Nigerian universities lack manpower, tools to compete globally, says UI’s VC Abel Olayinka
Since you assumed office sixteen months ago, it has been a running battle between you and the staff unions on one hand, and students’ leaders on the other. Both the Senior Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non Academic Staff Union (NASU) of this institution just suspended their strike. Would it be right to say you are not prepared for the office?
I think I prepared well for the journey, as far back as 2004 the then vice chancellor, Prof Ayo Falase said I was one of the candidates they considered for deputy vice chancellor, although I didn’t become the DVC for one reason or the other until six years later. When I eventually became the DVC as one of our former registrars used to say, if you are a dean or even head of department in the university, you are directly in line of succession to the vice chancellor even though not every dean or DVC would eventually attain that position.
To that extent, I think I technically prepared for the job; the system was technically grooming me, I was sub-dean of the post graduate school, head of department of Geology, member of the university governing council, dean of the post graduate school then deputy vice chancellor; it just didn’t drop on my laps, I was going groomed for the position directly or indirectly. I was not expecting that it was going to be a tea party, it would be unfair for people to say I didn’t prepare for the job, what I have been able to do in the last 16 months may be a different kettle of fish compared to the preparations.
So we are trying our best to ensure transparency and accountability, maybe one came at a very wrong time, as a matter of fact, December 1, 2015 was a turning point compared to the period the university was well funded. What is happening now is not new, there have been times when things were very difficult and crises happened almost every week and we overcame that.
Between 2000-2005 during the time of Prof Falase, I was the dean of postgraduate school at the time, during Prof Falase’s last week in office, we organised a send forth for him at the senate chambers and it was while we were there that the then bursar, Alhaji Bankole came and said the university has just liquidated all its debts to the various banks, meaning that before then, the university was actually borrowing money to pay salaries. The only difference between then and now was that the quantum of money was very small, maybe around N5million unlike now that the gap is about N80M-N100m.
In the 59-year history of this university, this is not the first time we are having this kind of crisis, we had issues of cultism that the chief security officer of the university was killed.
There are also constraints, as a federal university, we are not allowed to charge tuition fees. Recently, our post graduate students were complaining about our decision to charge tuition, I went to the university’s secondary school-UI international school and called the principal to give me the scale of fees and found out that the fees we are asking our postgraduate students to pay is far less than what they are paying in the international school. If government is not subsidizing, someone has to pay to have quality education.
I just left the dean of postgraduate school of the University of Legon and he gave me the scale of their fees, foreign students pay about $8,000 dollars and if you convert that at the rate of N350, you know how much it costs. Even if you have the resources, you have to ensure transparency and accountability, because they are public funds kept in your custody. So those are the major issues but it is not totally unexpected.
Besides, we have an institution that is strongly unionized which is primarily okay, it is good for people to be able to express themselves, to ask questions about the internally generated revenue and how it is being spent. Last year what the government gave us was about N120m for the whole year; If divided into 12 months that is about N100m monthly. But every month, we spend about N20m on electricity, another N5 -N10m on diesel, we have to pay external examiners, NUC and others. When people ask
About how the IGR is spent, they don’t ask if government gives you N10m a month and you are spending N60m; where do they think the difference of N50m is coming from. You have to pay daily contractors, which alone is about N10million a month, what government gives us in a year to run this place is less than what we need to pay daily contractors so the rest is from the IGR.
If you have a 3bedroom apartment you know how much it costs to maintain it in a month not to talk of a university. Our major mandate here is teaching and research, we are even introducing some new courses like Architecture which started under the late Prof Babajide but after a year or two it was scrapped. So we are bringing it back. It is part of our challenges, infact we have to bring in a professor from the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ife to appoint as Head of Department of Architecture just to be able to help us midwife it. These are the issues but whatever it is, we have to give priority to academics, teaching and research.
Specifically, two staff unions, SSANU AND NASU are on strike, what are the issues, what are they contesting?
The summary is our inability to pay their salaries in full. In January, we got N836m for salary payment which was barely enough to pay salaries, but by middle of February, we got a letter from Abuja that we have been overpaid to the tune of N69m and directed that we remit the money. So by the end of February, they did not even wait for us to refund the money, they simply deducted the money twice as against N836 million that we were given in January to give us N696m.
So where is the excess N69million naira?
