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In search of autonomy for government-owned universities


In a shambles, Nigeria’s universities groan as they grapple with the federal and state governments’ stranglehold on their administration. If the authorities concerned will embrace university autonomy, writes Head Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL the public university system may flourish again.

In an address on his first day as the leader of his country in 1939, Sir Robert Menzies, the former prime minister of Australia – who is credited to be the father of university education and reform in Australia, asked: “What are we to look for in a true university? What causes should it serve?” Though he provided clues, successive Nigerian governments still find the answer elusive as they continue to ignore the benefits of university autonomy.

The best universities in the world, according to recent rankings, are very autonomous. Once upon a time, university education in Nigeria was not associated with the problems of autonomy and control but by the 1970s the calls for autonomy became strident and the search for autonomy has become a long-drawn-out worry for government-owned universities with every effort aimed at securing autonomy, particularly in the area of academic freedom, resulting in an inevitable quagmire.


To date, Nigerian universities haemorrhage in the stranglehold of their paymasters. It has been an age-long problem. At one time the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the federal government had made a deal to overhaul the university system after a two-month long strike that shut down the entire university system in 2011, jolting the government to action. The then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Anyim Pius Anyim, and former Minister of Education, 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 system. Chaired by Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, 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, a former 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 youths – of 1.5 million applicants – were denied admission every year into universities. Actually, the whole shebang of the university system, the ministry of education noted, could take in just 150,000 – when about 1.2 million students, the committee confirmed, currently cram themselves in there.

With such overwhelming demand on public universities, 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.
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.

Today, Nigeria’s public universities remain in a shambles with the government failing to give the ivory tower the autonomy they ultimately desire and in spite of the remarkable growth of the university system in the country, the system continues to groan.

According to education experts, Benjamin and Chituru Nyewusira, the lack of autonomy in the nation’s universities contributes to the “inability of the university system in realising the principal business of the university education, which is the development of academic contents, teaching and research”.

The world over, both further argued in their research work, university autonomy is highly a significant substructure that is integral to the idea of a university.

“Universities have always regarded the idea (of autonomy) as indispensable for effective university system. However, university autonomy in this discourse is limited to the concept that implies freedom of universities from external control in matters relating to academic policies and programmes. The universal idea of the university is that it is a community of scholars, free to pursue knowledge without undue interference.

“So for the university system to succeed in the accomplishment of its cardinal goals of curriculum development, teaching, learning and research the system is required to be autonomous because autonomy creates a more flexible and responsive system of university in the areas of teaching and research,” they said.

Despite the fact that some statues of autonomy are entrenched in the laws setting up the country’s universities, the various governments and their agencies have continued to assume the powers of the universities and according to some scholars, “this usurpation of the power of universities in Nigeria came to play with the introduction of the National Universities Commission (NUC)”.

The reorganisation of the NUC beginning with the Decree 1 of 1974 altered the original intentions for establishing the commission as advisory body on matters that could prompt the development of the university system to that of a regulatory body. The decree was further amended as decree No 49 of 1988 aimed at the expansion of the membership of the NUC board – bringing politics and nepotism instead of autonomy.

The implementation of decree one resulted in a complete centralisation of university coordination, funding and control. The implication of this was that the sanctity of the autonomy of the universities was compromised because, beginning with the decree, universities have to work under the strict supervision of the NUC.

Stakeholders noted that by this development also, the government moved power away from the universities towards itself because in the functions of the NUC, it is observed that universities lost their financial autonomy to the commission as it has the powers to receive grants from the federal government and allocate such to universities according to a certain formula often subjected to politics and interests that have no direct benefit to the actual financial needs of the universities.

“Thus, the formula for financial allocation and grants accruable to each university is largely beyond the control of the universities. The obvious implication of this is that since universities don’t determine the funds to be available for them, meaningful academic planning becomes difficult. Furthermore, the Decree 16 of 1985 and Decree 49 of 1988, which initiated the powers for NUC to close down academic programmes and to establish minimum academic standards for all universities as well as carry out accreditation of their degrees and academic awards, had sweeping effects on the universities.

“By implication, these laws did not only subtly empower the NUC to usurp the functions of the senate, council, faculty boards of universities and professional accreditation bodies, they implicitly also ensured a covert control of the universities by the Nigerian state,” Benjamin and Chituru pointed out.

