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Nigerian universities’ blunted competitive edge and global tertiary education

By Iyabo Lawal
15 February 2019   |   4:10 am
Last year, the Minister of State for Education, Prof. Anthony Anwukah, tabled a proposal at the retreat for the Governing Councils of Nigerian Federal Universities, organised by the National Universities Commission..

Nigerian universities are grappling with myriad of grinding issues, among which is their uncompetitiveness with other universities in the world. Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL, examines the twists and turns leading to the bastardisation of a once-bejewelled university system.

“Clearly this government has pathological hatred for knowledge and education. What other evidence do we need to confirm that the government is not willing, ready or capable of resolving the crisis in the education sector?“A government in deficit to the tune of N800 billion to universities for NEED assessment revitalisation funds and over N60 billion as Earned Academic Allowances to lecturers, budgeting N398 billion for the whole education sector, should not be taken seriously,” said the Chairman of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), University of Lagos chapter, Dr. Laja Odukoya.

Then, he predicted doom for university education in Nigeria. That was last year.While it is true that the number of students graduating from Nigerian universities with first class degrees have more than doubled over the years, critics have claimed the universities – particularly government-owned ones – have produced more illiterate graduates in recent times than at any time in the nation’s history. The reasons are not far-fetched.

Last year, the Minister of State for Education, Prof. Anthony Anwukah, tabled a proposal at the retreat for the Governing Councils of Nigerian Federal Universities, organised by the National Universities Commission (NUC). In a self-indicting tone, Anwukah announced to the eminent councils without being shame-faced: “The universities are producing products that are not matching the needs of the industries. I urge the committee of pro-chancellors and committee of vice chancellors to end the decline in the standard of education.

The minister’s comment only illustrates the growing decay of Nigerian university system because only three universities – out of over 165 – made a showing in the 2019 Times Higher Education World University Ranking featuring 1,250 tertiary institutions across 86 countries.In the report, Covenant University is ranked 601- 800, the University of Ibadan, 801–1000; and the University of Nigeria; Nsukka (UNN) is ranked 1001+. Covenant University and University of Ibadan occupy fifth and sixth position respectively on the table of all the 28 African institutions for the 2019 ranking. University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is 23 on the African table.

The ranking is based on five points:  teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook. Unfortunately, these are core factors missing in Nigeria’s university education system, thus rendering the once-shiny ivory tower without sparkles in the galaxy of universities around the world. And with the raft of challenges facing the system, nothing better is expected.

Anwukah has not finished yet.
“We are trying to sell an idea, the proposal is to get into our university system the re-schooling concept – that is, you finish your university degree –may be add one more year as a finishing school project. I don’t know how it is going to sell. But the idea has come as a result of the failure of SIWES system in the universities.

“We try to address the relationship between the universities, the industries and the graduates: how they can fit in and we introduced the SIWES project and it is not working and it is not providing that bridge between the industries because most of the industries are unwilling to accept most students on the SIWES programme.”

One thing he is certainly right about is that the country cannot continue with the current education system and expect to have students who are well qualified to be employed by quality employees-starved employers.So, he asked: “Are we going to continue with the SIWES experiment which is not working or we are going to brace up to introduce an additional year of re-school whereby you spend that one year in any industry?”

It’s been an age-long problem. As a former Executive Secretary of the Nigeria University Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola once put it, the nation’s quality of tertiary education is depressed. The decline started way back, and it’s been worsening since 2009. Then the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government had made a deal to overhaul the system after a two-month long industrial action that shuttered the entire university system in 2011. It eventually jolted the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. The then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Anyim Pius Anyim and former Education Minister, Prof. Rukkayat Rufai, had to initiate a move back to the drawing table.

They set up the Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities to examine the depth of decline in the university system.Chaired by Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, the then executive secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), who now heads the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the study team included two federal lawmakers, seven bureaucrats, the past president of ASUU, Prof. A. Awuzie, and a couple of eggheads from the tertiary institutions. It was a fact-finding mission.

