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‘Why research has failed to address national problems’



Former executive secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC) and distinguished professor of science and computer education, Peter Okebukola in this interview with Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL said for our tertiary institutions to effortlessly switch to virtual learning, government must retool and equip our universities, in addition to an enabling environment for quality teaching and research.

Why is it difficult for conventional universities in Nigeria to switch to online learning at this critical period? 
This is because they are conventional, meaning they are set up to deliver face-to-face instruction and not online learning in the real sense. It is like asking a soldier in the infantry who is trained in jungle warfare to fight on the high seas like naval personnel. To make the soldier effective on the high seas, you have to retrain him in naval warfare. You see, we have three major types of delivery systems. One is face-to-face, as the name implies, the teacher and his or her students are collocated, and the lecture is delivered in a class, auditorium or any physical location. This is the typical, if you like, most common delivery system that predominated the global higher education firmament since the early days of universities. The second is open and distance learning (ODL), a delivery system where teacher and students are not collocated, are separated in time and space and only connected virtually via some form of technology. This is what is commonly referred to as online learning, or more technically phrased as e-learning. This mode is fast gaining ground, its pace now accelerated by COVID-19 since the new coronavirus has forced the teacher and the students to be separated.

The third mode is a combination of the two as if a blender has swirled them together hence it is called blended learning. Here, you have face to face and ODL being implemented together. The mix is determined by the institution.

We needed this background to enable me contextualise my answer to your question as to why conventional universities in Nigeria are finding it difficult to switch to online learning. I made allusion to a military example in the early part of my answer. I will continue with that analogy. To switch from an infantryman to a naval personnel, you need at least two things- equipment and environment for training naval officers and rigorous training to convert the army man to a navy man. Likewise, to switch from face-to-face to online delivery, you need to equip and retool our universities for online delivery including the technology and courseware. Secondly, you need to train all personnel that will be involved in delivering the online courses such as the lecturers (now facilitators) and other support personnel such as course tutors, instructional designers and learner support services. If these two major planks are not in place, we will be on course for shabby delivery of university education, a recipe to further depress the quality of our graduates.

I need to stress that we are in an emergency, a war situation. Going back to my military analogy, if in peace time, it takes the conversion of the infantry man about three months to be a naval personnel, in war time, we do not have the luxury of time, the situation is no longer ideal and we may have to contract the training to about two weeks. The converted naval man will keep learning on the job until the war is over after which the full dose of training can be organised for him.

So, in our case, the minister of education, Adamu Adamu has requested all universities to engage students through online delivery. What many universities are doing is to activate emergency procedures, use whatever technology platform that is available to most students including Whatsapp and Zoom and get the work going. This is clearly a sensible alternative than to raise our hands in surrender and say that since we do not have all the technologies for delivering the ideal online system, we should all sit at home and throw missiles at government. It is reassuring that after the “COVID-19 war situation” the national revitalisation plan that the executive secretary, National Universities Commission (NUC) Prof Abubakar Rasheed, has put in place will roar into action, and strengthen the ODL capabilities of our universities as a major thrust.

Perhaps I should boast that in Lagos State University (LASU), we are far ahead of the pack. The LASU African Centre of Excellence (ACE) in Innovative and Transformative science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education has taken a lead in delivering quality online education since COVID-19 struck. The Association of African Universities (AAU) has been making regional reference to our model. I invite you to participate in some of our ongoing online courses as observer to see things for yourself.

Would you agree with ASUU’s claim that government’s failure to adequately fund the sector was responsible for the low quality of our graduates, poor research outputs and inability to practice virtual learning during this period of lockdown?
It is clear to all that the funding level of the education sector is abysmal. Government is aware of this hence the President Mohammadu Buhari administration and virtually all the state governors declared a state of emergency in the sector in November 2018.

What is needed is the political will to act. More worrisome now is that the country and other nations of the world are getting into a deep recession that may last a while. This will have telling effect on the funding of education. The outlook for improved funding for education and other sectors in 2020 and 2021 appears bleak. This will be true of most countries of the world. That said, we should avoid the warped belief that only government should fund education. Nowhere in the world is this so. All stakeholders have funding roles to play. However, in a country where more than 70 per cent of the citizenry are classified as poor, government has to bear the lion’s share of the funding.

