Why varsity funding should be skewed in favour of new institutions, by Soremekun
Professor Kayode Soremekun, outgoing Vice-Chancellor of Federal University, Oye Ekiti (FUOYE), in this interview with IYABO LAWAL speaks on the challenges of new universities, why the government must improve on funding to these institutions, and the need for the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to focus on its core demand for improved infrastructure and welfare of members.
By February 2021, you will bow out as Vice-Chancellor of Federal University, Oye Ekiti. How far have you come?
I can say we have cause to thank God for the university in the sense that a lot has been achieved at various levels; we have been able to take the university very far in terms of our stated objectives, for instance, in trying to ensure access of a high-quality profile to thousands of Nigerian students.
In terms of how far to be specific, I would say that we have been able to raise what I can call a demographic profile of the university. As of 2016, we had students in the range of something close to 6,000 but now we have a 26,000 strong student body. We have also put in place a postgraduate school and very soon, we will be receiving the resource verification team from the National Universities Commission (NUC) in respect of two more faculties, which will make a total of 11.
So, how far as attested to by independent observers, one can say a lot has been achieved in the university under my watch. Beyond just saying my tenure, it is not just my tenure; it is the tenure of myself, colleagues in the management team, and the entire university as well as the council.
There are many ongoing projects in both Oye and Ikole campuses, all at the same time; can you tell us more about these projects?
When I resumed in 2016, the first thing that struck me was that we had a large number of abandoned projects, some of these include the current secretariat where the vice chancellor’s office is situated, one of the large hostels, and the engineering laboratory among others. The first thing we did was to harness resources from our internally generated revenue to complete these structures. At a point in time, the Federal Government delegation was going round universities asking for abandoned projects, and we told them that we had already completed all our own, we are hoping that over time, the Federal Government will reimburse the university.
In totality, we have around 80 projects completed during my tenure, again with the cooperation of all. At the moment, on the platform of TETFund, we have around 15 projects. We are trying to put in place facilities for the faculties of law, social sciences, academic blocks, a new library, and an academic block for the faculty of engineering, and when these projects are eventually completed, say in the first quarter of 2021, we would have put in place an institution that would be looking more like the first generation universities in this country.
They gave us a comprehensive plan, which we are supposed to develop over a 30-year period, but we have since compressed this into 15 years because we don’t have the luxury of time. We are looking at the older universities, and we are thinking that with commitment and will power, we can be like these universities within a short period of time.
Your tenure has been characterised by disagreements and internal wrangling with members of the academic staff union in the university, leading to factionalisation and unrest as well as the disruption of the peace on campus, what do you have to say to this?
Well, on the positive side, universities should be a platform for the contestation of ideas so that when we talk of disagreements between the management and unions, as it relates to FUOYE, there is something good about it. If we agree all the time, then one of us is not necessary. And if I may give a broader sketch of the entire problem, over time as I have said elsewhere, the Nigerian university system has been over unionised. I don’t know of any university system in the world that has our kind of constant and consistent face-off between the university on one hand, and the unions on the other, and in this case, I am not just talking about ASUU, I am talking about all the unions.
When I first got here, the very first encounter I had was with the other unions, SAANU, ASUU, and NAAT; and it got so bad that what one had to contend with was what I can call a negation of university ideals, at least in my own opinion. You find people who are members of the university, closing gates, putting fetish materials on the gate that no one should come in. It got so bad that the first chairman of the council, a very respectable woman, a professor of Botany, and in her 80s, Prof Saheedat Mabadeje, could not stomach it and had to resign. This was a very low point for me because this was a woman who understood the issues, but she just felt the problems were too many.
I want to put it on record that in a society like ours, as a political scientist and a scholar of international relations, ASUU as an idea is very necessary; but ASUU, as embodied in some human form, leaves a lot to be desired. As academics, there should be some form of commitment to the truth because if that is not there, then you have no business in academics. But when you make baseless accusations like saying the Vice-Chancellor has bought houses in Ado-Ekiti, that we employed a professor without Ph.D; then where is the academics here? If these elements want to live up to the ideals of ASUU, I think they should change their tactics because, by the time you write petitions loaded with all kinds of inaccuracies that cannot be substantiated, it leads to what I can call devaluation of the intellectual vocation and that is very sad.
I hope that overtime; these unionists would focus on their core role, which is to engage in advocacy for the welfare of members, as that has not really been done. And in saying this, I am speaking for the silent majority. It is also saddening that when our colleagues retire, it takes so long for them to access their benefits. ASUU, as a body, should be preoccupied with that.
Talking about new universities and facilities, there have been complaints about the establishment of more universities when funding is a major problem. The argument is that the government should concentrate on existing ones and fund them adequately, to be able to admit more students. What’s your take on this?
