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Stemming tide of fake universities in 21st century

By Iyabo Lawal
10 March 2022   |   2:40 am
A recent announcement by the National Universities Commission (NUC) that it has uncovered over 60 institutions, satellite campuses and study centres operating illegally in the country

National Universities Commission building

A recent announcement by the National Universities Commission (NUC) that it has uncovered over 60 institutions, satellite campuses and study centres operating illegally in the country has raised fresh concerns among stakeholders.

The large number of public and private universities in Nigeria, no doubt, has not enabled easy access to tertiary education due to the low carrying capacity of the institutions.

Stakeholders noted that 96 per cent of candidates who sit for Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) chose the university as their preferred institution; 1.69 per cent choose colleges of education, while 1.9 per cent settle for polytechnics.

The situation has resulted in the unwieldy rise of illegal tertiary institutions in the country, with most of them claiming affiliation to established universities in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada – even Ghana and the Republic of Benin.

Executive Secretary of the commission, Prof. Abubakar Rasheed, who made the announcement, said all certificates emerging from those institutions remain invalid, as they have violated the Education (National Minimum Standards) Act CAP E3 Law of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.

Rasheed, however, said NUC is tackling the situation headlong to discourage illegality and ensure that the reputation of tertiary education in the country is not harmed beyond remedy.

They noted that the reason for the proliferation of illegal degree-awarding institutions in the country is the limited space available in the university system.

The proliferation of illegal universities, a present threat to tertiary education and national development, has also put Nigeria in the unenviable league of countries with the highest number of such institutions in the world.

A recent report showed that while the United States is ranked first, Nigeria is second. This development should be of much concern to the NUC, the Federal Government and other stakeholders in the sector.

The existence of illegal universities has further underlined the crisis in the nation’s university education occasioned by the paucity of admission places in public universities, underfunding and lack of facilities, including manpower and equipment in the universities. Why are some Nigerians patronising illegal universities when existing ones don’t fill up their carrying capacities?

High cut-off marks in public universities, exorbitant fees charged by private universities, course preferences, and ignorance might be responsible for the malaise. Since there is high demand for university education, some shrewd Nigerians have intervened negatively to fill the gaps in university admission.

Illegal universities abound in the country simply because the NUC has not sufficiently sanctioned promoters of such institutions. Their promoters have been treated as sacred cows, hence the phenomenal growth of such degree mills.

To curb the menace, concerned stakeholders said the Federal Government and NUC should wield the big stick and close these unlawful institutions. Apart from closing them, the government must make laws, if not in existence, to confiscate the assets of such illegal schools henceforth.

For so long, the government has handled this issue with kid gloves or indifference. Since it is illegal for people to establish and run unregistered universities, the government should muster the will to apprehend and prosecute their proprietors and secure convictions. This is probably the best way to deter other unscrupulous Nigerians from indulging in such illegality.

Among the illegal institutions are, University of Accountancy and Management Studies; Christians of Charity American University of Science and Technology; University of Industry; University of Applied Sciences and Management; Blacksmith University; Volta University College; Royal University; Atlanta University; United Christian University; United Nigeria University College; Samuel Ahmadu University; UNESCO University; Saint Augustine’s University of Technology.

They also include The International University, Missouri USA; Columbus University, UK; Tiu International University, UK; Pebbles University, UK; London External Studies, UK; Pilgrims University; West African Christian University; Bolta University College; JBC Seminary Inc. (Wukari Jubilee University); Western University; St. Andrews University College; EC-Council USA; Atlas University; and the Concept College/Universities (London).

In total, the commission listed 58 black-market tertiary institutions operating in the country, it also said eight universities are currently undergoing investigation for illegally running degree programmes. The eight universities are National Universities of Nigeria, Keffi, Nasarawa State; North Central University, Otukpo, Benue state; Christ Alive Christian Seminary and University; Richmond Open University, Arochukwu, Abia State; West Coast University, Umuahia; Saint Clements University, Iyin Ekiti, Ekiti State; Volta University College, Aba, Abia State; and illegal satellite campuses of Ambrose Alli University.

“For the avoidance of doubt, anybody who patronises or obtains any certificate from any of these illegal institutions does so at his or her own risk,” the commission warned, pointing out that certificates obtained from these illegal institutions will not be recognised for the purposes of National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), employment and further studies. The NUC added that the relevant law enforcement agencies have been informed for necessary action.

It is little wonder then that many mushroom illegal universities are sprouting in every corner of the country and flourishing because of the systemic failure in the education sector.

In 2015, the commission shut down 57 of such fake higher institutions operating without accreditation but after thousands of Nigerian youths and their parents/guardians desperate for university education had been scammed. The erstwhile President of the Nigerian Academy of Science, Mr. Oyewale Tomori, had a couple of years ago, called into question the integrity of NUC’s accreditation.

