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Government should call emergency meeting on tertiary education, says UNN’s VC Ozumba

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Ozumba


•‘Free education only found in manifestos of political parties’
• ‘How loan schemes can help varsity students’

Benjamin Chukwuma Ozumba is a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Vice Chancellor of first ‘Land Grant’ University in Africa, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). In this interview with News Editor MARCEL MBAMALU during the school’s celebration of her Founders’ Day and 58th anniversary, he calls for establishment of a professionally managed loan scheme for tertiary education funding in the country. Such financing arrangement, he says, should have strong public-private sector backing, if the desired growth in Nigeria’s education sector must be attained. Professor Ozumba also takes a look at the philosophy of the university and shares his achievements and projections.

Would it be correct to say that the university community is in high spirits following the school’s 58th Anniversary and the Founders’ Day, which is the grand finale of the celebrations?
It is the 58th birthday of the University of Nigeria Nsukka, as well as the 58th birthday of Nigeria as a nation. So today marks the end of weeklong activities as regards the Founder’s Day celebration. Actually, it started on October 2, with exhibition of the products made from this university and then the activities like debates, football matches, Dignity of Man Lecture where we gave the alumni opportunity of inviting somebody to speak (that was the Alumni Day). After that was the Founders’ Day Lecture, the significant part of which was that it was given by a highly distinguished alumnus, Austin Avuru, the Managing Director of Seplat. Avuru was a brilliant academic here, coming tops in his class, and was involved in student union politics of the school. He had donated a building worth about N500 million for the Geology Department. On Sunday, we went to the church to thank the Almighty who made it possible for us to get to this day and carry out the activities very successfully.

What’s the Founders’ Day all about?
It’s a day we remember those who received the vision and who had the wisdom to form the University of Nigeria. University of Nigeria is actually the first university in Nigeria. It is the first land-grant university in Africa funded by one of the initiators of Michigan State University in the United States of America which is also the first land-grant university in the world. Abraham Lincoln, the president of America at the civil war actually is the first to initiate land grant system. The purpose was to restore the dignity of man — the poor people, the rural Africans, Americans, needed to be uplifted. The community donates lands, the university builds on it, and then, in return, the community has to benefit from it.

At the inception of this university, the founding fathers had the wisdom to decide to set up a university which they claim they had a vision, apart from their mission, of a university that will not just be built on the ideas of the colonial masters. The aim was to found a university that will build up capacity in the newly independent African nation; a university that has the best libraries, the best professors, and the best research outputs globally.

How far has the school been able to ‘live out’ these legacies 58 years after, considering the general collapse of standards and poor outputs from some Nigerian universities?
We have produced professors such as Chinua Achebe, Eni Njoku and Njoku Obi who developed the cholera vaccine worldwide; top professors, even in medicine where the first open-heart surgery in sub-Sahara Africa was done in the University of Nigeria teaching hospital. We’ve developed the university farm; a few years ago, we started the diary farm where we rear cattle producing dairy milk.

Again, the University of Nigeria became the first university in Nigeria to set up what we call e-Business incubator. Mark Zuckerberg, the young man who founded Facebook, was here about two years ago. Now we have our own incubators and one of the productive students is to go and pitch the drone he’s producing in Dubai, and in before the end of the year.

The incubator is thriving. In fact, the American delegation that came from Michigan State University said that what we have here is better than what they have in Nairobi. And we are just starting. Then in Malawi they invited me, I just came back from Malawi where I went to help them set up a business incubator.

Does your current cross-country engagement have any direct link with what you are doing here in UNN?
Yes! Nigeria is now exporting innovation; we are partnering with Facebook on innovation. The days of commodity-based economy are gone. Countries that have made it today – China, South Korea, Israel and many more – don’t have any commodity; do they? They don’t have oil; everything is knowledge-driven. Again, in September, I went to Tierra where we were admitted as one of the Science Parks.

Ours in University of Nigeria is the first functioning Science Park in Nigeria, a place like Iran has over 30. You can see the gap in technology. The Vision of the founding fathers of UNN, as seen on ground today, is to put the best forward in the world. Americans saw it in the 50’s and set up the Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley was set up in Stanford University, not by Stanford but the American government.

