‘Nigerian Universities need to restructure entrepreneurship programmes to stimulate innovation’
After five years of serving as the Vice Chancellor of Bowen University, would you say that the visions you set for this institution have been achieved?
I am grateful to God because over 95 per cent of goals I set have been achieved. I think there is only just one that I’ve not been able to achieve. My desire was to build a zoo so that any child here in Oluponna, Ile-Igbo, would have the opportunity to know what a zoo is like. Series of universities before usually would have a zoo; would have a planetarium, like a museum where plants grow. You will have plant collections from all over the world and so on. I’ve seen this in Germany and the U.S. I have seen this even in some African countries like Tunisia and so on and I felt like this would be something good here. Unfortunately, the council that I was responsible to didn’t buy that idea. In fact, we had already got a donation of a baboon from the National Conservation Fund. That’s the only goal that we didn’t achieve. They were about 10 written goals.
Were there some tough decisions you took along the line? If yes, how did they pan out for you?
There were several tough decisions. If you want to transform, then you must take decisions that are a bit out of the usual box. The first thing we did when we came was to change the culture – the culture of coming late to work, the culture of talking to students anyhow, the culture of dressing and so on. Right from the beginning, we had resistance and opposition, but naturally, you must set your face like a flint looking at your set goals. Several times, we kept talking, communicating and persuading. Where we needed to use the hammer, we did; where we needed to use the carrot, we did. And we kept going forward.
I remember too that when we wanted to migrate from what was obtainable to what we are doing now, the modified collegiate system, several professors came out that it would not work. They said, “we had done it in several universities and it didn’t work.” And I said, “no, it’s not collegiate; it’s modified collegiate.” We modified it putting some of our challenges, our opportunities and even some of our threats into consideration. The rest is history now because everybody has seen that it’s working.
Above all was when we had to lay off over a hundred members of staff. I think that was the most challenging one. It was one of the dark moments for the university, but we had to do it. Everybody has changed their mind today that we didn’t know that this is what would happen, that this is how it’s going to look. So, normally, there is no one who wants to bring a desired positive change that would not have resistance and opposition. But despite the resistance and opposition, the most important thing is getting to the desired goal.
You hold the view that private universities cannot run like public ones. How do you mean?
The way the public university is set up now, there is no way any private university would want to copy it and be sustainable. The public university may afford to spend money anyhow. One, they don’t pay salaries; Abuja pays their salaries. So, they can use all their Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) anyhow. They may not fund research because TETFund has already put money aside for any university for research, even though whatever TETFund is putting is money for minimal research; the university must build on it. So, there is a lot of money to play around with.
However, the private university is the one that pays the salary of its workers from its IGR. It’s the one that looks for money for research; not TETFund for it. It’s the one that looks for money for training of its staff and so on. It must keep supporting the students when they want to go and do competition outside, because that’s the way it can lift the brand of the school. So, leadership of such institutions must need to be frugal and maintain fiscal discipline.
Aside from the fiscal aspect, the public university may not bother about its image per se, because whether there is image laundering or not, students will come. But the private universities cannot be like that. You must keep boosting your profile so that you can have acceptable image and brand name; and these things cost money.
For instance, between 2017 and today, Bowen has spent over N300 million on building the brand. Sometimes people visit the institution and we give them souvenirs; it’s part of building the brand. We send our students out for competitions and so on so that people can know us; it’s part of building the brand. And several other things like advertisements and so on. These are things that public universities don’t necessarily have to do.
So, you cannot now want to run a private university and copy the public university method, structure and system; you would run the private university aground. That’s why you would never hear us have a ‘head of department’ because in a public university set up, you have a head of department. He must have a secretary; he must have a clerk or somebody who dispatches, and maybe a messenger. And you must have a special office for him. We threw away all that and said we only have programme coordinators. B.Sc Mathematics is a programme. Somebody coordinates that. Of course he uses his office, but he is not a head of department; he’s a coordinator of the programme. With that, we have been able to reduce our overhead tremendously. That’s why we are saying that you cannot use the template of public university to run a private university.