I believe the government is preoccupied with the issue of access; to that extent, they want to put in place more universities. But that runs against the reality of scarcity of resources and I think the way out is to, over time, diminish the kind of allocation that goes into the established universities, because at the risk of being proved wrong in terms of development, many of them have reached the optimum level. What are they putting in place again? What they need to do is to maintain their facilities, so to that extent, overtime what should come to them by way of capital grants should not be much as compared to new universities.
So, to that extent, the funding I dare say, should be skewed in favour of new universities, not by neglecting the older ones altogether, but I believe that relative to new universities, older ones have a very robust IGR base and if properly utilised, should be able to sit well and survive on their own.
Whatever they are getting by way of IGR should be able to support them because we are trying to go in that direction now, and we are doing that in the space of 10 years. We are talking of universities that are over 70, 60, 50, 40 years.
However, the government should watch it in terms of trying to balance access with affordability on their part. What I find again is that any university that proposes to start, you find out that people are ready to go there and that is possible because the demand for tertiary education is still very high; but like our friends in economics will say, demand is there but effective demand is not there, which is why in a lot of the private universities, you can see that there is a demand for their services but effective demand is not there.
The problem of effective demand is an issue and this may well explain why the Federal Government, even the state governments continue to establish universities because the assumption is that there is virtually no tuition and what people really have to pay for is what I can call user fees. I mean when you are paying 40,000 per session for university education, you are really paying peanut, but there is a compelling need for it and the number of people that can really afford university education at its value is very few, so to that extent one has to commend government.
Being a Vice-Chancellor in a new university comes with a lot of challenges, can you tell us some of the challenges and how you handled them?
The most obvious one if you are in a new university is that you do not have an alumnus base out there, which means you are practically on your own. If you look at the University of Ibadan or Obafemi Awolowo University, if they have any problem, there is somebody out there who has gone to any of these older institutions and would be ready to give a helping hand, but in a new university, you are really on your own. The second problem is that you are competing for resources with the older universities. In my own estimation, the problems in a new university are very urgent and compelling, so compelling that you want to put in place basic facilities. In a place like UI or any of the older universities, they are not trying to do that. In the case of FUOYE for instance, we are trying to see how we can provide facilities for 26,000 students by way of laboratories, classrooms, good roads, potable water, and power supply, and you are competing with older institutions for these same resources from the Federal Government. To that extent, it is a very big problem, but one way out, which I can see, is that a university, if properly planned, over time, reduces its dependence on the Federal Government and FUOYE is on its way to doing that.
I also picked up this idea from the book of Professor Ayo Banjo, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan. In the book titled, Morning By Morning, he said it is possible for a university over time, to reduce its physical dependence on government because if there are say 30,000 students and all infrastructural facilities are in place, the government pays salaries, TETFund puts in the facilities and you have 30,000 students, multiply that by 48,000; that is about N1.2b, which means if you grow the university up to a point where you are not putting in new structures and you have 1.2billion on the table, you will run the university comfortably in terms of recurrent expenses, equipping library, and putting in place robust internet facilities. These I think are the way forward.
Part of the problem also is that in a context like ours, people come into the university and what they are focusing on is how to run the union. When you are trying to build a new university, the tendency is for the regulatory bodies to see you as being too impatient. Let me give an example, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, we thought of putting in place a distance learning programme; we approached one of the regulatory bodies and they were so contemptuous of us, well luckily so to say, coronavirus came and one of the lessons, which everyone is having to imbibe is that you need to go the distance learning route, such that right now, they are now more receptive and willing to catalyse our aspirations in that direction.
It’s barely two months to the end of your tenure, and the issue of succession is a recurring problem in most universities, what is the situation like in FUOYE?
What I have learned from a few social forces of the Nigerian political system is that when you are an incumbent, one of the best things to do is never to anoint a successor because when you do, you are doing more harm than good to that person; he will be targeted and hunted. So, because of that, I would try to refrain from trying to play God by saying this person will succeed me, as doing that would mean showing a measure of ingratitude. My only hope is that the system will throw up a successor that will extend the momentum of that university because there is still a lot to do. We need to consolidate the various faculties, put our name on the global map of scholarship because a university should not just be a localised entity, if you really answer that name, the “university” the city in the universe, so there is a challenge, but luckily we are already getting there. One of our students got a superlative mention at the last graduation ceremony of the University of Ibadan, three students were named in Chemistry Department as having the highest CGPA, that is the kind of talent we have and that would not have happened if we are just Oye grammar school or Oye high school. We need to work at it and get it right.
Indigeneship and ethnicity appear to have taken the centre stage in university administration and appointments, relegating excellence to the background. What do you think about this?
This is a big problem in our universities at the moment and it is a pity that the Nigerian university system has been sucked in what I can call the vortex of sub-national politics, and identity issues. Unfortunately, when a society or a system goes in that direction, it is like a recurring decimal, there is no end to it because identities keep shifting to the extent that at a point in time, it begins to get ridiculous.