And those facts gathered were hard ones – starting from access, to carrying capacities, erosion of learning quality, poor staffing, and brain drain. As of that time, 1.25 million children – of 1.5 million applicants – are denied admission every year into universities. Actually, the whole shebang of the university system, the ministry of education noted, can take in just 150,000 – when about 1.2 million students, the committee confirmed, currently cram themselves in there.

The University of Lagos, for instance, has a carrying capacity of about 6,000. But well over 99,000 applications poured in, according to Prof. Oyaziwo Aluede of the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma. The experience is no better at the Obafemi Awolowo University and other federal institutions. Over 67 percent of the student population is concentrated in 16 federal universities while 33 percent is in nine state universities. The 31-year-old University of Abuja, for instance, bristles with around 62,000 students – the combined population of the University of Ibadan and University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the two oldest universities in Nigeria. It is followed by the National Open University, Lagos, which has about 59,000 students.

The only ingenious way, it seems, for each university to narrow access is raise the bar: 240 as the cut-off mark; restrictive course requirements, and others. NUC also hands out its admission pegs to the schools.It, however, turned out that all these are half- measures. For one thing, about 30 million Nigerians are students – and ambitious. Reining back their dash for admission will not be easy.They have options – to bail out of the country for quality education elsewhere. That is, to switch to less competitive schools and courses; and to head for part-time or sub-degree programmes.

The United Kingdom appears the choicest destination for study visa hunters among the students. By 2015, there were nearly 30,000 Nigerian students – from about 18,000– studying in the UK. “These numbers account for seven percent of the total UK university population,” a British lawmaker, Iain Stewart, said at a seminar organised by Focus Learning Support (FLS) last year. Those who cannot afford an education asylum can always live with the part-time option. On average, the study noted, 13 percent of Nigerian university students are part-time. And by nature, this kind of enrolment caters mostly for programmes in the management, arts, and social sciences – all less competitive. The busiest hives of part-time studies are the Adekunle Ajasin University (AAA), Akungba; the University of Port Harcourt, the Federal University of Technology, Akure, and Lagos State University, Ojo.

More than 62,000 – about six percent of the total student population – are also on the affiliate programme. Only 17, of the 30 universities running the total of 210 programmes in 63 colleges, have the NUC approval though. The institutions, the study said, absorbed more affiliate students than the freshmen.

So, graphically, science education is on the wane; as low as five percent of the students are studying medicine; 1.4 percent, pharmacy; and 3.9 percent, agriculture. Law is almost extinct – one percent. Nigeria’s university system is obviously snagging out more liberal arts and social science graduates (33.1 percent) and many more – 33 percent – in management.With such overwhelming demand on federal universities and a couple of state-owned ones, there is no denying the pressure brought to bear on resources. And the wear and tear of the existing infrastructure stares at the administrators. To give the multitude of students a roof over their head is a major problem. Less than 10 percent of the students are accommodated in the 109,509 bed-spaces across the campuses.

In OAU, for example, 14 undergraduates, instead of four, pig up in a room at Mozambique and Angola Halls, pay N90 per bed-space, and between N5, 000 and N20, 000 per session. Some states like Osun, Oyo, Ondo, Ogun, and Imo cannot even provide a roof for their universities – when the students are desperate to stump up whatever the rent is. Power supply is also limited; about 11kva is what every university taps from the national grid. Other conveniences like roads, water supply are bad while many, including lecture theatres, are abandoned. There were 22 of such uncompleted projects in UNN, followed by 16 and 15 in the Usman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto, and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria respectively. Generally, there are at least four abandoned facilities in every university in Nigeria.

Apart from the Nigeria Defence Academy (NDA) and the Federal University of Petroleum, Effurun, other institutions, the committee found out, scored dismally low on physical facilities. ”In almost all the universities, laboratories also double as lecture halls,” the report stated. “A laboratory built for 60 students was crowded with 500 students in the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso.”

