Leadership failure responsible for deplorable education standard, says Harvard scholar
Jacob Olupona is a Professor of African Religious Traditions, Harvard Divinity School. He is also a Professor of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the institution. Olupona, a scholar of indigenous African religion, came to Harvard after his 16 years sojourn at the University of California, Davis. He recently led accomplished senior scholars from Nigerian and Western universities to Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile Ife where he inaugurated the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), aimed at providing a comprehensive professional training in research and teaching to junior scholars in Africa, primarily in humanities and social science academic disciplines and interdisciplinary programmes. In this interview with Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal, the eminent scholar expatiated on the academy and future plans as well as the way forward for the nation’s deplorable education system.
You recently inaugurated the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), what informed this decision?
It took years to conceive of this idea and plan. The idea came about after the deep realization that we face serious challenges in higher education in Nigeria, which has been a source of concern to me for years. I have written and given lectures about it, then I realised that it is important for us to begin to plan and do what is often called an intervention without making too much noise about it. But we cannot continue to appropriate blame; we know what the issues are, the challenges and what we can do.
One area we have identified is the training of teachers, if they are properly trained, things would probably be better. I came up with the idea that we are not going to be directly involved in training them to get degrees but we can be indirectly involved by organising informal training. We want to find a way of giving the necessary script to those who are being trained by the university, either at the pre- or post- doctoral level.
The idea of post -doctoral is very common in the world especially in the science and technology than in arts and humanities but that is a tradition, which we can tailor towards our needs. But I decided that I would do something different; but in doing this, we need to be able to convince the three constituents I have been able to identify to work together for the sake of these students and young scholars.
The first are those in the diaspora; Nigerians and Africans in the diaspora, who have made it, who are professors in their own right. The second category is the African scholars themselves, who are very good and also professionals but somehow because of the system or culture could not really do their best. The third are non-Africans who are our friends; who are in African Studies or any field and really know what the issues are.
What has amused me is that there is no single person I asked to come on board and has declined; even in the summer institute we just held, there were more professors than students. They all agreed, because somehow I have been involved in their lives and their careers, I even mentored some. As a result, they are more than willing to help.
There is a tendency for some to think that Nigerians or African professors are not doing their best; that they are all in the diaspora. That is not true. There are quite a number of solid, first class scholars who are on ground but the difference between what we are seeing today and what we used to see in the past was that in our own time in the 80’s and the time of the professors who taught us in the 60’s and 70’s, there were more collaboration to train new generation of scholars.But what we are seeing today is a little bit different, there is more of this individualistic approach to scholarship and so on.
What is the philosophy guiding the establishment of IAS
The philosophy behind IAS is not to replace the regular programmes in the universities; we are not awarding degrees. What we would probably award is certificate of attendance. This is just one, there is going to be a lot of programmes, when the institution is well established and it becomes a functional, operating institute with its own directors and executives. There will be additional programmes and opportunities for university teachers to observe sabbatical leave and opportunity for permanent post- doctoral programmes as well.
I seized the opportunity to challenge our young fellows, reminding them that most of the programmes being run in the Ivy League universities were formulated and planned by graduate students, but the problem in Nigeria is that the structure is so screwed up to the extent that they do not regard graduate students as capable of putting such together or think deeply about a particular problem and proffer solutions.
We were able to establish a relationship between mentors and mentees and we also succeeded in building capacity.So the question now is what was the topic or theme that allowed us to bring this diverse group of fellows from different discipline together?
One is the realisation that interdisciplinary matter is so important to serious academic work today. It is not that you are embedded in your own discipline alone but to understand how the tools of other discipline can be used to solve your problems. When you meet a successful scholar, he is able to function in many fields. My primary training is Religion; I teach a course at Harvard called Entrepreneurship in African Studies, which has become one of the most interesting courses in the faculty of Arts and Science. So we brought professors from different fields, to come together to teach basic skills that need to be known, so that they can become competitive.
Our students in Nigeria have become less competitive globally, because of the fact that the environment is not conducive to learning, they are not engaged with practices that are considered to be international and global; one cannot blame their teachers because they don’t have the resources to teach them. That is why we call what we are doing, a kind of intervention, without making too much noise about it and involving a lot of people from different parts of the world.
