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Nigerian varsities lack enabling environment for academic excellence, says Gbenro Jegede

By Iyabo Lawal
23 July 2020   |   3:40 am
Pioneer Vice-Chancellor, National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) and immediate past Secretary-General, Association of African Universities, Prof Olugbemiro Jegede


Pioneer Vice-Chancellor, National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) and immediate past Secretary-General, Association of African Universities, Prof Olugbemiro Jegede, in this interview with IYABO LAWAL on the recently released world university ranking, spoke on why Nigerian universities are poorly rated and the need to restructure the tertiary education system to align it with current trends.

The Centre for World University Rankings recently released its report and only the University of Ibadan (UI), the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and Covenant University, Ota, made the list of the first 2000. Why are Nigerian universities poorly rated?
When you consider the current results of the ranking of Nigerian universities at the backdrop of what we had about five years ago, we have made significant progress from no single Nigerian university in the top 5000 universities of the world to two (the University of Ibadan ranked 1233 and the University of Nigeria Nsukka ranked 1677 in the world. Covenant University was ranked 1704, making it the third Nigerian university to be amongst the top 2000 in the world. These three universities have made us proud and should be congratulated and commended.

However, there is still a long way to go. In fact, we have yet to scratch the surface, as it were. Nigerian universities are poorly rated for a variety of reasons. First, many academics and highly placed individuals who intelligently study trends in educational development believe that the league table of universities is not scientific and therefore not truly objective. There are at least 10 different ranking systems, including Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, with differing criteria. The most popular is the Ranking Web or Webometrics, which uses the criteria of how visible a university is on the web by its own web domain, sub-pages, rich files, and scholarly articles, among others.
By simple deduction, it goes without saying that any university that has not got a web presence or the web site is not that richly populated will struggle with the ranking. Conversely, if your university puts in lots of materials on the web, even if they are mostly junks, they will be highly rated and picked up by the radar of global ranking.
Second, the age of the institution has a lot to do with the rank placement. The older a university is, the better the chances of being ranked highly. The recent and previous results of the ranking of our universities testify to this.  For 2020, our first generation universities came very close to the 2000 ranked universities. As published, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ife, was ranked 2077, University of Lagos (UNILAG) was ranked 2094 and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) was ranked 2216 in the world.
In Africa, the older universities in South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia are right at the top. They would have had so much invested in them and they would have, over the years, gone through a lot of developmental phases. The third factor is the capacity and capability of the university as a whole and of the productivity of individual academic staff. University of Ibadan, as the oldest university in Nigeria, has got the largest number of professors and senior academic staff who have distinguished themselves in many areas. The number of full professors at the university would outnumber the total number of academic staff in the young and struggling universities combined. Fourth, the publication outputs as shown in the number of articles published in world rated academic journals in the older universities would evidently outweigh what you have even in four to five younger universities combined. In fact, many young universities hardly spend resources on research, let alone have anything to publish.
Fifth, although more fund in and of itself will not solve the problems of the Nigerian tertiary education system, the availability of fund, quality of and relevant infrastructure play a lot of facilitating role in making an institution a good and productive one.  Most of our universities do not have these.
The older universities are struggling under the weight of too many unnecessary development baggages that is hardly related to academic work and expected output. For example, we live in a tertiary education system where non-academic staff that are supposed to be supporting academic staff, in some universities, triple the population of academics.

The indices used in the ranking include quality of education, alumni employment, quality of faculty and research performance. How would you assess our universities based on these indicators?
There are two ways to look at these indices relative to how our universities are fairing out there. Regarding the quality of education, as dictated by many outside universities, we have not done too badly even though the rankings do not portray us very well. For instance, even though we think that the quality of our education is not that impressive or is falling, once our academics and graduates go overseas, especially to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and lately to the Middle East and especially the Arab Emirates, they not only stand their own but outshine those they meet there. In fact, the silent word now is that countries like Canada, Australia, Germany and New Zealand prefer to recruit academics and students from Nigeria.
The latest data from the U.S, which shows that Nigeria has the highest educated and most talented intellectuals amongst other segments of the population is a testimony to this. But on the other hand, we are not doing well at home because the enabling environment for excellence in academia is not there. We cannot nurture our homegrown academics and graduates; we have no place for them to demonstrate their capability, and healthy competition is not there while the needed encouragement and incentives are lacking.

What really are the challenges confronting tertiary education in Nigeria?
In spite of the fact that we have performed well in the educational sector, considering the issues we face daily, we still have much to do as a country: to squarely face the challenges confronting tertiary education in Nigeria.
The problems are multi-faceted, multi-directional and multi-layered. They are political, strategic, development-related, social, cultural, economic, lack of vision and focus, limited flexibility and inability to latch on to and quickly and seamlessly domesticate global developments in education. Given the many developments all around us and towards the modern educational system, we really need to fundamentally restructure the tertiary education system, ranging from admissions, curricula, training and
Pitched along how tertiary education is copiously developing around the world, especially in Asia, it looks like our system has become dysfunctional and not able to respond to the requirements of a modern-day university.
We have academics not very well kitted for research and their outputs are less than impressive, and yet, we are churning out professors (who definitely are half baked) and will, in turn, produce mediocre academics. Many universities have science and technology departments without adequate or non-existent appropriate laboratories and yet, they are awarding degrees.
Our system, as at now, cannot inform on how many engineers or doctors or chemistry teachers or sociologists the system requires annually as adequate to drive the development of the country. So, we keep producing graduates everywhere in all areas who end up not finding jobs and becoming liabilities in the employment market.