So it is no surprise that among the best 1,000 laboratories around the world, none is found in any of the 61 Nigerian universities studied. Repair is another concern. The few workshops available in some of the schools are rundown. A lot of their equipment is either on the brink or uninstalled. The last refurbishment of the mechanical workshop in ABU was in 1978. Yet it is currently serving 200 students – instead of the recommended 80. Only two universities – OAU and Bayero University Kano – boast of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance equipment, for instance. The NMR is used in medical diagnosis, petrochemical studies, biochemistry and others. Ten years after delivery, the OAU has yet to install its own.

Somehow, however, Nigerians get a different picture in the prestigious colleges of medicine. The privileged crops of medics are well accommodated, and their facilities not often stretched thin. But they also suffer from the drought of long-haired professors that sustain similar colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. Anyway, this scholars believe, it is a general calamity.Nigeria’s university system boasts of 37,504 academics, out of which 6,376(17 percent) are professors. (UNN has the highest number of professors, 304, and it is followed by UI, 274, UNIBEN, 239, and ABU, 236.) Lecturer 1 and graduate assistants, in pecking order, make up 56 percent of the teaching staff. Senior lecturers are about 19 percent. The medley of academic staff the NUC recommended is, however, different: 20 percent, 35 percent and 45 percent for professors, senior lecturers, and others respectively.

As for the quantity, education experts say 50,000 teachers, at the minimum, are required to meet the standard teacher-student ratio. A teacher, the university regulator says, should be assigned to 30 students, except in science, engineering, and agriculture where it is either 1:15 or 1:20 at most. With the explosion in enrolment in Nigeria now, the average ratio stands at 1:40 – with some extreme exceptions.

At NOUN, with 58 campuses across the federation, a teacher is assigned to 363 students, according to the committee. UniAbuja follows with a teacher to 122. At LASU and the AAA, 114 and 77 students, respectively, have access to a lecturer. Worse still, 4,526 – that is six percent of the lecturers – are jobbing, especially in the state-owned universities in the northern part of Nigeria. So they have their fingers in every pie. And, on the credit side, across all the institutions, 75 percent of the entire academic staff is full-time; others are either on sabbatical or contract.

That is the scratch arrangement that keeps many of the universities going.But this staggered scholarship has its own downside: it chips away at the reputation of Nigeria’s intelligentsia. Up till now, no Nigerian academic has ever been nominated for a Nobel Prize – not because they are all dunderheads. At least they churn out 7,935 articles every year, garnering 2,504 citations in all. They get the works out in 3,304 in-house journals; and 3,288 in local journals. Other scholars around the world do not get to see all this brainy stuff, however. Just 1,343 of the academic journals are published abroad.

In terms of their curricula, much is left to be desired in the country’s ivory tower..The idea to rejig the curriculum was also mooted last June by the NUC when it said it would develop a curriculum of programmes to be used for the proposed West African Institute of Migration Studies to be established in Toga, Kebbi State.

The NUC Secretary, Prof. Abubakar Rasheed, had said, “Our role is to work closely with the NIS to see to the take-off of the proposed West African Institute for Migration Management Studies that will be based in Tuga, Kebbi State. The NUC will ensure that programmes of studies around migration are brought into the curriculum.“The universities that the institute will be affiliated to would be both from outside and within Nigeria to enhance the concept of cross-border education, which is being tested first in Nigeria.”

Following that, in August, the NUC had expressed its desire to begin a comprehensive curriculum review of all the academic programmes offered in Nigerian universities. According to Rasheed, this was necessary to remove course programmes that are not necessary in the developmental need of the country.He said, “NUC will never be a stumbling block to any university that wants to develop. We aim to be quite flexible about it by allowing universities to think innovatively in the process. We will not be hostile in anyway.

“We will welcome a situation where each of the universities can come up with courses, which will challenge the university system. Universities will be allowed to submit these ideas through proposals to NUC which we will all scrutinise and institutionalise if need be.”
Nigeria, once home to some of the best universities in the world, missed out even on the Africa Group of the elite in the 2016 editions of Global Ranking of Universities on Employability Skills Index released by two reputable global bodies. The rankings, which recognised only four universities in Africa, marked out two in South Africa and another two in Egypt. None of the more 160 universities in Nigeria was rated.

