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Why private varsities are yet to bridge admission gap

By Adelowo Adebumiti
21 April 2022   |   4:23 am
By 2050, Nigeria will become the third largest country in the world, according to the United Nations, with 399 million people – many of who would be enthusiastic and ambitious youths with dreams to acquire university education.

Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission ( NUC), Prof. Abubakar Rasheed

By 2050, Nigeria will become the third largest country in the world, according to the United Nations, with 399 million people – many of who would be enthusiastic and ambitious youths with dreams to acquire university education. But it appears herculean for youths to gain admission into government-owned universities. To illustrate, only 30 per cent (540, 000) out of the 1.8 million candidates who wrote the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) were admitted in 2017.

According to the World Education News and Review (WENR), Nigeria’s higher education sector has been “overburdened” by strong population growth and a significant youth population explosion – with more than 60 per cent of the population under the age of 24.

“Rapid expansion of the nation’s higher education sector in recent decades has failed to deliver the resources or seats to accommodate demand. A substantial number of would-be college and university students are turned away from the system. About two third of applicants, who sat for the country’s national entrance examination in 2020, could not find a spot at a Nigerian university,” WENR said in a report posted on its website.

In 2020, a total of 1.9m students sat for the UTME with 69.6 per cent of university applications made to federal universities, 27.5 per cent to state universities, and less than one per cent to private universities. The number of applicants currently exceeds the number of available university seats by a ratio of two to one.

“This admission ratio, low as it may be, is a significant improvement compared to 10 years ago when the ratio was closer to one in 10 for university entry. But the admission crisis continues to be one of Nigeria’s biggest challenges in higher education, especially given the strong growth of its youth population.

“Nigeria’s system of education presently leaves over a million qualified college-age applicants without access to post-secondary education on yearly basis,” noted WENR.

In 1948, there was only one university in Nigeria – the University College of Ibadan, an affiliate of the University of London. By 1962, the number of universities had increased to five, namely, the University of Ibadan, the University of Ife, the University of Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Lagos. Between 1980 and 2021, the number of universities grew from 16 to 170.

Enter private universities. What seemed the exclusive preserve of the affluent has become a game-changer in Nigeria’s tertiary education system and its economic ecosystem.

As of 2021, according to the National Universities Commission (NUC), there are 79 private universities (in 1999, there were just three private universities – Igbinedion, Madonna and Babcock), 48 state universities and 43 federal universities.

Although stakeholders acknowledged that private universities have opened space for the growing number of admission seekers in the country, these institutions have not been able to bridge admission gap, as many qualified candidates are denied admission due to issue of “carrying capacity.”

Existing public universities are still unable to cope with the yearly increase in the number of applicants.

Carrying capacity is a new dimension introduced by the NUC to enhance quality assurance in Nigerian university system; it means that students are admitted based on facilities available. These include adequate lecture rooms, well-stocked libraries, good staff-student ratios and accommodation.

Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, said private universities, in the last 20 years, had contributed in opening access for the growing population of candidates seeking university education.

He lamented that despite the growing number of universities every year, a large number of qualified candidates seeking university education could not be absorbed due to limited carrying capacity of existing institutions.

For instance, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) noted that despite having about 52, 323 candidates scoring between 250 and 299 in the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), 22,580 candidates were not admitted, while some 193,661 candidates out of 347,469 who scored between 200 and 249 were also not offered admission.

Similarly, the examination body added that of the 4,948 candidates who scored 300 and above, only 3,492 were offered admission into higher institutions, leaving 1,456 stranded.

However, despite their increasing number, private universities have not been able to bridge the admission gap in the nation’s tertiary institution and maximise their carrying capacity.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic, Research, Innovations and Partnerships, Osun State University, Prof Anthony Kola-Olusanya, said private universities, like every institution, at its take-off, has a phased development.

“This is what is determining the ability of private universities to admit students or increase enrollment. No university can grow faster than as prescribed by NUC. Secondly, there is also the issue of carrying capacity, and this is determined by the available facilities in private universities,” he said.

He said improving the situation and getting private universities to rise to the challenge would take time.

Bearing in mind that university education is capital intensive; Kola-Olusanya said it would take a while to address the challenges.
“Let’s also add that the growth per university is determined by the NUC and private universities cannot go outside of the projected student enrollment, otherwise they will be sanctioned.