The environment is not conducive for learning or even living. I would like to be able to point to one university in all our 175 universities where the toilets are all in good working conditions, that they flush, there is water and have toilet rolls all the time.
Should we not have universities with engineering faculties being powered by locally designed and installed solar power systems? Should we not at this time of our development boast of universities with extensive commercial farming system selling and exporting farm produce and livestock generating revenue that support the university so that we do not all the time depend on the government for all our funding needs?
At this time of developing our tertiary education system, should we not have in place university grant offices, student employment and placement offices, centres for teaching and learning to constantly train academic staff on how to teach, impart pedagogical skills to engender excellent teaching and learning? I do hope we do not get to a situation where we rely more on quantity rather than the quality of universities in Nigeria.
Something needs to be done as urgently as possible to give a new direction to the system. Our tertiary education system needs to put in place more robust and integrity-laden processes and procedures to identify and install effective transformational leadership in the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education rather than the local government-type leadership we now have at the helm of affairs in our institutions.

How true is the claim that lecturers do not engage in quality research?
It is known all over the world that solutions to societal issues occur effectively if anchored on research and no socio-economic development can eventuate if there is no appreciable quantum of research. Capabilities in research, technology and innovation are significant requirements for the transformation of societies, and Nigeria is no exception. The level of development in a country mirrors the quality of research produced by its universities and vice versa.
Yes, our university lecturers do not engage enough in quality research as a result of the reasons I have mentioned earlier. Due to lack of research, Nigeria and Africa may remain developing with stunted economic growth and a dearth of quality human resources. From the statistics available, Africa has only 70,000 researchers, while the U. S has 1.5 million researchers, China has 862,000 researchers, Japan has 675,000, and Russia has 487,000 researchers in their tertiary education systems.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in 2014, suggested that by 2025, Africa should reach a target of 1,000 researchers per million people. But at the moment, we do not have up to 150 per million and Nigeria has got fewer than 50. We also know that between 1999 and 2015, the research publications in the developed countries were as follows: USA – 9,360,233; China – 4,076,414; UK – 2,624,585; Japan – 2,212,536 and Canada – 1,339,471. But compare these with the research publications in Africa as follows: South Africa – 188,104; Egypt – 137,350; Nigeria – 59,372; Kenya – 24,458 and Zimbabwe – 7,243.
The data that is also available show that Africa has only 35 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants, compared with 168 for Brazil, 2,457 for Europe, and 4,103 for the United States. Since no nation has made any appreciable progress in socio-economic development without an ample number of scientists and research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Nigeria with fewer than 10 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants, must double up its effort with the urgency that it deserves.

I am aware of a new scheme being developed by a joint partnership between Pegaso International University and Galilee International Management Institute, Israel, to produce, via online teaching, about 100,000 civil engineers for Nigeria in five years as it has been found that only a third of students seeking admission into civil engineering in Nigerian universities get admitted. We must embrace this laudable development to assist with our infrastructural development if we must belong to the 21st Century countries that are at the forefront of socio-economic development by way of infrastructure.

Our tertiary education system must be revamped to encourage and massively fund high impact research that would leap our industrial, scientific, technological and digital development. In today’s world, research must integrate knowledge generation, socio-economic development and entrepreneurship to tackle the growing pandemic of unemployment amongst the youth of Africa. A World Bank Report of 2014 recommended, amongst others, “STEM research should also be a priority and that raising the capacity of institutions to produce valuable research in science and engineering could help transform Africa and generate broad gains to society.” Nigeria must explore this direction.

How can rankings of Nigerian varsities be improved?
To improve the world ranking of our universities and adequately prepare for the future of Nigeria to exist comfortably in the 21st Century requires a well thought out five to 15-year development plan. Several issues must be addressed, including laying a solid foundation for socio-economic transformation through research.

A contemporary university must be committed to the idea that the 21st Century requires a different set of tools to create and innovate in the new environment and the future of higher education. Our universities must seek to combine the virtues of collegial and developmental cultures to bring out the best for societal transformation.

They must embark on further innovation and capacity building in research for staff through collaboration and partnership with like-minded institutions locally and abroad. We must develop research leadership and management capabilities of leaders in research and innovation.
The world is experiencing unprecedented changes regarding who the 21st Century learners and digital natives are and will develop into. If we do not want to address the new crop of learners using analogue solutions for their digital issues, we must begin to research into all aspects of their behaviour in and out of classrooms, laboratories, and social groups, among others.
Our university teachers, researchers and facilitators of learning must acquire new modalities, where co-constructed knowledge is scaffolded and powered by digital pedagogies.
In a nutshell, to increase the ranking of our universities, Nigeria must work assiduously to improve the quality of our tertiary education, focusing on the quality of the teaching and learning environment and training the teachers; lift the game of our research output in terms of volume, income and usefulness; insist on per capita academic performance of our institutions; promote very strongly internationalisation of staff and students; international research collaboration; encourage university-industry partnership and industry income innovation.