The decadence in university education, according to experts in the sector is attributable to years of poor funding, incessant strikes by university teachers, poor admission standards, corruption, and fraud.The four African universities reflected in the 2016 Quacquarelli Symonds’ (QS) Graduate Employability ranking, Global Employability ranking were the Universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand in South Africa; the American University in Cairo and Cairo University in Egypt.. Do rankings matter? Sure, they do, education experts have said.

It is, perhaps, a good thing that the Buhari-led Federal Government is determined –going by the two January pronouncements – to tinker with the universities’ curriculum and also declare a state of emergency. The QS and THE 2016 rankings illustrate the fact that there is a direct relationship between quality in education and development of countries as exemplified by the US, the UK, China, Japan, Germany, and South Africa – little wonder that South Africa is the only African member of G-20 (one of the 20 largest economies in the world and BRICS –Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – an influential club of emerging markets). The Universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand can attest to the link that exists between quality in their higher education and their economic development.

Until now the government has treated education as a hit-and-run affair. It can no longer continue to act that way. It is never too late for the country to develop a curriculum that measures up to international standards but also is futuristic in outlook.How Nigeria’s university system got to this sorry state is understandable, many stakeholders said. Reaching inside their grab bag, some critics heave the blame on government shoulders: for its corruption, poor funding, and rudderless leadership. Spending maximum 15 percent of its annual budget on education, compared to the 26 percent the United Nations suggested, Nigeria has committed less than N3.90 trillion of the N55.19 trillion budget to education in the last 10 years.

Many believe this is a major problem. But the committee report pointed in a slightly different direction. “There’s an unhelpful tendency in Nigeria to always blame inadequate funding, for instance, for all our woes, including the revitalisation of the education system” said the committee. So money is no object, it argued. And the committee presented the issue of funding as “a back-end consideration”. Monies actually flowed into the university system from seven tributaries: capital and recurrent allocations; TETFund intervention, donations/endowment; internally generated fund and research grant; and service charges.

The largest – 68 percent – comes from the recurrent allocation, and it is followed by the 16 percent of the internally generated revenue. Capital vote and TETFund have seven percent and four percent respectively. Research grants are gold dust – one percent. The most accessed of these funds is the IGR, which is 105 percent in the last three years. About 98 percent of the recurrent vote has also been accessed. Donations, however, are difficult to draw while the capital vote has been especially gummy – 38 percent since 2010. Their meagre capital allocation is not quite accessible either.

In essence, the universities have been living large on the recurrent vote, draining, at the same time, the little IGR to the dregs. Looking closer, the vermin, the committee found out, is the sprawling colony of non-academic staff (NASU). They are about 78,000-strong in Nigeria – twice the number of the chalking and talking staff, the mainstay of the system. Take UNN as an instance. The university has more than 6,000 non-academic staff, which is twice the number of teachers at OAU. Only nine schools have lean figures of the non-teaching staff. Numbers of non-teaching staff in universities like NOUN, the University of Benin, UI, and OAU are twice, and even four times, bigger than their respective teaching staffs. And the number keeps swelling, for no official reason.

That is why every professor, as the study discovered, now has a secretary; every vice chancellor also has a phalanx of bouncers, a secretary, a personal assistant, a special adviser, a driver, police orderlies, security consultants, and others. And they have their hierarchy, too. There are the senior and junior administrative cadres (30 percent and 36 percent); and the senior and junior technical cadres (12 percent and 21 percent).Obviously, there are too many chiefs, and not enough Indians to do the support work. In that case, the school administrators, according to the findings, simply outsource the jobs.

Apart from drawing salaries, getting fringe benefits and other perks on the school accounts, they also compete neck and neck with their teaching counterparts for academic privileges available. The Kaduna State University and the Plateau State University, the report noted, have spent their resources to sponsor non-teachers as far as masters and PhD levels. The University of Jos, and the Nnamdi Azikiwe University have the highest numbers of non-teaching PhD holders sponsored by the school authorities. One can only imagine the pull the NASU, especially the senior cadre, has on the system.