Talking about sabbatical leave, it is very important, when you ask a typical lecturer today, what is sabbatical, for them it means you go to another university to teach, but sabbatical means one taking a leave from teaching and embarking on research, it could be in your university, because it is believed that any time you are teaching, you don’t have time to do such, that is the meaning of sabbatical. We do not know the meaning anymore because the culture of learning is not appropriate. We have become so local that when people start to ask why is Nigeria not part of the list of first 100 universities in ranking, we kept deceiving ourselves by saying all kinds of crazy, stupid things but we know why. Part of the issue is that there is a serious problem with education, but some of us have come to the conclusion that we are not going to get ourselves involved in the politics of education in this country; rather we want to see how we can come in to help students because the politics being played in the sector is not favorable to them. It has made brilliant, up and coming Nigerians look like fools who don’t know anything.
Would it be right to say that IAS is centred on skill gap rather than certificate as it is in Nigeria presently?
Yes, under the broad heading of capacity building. Let me focus on what is important, one of course is the scope of scholarship, the appropriate venture into what they are doing and how to do it. Secondly, they also need to understand the basic ethics of the profession, the idea that you avoid plagiarism, you don’t hide information from your colleagues, the basic things that we take for granted in the west is part of the training we lack, that needs to be taught.
The third is what is referred to as networking; the difference between two young scholars is that at the end of the day, one is well connected globally and locally while the other is not, he becomes a local scholar. This happened because of the kind of training and lack of exposure. Mentoring is also part of the issue. Once this culture is built, you prepare them for the challenges that they will face in the world as scholars and when they go abroad, they maximize that experience.
Also, we make them realize that those abroad also want to come here and experience Africa. We have turned the place into intellectual Jerusalem and we are the ones who will change that, we must recognise that there are problems at home. The politics of education has landed us in big trouble but we have to find a solution to this problem for those who are willing.
Why do you think we are not getting the education system right as a nation?
When you look at the caliber of politicians in charge of our lives, you will pity us as a nation. At times, I wonder if we have genuine people who are really interested in the growth and development of this country.
It also has to do with the nature of our federalism. Restructuring is a word I hate to use; that constitution was made by the military, for the military elites. That is why there will be clauses that will not make the president accountable, clauses that would protect them and their children. To solve the problem, we may have to go to the basics; giving regions more power to develop themselves.There used to be competition among regions and as a result of that, we started seeing models. So, let individuals who have solutions, go about doing it, that may be a way around our current problem.
Brain drain is another major problem confronting the sector, the environment is not conducive for teaching and learning which has forced many scholars to relocate abroad, what is your take on this?
If good in your field, you will become rich, because you are good; I left because I did not find the environment conducive but things have changed. The present crop of scholars don’t have to go because once they are comfortable, they are going to be more successful here than there. I don’t encourage students that I train to go abroad because here, they will make their name very quickly. So I think that the best way to address the problem is to train them properly.
With your experience as a university teacher in Nigeria and abroad, how would you access the quality of our education?
There is a big gap, because people are struggling here which brings a lot of issues. The money that our government allocates to university education is not enough and even when they grant autonomy, no one is really clear on the true state of the autonomy.
The private universities too are struggling; some don’t have lecturers, while some were established by entrepreneurs for the purpose of making money.
We are equating buildings springing up with intellectual academic pursuits but they are two different things. When former President Goodluck Jonathan had his education summit few years ago, I came, and I recommended to the committee that we should adopt the American system, the liberal arts approach which focuses on undergraduate education, which is less cumbersome than the heavy duty university investment we make on universities, we even suggested writing the curriculum.
Another aspect of our problem is the work load given to lecturers; they spend more time looking for things that have become a simple thing to compile and submit, they have anxiety about grade compilation which I think is a problem.The libraries and resources are another area of concern, it is usually difficult to compare but one thing I know is that it is not that they have better brains compared to the people in Nigeria, rather, it has to do with our culture, environment and system.Besides, the idea of copying foreign curriculum and system without adopting it to our own local culture and system is a problem. Religion is another complication; it is affecting education in many ways but I am hopeful.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.