Here this is the sole initiative of the University of Nigeria, and we hope to take it across the whole nation so that we can now have a knowledge-based economy. The significant thing is that it is being initiated from the University of Nigeria and other countries are calling us. I won’t tell you other parts of Nigeria that are calling us to help them set up Science Parks, both at state and national levels.

As the first land-grant university in Africa, how does UNN plan to laterally influence other in terms of impacting host communities and catchment areas?
Before the University of Nigeria, there was the University College; the law for the University of Nigeria was established in 1955 by the Eastern Nigerian government, but the university took off October 7, 1960. Princess Alexandra opened it. Then the second establishment to have a university law was the University of Ibadan in 1962, which was seven years after.

Nsukka started awarding University of Nigeria degrees in 1960. Naturally, they were asking why? Does it mean you will soon have University of Awo Idemili? University of Awka and so on? That was the question raised by the President of the Nigerian Union of teachers at the time. What would have been in those days was to go and call Oxford to come and set up a university but Nnamdi Azikwe in his wisdom decided that a full-fledged University had to take off.

This university became a comprehensive university, every department here was the first in the country — the first Department of Education, first Department of Home Economics, first Department of Journalism, Mass Communication, first Law department and so on. Everything here was the first because it was the first comprehensive University, the type that you see in the United States of America.

What ever you see happening in National University Commission was copied from here; the course system. There was no course system before; the only university college (Ibadan) in the country was teaching things like classics and humanities to help develop colonial administrators for the colonial masters. The University of Nigeria was set up to liberate the Africans, not only to impact the local government, but the entire nations of Africa; so, other universities had to be built as part of the University of Nigeria.

In 1963, Ahmadu Bello came in, Ife came in and after the civil war schools like Benin and most later the Calabar. So you can see that the University of Nigeria has really impacted the whole country; things like the course system had to start here. The British system did not have course system; it was running term and so on, Nsukka started the semester system here. You also know that Nsukka started the four-year course system; when we had a college, we had to come and do two years of A-level. So, the General Studies system started in the University of Nigeria, and it is now adopted nationally. You can see that Nsukka impacted the entire nation’s educational fabric.

On the local environment, if you count the majority of those admitted into this university now, you would see that they are from the southern environment. When Nnamdi Azikwe built here, there were no educated people. This place (Nsukka) used to be described as ‘educationally disadvantaged.’ Now, the whole of Nsukka central zone is a highly educated zone. If you are talking of commercial activities, the amount of staff employed here is high and all these things have impact on communities and the people are uplifted academically, intellectually and materially. The current governor of Enugu State, his predecessor, and the one who served before them are all alumni of this university. What else will you talk about for social impact?

ASUU has been against Federal Government’s plan to create education bank. What is your stance on this?
I had to sponsor myself on a trip to Malawi because of the meeting on financing tertiary education in Africa. There are about 14 countries from East and southern Africa. Ghana recently joined, Sierra Leone is about to join and everyone is worried that Nigeria was not there.

So, I asked them: Why is it that I was invited? They said they had seen my profile and invited me. I can tell you that Nigeria is totally off-course by not doing what every other country is doing on tertiary education financing by both public and private sectors.

By the time we had a university college at Ibadan, it was the only one in this country and students were put one in a room funded by the Federal Government. They were served tea at midday; the professors had to come with their academic gown. But now, there are more than 150 universities in the country. How do you expect the Federal Government to cope?

Whether you call it education bank or any other thing, remember that all other countries in Africa are enjoying their universities funded by a loan scheme. So, Nigeria will be totally in a mess if she does not adopt that method of financing. In Kenya, that’s what they’re doing; in Rwanda, that’s what they’re doing; in Ghana, that what they’re doing. School fees as they said, might be about N380,000

That’s expensive; isn’t it?
The government says that you don’t pay school fees. But I am not in a position to say whether that is true or not as Vice Chancellor. The students pay for fees for other things and then the other one is totally open. On the Internet, you would see photographs of the first five universities, with students showing maybe their toilet facilities or their hostels rotten. It has to be that way because most of the hostels have expired their life span. You can imagine a hostel built in 1960.