The university, experts observed, principally exists for teaching, researching and serving the community. To that effect, the NUC recommends 60:40 science and non-science admission ration. But the cart has been upset. In fact, the amount of scholarship (PhD level) needed to drive this vision is embarrassingly small: two percent of the entire student population is on PhD studies. Little, by way of groundbreaking findings, is thus expected.The report is even bereft of any scientific or technological breakthroughs on record so far, let alone their translation into any economic benefit.

Even the 130,000 graduates weaned yearly are, former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said, unemployable.There are more than 6,568 Nigerians studying in over 733 institutions across America, said the US Embassy Educational Advising Centre in 2010. Many of these finish their programmes, and stay back in the diaspora, contributing to the productive sector of their hosts’ economies.Nigeria’s universities’ academic union has been toughing it out with the Federal Government for reneging on the 2011 agreement, and the university system was on its knees for three months.

It all has its negative effect.
The downward spiralling may stop if the government will heed some of the committee’s recommendations. Foremost is to pare down the sprawling non-teaching staff draining the universities’ resources. “This (among other benefits) will determine whether all the staffs on the university payroll are actually on the ground and in active, relevant service,” the committee said. And the savings gleaned from such audit and other sources of capital inflow, the report added, should be directed towards expanding infrastructure in the schools.

To the team, expanding access is no more important than improving the quality of learning. The existing facilities could be well utilised to admit more students instead of floating more universities. According to the report, the Anadolu University in Turkey – founded in 1958 – takes in 1.1 million students every session.Similarly, India’s Indira Ghandi National Open University, which enrols 3.5 million students every session. It is also recommended that the premier universities in the six geo-political zones – UI, ABU, UNN, UNILAG and OAU – should be upgraded to postgraduate schools.

“Unfortunately, our social structure in Nigeria is such that people think that unless you go to the university, you cannot be a success in life which is sad. Over 60 percent of those in universities today ought not to be there in the first place. They ought to be somewhere else. Unless we have a change of mindset about this, things will remain the same. We have too many universities already,” said Prof. Muyiwa Falaiye, a University of Lagos lecturer.

Yet, the National Assembly is on the verge of passing bills that will make possible the establishment of 80 universities, polytechnics and colleges of education amidst growing concerns that the government at all levels have shirked their financial responsibilities towards existing tertiary institutions.Sometime ago, the House of Representatives Committee on Tertiary Education and Services considered bills for the establishment of nine new higher institutions across the country, just as the lawmakers moved to amend the Acts establishing six existing ones.

During the consideration of the bill at a public hearing, ASUU President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, however, said: “My heart is heavy that we want to establish new universities when nothing is being done about the existing ones. The federal government is considering the imposition of tuition when most Nigerians cannot afford three meals a day, and you are talking of new universities.” At least, one Nigerian lawmaker, Senator Joy Emordi, a former Chairman, Senate Committee on Education, also did not see the need for additional institutions, arguing that the most important thing is to consolidate and build on existing ones.

“If you ask me, I think there is even a need for us to reduce the number,” she argued. “What I still can’t explain is why we are establishing universities all over the place when the teaching and learning environment is nothing to write home about. What we need is to update and increase the quality and quantity of teaching and learning facilities.”Former permanent delegate and Ambassador of Nigeria to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Professor Michael Omolewa posited that for the nation’s universities to be globally competitive, they must be universally inclusive.

“We don’t want universities where the bulk of staff and students are from a particular place. The idea of a university is that it will be available to all, a situation where you find the students population almost speaking the same language is against the rule of universities. Besides, staff recruitment, right from top to bottom must not be localised, it must be universal. We must go back to those models, universities we had in those days, where when you got to Ibadan or Nsukka, you would find an American, Canadian, Indian, or someone from the north or south cross-fertilising ideas, cross-breeding and cross- innovating, that is the essence of universities. That was the background to the universality that constitutes a university.

