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‘Varsities must charge fees to be globally competitive, relevant’

By Iyabo Lawal
13 April 2023   |   5:05 am
It has been eye opening, I have been in administration; I was Deputy Vice Chancellor and also acted as Vice Chancellor. But till you actually take up that seat, I don’t think you fully appreciate the work.

University of Lagos VC, Prof. Folasade Ogunsola

Folasade Tolulope Ogunsola is the first female Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos (UNILAG). The Professor of Medical Microbiology, who at various times, was Provost of College of Medicine and Acting Vice Chancellor of the university, in this interview with IYABO LAWAL, spoke on her plans to reposition the insitution, why federal universities must charge fees and the need to reform the education sector to meet global trends.

It has been five months since you assumed office, how has the journey been?
It has been eye opening, I have been in administration; I was Deputy Vice Chancellor and also acted as Vice Chancellor. But till you actually take up that seat, I don’t think you fully appreciate the work. It is a lot of work to be done but it is not an ‘undoable’ thing. So, in the last five months, what I have been trying to do is put systems in place so that they will work for me; there is a lot of bureaucracy, so, I want to streamline, I have started doing that and I am getting comfortable.

So, what is the focus of your administration?
I have a future-ready agenda, the idea is to recognise that the world is changing very fast and anybody who is standing still would soon become irrelevant, and that is the same thing for education. What we want to do is train minds to be able to use information because by the time students leave here, half of what they learnt would be obsolete. So, it means they must have the kind of mind that asks questions, the kind of mind that does not want to maintain the status quo and ready to push backwards. They must also have the characteristics that recognise that information is so much; the competencies you need are so many that one person cannot do it; they must also be collaborative in nature and not be afraid to ask questions.

ASUU, at various times, has called for university autonomy to enable the institutions to function independently without any interference from government. Is university autonomy possible at this time?
Universities must be merit-based and cannot afford to be under politics, we cannot over-‘bureaucratise’ the university. Like I said earlier, the strength of the university is its manpower, you cannot do it turn by turn with the university because the very core of the university system is merit. You can not force people to be innovative; you can not force ideas on people if they do not have it. In recent times, what we have seen is an incursion of civil service into the university, so, we cannot be competitive.
In a nutshell, it is imperative that if we are going to have world-class universities, even where the government is involved in universities, they are not involved to the stage where they are controlling the institutions from outside, where they are telling you how or who to employ. We are supposed to find the best hands and bring them in.
The situation we have in the country now is that the best minds are leaving in droves, which means we are making this place uncomfortable for best minds or not rewarding intellectuals or knowledge, and if we don’t do that, we will never grow. There is no country that has underfunded its university that has developed. Those who have made it made education acceptable and gave it the latitude to fly. In Nigeria, we are caging it, since you cannot charge fees, so you have all sorts of people who do not really want to be here but because it is free, they would come. If it is free, then somebody must pay. University education is extremely expensive; we cannot, as a nation, keep saying we do not want to charge fees.
We are losing our best minds because the university is not just about classrooms, it’s about equipment, it’s about being able to go for conferences, it’s about you meeting others from different places.
When you have a lot of academics, because they cannot travel owing to their inability to afford it; you talk of research, it is extremely expensive and there is no guarantee that you would find what you want at the end of a particular project, it is not like business where you say what’s the profit, it’s a continuous thing but because you have a goal ahead, it’s also about how you also fail and get up again, you learn about those failures, so, there is no shortcut to research and it is extremely expensive.
Right now, we compete with other countries for international grants, but every country funds its people. We do have some funding from TETFund, but it is not enough.

There have been discordant tunes on whether or not to charge fees in universities, with ASUU insisting that fees payment would deprive indigent students from accessing university education, what’s your take on this?
Primary and secondary education are what is absolutely necessary, our challenge in the country is that we have thrown away polytechnics, we have made them second class, not everybody would attend university, because education at the university level is about more theoretical things.
If you go abroad and you say you want to study music, you will go to the Julian’s School of music, which is as prestigious as any university, Christian Dior is a tailor, if you go to a school and they said you were trained under Christian Dior, you will be paid more than a doctor.
The challenge we have is that we have devalued those who are good with their hands and it’s part of the problem of non- development.  Recently, China converted 600 universities back to polytechnics. We do not need so many universities because we need those who can translate the theory to the practical, we do not have them, where is the technical strength?  And part of the problem is that we do not adequately reward and we stigmatise to make them feel second hand.
Are we really concerned about education? You know everybody wants it free. The government honestly and truly, no matter what we say, even if every penny we spend is well spent, we are too big for them to be able to do free education, and very few people can do free education at tertiary level, it is not sustainable. It worked well when we had only a few universities, we have over 43 federal universities, we also have state universities, it can’t be free and then you want the quality you want, it’s not possible.

How do we start encouraging those who are better with their hands?
The first thing is to stop the stigmatisation against polytechnics.  Finland for instance, has two types of universities, the normal conventional university as well as University of Applied Science, which are polytechnics where students learn vocational skills and get up to Masters level. But if the student decides to continue up to PhD level, such a student must have enough credit to cross over to the university.  But in Nigeria, we stigmatise technical colleges and polytechnics.

