‘It’s dangerous to allow external forces fund research in Nigerian varsities’
In this interview with AYODELE AFOLABI, the Vice Chancellor of the Federal University Oye Ekiti (FUOYE), PROFESSOR KAYODE SOREMEKUN, spoke on various issues concerning tertiary education especially the dearth of research.
There is this belief that there is a dearth of research activities in Nigerian universities. Some have even described them as mere certificate-awarding institutions. What is FUOYE doing to distinguish itself in the area of research?
I want to slightly modify your perception about research. Research is still going on in Nigerian universities. But the more dangerous dimension is that a lot of these researches are being funded by external social forces. That is dangerous for us and I am not too sure that the government is aware of the danger. When you throw your universities open to free flowing funds from the donor communities, then of course, it is like selling the soul of the country. In FUOYE what we are trying to do is to encourage university-based journals. There is an element of bias in the production of knowledge. If you don’t have your own platform of producing knowledge, you will simply be subscribing to other people’s platforms which have their own agenda. And the best way to minimize that is to have your own platform for the production and dissemination of knowledge. That is why almost all the faculties that have a journal, we are trying to encourage them. What we are also driving at is, when we stabilized by way of funding, in terms of a robust IGR, we will then set aside some money every year in which our scholars can apply to fund their own research. This is a major thing I am embarking upon and probably, in a shortest possible time, we will put aside a minimum of N100 million for scholars in this university to do their research. Let me say this that we are not beating our chest about this because hundred million is really small money. But we need to start from somewhere; then if we can increase it every year with say N25 million, overtime you will have a robust research fund. I want to link this to the local technology. There is this journal that is more or less our voice all over the world. For too long our universities have ceded knowledge to global forces and this has very inclement implication and we in this little corner of the country should reverse the trend.
Some are of the opinion that the proliferation of private universities in the country has reduced the quality of university education and the quality of graduates. Do you think the regulatory bodies saddled with monitoring of these universities are doing enough?
Let me begin by saying that it is not good to generalize. The fact that you have an expansion in the number of universities does not mean that the quality has necessarily declined. I can speak from personal experience. In the course of my career, I have worked in one of the private universities and it is possible for me to say that private universities coming on board have added value to the Nigerian university system. So it will be unfair to say that the expansion has led to decline in the quality. Some of these universities have continued to hold their own. Covenant University is an example. The facilities there are top rate and the living conditions of the staff are very good.
Having said that, there is a downside, because, some private universities seem to be in the doldrums by not pulling their weight. I think in the cause of time market forces will sort out such universities. But the point again to note is that with the private universities coming on board, something else has been thrown up which policy makers have to contend with and appreciate and that is that there is demand for university education and by contrast effective demand is not there. A lot of people desire university education, but many lack the capacity to fund it. Nigeria is till a poor country. Very few parents can afford to put in place N500.000 as tuition. They are willing to give their children education but effective demand is not there. In the process, a lot of entrepreneurs have started universities only to realize that the numbers are not there. The very few universities that have the numbers are probably Covenant, Babcock and ABUAD. The others are just struggling probably for demographic space.
Some universities are still grappling with the infrastructural demand of a single campus. How have you been coping with two campuses?
Let me begin by giving due recognition to God for the vision, commitment and strength, such that running two campuses has become fairly normal to me. This is what I inherited and to that extent, I have to take on the complexities. What we have been able to do to expand the resource base is to introduce a number of courses which are at the same time beneficial to the academic world. Such include the pre-degree and superb programme. We have been able to raise some funds from these two programmes, to be able to deal with the onerous responsibility of running two campuses. There are also projects and the fact that government sends us money for overhead costs. Though the money is very small, on piecemeal basis we get eight million naira. Don’t forget that we run two campuses and diesel generator 24/7. We all know that eight million for two campuses is like a drop in the ocean.
One of the most challenging things to be accomplished by a new university is getting courses accredited. What has been your experience here?