After paying us in January, we were a bit happy that even if it is not enough at least it was better but they now said that they have overpaid us that we should refund N69m. So when they wanted to pay us in February, they deducted twice. That was the genesis of this crisis. The SSANU and NASU would not want to hear such; they took their case to the governing council. There is a committee on labour relations chaired by the pro chancellor who informed the unions that the source of the problem came from Abuja but because they were not sympathetic to our course, that particular week they went on strike and it even worsened last week. We appealed to them over the weekend to meet their demands halfway, they even said the management should set up a staff audit committee but we told them to let the governing council handle it since we are all employees of the council; we don’t have anything to hide and the council in its wisdom agreed.
Apart from salary, there are other issues like pension deductions, we enquired from other universities and the idea is that employees should contribute a certain percentage 7.5 percent and the government would add 7.5 percent making it 15 percent and send to the designated pension fund administrator (PFA). The money was deducted from the source but our staffs are saying the money is with the university and we should refund from 2004 but it is not so. I was not here in 2004, I just came in 16 months ago and the information given to me is that there was no deduction in UI but they refused to listen.
Some of them have even started calculating the arrears from 2004; they said we should let them know where the money is kept, to know if the money is in the bank, and the account number. We are even grateful that they have reduced their demonstrations because this is not giving us a good image, but on the other hand there is no way we can blame them for demanding what they think is their right. We just have to maneuver between the two opposing ends and just maintain a balance.
The crux of the matter is a really funding and sometime ago the committee of vice chancellors came out with a communiqué asking that government should allow payment of tuition in federal universities, what is your take on this?
Most universities in the United Kingdom (UK) and other countries abroad are publicly funded. Even in South Africa. I don’t even think they have private universities because most of them are publicly funded but if you go to the United States of America (U.S) you would discover that it is a different ball game, most of the universities there are privately owned and that is the kind of model we have adopted inadvertently so we need to decide what model is suitable. We should not also look down on some of the private universities in the country because some of them are doing well. I even learnt that some of their lecturers were sponsored to at least one international conference every year. All of us have to think outside the box and see the best way to go about this and move forward because it is going to affect us one way or the other.
Research seems to be non-existent in our universities these days, what do you think is responsible for this?
Research is still evident in the university as undergraduates are mandated to write a project in their final year, which entails research, but it would have been easier for the students and their supervisors if we have a conducive environment. It is very easy and cheap for people in the diaspora to criticise the Nigerian university system. If they love the system so much, why did they leave? The environment could be very hostile, like what happened here and we had to beg God to settle things. So I think we can do more if the environment is more conducive as expected.
How do you expect staffs to do meaningful research when they are not paid salaries? Everything is interrelated; from the facilities to the system and so on. People are under so much stress but inspite of that we need to make efforts. The worst thing we can do is to fold our arms and say there are no facilities; we still have some of our colleagues that are doing meaningfully well. So it is even a case of having 10 percent of the staff doing the 90 percent job of production and as such these few are opened to opportunities even at no cost to the university.
Talking about research, TETFUND said recently that institutions are not accessing the funds, what is the situation with UI regarding the intervention funds
Everything is improving now but again the volume of funds available to TETFUND is limited, recently three of our colleagues; one from veterinary anatomy, Prof. Olopade, then Prof. Farohunbi, the head of department, Biochemistry and the director of institute of advanced medical studies, Prof. Falade, got the TETFUND research support but you found out that they are few and because it is limited.
Not many of our colleagues are applying and the quantum of money given to TETFUND itself is limited. Our universities still tries to support research and even disburse the research grants which is part of the funds given to the university but that seemed to have dried up but some of our colleagues still go abroad to get funds, basically, funding is central to everything we do here.
University of Ibadan seems to focus more on post graduate admission to the disadvantage of admission seeking undergraduates. What is responsible for this?
The university is still running undergraduate programmes, it is just that we think we have a comparative advantage since we are the oldest university and research has always being part of the culture of this institution as far back as 1948. At the last count, we have about 152 universities in the country. This current admission we had about 3,500 candidates for undergraduate degree programmes.
We cannot be expanding the undergraduate programme and post graduate at the same time, because our vision is more of running a postgraduate school with about 58 percent students and 42 percent undergraduate students which we think is respectable, so basically, the university of Ibadan is emphasizing postgraduate and de-emphasizing undergraduate programmes and UI is offering more of that than any other university in West Africa.
The implication is that it is now more hard for students to gain admission to the university for undergraduate degree programmes; one out of 10 candidates is admitted because we cannot be expanding both postgraduate and undergraduate schemes at the same time; but we are not expanding the postgraduate programme indiscriminately because we already have a crowd.