Why are African universities at the lowest rung when it comes to the issue of research and innovation?
It is all about funding. We have brilliant minds in Africa who can innovate but our research and innovation capacities are stifled by inadequacies in research infrastructure and inclemency of the environment that can spawn innovation. No electricity, no water, bad roads and all. In this kind of environment, your innovative mind is beclouded by such inhibitors. You need huge investment to elevate our research and innovation profiles.       Over the last 50 years or more, African governments, few years after independence, failed to invest reasonably in research, development and innovation. When global comparisons are made, Africa invests about the least in research and development in the world. We cannot reap where we have not sown so we have to be at the lowest rung of the ladder. By the way, it is easy to rise up the ladder. African governments especially the government of Nigeria should implement all the age-long recommendations in our national policies (now picking dust on shelves) about funding research and development. Our universities and research institutes are working at less than 30 per cent installed capacity in terms of outputs of research and innovation owing to severe limitations in facilities and human capacity.

Successive governments in Nigeria have failed to support local research in our tertiary institutions what do you think is responsible for this?
There are several reasons but let me advance three. First, governments, having not invested in what you have called local research, are doubtful of the quality of such research and what you are doubtful of, you are inclined not to support. Secondly, there is the lingering mentality that whatever is foreign is best for us, so whatever findings the “oyibo” man provides as product of research is “the end of discussion”. The third reason is the low priority accorded research in the funding scheme of the nation. This in turn, is influenced by the complacency of having oil as the mainstay of our economy. We just sit, cross our legs, dig into the ground and bingo, we have crude oil which we sell, make money and share. There is no compelling reason to research into other areas where we can derive revenue. The argument that many have canvassed, at least in the last 10 years is that if we do not have oil, since necessity is the mother of invention, we will be forced to support local research and development efforts.

The ministry of science and technology in February announced that it will reward N36m to any scientist who develops a cure for COVID-19 and Lassa fever, how would the scientists make the discovery in the first place without a good laboratory and funds to do the research? 
This is the illogicality in the whole arrangement. As you said, over the years, before dangling the bait of N36 million, you needed to have provided the enabling environment for quality research to happen. The inadequacies in the laboratories of our universities and research institutes are stark. As we say in my place, you want to collect white pap from a black pot! Many jokers and all manner of quacks will now be coming forward to claim the N36 million bounty.

While I commend the minister of science and technology for and commitment towards the development of science and technology in Nigeria, the ministry should take urgent steps to bring up the research institutes under its control to international standards. In view of funding constraints, this should be phased, probably over a 10-year period.

Experts have argued that one of the problems affecting Nigerian scientists is too much teaching load. In other climes, teaching and research are separated.

In Nigeria, most universities focus more on teaching than research, what is your take on this?
The “experts” are correct only in part. Let me now put on my hat as the immediate past chair of a global body on quality assurance in higher education. I don’t know what you mean by other climes but if you mean Asia, Europe and North America, Nigerian universities are not doing anything different.

In those “other climes” you have three types of universities or institutes just as we have in Nigeria depending on their mission, in turn related to their proportion of emphasis given to teaching or research. Some give greater emphasis to teaching, some to research and some to both (in almost equal proportion). In any typical country of the world, at least 60 per cent of the universities run a system where research and teaching are emphasised. This is the typical Nigerian case. Note that our research institutes emphasise mainly research for the professional progression of their scientists.

Even in our regular universities, we have what is called research professoriate where the holder of the chair would have been promoted or appointed mainly on the basis of his or her research output. One important thing to say here as I conclude my answer to your question is that at this stage of Nigeria’s development, we should have universities that will emphasise both teaching and research. Those experts you may be referring to are comparing the Nigerian university system that is about 72 years old that needs to produce high-level human resources, that is training graduates through teaching with that of the US that is 384 years old.

How can we prepare our higher institutions for future crisis and global emergencies?
I have a simple and straightforward answer: implement the Rasheed revitalisation plan for the Nigerian university system. This is the NUC plan which has all the elements, consensually developed by major stakeholders for tackling current and future crises as well as global emergencies. The plan is the best the system has ever produced which has involved all major stakeholders in its development –university councils, vice-chancellors, senates of all universities, students, staff, the organised private sector and the international community.

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