“Besides, universities are living entities, which is why their development is phased. The truth is that many people are expecting too much in terms of enrollment. We have less than 100 private universities in the country, so, what miracle can they perform?”

Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Chrisland University, Abeokuta, Prof. Ayodeji Olukoju, said the obvious answer is that not many parents can afford the fees charged by most private universities.

“This brings to bold relief the lie of the funding of tertiary education in Nigeria. The public institutions are not well funded but government cannot charge fees because it will be accused of denying access to children of poor parents.

“The Federal and state Governments are willing to finance students to enrol in private universities, the latter cannot admit students, who are non-fee paying. The other reason for low students enrolment in private universities is that it is those institutions that comply with the requirement of ‘carrying capacity’, which is the ratio of installed capacity of lecturers and facilities to students. Public institutions mainly exceed their carrying capacity, as can be seen when a lecturer addresses a class of 300 or more students in a poorly ventilated, ill-equipped (even where there is electricity supply, there is no public address system) and congested classroom meant for a third of that figure. You cannot find that mismatch in any private university, where funds had been committed to providing in most cases, adequate facilities.

That said, private universities still suffer from negative perception by the public, which regards them as elitist or even sub-standard.

“To be fair, many of those private universities openly break simple rules in the appointment of professors, principal officers and other key personnel, and compete to award a ridiculous number of first-class degrees. In that case, the following categories of parents patronise private universities: those who can afford the fees or consider the sacrifice worthwhile; those who want their wards to graduate on schedule (since industrial disputes have disrupted academic calendar of public universities since the 1990s) or desire them to obtain degrees in preferred ‘professional’ courses available in private universities, having failed for whatever reasons to get into public universities.”

Speaking on measures to improve the situation, Olukoju said the fundamental problem of lack of access to higher education demands a comprehensive and an integrated response.

According to him, government should substantially increase its funding of public universities, targeting high-priority areas of facilities, infrastructure and workers’ conditions of service.

He said required funds could be obtained through prudent management of resources, especially cutting waste and profligacy in governance.

Olukoju stated that disbursement of funds should be monitored by staff and student unions, non-governmental organisations, parents and other stakeholders.

“If charging fees become imperative, it should be moderated by scholarship, bursary and loan schemes that survived up to my generation. Ultimately, access to higher education can be ensured via virtual and distance learning, a lesson that the COVID-19 lockdown should have taught us. This will demand investment by public and private stakeholders in Information and Communication Technology (ICT), infrastructure and access. In any event, not every person should have a higher degree, and there is no point producing graduates when there is no reliable needs assessment of the industry or labour market,” he said.

Coordinator, Grace Schools Centre for International Studies, Philip Balogun, also observed that private universities are guided by the NUC. He said this is necessary to check a situation where universities without the capacity, admit more students than they can cope with to earn more.

The other aspect, he said, is cost. According to him, private universities cost more, compared to their federal counterparts, stressing that at the moment, no private institution in the country costs less than N350, 000 for the least course.

Balogun added that some private universities don’t have facilities to handle the influx of a larger number of students. He cited the example of a university in Osun State that could not graduate its medical students for its inability to meet set requirements, and eventually had to take the students to Ukraine to complete their studies.

“That is the reason they have many students stranded abroad due to the war between Russia and Ukraine. But many have been brought back and they have not finished their course of study there,” he said.

He said the situation would persist as long as more students seek enrollment into universities.

MEANWHILE, the NUC has disclosed that the country’s private universities account for less than six per cent of students’ population in the university system.

Rasheed noted that the number of students being admitted each year by National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) was more than what the 79 private universities enroll in four years.

“Private universities are the largest in terms of number 79 and the way it is going, in the next few years, this number will increase. Of course, if you look at the total enrollment of private universities, they account for less than six per cent.

According to Rasheed, what the largest university in the country, National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) admits in one year is more than what the 79 universities admit in four years.”

He said NOUN admits over 100, 000 every year has 450,000 students and is targeting 750,000 in the next few years.

He said a total re-engineering of the universities curriculum and reviewing of existing curriculum is necessary for quality assurance in the system.

Rasheed said the commission and Nigerian universities must reinvent themselves to attain global standard in the education sector.