Fraudsters and the exploitation of our educational inadequacies
We have, at least as of this writing, 165 universities distributed as follows: federal, 43; states, 47 and private, 75.
An average of 1.5 million young men and women apply to these universities each year; and each year about 250,000 to 500,000 of them have mother luck change their luck.
You do not need Chike Obi to tell you that there is a wide and widening gap between the thirst for higher education and the ability of the combined strength of federal and state governments to provide enough cool water to slake the thirst of our future leaders anxious to equip themselves intellectually for leadership.
As the Nigerian state wrings its hands, wondering what to do about this, one of the many problems that hobble our educational development, the fraudsters can always smell opportunities to rip off the desperate and the unwary.
The result? Fake universities are flourishing in the country.
This is not really news. Many years ago at Newswatch magazine, we published a cover story on the fake universities. At that time there were some 15 of such institutions mainly in Lagos and some other southern cities.
We also found that many of the Pentecostal churches were running one-class room universities and awarding bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees to their so-called graduates in the time it takes to write a good essay on Pentecostalism.
Each of them was a family business. The husband was the vice-chancellor; the wife was the registrar.
As I recall, some of the proprietors told our reporters that what their universities were doing was legitimate because they were parochial institutions teaching religious knowledge.
A cynical argument but one that serves a certificate-hugging nation right.
This was also the period when some of the federal and state universities set up satellite campuses in some of our major towns and cities.
Lagos was, of course, the most lucrative of these campuses, some of which were not even within the catchment areas of the universities that owned them. They too flourished because the lure of certificates has a strong pull here.
The National Universities Commission, NUC, bestirred itself and closed down the fake universities and the satellite campuses. But it is not such a big surprise that the fraudulent proprietors of the fake universities never gave up.
There is good and easy money to reap from desperate and anxious parents who are not prepared to blame the devil for the plight of their children and wards.
It is like what happens in our hospitals. If all a hospital pharmacy can offer you is a cheap pain killer for your illness, you need no one to advise you to hoof down to the nearest herbalist.
And so these fake universities flourish, preying on the educational dreams of our young people and their desperate parents.
In 2013, the NUC warned about some 44 fake universities. If you thought they disappeared you were wrong because only two years later, their number shot up to 57.
The NUC has again warned children and their parents and guardians not to patronise them because their fake degree certificates would take them, not up, but down to the bottom.
Bet me, the warning would not frighten the proprietors, students and parents.
If the warning did not work in the past, it would be expecting too much to hope that these men would simply abandon the lucrative perpetuation of their fraud at the expense primarily of the desperate children and their parents but ultimately that of the Nigerian state.
It is bad enough that our regular and properly licensed universities are turning out uneducated but certificated idiots; it is worse that universities expressly set up by fraudsters to feed fat on the unwary are allowed to flourish.
Fake universities are not just bad business. They are criminal enterprises corrupting the system.
So far, I must have missed the news of EFCC arresting any of the proprietors.
I have had reasons to ask the federal government to declare a state of emergency on education to help the country re-appraise its educational system and arrive at some pragmatic solutions to the problems that bedevil it.
The problems in this vital sector in modern economic and social development are too serious to yield to feel-good cosmetic approaches.
The NUC is the regulatory agency in higher education. Its responsibility in our tertiary education goes beyond handing over approval letters to legitimate proprietors.
It needs to do more to rid the nation of these fake universities and save children and their parents the agony of wasting years and money for worthless pieces of paper.
These fake universities do not deserve to operate a day longer than the very moment they are discovered.
This naked exploitation of the inadequacies in our public and private universities raises some fundamental issues concerning our educational development.
Our education has lurched from one avoidable crisis to another. In the second republic the NPN-controlled federal government promised us qualitative education.
That campaign promise was in response to the growing problem at the time, to wit, the steady fall in our standard of education at all levels.
By the time the brain drain hit the country in the eighties, degree certificates issued by our universities raised more questions than answers.
Or, to be less diplomatic, local employers and foreign universities thought nothing of them. And Nigeria, once the country to go to in Africa for qualitative higher education respected world wide, found itself mired in embarrassment. We are not exactly out of the wood yet.
Fake degrees from the fake universities make matters worse.
Our university teachers have been on strike for more than two months now.
Their union, ASUU, is fighting the same battle it has fought since the eighties: improvements in educational facilities that would make the universities truly centres of learning.
A university is not a degree mill. It is no use if it is not the agency for intellectual development.
A degree certificate is a piece of paper unless it truly attests to the development of the head and the mind of the recipient.
If the universities are mere hollow but gleaming buildings, then we are not getting value for the nation’s investment in education.
The federal and the state governments have clearly bitten more than they can chew here.
In the 2019 federal budget presented to the national assembly just before Christmas, President Buhari allocated N462.24 billion to education.
It is unlikely that the university lecturers are jumping for joy over this. Think of what the ocean feels with a glass of water thrown at it.
Our educational system is a pathetic victim of our national politics. Planting at least one federal university in each state of the federation makes political sense.
In the philosophy of quota system each state of the federation is entitled to a federal presence in education, schools, bore holes or a village town hall. But this does not make economic development sense because it is taking the federal character thing to a ridiculous level.
Think what difference it could have made if we had one big, well-funded and well-staffed federal university in each geo-political zone. Six big universities would be cheaper to run than the multiplicity of federal universities.
I can think of no president who would dare to do the right thing to rescue and reposition our education.
There is too much politics here. And where politics dictates the direction of national development, as in this case, it is dangerous to tamper with what is.
This is where courage and will come in. With courage and will, a president would ask himself the one question: how best do we reposition our educational system to provide functional education to our young people?
I presume he would discount the multiplicity of universities and pragmatically choose quality over quantity and national interest over political survival.
It is a tough choice, I know. But if we do not make that choice now and allow the system to continue as it is, this generation of our leaders would have nailed our future to the cross of political survival.
What is right is not always politically expedient. But what is right is always that which is right.
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