People always ask me whenever I tell them that our university is the oldest whether is it the largest but we are not, although we already have more candidates than Oxford University. We have almost 30,000 students, definitely there are universities having more than us but we are not competing with the population, we just want to become a world class university.
Some of the lecturers in the faculties do not have offices and I always joke with them that maybe we need to employ couples so that they can share offices. So there will always be challenges and identifying the problem is the first step. We have to prioritize and beyond that our core mandate here is teaching and research, so we should not forget that.
Talking about quality, no Nigerian university is ranked among the first 1000 in the world and this calls for concern, how do you think we can address this?
You cannot build something on nothing; world class is not just a fanciful- bus word. On the television recently, I saw one private university that said it wants to be one of the best in the industry but this is easier said than done.
What does it take to have a world class university? You can classify the variables into three, one is that you need abundant resources, talking about funding whether from the proprietor, like in our own case, federal government from tuition fees, then from endowments or donations, those are the major sources of funding for federal universities even for other institutions, the proprietor still has to put something down, there can be donations and the faculty members can also try to apply for grants because it will also strengthen the facilities in the university.
Apart from the abundant resources, you need concentration of talents, in terms of students, staff, and internalisation because a university is supposed to be a universe; you cannot come to a university where everybody is speaking Ibadan dialect. In some universities I understand some students even talk to their lecturers in pidgin. When you look at the criteria in ranking universities, what proportion of your students are foreign students?
We are talking of concentration of talents, and leadership framework, the governance structure in terms of academic freedom, autonomy, to leadership too. If you have a combination of all those in abundance, then you have a world class university on your hand. If you want to employ a senior lecturer in Atmospheric physics, you have to advertise in the Economist so that people can apply all over the world. I remember when I was in Germany in 1996, in the department of Applied Geophysics, there was a vacancy for a professor and 99 people applied from all over the world, why would it become difficult to employ one person? But if you employ that person, you have to be able to pay him well. You find out that the universities in the United States of America and United Kingdom, when they want to appoint vice chancellors, they put it in internal and external advert, people apply from all over the world so it is competition and whether you like it or not, if somebody wants to relocate from Osun to UK, it cannot be because such a person is going on excursion, you have to be ready to attract the best and pay for that. Even if we have the facilities here, who says we cannot attract people from all over the world, both staff and students?
When you even look at the criteria they used for the ranking, it is dead on arrival for us. When they asked how many of your staffs have won a Nobel Prize, here it is only Woke Soyinka who is shared between Ife and Ibadan, because he was here as a student and associate lecturer, head of department and later he moved to Ife.
If other universities are producing 12, what are you bringing to the table? And maybe that one is like 20 percent. There was a time we went to University of Chicago, they have special parking lot for their Nobel prize winners, a university is boasting of 10-12 either staff or alumni that are Nobel prize winners and you don’t even have a point, even 0.25 percent and you say you want to be world class.
I mean it is good to be ambitious, at times, it is easier to reach the top than to remain at the top, when I look at it, in 1998, I spent a week in Paris at the headquarters of Elf now part of Total; I met someone from Luxembourg who told me that about four years earlier in Paris, at the Elf headquarters, he asked someone to print his business card and include e-mail address, and the person was asking what e-mail was. This was in 1998, four years earlier, that means e-mail was not popular in France. And 1994 to now is just a little over 20 years. So at times, I will say the gap between them and us may not be that wide, now every primary school pupil here has e -mail and uses the Internet, these are development in the last 20 years.
We are actually trying to bridge the gap, it does not mean it’s going to take us 50 years before we make substantial progress but at times, it can be very frustrating that we don’t even realise that we are not doing too well. Those people who are far ahead of us would not wait on us forever; they are also working 24 hours and the gap keeps widening.
A senior colleague of mine in the department of Chemistry, he did his doctoral programme at the University of Birmingham, he had his first degree here in 1970, he said when he went to Birmingham in 1971, the standard of facilities at the university, department of chemistry was slightly better than what we had here in the department of chemistry that time, but if you now compare what they have today, it will be miles apart because they keep improving everyday whereas here, it is like we are going backward. And they are not waiting for us, there is competition, you collaborate with other universities, you also compete.
We also need to make the environment here more conducive for our students, some of the halls of residence like Melamby has been there for like 65 years, elsewhere, those buildings would have been demolished and rebuilt, but if you make the mistake of doing such, it will remain like that till thy kingdom come because you won’t have enough money to put up a new structure.
