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Transforming university education in Nigeria – Part 3

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National-Universities-Commission

The government has responded to the crises of funding in tertiary education through several instruments and ways. The first one is the agreement it signed with academic staff unions in tertiary institutions, namely Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) and Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU), which is meant to be reviewed or renegotiated periodically. However, such funding increases for a number of universities are largely spent to defray or address issues relating to staff emolument and arrears on various allowances, and not on the issues of improving facilities, infrastructure, teaching and research. This partly explains why staff unions often make repeated clamour for respect of agreement or violation of their demands or non-implementation of agreements reached with the federal government. A second approach of the federal government is its intervention through the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) which it established in 2011. TETFUND was meant to be an intervention agency to arrest the crises in physical infrastructure, facilities, research, publications and foreign networking by tertiary institution staff, among others. The truth, however, is that most tertiary institutions literally now look up to TETFUND annually not to supplement, but, as main source of funds for these critical areas. As indicated in Table 7 below, TETFUND expended a whopping forty-four billion, seven hundred and seventeen million, seven hundred thousand (N44,717,700,000.00) in five years; an average of eight hundred and ninety-four million, three hundred and fifty-four thousand Naira (N894,354,000). Were this sum to be strictly supplementary to a 15-20 percent of national budget subvention, the quality of our higher education would have improved substantially. I wish to now address the role of industrial unions, particularly the Academic Staff Union of Universities in the promotion of better funding for higher education in Nigeria.

At the peak of the crises in tertiary education under General Sanni Abacha in 1996, the federal government used funding of tertiary institutions as a weapon of control. When tertiary institution unions demanded academic freedom and autonomy, the federal government responded by stating that it cannot be funding, almost wholly, tertiary education; yet, staff of such institutions will be demanding freedom to do what they wish such as having autonomous Governing Councils, and autonomously selecting and appointing their principal officers; freedom to express their views and to freely associate, in line with the Lima and Kampala Declarations on Academic Freedom. The federal government objected to this, by asserting that, “he who pays the piper dictates the tune”. Although largely due to misinformation and propaganda and sometimes short-term personal interests; the public vilify staff Unions for being too bellicose and embarking on industrial action at the slightest provocation. Several members of the public and the hegemonic media even argue that the object of industrial action in the higher education sector concern narrow material interests of greedy lecturers. However, this is not a proper reflection of the reality. To be sure, virtually all industrial actions by academic Unions are often an option of the last resort. They are largely patriotic interventions to salvage the system.

These actions have forced retreat from inappropriate policies. For instance, it is to the credit of these Unions that recurrent expenditure of the federal government per University student rose from an all-time low of US$360 in 1999 to about US$1000 in 2003 (Saint 2003:8). The Education Trust Fund (ETF) which is an education tax of 2% assessable profits was an outcome of ASUU negotiations with the federal government in 1991-92 where ASUU had proposed and urged the Federal government to impose a tax of 5% on all companies in the country and set it aside for development of tertiary education. The ETF was established at the instance of ASUU. Contrary to ASUU’s recommendation that the fund be dedicated to higher education alone, the federal government placed all levels of education within the purview of the fund. It was from the ETF that TETFUND was established in 1992 to cater for higher education funding exclusively. The purpose of TETFUND will continue to be defeated for as long as the underfunding status quo of our university system is maintained. May I reiterate again that were government to increase its funding of education to a level between 15 to 20 percent of budget benchmark, TETFUND intervention would have been nothing short of spectacular.

Sadly, while it can be said that through struggles staff unions won some measure of academic freedom and university autonomy. Regrettably, both academic freedom and autonomy have been grossly abused and taken beyond legitimate boundaries. Autonomy emphasizes accountability while academic freedom emphasizes responsibility. It is regrettable that some administrators of tertiary institutions not only lack accountability, they also violate the rights of staff through arbitrariness and highhandedness. In the same vein, some staff unions see the privilege accorded trade unions under the law as a veritable tool to entrench a selfish agenda and sometimes hijack the administration of institutions. It is now the norm for local branches of unions to view the democratic conduct of union elections (as against selection) and rendering of financial account as somewhat of an anathema. In their infantile sense of power, they seek to tele-guide every decision of management. The slightest opposition to their views even in the maintenance of discipline and international best practice, is not only seen as an affront but met with disruptive self-help. Members of staff facing allegation of misconduct, including sexual harassment, financial impropriety, cash-for-grade, racketeering, complicity in cultism and miscellaneous malfeasance bordering on integrity and ideals of the university as a “learned commune” easily find consortium instead of reprehension within our staff unions. This is beginning to rub-off on the credibility that these Unions built over the years.

