Both Pro-chancellor and principal officers of UNILAG should be investigated – Afe Babalola
Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, needs no introduction about his sterling contributions to the development of education in Nigeria apart from being a legal luminary. The Founder of the high-brow Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD) was the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) between 2000 and 2007 and restored sanity and academic excellence to the then crisis-ridden institution. In this exclusive interview with The Guardian, he proffered solutions to the on-going war of attrition in the institution, he disagreed with UNILAG that the 15-year-old candidate who scored highest mark in 2019 UTME would be denied admission because of his age and clamoured for inclusion of private universities in the operations of TETFund.
What is your opinion about the state of university education in Nigeria?
I KNEW what education was like in pre-independence days. At that time, education was being managed by the missionaries and the quality was high. I am a product of the primary school of that time. It was the quality of education that I received then that enabled me to study at home after Primary Six and to order tuition from Wosley, Oxford by correspondence to pass the Cambridge Examination, GCE Ordinary and Advance levels at home; the B.Sc (Economics) from the University of London and also the LL.B of the same London University as a private student.
The quality of the education has dwindled very badly and I am worried. I am always disappointed when I read papers written by graduates from some public universities including letters written by holders of Ph.D from these universities. Simply put, the standard has fallen and very badly too. This is the main reason why some blue chip companies prefer to employ Nigerian students who graduated from foreign universities to those who graduated from Nigerian universities. In fact, this is one of the main reasons I started Afe Babalola University (ABUAD) in the hope that I would be able to change the face of education in this country.
On this fallen standard of education, what is your comment on the crisis rocking the University of Lagos (UNILAG) especially the war of attrition between the Chairman of the governing council, Dr. Wale Babalakin, SAN and Principal Officers of the university?
The old saying is that an ill-wind does not blow any good. The development in UNILAG just 19 years after a similar problem arose is worrisome.I was the Pro-Chancellor of the university between 2000 and 2007. I can say what brought me to the UNILAG in the year 2000 is happening again. History seems to be repeating itself. University of Lagos is one of the first generation universities, the crisis at that time arose as a result of allegation of corruption against the then Vice Chancellor, Prof. Jelili Omotola. This polarized the university as a result of which some people supported the Vice Chancellor while others, especially the Ogoni Group of Professors, were opposed to his policies. It was alleged that the VC established an outreach in South Korea where the University Degrees were being sold. Secondly, it was alleged that the VC favoured a number of teachers to whom residential accommodation was given, whereas those who were entitled to such accommodation were not given, including market stores on campus. It was a serious matter.
At that time, I was a Lawyer to the Federal Government and I had turned down ministerial appointment twice. When the government was aware of the development in UNILAG, I was invited being the Patron of Transparency International in Nigeria to help look into the allegation of corruption in the University of Lagos. I accepted because it was one of the ways I could contribute to the development of education in Nigeria.
Before I took over as Pro-Chancellor at UNILAG, even Council meetings could not take place unless ASUU and other unions had been appeased or else such Council meetings would not be allowed to hold. It was a serious matter at that time, but I successfully managed that. We went to South Korea and found out that the allegations of the sale of UNILAG Degrees were true. But in addition to that, there was a serious mismanagement of funds by the university at that time. There were several uncompleted buildings, the roads were bad, the hostels were nothing to write home about, the laboratories, libraries were not better than those you see in good secondary schools.
Fortunately, I had some members of the Council who were very understanding. First of all, I put my own structure in place which is there up till today, the Afe Babalola Auditorium which was commissioned at a grand ceremony presided over by President Olusegun Obasanjo himself. I was able to invite my clients including Julius Berger, Mobil and others to that ceremony where I raised almost a Billion Naira for the university. Julius Berger also agreed and resurfaced all the roads in the university and put up a new Engineering Auditorium in the university and equipped it. The same thing with other clients. The place became a new university. That was why within three years, NUC rated UNILAG as the Best University in the country. I was also rated as the Best Pro-Chancellor in the country twice while Prof. Oye Ibidapo-Obe was rated the Best Vice Chancellor.
Given the scenario you have painted, would you say Dr. Babalakin is wrong in querying the VC and other Principal Officers on issues bothering on financial impropriety?
In answering this question, it will be necessary for me to first of all let readers know what the law says and what is expected of a Pro-Chancellor and other Principal Officers of the University and other organs. We have a wrong idea of what a university is. History teaches us that universities began as charitable organisations financed by students who invited knowledgeable people in the society to teach them. This was particularly so in Athens, the capital of Greek Empire. History tells us of the existence of great universities such as University of Constantinople sometimes known as the University of the Palace Hall of Magnaura which was founded in the 425AD as well as University of Bologna founded in 1088 and the University of Paris founded in 1150 by the Catholic Church.
Like other medieval universities, Oxford (1096), Salamanca, Cambridge, Padua were also founded by the missionaries. When the 13 states of America were founded, private universities emerged. The first was Harvard University which was founded in 1636. Other private universities include Stanford University (1885), Columbia University (1754), Brown University, Cornell University (1865), Princeton University (1716), Dartmouth University (1769), Pennsylvania University (1743) and Yale University (1701) and Johns Hopkins University (1876).