There was a time Nigerian universities introduced entrepreneurial education. You have said several times that the kind of entrepreneurial education they introduced was ineffective. What kind are you suggesting or running at Bowen University?
At the university level, you cannot be talking about entrepreneurship and you are buying sewing machines and whatever for the students. Do that to them at the secondary school or primary school levels. At this tertiary level, you want to raise entrepreneurs who affect the world; who would make global impact and have national relevance. You cannot begin to introduce certain specific skills and say this is what they should know.
What we are saying is this: teach the students under entrepreneurship how to take care of an idea, work on the idea to be an innovation and take all the process so that they can either commercialise it, start up a company with it or whatever. That’s how we see great minds work all over the world. So, university should not be talking about entrepreneurship in the context of wanting to learn confectionery, wanting to be mechanics; universities should be beyond all that.
Yes, students can develop such skills, because they are important. For instance, I expect our students to see that when people have wounds, there is this adhesive plaster they use. When this adhesive plaster spends a long time on your skin and you want to remove it, you feel pain because some of your hair is pulled off. If a student says how can I make a plaster that can stay that long and not have that effect on the person? That’s an idea. He can keep working on that idea and innovate with it. And how does he commercialise it everywhere in the world? That’s what we’re talking about.
The student may not have money; he may have to go and look for investors whether they are angel investors or venture capitalists. He must be able to present his idea in such a way that they can be convinced to put their money. Those are the kind of things we teach in SIWES. That’s why we say that we need to do an entire overhaul of the entrepreneurship programme.
Today in Bowen University, some of our students are doing business. Several of our graduates are out there; they are not looking for jobs. I have a graduate that is out there making just perfume, customised perfume. He’s not even selling again in the country; he is exporting. His business is worth over USD10 million. I have one in Port Harcourt that his business is providing computer services for oil companies. He did so well that he is paying his employees over N400,000 per month while he is earning N80,000. Those are some of the things you learn about entrepreneurship; helping your company to start up. He has been invited to the Silicon Valley in California.
There is a student that graduated two years ago. He was among the three that led Bowen to have a competition on programming. Bowen came first among all the universities in the country at the National Mathematical Centre. He’s now in Oxford. The concept we are bringing is not strange to the outside world. The concept Nigeria is bringing on entrepreneurship is not what could help our nation to really move forward. Go to Rwanda today; entrepreneurship is digital and that’s the way to go. That’s why I say that the kind of entrepreneurship that you see happening particularly in the public universities may not be the way to go.
Despite several advocacies TETFund interventions have still not been extended to private universities. What’s your advice on that to the Federal Government?
Private universities will never benefit from TETFund until the Act establishing it is reviewed. No matter what anybody says, the Act establishing TETFund does not support it. So, the lobby we first need to do is at the National Assembly for the review of the Act. If we have not reviewed the Act and we are just saying everywhere that TETFund should remember us, even if I sit on TETFund today, I may not be able to do it because the Act guiding TETFund will not permit me to do that.
The first thing we need to do as Committee of Vice Chancellors, Committee of Pro-chancellors and chancellors of private universities is to actually do a strong advocacy so that the Act will be reviewed to accommodate private universities, knowing that they are also making contributions. They are paying tax, which is part of what TETFund is getting. They are employers of labour, helping the country to reduce unemployment, and also helping to boost the economy of the country. And when you talk about research, the product of research is going to benefit the country, whether it comes from a private or public university. So, the country is actually shooting itself in the foot if it does not review that Act particularly TETFund’s support for research.
Looking at the Nigerian university system entirely in relation to the quality of its products, what can you say about the system?
I hear such talks about quality of products and what have you, and many times I ask: Who set the standard? Is it the European standard or world standard? I feel that the most important thing is that the university is a place where you need to open up the students to want to acquire any kind of knowledge. Once you have been able to achieve that, and that student/person has a quest for knowledge and is getting what he/she wants at any point in time, then you have helped that person to develop himself for life. I’m talking in the context of university education.