The only reason why universities still exist is because of TETFUND. It was very innovative; but that’s another type of funding. Can you imagine the present world where a university student does not have a laptop? It’s unheard of. Other countries – Malaysia, Indonesia, among others — introduced it about 30 years ago. When I introduced it here, they had to go and pass a law at the National Assembly that I should stop it. They accused me of narrowing access to education.

You made it compulsory for every student to have a laptop?
It has to be compulsory for every country! In Rwanda’s elementary schools, every child has a laptop, but in Nigerian universities here, you cannot do it because they claim the students here cannot afford it. Why can’t they afford it? That is what the education bank is for; it is for quality education. Students are not receiving quality education. Yet, Nigerian professors work so hard. I can tell you that our standards are good to an extent, but we need to meet the standard of what is happening in Kenya today, where secondary school students have laptops and university students have laptops. How can a student not have access to laptop when knowledge now is totally global?

Bill Gates does not have two or three heads; he became highly innovative because, at the age of 12, the mother bought a desktop computer for his elementary school and he started playing with it. Can you now compare him with somebody who doesn’t have access to that?

Now, we need to develop a loan scheme. If you ask me, I will advise government to give it another appellation. It is still free education. If you go to university without paying fees, you will come back to pay it. Government needs to know how to sell a product; we are not going anywhere without loan education because so many parents cannot afford it.

I was discussing with a delegation in Malaysia at that conference and observed that they have had it for about 30 years and they have reached a stage where the government does not put money in it anymore. Paul Kagame has told his country that he would just fund a tertiary education for about 10 years and hands off; the target is that you reach a stage where the government does not fund it. Let me tell you something, they have done loan scheme…I was asking one of the professors, he said he took a loan when he was a student from this type of thing, he paid either 500 pounds those days and that should be more than N5000 now, and he said he paid it. The difference between then and now is that there were jobs. Now you can still have jobs but there are so many side effects that come with introducing a loan scheme. Every student that goes through this university should have a certificate in Entrepreneurship now so that he or she can be self-employed. There are so many agric businesses, for instance.

How possible would it be for every student of UNN to secure a certificate in entrepreneurship?
I am setting it up here. We have a directorate for entrepreneurship, but I am not satisfied with the level it is right now. The director for vocational studies is about to introduce that kind of thing where students can know more about agric business like planting of cassava. Now, people should be self-employed and that’s why I set up the incubators.

In America, do you get government jobs when you come out? The economy will just provide the job. Anybody can make money out of agriculture; we have a lot of available lands in Nigeria. If I did not introduce the science park, no one would have known that it could work here. The same goes for the incubator. The economy does not drive itself overnight, we have to sit up. So a loan scheme is a sine-qua-non; without it, we are not going anywhere in education.

If you want to go to school, then go and get the money. Now if you cannot afford it, anybody who can afford it should take it, and they will find a way of making sure that they pay it. Even in my own time, there was a loan scheme as in other countries. Of course, people will try to circumvent it, wrong local governments, wrong this and that but there are ways of doing it. Some people say they have reached as much as collecting 50 percent, by the time we reach as much as collecting 70 percent you are okay. But it has to start. You cant do anything without loan, I’m running a university and I have nightmares, at times I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about how there’s no money and that is why ASUU is on strike every time. So when you take a proper loan and put money, people would sit up to make sure that money is correctly spent, that is the way out.

Do you still receive subventions from the federal government?
We get some; there is the TETFUND for buildings. Is that enough?

So how does that TETFUND work for you for example?
I’m telling you TETFUND is a big shot in the arm for the educational system. They provide grants for buildings; they monitor it, research and so on. But we can do better, that’s what I am saying. As I said, government should devise a correct language, its not necessarily loan scheme, its free education because you are going to school free. Of course there is nothing like a free lunch, then when you come out you can pay it.

Across board, federal and state universities have been increasing tuition fees. Are those hikes not hinged on needs of the individual schools?
They are not increasing, because there is a margin they say we should go.