They further noted that for autonomy to be fully practised there should be no dictation from outside the universities as to what their standards should be. The system must have the freedom to run its own affairs without external interference; it must have the right to organise its internal affairs, to make decisions and to establish its own academic programmes. Autonomy must imply the protection of the Nigerian university system from any form or shape of control from the government and its agencies.

In 2016, the issue of autonomy in the universities, featured at a conference organised by stakeholders in Abuja with experts holding the view that granting autonomy to universities and providing effective administration by key stakeholders are sine qua non for education development in the country.

The theme of the conference, ‘Repositioning Nigerian public universities for global competitiveness in the 21st century’, reflected the mood as Prof. Kimse Okoko, then chairman of the committee of Pro-Chancellors of Nigerian federal universities, stated that the current state of public institutions was a reflection of several years of neglect.

Okoko added: “We are not unaware of the fact that only a fully autonomous university system will make it possible for individual university to undertake negotiations with the unions in the universities. We, therefore, call on Federal Government to grant the universities full autonomy if we must avoid the embarrassing and disrupting spate of strikes in our universities.”

Earlier, in July 2014, the president and founder of Afe Babalola University, Afe Babalola (SAN), in a keynote address titled, ‘University autonomy and good governance’, to the committee of pro-chancellors, argued that in the periods between 1966 and 1999 – when Nigeria was largely under military rule – the country’s university system became increasingly less autonomous, less collegial, and highly dependent on government for funding and for decision making.

The government’s involvement increased with controls over the constitution and membership of governing councils, direct control over the appointment of key administrative personnel of universities; and financial controls.


In effect, the government became a key stakeholder and decision maker in the universities. These relics of military rule remain to date. As such, there remains a perpetual demand by university authorities for more autonomy to internally decide, run and execute their own programmes and policies.

If the concerned authorities are still wondering what clues Menzies left them in 1939, here is a wrap-up.

Responding to his own questions, Menzies argued that the university must be “a place of pure culture and learning; a training school for the professions; a liaison between the academician and the ‘good practical man’ – that is, a bridge between theoretical learning and its practical application; the home of research; a trainer of character; a training ground for leaders; a custodian of the unfettered search for truth; and an autonomous institution.”

Menzies added: “Utterly undesirable that any government in a free country should tell a university what and how it is to teach… I prefer to think of academic freedom as a precious and shining example of that kind of freedom which all thinking men and women want for themselves, and will not abandon without a struggle.

“Universities are accorded a high degree of autonomy and self-determination on the ground that the particular services which they render, both to their country and to mankind in general, cannot be rendered without such freedom.”

The late Australian prime minister advocated that the way to a strong university system is to create the conditions that allow the institutions to thrive, and to give them the freedom to chart their own course and then get on with it.

“I align with these highly cerebral views,” said Babalola. “A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning. Academic liberty and autonomy is a prerequisite for true research and learning. Universities must be free to innovate – to try out new approaches to teaching and learning, and to research, untrammelled by excessive regulation or other burdens.”

Prof. Afe Babalola (SAN), founder of Afe Babalola University (ABUAD), Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State

Over the years, stakeholders have given Nigerian governments the stick for allowing many universities to be weighed down by the bureaucratic demands of political correctness, reporting and regulation that stifle productivity and capacity to innovate.
Babalola said, “University scholars must also be free to air out results of findings without fear of backlash from funding agencies, governments and authorities. Of what use is knowledge that cannot be freely disseminated? The freedom to disseminate research knowledge is often hindered by internal screenings and vetting to avoid regulatory backlash thereby diluting the very essence and key findings of many important research endeavours.

“Autonomy is also important to promote a culture of merit and fairness within the university system. In an era where many key university appointments and decisions are made from outside the system, meritocracy is eroded and replaced with nepotism, godfatherism, lobbying and political patronage. The result is a system whereby the most eligible are often frustrated and left without promotions.”

This scenario has led to the unsavoury situation in which the best currently do not thrive within the Nigerian university system.

The 1997 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recommendation concerning the status of higher education teaching personnel contains a detailed explanation of the concept of university autonomy, defining it as the degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision making by institutions of higher education regarding their academic work, standards, management and related activities consistent with systems of public accountability, especially in respect of funding provided by the state, and respect for academic freedom and human rights.