I frown personally on saying that this is how the curriculum should be across; I don’t believe in that. I believe in bringing quality people who should come and discuss their work with students.
For instance, if I bring Prof. Wole Soyinka today, which syllabus do I want to give Wole Soyinka to teach literature? Wole Soyinka himself is a syllabus in the university. What universities ought to begin to do is to attract great minds to come over. When you have that, and you have students rubbing minds with them, that’s when you have top students.
So, talking in terms of the quality going down, I keep asking myself: what actually is quality? Let’s bring back the university to what it ought to be. Attract best talents and even that student who is weak, by the time he or she is leaving, he or she will be an average student.
Private universities are springing up today at a rapid pace. Some say it’s a positive development while others think otherwise. What is the uniqueness of Bowen amid the pack?
The uniqueness of Bowen is that we inter-mix godliness with learning. We ensure that it’s not just by speech; we develop character in our students even as they learn. We cause them to take the name of Christ with them as they move along. We prepare them to be leaders who will influence their future. So, they are bold to speak out. They are bold to look at any programme either of government, community and so on and offer critique and solutions.
We also ensure that our students are into public debates; so you will see our students public-speaking. It’s one of the things we promote; that’s why everywhere there is a public speaking competition, we are either first or second.
Another thing is the area of entrepreneurship. We also allow our students on their own go and do SIWES at places where they can get maximum benefit not just anywhere. For instance, we introduce them to KPMG to go and do SIWES; we introduce them to Nigerian Flour Mills and other specific places that we see as Blue Chip companies. Those are the uniqueness of Bowen.
Another thing is that we introduced what we called the Mediated Reading Plan (MRP) to boost the reading culture of our students. And how do we do it? We published that in one of the national newspapers in 2019 because we felt other universities should be able to pick the idea. And we started with Jim Ovia’s Book ‘Africa Rise and Shine’. Why we picked that book is because it has a bearing on entrepreneurship and how he started Zenith Bank. We encourage students to read it, two chapters every day and discuss it. I think about half the students have read the book. Several other books have come.
Today, there is a certain ‘punishment’ or corrective measure we mete out on our students, which is ‘Go and read a book when you commit an offence, two chapters every day, and come and be discussing it on your WhatsApp with your lecturer’.
What’s the significance of the one-day student vice chancellor you introduced?
I mentioned earlier that we develop our students to be leaders that will affect their future. It’s part of helping them to take their destiny in their hands in the area of leadership, so we decided to open up that.
One, what qualifies you to be a one-day vice chancellor? You write an essay. There are book readings that you will do; you make presentation and answer questions, then finally you go to campaign. And of course, there is a minimum CGPA you must maintain. I think it’s 3.5 below which you cannot apply. Those are the things we put in place so that we can keep developing that aspect of leadership in our students.
Can you list more of your achievements in office?
Can they be listed? It’s difficult. It’s God. It’s not just saying it for saying sake; we get our inspiration from the Holy Spirit. We prayerfully meditate in the word of God and we get directions.
For instance, it says ‘the entrance of Your word gives light and understanding to the simple’, and it’s true. So, the more of the word of God you digest, the more inspiration you get (that’s the light); you would have the understanding on how to run it. So, that has been our driving force in the course of these past five years.
You’ve already taken Bowen University to a higher height. As someone else is taking the baton from you, what would you like to see in the next five years?
In the next five years I see a Bowen, not where I want it to be, but where it will be by the grace of God. I see a Bowen where every scholar all over the world comes, spends three months, one year, some even staying here to work. I see that happening in the next five years. They will come from Australia, diversity of colour, speech, culture and so on; and so students too (will) come from all over the world. It’s possible; it’s achievable. We are already getting there. In the next five years, that’s the Bowen I want to see; a Bowen that would be more solution-based to national and regional issues than any other thing; a Bowen that is already on the hill and there is no way anybody can hide it, in terms of research, in terms of community service and what have you.
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