There is no doubt that the solidarity once enjoyed by these Unions and the student body is increasingly being tested to say the least. It is high time Unions renounced by words and deed this sordid state of affairs in the strongest of terms and begin a process of introspection and ethical rebirth in our universities.
Tokenism and the Theology of Internally Generated Revenue (IGR)

The decline in government funding has made it inevitable for university administrators to fall back on IGR as a source of critical funding. The expectation is that universities would seek efficient ways of developing their IGR initiatives. Going by what operates in other climes, the bulk of IGR ordinarily should come from commercial ventures, research and consultancy services, manufacturing and processing, and alumni goodwill and endowments. Sadly, the incessant disruption of academic calendars and the low trust in our educational system has not given sufficient room for the kind of robust engagement that will develop most of these sources. Consequently, IGR in our universities is generated more from teaching in form of different kinds of part-time and bridge programmes than from consultancies, research and development (R&D). Ironically, in a way, such bridge programs in some cases, are founded on commodification philosophy.

The result is often that the population of universities is over-bloated with part time students; facilities and infrastructure are overstretched, and sometimes there is lowering of entry qualifications in order to make courses competitive and admission attractive; lowering of standards in teaching in order to allow majority to pass; and extended working hours and working time for academic staff. With these pressures, some academic staff teach in secondary institutions other than their primary employer institutions as adjunct staff. This affects the productivity of lecturers especially the quality of their research output and supervision of their main students’ terminal essays and theses. For the perceptive observer, this state of affairs fuels stress-induced fatalities in our tertiary institutions at an alarmingly rate.

Hence, when tertiary institutions say they have IGR of 20-40%, and this has made them rely less on government funding, the question is at what social (quality of education inclusive) and health cost to the managers, staff and students of the institutions was this achieved? We are gradually reaching a point at which the costs of the status quo would be so great as to make continuity unconscionable.
Nigeria’s Higher Education System Compared with Other Systems

As noted earlier, higher education tuition fees is a controversial issue globally. The situation is different from country to country. It is instructive to observe, however, that most European governments, with far wealthier families and more employment opportunities for students, have continued to support either a no-tuition or low-tuition fee regime. Most countries provide various forms of financial support for students such as needs-based, merit-based grants or scholarships; transport, housing, medical subsidies; students loans (to be repaid after graduation when the graduate starts generating income) to take care of miscellaneous living costs. All of these are in addition to student-friendly tax system and proactive work study programs that enable students to be employed within the tertiary education system as research and administrative assistants while undergoing their studies. To be fair, a number of these countries have continued to suggest that higher tuition fees are inevitable. Nonetheless, they recognize the benefits of long-term investment in higher education and have continued to heavily finance it while encouraging a generous corporate culture of student employment through internships and externships as well as through student-friendly scholarships and research endowments.
Rethinking Solutions: The Duty of Different Stakeholders

The education paradox is hydra-headed, firstly whereas investment in education is grossly inadequate, society continues to emphasize certification as an index of socio-economic classification. In our non-Weberian, non-material social classification, the uncertificated are held inferior; irrespective of their informal skills, proficiencies, levels of achievements as artisans or trade persons or entrepreneurs, they are regarded as “illiterates” and therefore socially inferior as a matter of status. The direct consequence of this is a needless pursuit of higher education at the expense of quality technical competence that is quite crucial for a nation such as ours to be globally competitive as Professor Sofoluwe and others envisioned.

My point is that because of the way we have structured our society and its reward system, citizens who would have been talented artisans or trade persons and who could have served as the backbone of our elusive entrepreneurial innovation-driven economy are pressured to acquire tertiary education certifications and to seek formal credentials that make them irrelevant in the real labour market. This has untoward and unintended consequences for our sector. Compared with better developed societies, education beyond the basic level is attuned to innate skills and abilities and emphasis is for higher education to develop skills and potentials to match societal demands rather than an absolute determinism of acquiring higher education for certification and social acceptance. This is why in those civilizations, graduate unemployment does not approach the epidemic proportions we record. Rather than the current push for more universities, Nigeria should be expanding its trade and skills acquisition institutions just like China is currently doing.