It further describes autonomy as the institutional form of academic freedom and a necessary precondition to guarantee the proper fulfilment of the functions entrusted to higher education teaching personnel and institutions. The recommendation thus places an obligation on countries to protect higher education institutions from threats to their autonomy coming from any source.

According to UNESCO, there are three essential components of meaningful university autonomy, namely self-governance, collegiality and appropriate academic leadership.

“Self-governance refers to the ability of a university to exercise internal control or rule over itself. It refers to internal integrity and the ability of an institution to derive authority for its key decisions from within. Collegiality refers to shared power and authority vested among colleagues. In an autonomous university, decision making powers are exercised amongst scholars, students, staffs, and stakeholders in the academic environment in a fair and democratic way. As such, those decisions are ‘home-grown’ and derive legitimacy from within.

“The third aspect of university autonomy is appropriate academic leadership which refers to leadership at all relevant department levels of a university by the most qualified members of that institution. It refers to a meritocratic system in which the most qualified scholars are promoted to occupy leadership positions, based on the fundamental belief that power should be vested in individuals according to merit,” the ABUA founder added.

In the past, Nigeria’s university system had the three components, influenced by the classical British system. For example, when the University College, Ibadan was established in 1948 as Nigeria’s first university, its composition and structure were patterned after elite United Kingdom’s universities such as the University College London and Oxford University.

In England, universities enjoy organisational, financial, academic, and staffing autonomy. The organisational autonomy means that the universities can decide, without the interference of the government, on all aspects of administration, including selection, term of office and dismissal of the executive head, governance structures and inclusion of external members, as well as internal academic structures. Universities may create legal entities freely.

Regarding financial autonomy, universities do require the approval of an external authority for borrowing above a certain level. At Bachelor level tuition to national and European Union students must be set below a ceiling set by an external authority. Universities may set the level of fees charged at other levels and to international students.

The universities also decide on the overall number of students since student number controls were lifted. They set admission criteria at Bachelor and Master levels. New programmes may be introduced without prior accreditation. Universities undergo institutional accreditation by the national agency. Universities can decide on the language of instruction for all programmes and can design the content of academic programmes freely.

In the same vein, universities in Austria, Brandenburg, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Flanders, Wallonia, Hesse, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, The Netherlands, North Rhine-Westphalia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland can decide on their academic structures without constraints.

In addition, universities in England recruit their senior academic and administrative staff freely. Salary bands for senior academic staff are negotiated with other parties through national bargaining arrangements, while universities decide on senior administrative staff salaries. There are no specific regulations regarding either dismissals or promotions.
Recruitment procedures for senior administrative staff are carried out freely by these universities.

In the U.S, public universities are seeking more autonomy as financing from states shrink. With states providing a dwindling share of money for higher education, many states and public universities are rethinking their ties. With less money from state coffers, the public universities want to be free from state regulations governing areas like procurement and building, and they need more flexibility to compete with private institutions.

Not a few American education experts believe that public universities deserve greater autonomy, now that the majority of their support no longer comes from the government.

However, there are worries in some quarters that this greater autonomy can bring about new challenges, never envisaged in public institutions – like making university education inaccessible to those who need it the most.

Speaking about the importance of autonomy in universities, Babalola stated that self-governance in the system allows innovation and excellence.

“So many roads lead to the same destination – the ultimate destination for higher education is to have Nigerian universities that can compete, in terms of quality, standards and products, neck-to-neck with other universities in the world. Universities must be allowed to internally innovate different ways to get to this destination.

“Universities are better placed to determine the problems they face and to develop solutions to them, after all there reside some of Nigeria’s finest and most talented minds. Nigerian universities cannot be regulated into excellence. It is only through respecting the autonomy of universities that we can have the competition that drives the excellence, diversity and innovation that we need,” he stated.

Preaching the sermon of autonomy further, the legal luminary underscores the point that it is also vital to reducing the perennial tensions, clashes and strikes between governments and university hierarchy. Without mincing words, he said university authorities must be given the freedom to chart their own course and then implement policies without undue manipulations or interference by governments.
“When university authorities are allowed to design their own programmes and empowered to execute and deliver them, they are morally bound to ensure that such programmes succeed. This will lead to an increased sense of responsibility and ownership by universities thereby eliminating some of the root causes of the recurrent strike actions in Nigeria.

