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Increased facilities for teaching, right mix of teachers, only solution to admission challenge

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Peter Okebukola


• N37.2b Required Annually To Expand Carrying Capacity Of Varsities
• All 74 Private Universities Admit Under 14% Of Total Candidates Yearly
• Equity Demands That Private Universities Are Served By TETFund

Yearly, hundreds of thousands of qualified candidates are denied university admission due largely to space constraints. Former Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, Prof Peter Okebukola, in this interview with ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, says getting past the challenge of absorbing all eligible candidates into the university system will remain a Herculean task to accomplish. He thinks there may be more bad news on the way as the problem would be compounded in the coming decades if not decisively tackled now.

Seamless admissions into universities in the country appears to be a luxury, can we ever afford this luxury?
IF seamless admission means making the process painless from application to matriculation, I will say yes, of course, we can. Indeed, we are slowly inching our way to attaining this seamless state. However, if “seamless” denotes automatic transitioning from Senior Secondary School Three to 100-level in a university, we can perish the thought of seamlessness for a very long time come. If the camel can seamlessly pass through the eye of the needle, then all the over 60, 000 candidates that sought placement at the University of Ibadan this year, can “seamlessly” be absorbed into the less than 4,000 admission spaces.

My sense of seamless admission is what we had in the past, when I sought university admission in 1969. After I applied to a couple of universities, I got my admission letter to the University of Ibadan by mail, preceded by a telegram from the office of the registrar. On the date specified for resumption, I packed my bag and got checked into Independence Hall (like a two-star hotel) the weekend before lectures started. Not everybody was admitted and those left behind sought alternative admissions to other universities in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world, especially in the United States.

Fast track to 2017, with the interplay of technology, we find an approximation of the same process with the new JAMB Central Admissions Processing System (CAPS). You apply, you take the UTME, the university processes your application based on advertised criteria and you receive notification of admission from JAMB, through the university. Like in the past, many are called but few are chosen, so you have a large number not able to secure placement on account of limitations in the carrying capacities of the universities, especially publicly-owned.

How true is it that genuine admission seekers are fighting stiff competition from racketeers, who are also doing business with school authorities?
In a survival of the fittest world, such unhealthy practices are not uncommon. Racketeers exist all along the entire chain from application to admission. They have their hands in the pie of manipulating the process every inch of the way. I am aware that the days of such racketeers are getting numbered as JAMB and university authorities are taking steps to detect and bring to book such characters. A development that is poised to diminish the influence of racketeering is the Central Admissions Processing System (CAPS). While things are not 100 per cent fool-proof in this age of technology and with the smart but crooked minds of some of our countrymen and women, JAMB and the universities are urged to be a jump ahead and ruthlessly sanction transgressors.

At the end of every admission season, nearly two-thirds of qualified candidates are usually in the lurch owing to lack of access. How soon can we grow past this as a nation?
Getting past the challenge of absorbing all eligible candidates into the university system will be a greasy pole to climb for a very long time. The bad news is that the problem will be compounded in the coming decades when the population of Nigeria will double. It will be double “wahala” at that time. The “wahala,” of course can be mitigated if we plan well ahead. The carrying capacity of a university cannot be increased with the wave of a magic wand. There are two key parameters in the equation- increasing the facilities for teaching, learning and research and increasing the number of teachers in the approved National Universities Commission (NUC) ratios. When these are in place, carrying capacity will increase. For the first parameter- expansion of facilities, this can be achieved in a year. It is a matter of huge investment in buildings, procurement and installation of equipment, furnishing and maintenance. For the second parameter of increasing number of teachers in the right mix and ratio, it is not turnkey. It takes years to train the PhD holder (minimum required for employment) and to attain the rank of a professor.

Our 2017 study on the cost of increasing carrying capacities in the Nigerian University System (NUS) showed that you require N37.2b annual investment to increase the carrying capacity to 54, 000 annually system-wide.

So, back to your question about whether or not we can grow past the present state, the answer is yes, but we need to invest N37.2b annually to expand to take in many more candidates. On a realistic note, we may never get to a state where we have spaces for all, who aspire to and are qualified for university education. We should make polytechnic education and colleges of education to soak in most of the rest as they are both part of the higher education family.

How can private universities help in solving this perennial admissions problem?
As presently configured, private universities are only able to scratch the surface of the access challenge. All 74 private universities admit less than 14 per cent of the total candidates for a particular year. For the reason of cost, many candidates shun application to private universities. This is expected in a context where about 68 per cent of the citizenry are adjudged poor and live on less than a dollar a day. Therefore, the only way that private universities can help in solving the perennial admission problem is to lower the barrier of cost (tuition and other fees).