Besides, the way we do our reward system in terms of salaries, we put them on a lower level. So, who wants to go there? The fact that they are in technical school does not make them less intelligent; it is just a different type of intelligence. We need both unless we are not going to move forward as a nation.
You have been in the university system over the years. Looking back at where we were coming from and where we are now, what would you say is the missing link?
I hear a lot of people talking about how bad our education has been. I actually think we were at a certain level before it went down, but we have started coming up again. Part of the challenge is the quality of people coming in. In the past, it was quite elitist; few people went to school and would end up in university. There was a bit of quality at both primary and secondary school levels, but now, that has been lost.
A lot of people in the private sector are within the upper middle class, while those in the public sector are between middle and lower working class, so there’s a class thing. All those things play up at the workplace because there is a certain thing employers are looking for beyond your degree. So, we at the university have to recognise that and start to put in place things around etiquette that we are not teaching because before, students coming in would have learnt it in secondary school. Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of those things.

Public universities over the years have experienced disruption in academic activities following incessant strikes by various unions. What is the solution to this?
The only way out is for universities to be autonomous. What you are seeing is a consequence of the pauperisation of academia. 
How do you graduate as one of the best, yet 10 years later, you are earning less than your child who goes to work anywhere?  You can no longer buy a car, send your children to the kind of schools you went to, you cannot afford the rent out there; it is demoralising.
How do we address this? 
We have to get politics out of the university, in terms of the management of the system. We need to protect intellectuals from the politicisation that is happening in Nigeria. The present system where we say because some people cannot pay, everything must be free should be reviewed. 
The first thing to interrogate is how many people cannot pay? And how many of the people would be able to pay if we give them a way to pay because when you benchmark at poverty, it means you have totally discountenanced the need for equipment, reagents, good housing, bringing in fresh minds and brilliant people from outside your space. Somebody did an analysis about three or four years ago of what UNILAG needs to run effectively, it was almost N30 billion.

What is your take on reintroduction of education loans?
It is necessary, if the government looks at what they are paying as salaries presently, and give that as a grant based on the number of students, things would be better.

Government must have an idea of how much it truly costs to train a student, which would take into consideration all the requirements for a university to be world-class.
Some people may not be able to pay the fees immediately, but for some, all they need is to divide it and pay over a period of time. I have not seen anything that is worth doing that you do not make some forms of sacrifice. I think we have to ask ourselves how important education is because we do every other thing. 

If you do that, those who can pay would pay and once we can improve the ambience and quality here, we would be able to attract international students who will pay more, and over time, allow us to charge less fees for Nigerians.

What is your advice to women in terms of achieving their dreams?
If you can think it, you can do it. Being in the public glare can be messy; your mistakes are there in public glare and many women do not like that.
 But you have to make your peace with that, recognising that you would make mistakes, people would talk about it, lies would be told about you, thoughts would be misconstrued and a lot of women are very risk averse in that area.  But it is an area where you have to make your peace with, to learn that it will happen.

How do you hope to sustain the peace on campus?
One of the things we have learnt in UNILAG and which has worked is that we are always communicating. The management talks with the unions and addresses issues and we talk with the students as well. There will always be skirmishes but as long as we have those communication lines opened, most things would be resolved.
What other plans do you have for the university?
We are pushing to review the way we teach or what I call facilitating knowledge. We want to move away from that concept in our minds that we have taught, because you feel comfortable just because you have gone through the motions; whereas the question to ask is, have they learnt?  To do that, we are pursuing much more vigorously, the town and gown and speaking with industries.

We recently started working on our curriculum and have invited industries to come and co-create curriculum with us. So, there is a lot of that ongoing. Maybe in the next month or so, the Senate would sit to look through this new curriculum and there are plans to bring more people from the industry to teach more of the practical aspect.

In achieving my future ready agenda, which is an acronym that talks about finances, unrelenting, internationalisation and things like that, the whole idea is a futuristic thing. Everything that is in that future ready agenda can be encapsulated in four pillars: Finances- we are poorly funded in real time. The amount of money universities have at their disposal has just been dropping yearly. We do not charge fees but we have mandatory charges to at least allow us to do a few things around the campus.

And everywhere in the world, the greatest area for spending is getting personnel. It goes beyond the government paying our staff; it means that we should be able to attract brilliant minds from anywhere, at any time. That is how universities function, but we do not have funds; we have ageing infrastructure. We are looking at ways to improve our funding structures, to find new ways of having funds. The easiest is always tuition fees because the person who is getting the ‘goods’ should pay for them.
But there has been a shift in Nigeria away from that and it was okay when we had a few universities that the government was taking care of, it was okay when the population was little, and if you look at anywhere they are doing fully, the population is small.
Once you have a huge population, something will give if you do not have more funds injected into it, quality goes, and sooner or later, we are going to ask ourselves that difficult question—how do we fund education? Who pays the bills? I can see there are lots of thoughts in that direction. So, we are thinking of different ways.