The early universities were free to govern themselves provided they did not teach Atheism or Heresy. They financed themselves. They had no permanent buildings. They had only little corporate properties. Education was conducted primarily in Cathedrals, Monastery schools and in private homes of wealthy people.
It is a notorious fact that universities have existed for over thousand years before Nigeria gave birth to the first university which was established as late as 1948 after the World War II following the Asquith and Elliot Commission Reports which were set up by the British Government in 1943. The University College of Ibadan which was the first university in Nigeria was affiliated to University of London. As a matter of fact, all Universities in the former colonies of Britain were patterned after University of London. Thus by comparison in Nigeria, establishment and administration of a University is relatively new.
Apart from the Chancellor who is a ceremonial head, the power to govern the university rests on the Pro-Chancellor. It is necessary to emphasize here that the Pro-Chancellors need to appreciate the burden on them. The success, failure, peace and order of the university rest on them and they take responsibility for everything, good or bad. They and their Councils must embark on policies that will ensure the smooth-running of the universities especially those that affect the development of the universities, contracts, employment of good quality lecturers, finances, including income and expenditure and auditing of university account.
The Pro Chancellor’s job is not one which the office-holder can take lightly. As the Chairman of Council, his duty is not merely to attend meetings, collect his allowances and thereafter go to sleep. He must always think about the growth of the university and what he must do at all times to affect it positively. He is different from the Chancellor whose duty is to appear on ceremonial occasions only. He must be concerned about the welfare of the university community. He presides at all Council meetings, statutory Sub Committees of the University and also at Sub-Committees set up by Council. At meetings, he is primus inter pares.
A very important point must be made here. Members of the council must be people who have special interest in the university and education. They should not be appointed because of political affiliations. A council is different from the Board of corporate entities like the Railway, CBN and NNPC among others. However, the problem is that the Federal Government often equates a university council with the Board of these parastatals where they appoint members of their political party. After the election, they look at their contributions to the success of the party and compensate them with the Board appointments for them to make money.
When I was the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, I told my council members that I was not there because I belonged to any political party. On the contrary, I was there for the purpose of investigating corruption and turning things around for the university. They said look, ‘we are representing our constituencies and we are accountable to them.’ I asked in what ways, they said they had to give their constituents money. I said, university is only for social services, it is for education. The money we received from the Federal Government is for the promotion of education and not for political activities. If you are not interested in serving this university free, I would report you to the President to get you removed. That was one of the reasons we were successful.
I did not receive sitting or any allowance. If a leader is transformative, others will follow. But if a leader is a transactional one, everybody follows too. I was a transformer and that was why we could transform UNILAG. It was not surprising that I was able to control my council, I did not give them any contract, and they were not interested in taking money from the university. We used everymoney we had for the university. I charged them to use their influence to attract money and goodwill to the university, which they did.
But you have not answered whether the Pro-Chancellor has the power to query the VC and other Principal Officers!
I recall that I gave a lecture to all Pro-Chancellors at that time on their roles. First, a Pro Chancellor is the Alter Ego of the university. He oversees the finances and management of the university. He caters for everybody in the university and represents the university. He is in charge of the agenda of any meeting of the council. There is no reason why the Pro-Chancellor should not be able to act on behalf of the Council even when there is no Council meeting. If there is need to take any urgent action in the interest of the university, he should be able to query the vice chancellor or any university staff pending the ratification by the Council. I would have done so myself. I took action where necessary to preserve the interest and integrity of the university and report to the council later.
Why has corruption remained pervasive in our university system and what is the solution?
Let me say this, there is corruption everywhere in this country. It is not peculiar to the University of Lagos or other universities alone. I have tried to find out what was the cause of this problem. In my time, we had ASUU, NASU and the Students Union. These are unions within the university, which can make the governance of the university very difficult. Left to me alone, I was opposed to ASUU at that time because they were all the time after their own interest, that is, they were only fighting for money and allowances. But I have changed my mind because ASUU now is interested in how universities should be run. They are now interested in how money received from the Federal government is properly utilised. I have read many of their publications on this which are noble. The ASUU now is different, so also the students union, they are more focused and interested in quality education. If the UNILAG chapter of ASUU is now leveling some allegations against the Pro-Chancellor and others, it should not be overlooked.
If I were in Babalakin’s shoe, I will suggest to the Council to set up a Special Committee which will look into allegations against these people and allegations against him. He alleges corruption against some people while those people are alleging corruption against him. He can’t be a judge in his own case. On the available facts, I will like to suggest that the best way out is to set up an independent committee made up of great names in university administration in this country. To that extent, I will like to suggest Prof. Peter Okebukola who is an internationally reputed person and former NUC Executive Secretary, to chair the committee. He is all over the world now doing great work. Other members should be Prof. Julius Okojie, a honest and brilliant man, who is very experienced in the university administration and also, former VC of UNILAG, Prof. Ibidapo-Obe who was not only one-time UNILAG VC, but was rated the Best VC in his time when the university was rated as number one in the country. The three of them should look into this matter before it deteriorates further.