High price regime is a clear disincentive to admission seekers. Can tuition in private varsities be brought down to the level of the average Nigerian?
Yes, tuition in private universities can be brought down to the level of the average Nigerian. I take this level to paying about N100, 000 a year as tuition compared to the current range of N400, 000 to N1.9 million. There are two mechanisms, which in combination can make this happen. This is the combination of TETFund support and a students’ loan scheme. With TETFund support, private universities will crash their fees and even if the lowered regime of fees is outside the financial reach of poor students, the students’ loan scheme will be the straw the poor student can cling onto to avoid sinking.

The case for TETFund’s support for private universities rests on three major planks. These are equity, relevance and history. Time will only permit me in this interview to take on two of the planks- equity and history. On the equity argument, which has two strands, what TETFund rakes into its revenue pot is in the region of N23b annually. This is largely derived from the private sector of the country’s economy. The goose that lays the golden egg that all public universities in Nigeria are enjoying its yolk is the private sector. Equity demands that private universities should also be served by TETFund intervention. The analogy of sharing Nigeria’s revenue from oil as provided in the constitution is applicable here. All states have fair share but states where the oil is derived have special top-up via the derivation formula. Some have argued that what we have now is a classic case of “monkey dey work baboon dey chop.” If the private sector is working to get the money into TETFund’s purse, then private universities alongside their public counterparts should derive benefit from this commonwealth.

The second line of argument on the equity front is that graduates from private universities offer service, not on the moon or on Mars, but within the Nigerian economic space, just like their counterparts from public universities. The summary of the equity considerations is that since over 70 per cent of the intake into TETFund is from taxes of private companies, excluding private universities from benefitting from what its sector has amassed is adjudged inequitable and discriminatory.

From this point of view, private universities should be apportioned larger share of the TETFund revenue. The second line of argument is that all graduates from the university system whether from public or private universities are prepared to serve the national economy. The national economy will be severely hurt peradventure products of private universities end up being of lesser quality than the public. If the goal is to produce quality graduates regardless of the source (public or private universities), then private universities need to be equally served by TETFund in its intervention.

Let me now take the historical considerations. In the early days of private primary and secondary education in Nigeria, government provided grants-in-aid to assist the private providers have a good start. The 1882 Education Ordinance and the 1890 Education Law made explicit provisions for grant-in-aid to private schools. Government of the Colony of Lagos, as well as, the Southern and Northern Protectorates instituted the grant-in-aid scheme to ensure that privately-owned schools, especially those owned by missionary bodies did not fall below established quality standards. This trend persisted till after the amalgamation and even slightly beyond 1960, when independence was secured. When the private schools reached what can be described as “cruising altitude,” the umbilical cord was cut and the institutions were allowed to stand on their feet. Today, the private basic education system is outperforming the public on many educational indicators.

Walking along the same historical path, since private universities are new in the education firmament in Nigeria, we should learn from the success at the basic education level by government offering grant-in-aid to private universities for at least 50 years to allow these institutions reach cruising altitude. Such grant-in-aid should come in the form of TETFund’s intervention.Your question is coming at a time we have just rounded up a national survey on the subject, so I can happily share with your readers, the emerging findings. We sought the views of 45 vice chancellors and five other stakeholders about how we can break the backbone of the access challenge. Let me begin with what the survey showed as factors constraining access. Most of the respondents (46 per cent) ascribed the challenge largely to shortage of facilities for teaching and learning and shortage of academic staff (32 per cent). Other factors exerting less impact are inadequate number of universities (nine per cent); inconsistencies in admission criteria across universities (eight per cent) and limitations in national admissions policy (eight per cent). When asked to rank the five factors in order of impact on access to university education in Nigeria, more than two-thirds (69.4 per cent) pointed to shortage of facilities for teaching and learning as the most important followed by shortage of academic staff (18.4 per cent).

In the view of the respondents who are mainly vice chancellors, who should know, these two factors account for 87.8 per cent of the problem of access.Several solutions to what you called the niggling problem were offered. These include making admission criteria more stringent e.g. five credits at one sitting rather than two; increasing the carrying capacities of existing universities through expansion of facilities and recruitment of more staff; licensing more private universities; deploying open and distance learning delivery systems; making low-enrolling courses such as education and agriculture attractive to students, and making application to polytechnics and colleges of education attractive to students. I must say that most of the vice chancellors surveyed ranked increase in carrying capacities of existing universities as the best solution and licensing more private universities as the least.