The direct offshoot of our current approach is that the demand for tertiary education is beyond what the institutions can cope with, with what facilities there are and what investments government is prepared to make. Our admission system is also chaotic for a similar reason, but more importantly, the situation imposes a greater challenge on education delivery because of the quality we have to work with and as they say, ‘you cannot soar like an eagle, when you’re working with turkeys’.

This situation has had deleterious consequences as the management of tertiary institutions resorted to wholesale commodification of education; proliferation of ill-conceived and poorly taught professional curricula, which were made attractive to teach by enticing honoraria and minimal quality control; and establishment of satellite campuses which depopulated the pool of lecturers who had to play administrative roles in those campuses. Lecturers began to systematically abandon quality research and peer-reviewed scientific publications to teaching and developing modules of these professional programmes. The Universities also profiteered by levying ridiculous and illogical charges such as charging heavily for admission forms, and prohibitive so-called ‘acceptance fees’, administrative cum registration fees and high tuitions. The result is that Nigeria progressively cascaded on the scientific research publication ladder and international ranking. According to World Bank figures, Nigeria has only 15 scientists and engineers engaged in research and development per million persons. This compares disproportionately with 168 in Brazil, 459 in China, 158 in India, and 4,103 in the United States of America. What do I see as a way forward? My recommendations are:

The government at both federal and state levels must separate recurring expenditure of staff emolument from capital expenditure and ensure that they give weighted premium to both. Research and physical expansion of tertiary institutions need to be addressed in the light of our challenges as a developing country and the soaring student population which has made admission into tertiary institutions a nightmare for many prospective candidates. Government should not make TETFUND take over government’s statutory obligation to fund tertiary institutions. Government should also give Grant-in-Aid to deserving institutions both federal and state, using set criteria including excellence or distinction in research and innovation, diversity, inclusiveness, scholarship, protection of rights of minorities and needs.

Regulatory authorities such as NUC, NABTE and NCCE should be given every support that will enable them play their important roles of quality assurance and quality control in all principal respects and in ensuring financial accountability, standardization of courses and constant scrutiny of teaching personnel.

R&D and consultancies of federal and state government should first target tertiary institutions consultancy units. Multinational corporations and other Blue chip companies should be encouraged to undertake their R&D in Nigeria. Through R&D alone, many tertiary institutions will be challenged to think innovatively. In this regard, they have the potential to strengthen their internally generated revenue profile more than the current practice of focusing on part-time teaching that has become diversionary for both the academic staff and institutional commitment to research and innovation not to mention constituting a threat to standard and consequential cheapening of the certificates that our institutions award.

Wealthy individuals and indigenous foundations should be encouraged to support endowments. This is one secret to the financial solvency of many IVY-League schools in the United States of America. For example, Harvard University is the wealthiest university in the world. By 2014, it had USD36 billion in endowments alone with returns of 15.4% on it. This amount is more than the combined GDP of six West African countries.

Alumni of tertiary institutions must play a proactive role beyond annual dinners and token interventions. It is incumbent upon tertiary institutions to connect and communicate well with individual members of their alumni and encourage them to render better assistance, individually and collectively. We must do this by ensuring a respectful and service-oriented approach to our students from day one – seeing every student at the point of entry through graduation as an alumnus of repute and partner.

There is need for the emergence of a Research Triangle in Nigeria, whereby government, industry and the academy will engage in partnership to support cutting-edge research.There is also the need to overhaul the internal mechanisms of tertiary institutions for enhanced performance that ensure accountability and administrative transparency, check waste and corruption, and to block leakages and vying of resources which have become common place.

The National Industrial Court should be galvanized to be able to play a more responsive role between staff unions, university management and proprietors of tertiary institutions. As an institution of social justice, it must be able to avail speedy resolution of disputes and give effective remedies.

I commend the University of Lagos and the University of Lagos Alumni Association, Lagos Branch for their commitment to this annual Lecture. I also congratulate the family of Professor Adetokunbo Sofoluwe. To say that you have a fine gentleman worthy of being celebrated is an understatement. His intellectual leadership and the great life he lived is the legacy that will continue to endure. I consider it a privilege to attest to that legacy in this enviable platform and I salute everyone who thought me worthy of that privilege.

Concluded
Professor Fagbohun ,Vice Chancellor, Lagos State University, being text of the 6th Professor Adetokunbo Babatunde Sofoluwe memorial lecture delivered at the University of Lagos, Akoka, Yaba


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