So what’s the margin?
It’s about N45, 000, but that is nothing. Students pay about N10, 000 to N15, 000 for hostel accommodation. My council shouted when they heard about it and that’s almost what I paid about 40 years ago for my hostel fees. How can you do that with a situation where everyone wants to go to university? It cannot even maintain the university. Normally, there are fire incidents and so on; there is no money for that, and that’s not what the students want to hear

So it means the subventions don’t come any more from the federal government?
Government gives you subventions to pay salaries! When they pay fees and there is proper management of these fees, there will be more than enough money.

Lets assume that this education bank works, how do the students pay back?
Some countries give one-year moratorium; then, you pay back about N10,000 per month for 10 years, depending on what you like. That is the safest bet. You can call it Edubank, only two countries are trying to do that. Rwanda is doing Edubank. There are many countries from where we have to learn. I believe that the education ministry should call for this meeting. I am very ready to share what I have, because I have contacted my colleagues who care for such meetings, and they said they are ready to come.

Are you talking about a meeting on financing tertiary education?
Yes, it is about a meeting of important stakeholders on financing tertiary education in Nigeria, because it’s now at crisis point. In our education system currently the tertiary is not being financed and there are two places like that today, the ‘Health’ and ‘Education,’ which have been described by all the world bodies as most critical. For a nation to move forward, education, health, infrastructure and security are vital. Government has been trying with the TETFUND but that is very limited.

The Malawi conference you talked about?
I can give you specific examples: I was the only Nigerian there and they were happy to see me. They say that they have been trying to get Nigeria involved and so on. The government should start Edubank and it has to be a learning curve. It is not just Edubank, and then you throw it to a bank. Banks might not know what to do. You also have to have series of meetings and so on.

The people running TETFUND are not educationists. Like British that did national health insurance scheme, the people running it are not medical doctors. It was at the end of the world war they came about that they wanted to finance health, where you can go to the hospital, receive the best medical treatments. You don’t have to pay for it, but somewhere somebody has paid for it. That’s how it runs in the UK. Every country has its own unique method; so, we must device our own unique method here.

In Malaysia, they are also encouraging parents to even save for their children’s future. Free education is only found in party manifestos not in governance structure. Right from Honorable Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, who founded this university he said when he was leader, one out of every two students in Nigeria was from eastern Nigeria, was he running free education? Some people said they were doing free education, there was nothing like that.

What would you say is the greatest challenge for the Nigerian education sector right now?
As I told you, there is severe underfunding (or you can say severe mis-funding). How can you say: Don’t pay fees, and you don’t finance it? That’s what is happening now. You say, don’t pay; whereas, you are not financing it. There’s no law in physics where you can get something out of nothing.

The issue of JAMB, Post UTME is another controversy in the education sector. What is the schools response to it?
It is so straightforward; there is no controversy it’s about people not understanding education. I’m an alumnus for Lagos State University, after we pass exams, we were interviewed that’s the Post UTME…it has always been there, in the UK you are interviewed, in the US in many cases you are interviewed. So Post UTME has always been there, I was interviewed to enter medical school; I remember the questions I was asked. So we are told to choose a method of Post UTME. It could be interview, it could be anything. Should there be a controversy? A lot of people enter where they don’t belong; they talk about education without any knowledge of education. There has always been post UTME globally; it’s not only in Nigeria.

It appears you are currently addressing the issue of under staffing in the departments. How serious was the problem before your intervention and how sustainable is your current approach?
When you talk about legacy, everything I have done here is a legacy. When I came, I did my own SWOT analysis for accreditation and I found out that most of the departments did not meet standards of accreditation. That’s why I started the recruitment of staff and now we have reversed the ratio. We now have one of the best in the country in accreditation; all our 100c programmes are fully accredited. Now, they talk about staff welfare.

Further on legacy projects, you can see that there is peace among the staff; so many people who had problem with promotion have seen the bottlenecks removed because I made sure that the criteria was applied with human face. Where there were bottlenecks, I had to un-bottle them.

Among the students, they now have students union buses and I send some of the student Union leaders abroad every year to go and get exposure. When you talk about legacy projects here, you don’t even know where to start, even the university environment has been described as the cleanest in the country.


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