Getting courses accredited has been very tough in the sense that it comes with heavy cost, that is, the cost of providing infrastructure. At some time, we were indebted to various contractors to the tune of about N300 million because we had to put in place structures and equipment, we had to equip the classrooms and the laboratories. But at end of the day, all our courses were accredited. The money spent, one can say has been justified. You spoke about regulatory agencies; this is a university that, in spite of our age, we run engineering courses. We are answerable to two regulatory bodies, Council of Registered Engineers of Nigeria (COREN) and the National Universities Commission (NUC). The good thing is that as the adage goes, there are thorns but there are still roses in the thorns, such that we can say conveniently that if anybody subscribes to this university, he /she is subscribing to accredited courses.
Despite our age, this university continues to be a preferred place. From latest figures we see, in terms of preference by applicants to JAMB, this university is in the fifth position. Since I came on board, we have expanded to 60 programmes. But then as you expand, you also need to expand in the area of infrastructure, classrooms etc. But we are building rapidly.
It has been said that government alone can’t fund universities and this is why many universities are looking inward to generate revenue. What are you doing in this regard?
Like I said, one way of generating money is through expansion of courses. The more programmes you introduce, the more money the students pay, though the fees are minimal, say N40,000. When you multiply N14,000 by N40,000 that is a honeypot you can use to run the university. Moreover, we also went into auxiliary programmes like pre-degrees. Our next step is to leverage on the advantage of our environment by bringing somebody who can be solely responsible for giving this university an edge in the area of agriculture. By this we are talking of research and commercial farms. We have a group of people that call themselves the face of the nation that are into agriculture. We have entrepreneurial activities. We are bringing the person to solely to turn this place into a place that can be showcased in the area of agriculture, research and commercialization.
Every successive administration in the country since 1999 has had issues with budgeting for education. What is your take on this?
I will try to be comprehensive and elastic on this matter. It is possible for me to sit here and say that universities need more funding and specifically, Federal University Oye Ekiti should be more funded; that means I am looking at it purely from my own little corner. We have to appreciate that the state itself is having to contend with other commitments. To that extent, one has to balance that larger commitment with the specific commitment to education on one hand, especially FUOYE. Once you are able to do that then have a better grasp of the kind of funding that you require. So I believe that since government is able to pay workers salaries, provide facilities through TETFUND and funding for capital expenditure and overheads, I believe that the universities too should devise creative programmes by which they can complement government.
I am not saying that government should not increase the funding, but it should be a cooperative synergy between the government and other stakeholders. Part of the problem in this part of the world is that we have not learnt how to think outside the box. If we do that, we will discover that though government should fund education, but that responsibility should also be complemented by other stakeholders. Look at the University of Lagos and you will discover that over time, it has a resource base that is very robust. Although one can argue that it was able to do that through its peculiar location, but it is also possible for other universities in Nigeria to leverage on their environment and generate more money for their activities.
One of the greatest challenges facing the universities in recent time is the industrial disharmony by their unions and this has impacted negatively on academic activities. How have you been coping with this challenge?
I think the way out is for government to pay more attention to the funding of education. But government alone can’t fund education. The private sector could be involved, minimal fees from the students, commercial activities and international donor agencies; these are all platforms from which universities can generate funds. For instance, as young as this university is, we have a collaboration with African Peace Building Network, a social component of the Research Council of New York. They brought funds which we have used to conduct workshops and seminars. Right now, we are involved in a major project, the herdsmen and farmers conflict. It is being funded by African Building Network which has a Director in the country, Mr. Cyril Obi who has been helping this university. I believe that the older universities are even in a better position to assess funds from the international donor community.
Talking about herdsmen and farmers conflicts, what would be the benefit to the country if this programme is sustained here?
If we are able to meaningfully sustain the herdsmen farmers conflict programme here, it is capable of proffering strategies or solution to the crisis such that even if it is not eradicated, it could be minimized. When you are talking of conflict, you are talking about collusion of interest and values and the resources at stake. So, if it is possible to bring them together for dialogue, we will be able to ask: what are the issues? If we know the issues, we will be able to resolve them. Conflict may not be necessarily bad, what is bad is violent conflicts. It is possible to resolve conflicts instead allowing it to degenerate into carrying of arms.