Before it gets to the situation where the Pro-Chancellor and the VC will turn the university to ungovernable institution, I suggest Babalakin should set up this committee of highly respected university administrators to quickly look into the matter. I am sure no council member who is conversant with the roles of these people would object the names of these eminent university administrators that I have suggested.
There are debates on whether federal government should introduce school fees in public universities or not, what is your take on this?
I have written articles and many have also expressed their opinions on whether or not fees should be introduced in public universities. As I stated earlier, right from the beginning, university students had always been paying school fees. There are few countries where tuitions are not paid. There should be university autonomy for the management to regulate its own affairs. Because the government of this country took it upon itself to establish universities, people erroneously believe that it is also the duty of government to fund what it established. As I told you, all the universities which I mentioned earlier were not established by government. Therefore the question of whether to charge fees or not does not arise.
Even the University of London which we fashioned our own University College, Ibadan (UCI) after in 1948, students pay school fees. But ours did not pay and that was the genesis.
Even though we have over 168 public universities (federal and state), the government is not bold enough to tell them you have to pay school fees. However, while it is my view that public universities should charge fees, the government should and must give brilliant students scholarships while indigent students who cannot afford school fees, should take interest-free loans from the Education Bank. Many readers are not aware that there was Education Bank but it has folded up. I use this opportunity to ask government to revive it.
As a stakeholder and founder of ABUAD, what is your take on the clamour that TETFund should extend its operations to private universities?
TETFund is a fund contributed by private companies and private people, not money collected from government. There is certainly no reason why the disbursement should be limited to public universities only. However, there is a rider, if you make a law that makes it blanket for all private universities to access the fund, there would be a rush by everybody to establish a university to access the fund. It is my view that private universities should benefit from TETfund, only and only when such universities are fully established, that is, they have graduated the first set of their students in all the courses which NUC permitted them to run.
Secondly, Tetfund money allocated to universities should not be used for erecting buildings, but for the purpose of encouraging and supporting research work and expansion of laboratories and ICT. In that case, the money will be properly used and it will not be abused.
The candidate that scored highest mark in the 2019 UTME was said to be 15 years and JAMB quoted UNILAG policy of not offering admission to a candidate less than 16 years. What is your opinion about this UNILAG policy?
As a seasoned university administrator, Prof. Ishaq Oloyede, the Executive Secretary of JAMB was on firm ground when he quoted UNILAG policy that the candidate who scored the highest mark in the just released result of UTME might not be admitted into a university because he is less than sixteen (16) years. Under University of Lagos Act, S.8 (1)(2e), the Senate of the University of Lagos and indeed the Senate of all universities have the power to make academic rules regarding admissions into their universities which include, the cut-off marks, age requirements and fees.
As former Pro-Chancellor of University of Lagos, I am aware that the Senate of University of Lagos had made laws that a candidate must be 16 years of age as at October 31 of the year of admission.
The rationale behind the principle is that a student should be at least 16 years of age before entering a university. This principle is founded on the fact that universities are not for infants but for matured students. But that is not the end of the matter. It is a notorious fact that there are extra-ordinarily brilliant people or geniuses whose Intelligence Quotient is higher than that of the ordinary people. I remember when I was in elementary school, there was a classmate who was so brilliant that in any examination meant for one hour, he would finish within 30 minutes and he would always score 100 per cent. It is for this reason that highly respected and older universities all over the world do admit students who are extra-ordinarily brilliant. Indeed, in spite of university regulations, geniuses had been and are still being admitted to the university even at the age of 10.
Indian-Australian Akshay Venkatesh went to the University Western Australia at the age of 13 and graduated with a First Class Honours in Mathematics in 1997. Erik Demaine was admitted to Dalhousie University in Halifas, Novas Cotia, Canada, at 12 and received his Bachelor Degree when he was 14. Indeed, he became a Professor at MIT at 20, the youngest ever.
Juliet Beni obtained his Ph.D at 19 from the University of California. Sho Yano gained admission to Chicago’s Loyola University at 9 and graduated at 12 with a First Class and received his Ph. D on Molecular Genetics at 18. Norbert Wiener earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics at 14 at Tufts University in the US and was awarded a Ph. D at 17. Ruth Lawrence graduated from Oxford University at the age of 13 and got his Ph. D at 17 while Balamurali Ambati completed his First Degree at age of 13 and graduated from the School of Medicine at 17.
There are specially gifted people, possibly like this young boy that scored highest mark in UTME. There is nothing you can do about it. He is a genius. You do not punish him because he is a genius. I do not agree that he should be denied the opportunity of going to the university because of his age. The Senate of University he applies to has the power to make any regulation or amend its regulation to admit this genius.