In a society like ours, where you have a shortage of public growth, what then happens is that people would fall back into their respective subnational basis as a rational for trying to access public good. For instance, for the first time, perhaps for the first time in my own life, I am being reminded on a constant basis that I am from Ogun State and this was something that never really featured in my own existence.
I went to a school where we had people from all over Nigeria, and to that extent, your ethnic stock did not matter. Well, probably in the process, I was kind of chloroformed but I now see that that melting pot, which was shown to be Nigeria is not really a melting pot. It is a pot containing crystals and various forms of national identity, and you can see that to some extent, playing out in this university. Whereas the ideal thing is to put in place a situation where merit would be the watchword because any institution that refuses to enthrone that, either at the national, or at various levels, will sooner than later, pay for it in terms of decay, degeneration, and irrelevance.
Ideally, every opportunity should be limited to just merit. I remember reading this gentleman’s book, Prof Ladipo Adamolekun, and he was talking about one of the reasons why he has been able to achieve what he has been able to achieve. According to him, Nigeria of his time was opened to just merit alone, but now things have changed.
What is your advice to your successor?
Well, for the person who is going to succeed me after reading my handing over notes, he needs to complete the cycle by way of programmes. We just got a message from one of the regulatory bodies that they would be coming to inspect our take-off facilities for both the Faculties of Basic Medical Sciences and Environmental Studies. So, if we are able to impress them, what it means is that the next step my successor should take is to put in place a College of Medicine and also pay a lot of attention to the provision of internet facilities, because this, I believe is the way of contemporary times and the 22nd century.
He should also keep abreast of current developments in the various disciplines. He should make sure that for every discipline, there is an ICT component. He should try to build the university in line with global practices, once the person does that and completes all the ongoing projects, federal university Oye Ekiti will be the place to be.
There have been calls on anti-corruption agencies to beam their searchlights on university administrators over financial impropriety and maladministration, how would you react to this?
The university system should not be exempted from the focus of the anti-corruption agencies because public resources are being spent there and to that extent, if the lapses are observed, then certainly, they have the right to come in, because the moment set lapses are allowed to fester, the positive end of trying to provide facilities will be defeated.
But they should not be laced with vendetta or let us get him syndrome because sometimes it can be very distracting for the administrator as well as the anti-corruption agencies.
You have been in the university system for years, looking back at where we are coming from and where we are now, what will you say is the missing link?
I have been in the university like you rightly said for a long time; first as a student, then as an observer from outside, and thirdly, as an active participant. What I can see is that over time, the system has had to contend with what I can call relativeness, we have had more enrolments, I can say massive enrolments.
I entered the university in 1972 and at that time, there were only six universities in Nigeria, we have had an explosion in numbers and one consequence of that is the inability to put in place the necessary, high-quality manpower for this explosive number of universities and to that extent, that is a very big problem. But again, every problem is meant to be addressed, and every problem also suggests its own solution. A way out is for the universities, especially the older ones, to put in place vibrant postgraduate programmes such that they can serve as feeders to the younger ones.
Almost on a daily basis, I have to sign off millions of naira on TETFund platform to younger colleagues. What always strikes me is that resources well put together can always be used to train the younger ones in Nigeria because wherever we are going, US, UK, Cyprus, Malaysia, South Africa, it is possible to put the facilities here, especially in the older universities. When you have to train all your manpower outside, in the long run, you are not doing the country any good, given the amount of money that we spend outside the country on training programmes, that money can be put together to train people in UNILAG, UI, OAU, UNIBEN, Benin, and UNN, such that the primary functions of those universities would no longer be to train undergraduates, but to train postgraduate students and in a digital age, it is possible now courtesy of the internet to connect any expert anywhere in the world.
So, you don’t have to go there and spend three or four years, they can do anything they want to do here but necessary facilities must be put in place. UI is already doing this, but I think more of the first-generation universities should be brought into this particular circle; such that there will be very minimal need for us to train people outside.
Where do you see the university in the next 10 years?
In the next 10 years, and all things being equal, two other vice-chancellors would have served their respective terms. So, to that extent, I see the university being a major player in the educational sector in the world. I am not making an outlandish claim here; in the latest ranking that was revealed, the university numbered 185 out of 200 in Africa. So, in the next 10 years, if we continue at this rate and put the right protocols in place, we won’t be numbering 185, we will probably be up there in the unit structure of that 200, it can be done.
If you put a number of things in place, if your lecturers are publishing as at when due and such published works are being displayed on the portal, all things being equal with this kind of progress, we won’t be 185 again we would probably be 7th or 6th or even number two.
What I have learned from a few social forces of the Nigerian political system is that when you are an incumbent, one of the best things to do is never to anoint a successor because when you do, you are doing more harm than good to that person; he will be targeted and hunted. So, because of that, I would try to refrain from trying to play God by saying this person will succeed me, as doing that would mean showing a measure of ingratitude. My only hope is that the system will throw up a successor that will extend the momentum of that university because there is still a lot to do.