Tomori said, “When there are allegations that some of the people who conduct accreditation in the name of NUC receive ‘brown envelopes’, the NUC will ask: Are those who give or take the envelopes not your colleagues? But the NUC forgets one thing, that the accreditation bears ‘NUC’s seal.”

Experts have suggested to the commission, the need to maintain a regularly updated national database of accredited programmes and institutions. The commission is also urged to involve professionals in its accreditation exercises, not just academics.

A renowned public analyst and rights activist, Chido Onumah, also drew attention to the malaise of the proliferation of illegal universities in Nigeria.

He said: “I came across NUC’s newsletter that had a list of 44 ‘fake universities in the country. That piece of information was meant to be a cautionary note for students and parents, it is hard to say how many of that concerned saw and benefitted from the commission’s alert. From all indications, not many.”

With the number of these illegal institutions growing unabated, Onumah believed that the proliferation was either in response to the country’s glorification of paper qualification or those who “are supposed to rein in these illegal entities are not doing what is expected of them.”

He had argued that the fact that NUC again raised the alarm was a pointer to how menacing the issue has become.

While Onumah felt that the commission had taken a bold step in informing the public about the scammers fronting as universities, he however noted that there are many questions still begging for answers.

“What type of ‘investigations’ is the NUC conducting? Universities are not daycare centres. How did these ‘degree mills’ start off? Is there a ‘cabal’ behind these ‘fake universities’? Are there no regulations/requirements before universities are accredited? Did the NUC accredit the universities it is investigating? ”

According to him, the NUC has a list of legally recognised universities in the country and any institution that purports to be a university that is not on the list should be closed down immediately and its proprietors prosecuted. “That is the easiest way to put an end to this scam. In this regard, does the NUC have the support of the government and its relevant agencies to prosecute the proprietors of these illegal universities?”

But Prof. Elias Ngerem of Adamawa State University, Mubi, noted that for any meaningful development to take place in the university system, the government must be ready to address adequate funding of the sector. He noted that improved funding would help solve the problem of infrastructure.

A public analyst, Emmanuel Davies, said NUC should do more than make a yearly announcement of shutting down illegal universities dotting the nation’s landscape.

Founder, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD), Chief Afe Babalola, lamented that over the past years, NUC has released names of illegal tertiary institutions in Nigeria, together with taking some punitive steps towards ensuring their closure.

This, notwithstanding, the legal luminary said problem of fake universities has persisted like a multi-headed hydra, with no action by the government to put an end to the menace.

Babalola said: “Many of the names published as far back as 2012 are still being repeated in 2021, with other names now added to this budding list of illegality.”

“It is becoming clear that Nigeria is well renowned in one particular area of fake goods or services market: fake or illegal schools. Why have illegal schools become so commonplace in Nigeria? Education is an important factor in the development efforts of any society or government. In Nigeria, the government is enjoined by the provisions of Section 18 of the Constitution (as amended) to ensure that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels.”

Babalola noted that some of the ‘illegal’ institutions had very curious sounding names, which reasonably should have alerted discerning minds to the fraud represented by the universities.

“In Lagos State, the government, years back, shut three private schools operating in the state. One of the schools was reported to have been using a container used for the importation of goods as a classroom. In Delta State, the government shut down over 600 illegal schools. In Ogun and Kaduna states, the numbers of illegal schools detected were 160 and 642 respectively. In Kaduna, the commissioner of education stated that several of the schools were operating from uncompleted buildings, garages, and shops. As staggering as these figures are, I believe that the number of illegal schools operating in various states is much higher.

“However, it does appear that the presence of illegal schools is not new. Many Nigerians have been ‘awarded’ certificates of these illegal schools in their bid to acquire education. Several of these persons only discovered the truth when they presented their certificates in the process of either seeking employment or promotion at their places of work. Furthermore, it appeared illegality in the operation of schools is fast transcending the fact of registration with the regulatory authorities alone. In other words, a school that is properly registered and, therefore, operating legally in the eye of the law, may yet be operating far below minimum standards, which in my estimation will still qualify it as an illegal school.”

The legal luminary said the pronouncement by the commission, as good as it is, is an indictment on the law establishing NUC.

“It is also a pointer to the fact that there could be more. The question then is, how do we get out of this embarrassing problem? The answer is that government should urgently and immediately amend the NUC law and give the commission sufficient powers of immediate and outright closure of illegal universities with further powers of severe sanctions, including forfeiture of the university’s properties to government, while promoters, founders, councils and teachers of such illegality should face life imprisonment,” Babalola said.

Experts also noted that if Nigeria must successfully confront challenges of educational development, it must acquire and adapt global knowledge and create knowledge locally; invest in human capital to increase the ability to absorb and use knowledge, and invest in technologies to facilitate both acquisition and absorption of knowledge. Until that is done, the public may just have to wait –the year in, year out – for the announcement and warning by NUC of another crackdown on illegal institutions.