Our students need to live under a decent condition but who is going to bell the cart? All these relates to the massive injection of funds, if government alone cannot do it, the private sector would also claim and quite rightly that they also paid two percent education tax to TETFund used in funding universities and TETFund would also tell you that it is just an intervention agency, and is not supposed to be solely responsible for funding universities because I believe that the quantum of money given to them is also limited, the economy itself may not be doing too well, so there’s a limit to how we can tax individuals.
But if we want our universities to be world class, then we know that we still have a long way to go in terms of resources, talents both students and staff; internalisation, strategic framework in terms of autonomy, academic freedom and leadership team. it is not good for everybody to come from the same local government because there are good talents from all over the world, not only within the country. Even though in Nigeria, I think we are still doing well but as much as possible, and for you to attract the best from all over the world, there must be something on offer for them to be interested.
That brings us to the argument that instead of government establishing more universities; it should strengthen existing ones through funding. Do you think the continuous licensing of new universities is justifiable when old ones are begging for government’s attention?
Well, maybe the argument is that it is easier to strengthen the existing ones rather than brand new universities and maybe there is also something backing the idea that we need more federal and state universities in various parts of the country but the fundamental point is that there is need for massive injection of funds into our tertiary institutions.
I am sure we don’t want to expand indiscriminately because there maybe a university with over 200,000 students and yet does not rank among the best universities in the world. To the private universities, I think some of them are doing well but it may just be difficult to meet up with their fees as some of them charge up to N3m for medicine and it is even costlier outside the country where there is restricted number of foreign students.
We also have the issue of assess because the federal universities in Nigeria like UI are more competitive than their private counterparts, especially for the fact that people see them (private universities) as just coming up compared to the public institutions that have existed for long.
Looking from the outside, the impression is that Nigerian universities are making a lot of money, considering the large number of students in the country seeking higher education. But many of these universities kept saying no money which have necessitated calls on the anti graft agencies, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) to beam their searchlights on university administrators, how will you react to this.
The way things work now, all the federal universities are not allowed to charge tuition fees for undergraduate courses, which is a political decision. There is no free lunch anywhere so the government has to be prepared to make available the quantum of money that otherwise would have been paid. That is part of the problem. If you like, admit 10,000 students to your undergraduate programme, it is not going to translate to additional funding
In the case of UI, so many committees run the university’s account so I cannot even authorize the purchase of some items and besides there are checks and balances in the system too that only a mad person can just upturn those laid down rules.
Almost everything we do here, we still inform our pro-chancellor, and so it is a teamwork involving the pro-chancellor and chairman of the governing council.The council meets at least every quarter so virtually everything we do must be reported. So there rules to regulate things in case things want to go wrong. There are also occasions where we have to take executive decisions whenever there is breakdown of law and order. So what is necessary is having a good team that can check all irregularities. So it is not a one-man show.
According to a report, Nigerians spend N30billion every year on foreign education, 95 percent of which comes from private funds. How can we reverse this trend?
If the universities in this country, whether federal government-owned, state government-owned or private, are mediocre, then people will go abroad. But if we upgrade the quality of our university education system, many of our nationals will be willing to get educated here. But if you have a system where you are shut down most of the time due to strikes, where a student comes for a four-year programme and spends six years, then there is a problem. If you look at a country like Great Britain, they are going to attract many foreign students because people think that once you graduate from Imperial College or you graduate from Birmingham, it is like you have a meal ticket for life.
We have to first invest substantial sums of money in our university system to upgrade the standard. A university that is always among the top 20 in the world, say like Cambridge, can afford to increase tuition fees.We have to go back to the basics and invest in our university system, to ensure it meets world-class standards.
What do you hope to achieve at the end of your tenure as vice chancellor?
The first is we want to run the student centre institutions. We are there primarily because of the students. Academic excellence is uppermost in what we want do. As a component of that, if we train good students, then our alumni will be doing well wherever they find themselves, and they will then be in a position to support the institution. Then we are also going to look for adequate resources. It will not ever be enough. If you have all the brilliant ideas in the world and you do not have the resources to implement these, then the idea will die with the person. I am going to look for adequate resources to run the university.
Service delivery also has to be uppermost in whatever we do.
Again we are building on the outstanding achievements, it’s not like we are starting from ground zero. So we are concentrating on the gains and we have a focus too so we are not going to be complaining all the time over non-availability of funds.
We don’t have any reason to be poor as an institution and the departments and faculties are making efforts. Donations and supports have also being coming in from the alumni and that is very commendable.