What do you make of JAMB’s obsession with increased revenue generation, instead of facilitating the admission of the litany of admission seekers into the country’s universities?
I think what JAMB is obsessed with is in conducting credible examinations for admission into universities, polytechnics and colleges of education rather than in increased revenue and stuffing the pocket of government with money. There is a wrong public perception that JAMB’s management returned some money to chest last year because it made a bag-full of money beyond what it required for its operation. I understand there is an ongoing investigation on this matter and I will not want to compromise the process in anyway. Regardless, I am obligated to share what I know, which is that JAMB authorities in 2017, significantly negotiated down the cost of services without compromising quality, yielding excess that needed to be returned to government. How do I know? I serve as the chairman of the JAMB Equal Opportunity Group, which conducts the UTME for visually-challenged candidates. After promptly delivering on our mandate, we returned all unspent money to the Treasury Single Account of JAMB. We emulated what the JAMB registrar did for the whole of the board. We did not share the balance of the money among ourselves as some would have done. In sum, JAMB should not be looked at as a revenue-generating unit like the Nigerian Customs Service and NNPC, but as a service organisation which is providing a model in public accountability and striving to be creative, innovative and forward-looking in attending to the admission needs of senior secondary school leavers.

Disruption of academic calendar has been a recurring decimal in Nigerian universities, what are its effects on the quality of teaching and learning?
I see seven negative effects of such strikes not only on the quality of teaching and learning but on all aspects of university education. On the negative side is the depressing effect on the quality of graduates from Nigerian universities since time lost due to strikes that should be used for delivering the curriculum is not gained after the strike. The typical scenario is to condense content, which should have been taught for the period of the strike to about a fifth of the expected, and rush students to examinations thereafter. This is recipe for half-baked products.

The second effect is the poor public image of Nigerian universities. Locally, the public is unimpressed with the universities on account of the frequency of strikes. Globally, there is the usual sneer when Nigerian universities are mentioned and a quick link with unstable academic calendar due to frequent strikes. This image robs graduates of our tertiary institutions of international esteem even when their worth has not been proven through employment. Additionally, top-rate universities that are desirous of staff and student exchange will elect to partner with universities with stable academic calendar in other parts of Africa.

The third effect is loss of revenue. Many potential students prefer universities in neighbouring African countries including Ghana, Benin and Togo not because of superiority of academic programme offerings, but because of instability of academic calendar owing to strikes. These countries earn huge revenue from Nigerian students attending their universities.The fourth is financial loss to the universities. When universities shut down due to strikes, staff are paid, even if it is several months after, but they end up being paid.

The university runs and pays for services such as power and water as well as running and maintenance of vehicles. An estimate of this internal and external loss to the Nigerian public university system for one month of total strike involving all the unions is in the neighbourhood of N38. 2b.The fifth effect is psychological on the part of students, who have to stay idle at home, lamenting their woes and causing irritation to parents. The sixth effect closely connected to the fifth is engagement of the idle students in social vices including joining bad gangs and engagement in Internet fraud. Not a few cases of pregnancy of young undergraduates during the period of strike have been reported. The seventh is what can be broadly grouped as collateral effect. Some undergraduates die in road accidents during the period of the strike in an attempt to “stretch their legs” to visit friends to kill the idleness.

To what extent do strikes and sundry industrial actions like the ongoing strike embarked upon on December 4, 2017 by the non-teaching staff unions in the universities under the umbrella of Joint Action Committee, JAC, contribute to these disruptions of the country’s academic calendar?
As if engaged in some kind of Olympics competition, it is a relay of strikes that one sees in the education, health and other sectors in Nigeria. In the higher education sub-sector, when ASUU has rested its strike baton, NASU takes over. Not too long after and we are catching our breath, SSANU is sprinting on the strike turf. After SSANU, NATT takes over. In most cases, the three non-teaching unions band together to run the strike race. When the staff unions are strike weary, the student unions lurch into the arena. This relay of strikes if brisk and last not more than a day, then it will be aligned with human rights agenda. However, in Nigeria, there are marathon relays of strikes and the academic calendar suffers. The on-going strike by the non-teaching staff unions is taking its toll on the operations of public universities. We plead for an early resolution so that academic calendars can run smoothly.

QUOTE
On a realistic note, we may never get to a state where we have spaces for all, who aspire to and are qualified for university education. We should make polytechnic education and colleges of education to soak in most of the rest as they are both part of the higher education family.


In this article:
Peter Okebukola

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