“There must also be an environment that is conducive to learning, salaries and wages must be guaranteed and must be sufficiently competitive so that people are attracted to the system. No student would come to a university where you don’t find a good accommodation, having a university is a serious business, there must be a mind that is activated to be creative, consciously innovative and always eager to address serious issues of development.”Omolewa added, “In terms of governance, we must make sure that there is sufficient freedom, literal approach to learning, conducting research and there must be no threat from within or without.

The former UNESCO chief further noted that Nigerian universities must focus on entrepreneurship development where students must not be taught to be expecting to be employed but must be taught on how to be an employer. They must be looking at some of the areas where the elders have failed to address issues and be willing to be creative in their own minds. Universities are solid roots for development and advancement.
On his part, former vice chancellor, Caleb University, Prof Ayodeji Olukoju said for the universities to be competitive and globally relevant, the NUC must go back to the basics and address where we got it wrong.

“Between the 70s and 80s, there was a good match between available number of lecturers and the students that enrolled; besides, there was sufficient funding at that time, science laboratories were well equipped and in these days of ICT, only a few Nigerian universities have reliable WIFI, whereas in a country as small as Rwanda, even public buses have WIFI facilities. You don’t have that on many campuses in Nigeria. We also had international students around which is not the same anymore. “

“We should go back to that period, let us find out what we were doing right at the time and what we are doing wrong now. In my view, part of how we got it wrong is the huge gap between staff and students’ ratio; the gap is very huge in favour of students against staff. We need to look at enrolment versus the number of staff available. We also need to look at our facilities; the buildings and facilities that should be made available to 100 students are now serving 1000, why would there not be a crisis? We have also bastardised the university system so much so that now somebody could leave a university as lecturer grade 1 and within four years become a professor at another university. So why would quality not drop? How does he become a professor within so short time?”

Prof Olukoju added, “The problem with the sector is because government wants to democratise education; but it is not funding that increase so there is a mismatch. If lecturers, scholars and researchers are not maintaining standards, comparable to their colleagues’ elsewhere, quality will drop and that has been dropping since the 80s. Many of our professors don’t have international exposure, why would quality not drop? You cannot give what you don’t have. It is the age of ICT now, you don’t need to have a big library, how many of our universities have up to date subscription for e-journals? We don’t have facilities to receive foreign visitors, if we don’t have good conditions for foreign students, why would they come over here? And coupled with several months of strike, why would a student from Ghana or anywhere else come and study here? 

There’s also the big issue of power supply, how many institutions have 24 hours electricity? “To tackle these challenges, Olukoju said the NUC must do quality control. “There are universities that have less than 10 of their lecturers as full-time, how do you run a university like that? Government should place a ban on licensing more universities; secondly, there should be a rigorous process of recruiting new academic staff and limit it to first class and second class upper.”
In addition, he suggested the setting aside of five top universities “that we must focus on to develop.”“We can call them ‘flagship universities’, with each focusing on flagship programmes, what are UI, OAU, UNN varsities known for? By the time we focus on those programmes, they would compete nationally, continentally and globally. That is how you can increase the ranking of Nigerian universities.”

On the role of the NUC, he said, “The commission is supposed to be a clearing house, a regulatory body but my take is that the NUC is getting involved in things it should not bother itself about. For example, I know that it has many personnel who are underutilised; the commission should push its staff out regularly to monitor what’s going on in the universities. NUC should ensure regular monitoring and quality control and must not hesitate to sanction any erring institution.”

What will seem novel to Nigeria in the committee’s suggestions is the establishment of a ministry for tertiary education. The NUC, alone, keeping an eye on 165 universities may be wearisome. For example, the entire staff of OAU, the committee said, are far more than the commission itself. And the broader ministry of education can’t give the widening university system all the attention it needs.

As ASUU continues to press for solution to the crumbling university education, everything seems coloured with money, though the Mahmood-led committee thought otherwise in its report. With the union still locked in horns with the Federal Government over the latter’s failure to meet its financial obligations, previous budgetary commitments, and other issues, Nigerian universities are going, going and might soon be gone.

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