.
There is a lot of concern about the high unemployment rate in the country coupled with an idle huge youth population. What’s your take on this?
During periods of recession, an economy usually experiences a relatively high unemployment rate. But the situation in Nigeria is more complex due to the fact that our youth have not been adequately prepared to compete favourably in a highly competitive world. Joblessness is highest in recent times with job growth at an all-time low. Yet, millions of our youth enter the labour market yearly. The situation is quite alarming as it could lead to social instability and unprecedented crisis across the country. The situation is complicated by the fact that most of our youth are unemployable due to lack of necessary skills in spite of paper qualifications.
But we can turn this pitiable situation around by refocusing our education, shifting it from being qualification-based to skill-based. Our tertiary institutions should collaborate systematically with industries in terms of curriculum development, skills acquisition and entrepreneurship. We need to prepare our students for employment opportunities within and outside the country. Our youth bulge can then be used to our advantage. In fact, Nigeria could be the skilled-capital of Africa and other parts of the globe. It’s just a matter of strong leadership, reorientation and determination.
What historic impact has RUN in particular made towards the country’s growth?
Since its inception in 2005, RUN has contributed in providing critical manpower for national development. Many of our graduates are occupying prominent positions both in the private and public sectors of the economy. We have continued to contribute to national transformation through quality of education that develops the total man.
Redeemer’s University is research oriented. We set the pace. We gracefully emerged as the highest rated university for the establishment of the African Centres of Excellence being funded by the World Bank in the whole of Western and Central Africa. It is noteworthy that the first case of Ebola Virus Disease in Nigeria was diagnosed at the Redeemer’s University’s African Centre of Excellence for the Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) Laboratory.
Our researchers have been able to use genomics and deep sequencing technologies to characterise the dynamics of evolution, spread and transmission of Ebola virus disease during the first nine months of the outbreak in Sierra Leone. We discovered the origins of Lassa fever virus through sequencing and analysis of viruses obtained from Lassa fever patients. We found that the Lassa fever virus originated from present day Nigeria, 1060 years ago and was circulating within for about 600 years before spreading westward 400 years ago to other West African countries.
We have developed an Ebola rapid diagnostics test kit (10mins) and a new pan-Lassa fever rapid diagnostics test kit (10mins). Our prototype test kits were deployed for the diagnosis of Lassa virus in the 2016 outbreak in Nigeria. We discovered two new viruses (EKV-1 and EKV-2) in Ekpoma, Edo State, Nigeria. Our ACEGID team is not only the toast but also the pacesetter and cynosure of the other African Centres of Excellence.
Our researchers have won several research grants across the world, worth millions of dollars and continue to receive worldwide acclamations as they publish in highly reputable and high impact factor journals such as Science, Nature, New England Journal of Medicine and Cell. According to a recent report by Elsevier, one of the world’s leading providers of scientific, technical, and medical information, our ACEGID is the best of all Centres of Excellence in Africa in terms of impactful publication, being 3.5 times above the world average. We are the powerhouse for the research and training on infectious diseases in Africa. Undoubtedly therefore, we have made historic impacts even beyond our national borders.
The institution recently celebrated 100 regular senate meeting within its 11 years of existence, what does that mean to the academic community?
Senate is the highest academic body that regulates academic activities as well as manages the quality of curriculum and course delivery. The fact that in 11 years, Senate has had 100 statutory regular meetings apart from other special or non-statutory meetings is a feat because it means that on the average, Senate has met more than nine times in a year and never failed to meet on monthly basis except during long vacations. This is a rare achievement in the Nigerian context where rancour, outstanding results, combined convocations and the likes are quite common.
You turned 60 on February 22, 2017, have we seen the best of Adeyewa?
Not really. The best is yet to come.