“Like judges, university officials must feel a sense of independence and job security while executing their sacred functions of knowledge dissemination to the country. A situation whereby government interferes in appointments, dismissals, promotions, tenure and administrative roles erodes universities of their abilities to independently perform their primordial functions and roles without pressure,” Babalola stated.

In a similar vein, universities require autonomy to be able to attract and retain the very best minds. Many universities in Nigeria are unable to compete with their foreign counterparts in recruiting the most qualified professors and teachers, some of whom are Nigerians, but are now scattered in foreign lands.
To stem the tide of this brain drain, Babalola said universities must have the budget, freedom and financial independence to be able to recruit the very best at all times.

[FILE PHOTO] Adamu Adamu, Minister of Education

“Universities are better placed to determine the problems they face and to develop solutions to them, after all there reside some of Nigeria’s finest and most talented minds. Nigerian universities cannot be regulated into excellence. It is only through respecting the autonomy of universities that we can have the competition that drives the excellence, diversity and innovation that we need.”
Yet, he averred that autonomy cannot mean that the government has no stake in universities and that its leaders should mind their own business.

“That would suggest a level of independence from anyone’s oversight that no other public body in the Nigerian society, whether public or private, enjoys by law,” the ABUAD owner said. “On the other hand autonomy, if it is to mean anything, must include the right of a university to determine its own strategy, taking into account the public interest.”
An ASUU official, Prof Tajudeen Akanji in his remarks said “If universities are autonomous, they will be able to carry out researches they feel will be very good for them and which can contribute to the society. It means they would be able to relate with their contemporaries from other parts of the world.

“But a situation whereby university administrators are appointed by government; a situation whereby government controls the number of students that universities can admit; all these would not make room for university growth, would not make for the nation to even have the benefit of what the universities are supposed to do and that is the reason why the lack of that autonomy has been the problem of funding of universities in this nation.

“A situation whereby government decides to say that universities should run free and without actually looking at the funding, I see no reason why a professor at the University of Ibadan should earn the same thing as a professor in Oye or in another university somewhere, I see no reason why a student should pay the same amount for medicine in UI as he is going to pay in another university. All these do not allow universities to grow at their own pace and contribute effectively.

“University autonomy is actually the pride of the university and once it is taken away, universities would not be able to serve the purpose for which they are meant to achieve in the society and that is the problem of universities in Nigeria today and one of the reasons why ASUU is always on the road fighting government. That is why if you look at the demands of ASUU, they have always been on university autonomy, funding and academic freedom.

“A situation whereby universities become constituency projects for politicians, that a president or governor can sit down somewhere and decide to establish a university as if establishing just any company is not going to make it easy for us as a nation to enjoy the dividends of university education.”

For the President and Chief Executive Officer, Postgraduate School of Credit and Financial Management, Prof Chris Onalo, university autonomy is difficult at this time but ‘achievable’.


His words: “It is difficult because no university can suddenly develop at this time, take the business plan to the market and raise the required money from either capital market or from credible discerning individual investors or corporate investors, the reason being that the various risks scenarios surrounding the governance structure of Nigerian universities are created by their funders, which is the government.

“It is difficult for any investor to gamble investment in the educational sector, however the possibility for individuals or institutional investors to come into any Nigerian university at this time will mean total take-over of such university and that would create massive disruption to the university’s operating timetable and the governance.

“However, it is possible if the federal and state governments could be very decisive and be ready to back out completely and then universities, for the next five years would be without money to operate and then the potential investor, either individual or institutional would be convinced that the governments are serious to hands off university business so that they can become truly autonomous, and it means that the universities would have to go all out beyond the local box to international university community to learn how to truly run a university that is capable of producing the best workforce, for the economy and truly teaching individuals the best way of life where corruption and other social vices would be eliminated from the minds of the future Nigerians.”

Autonomy for Nigerian universities should mean the right of a university to enjoy the core privileges of academic freedom, substantive independence, and procedural self-governance, subject only to public accountability – that is the view of all forward-looking scholars and stakeholders.

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