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‘Nigerian universities should research for the next big disruption’


Prof. Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe

Prof. Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe is a renowned professor of Systems Engineering who has had the rare opportunity of serving as the Vice Chancellor of two federal universities – the University of Lagos (UNILAG) and Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo (FUNAI) in Ebonyi State. A Fellow and former president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, Ibidapo-Obe, in this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO and MARIA DIAMOND, dissects the state of tertiary education in the country amid COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis rocking UNILAG, highlighting the problems and way forward.

Your alma mater, UNILAG, where you rose to become Vice Chancellor (VC), has been in crisis. You were one of those that urged the Visitor to the institution, President Muhammadu Buhari, to wade in. Now that he has heeded the call by constituting a Visitation Panel, what are your expectations?
I believe the issue could not have gotten to that level before a solution is proffered. There must be a mechanism whereby conflicts can be resolved without resorting to that level.


Of course, people tried a lot within and outside the university to make sure this is done, but the lure of the power-that-be in Abuja did not allow them to see the reasonableness of the other inputs. There is this perception that we own Abuja and we will show it. For me, that is so sad.

What the President has done is very good; I can see things that are evolving within the university. They are taking hold of their future and doing things as should be done.

My lesson is that the issue of university autonomy should be properly looked into. I don’t think there is really autonomy, because the fact that they allow you to do one thing or the other does not mean they have conferred autonomy. So, we have to look into the issue of autonomy very well, because we cannot get autonomy unless the universities are encouraged to be independent.

You don’t prescribe the type of rules for UNILAG, University of Ibadan (UI) and University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), among others, for a university in Yola, Nasarawa, Gombe, etc. There must be different levels for the universities, which is why what the National Universities Commission (NUC) has done is very commendable. There are tiers- first generation, second generation, etc.


The first generation universities should be encouraged to be able to pay the salaries of their staff and address their other needs. The Federal Government will come in through a competitive grant for capital development.

Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Obafemi Awolowo, Ife; UNILAG and University of Benin (UNIBEN) have enough alumni. In universities overseas, it is the alumni that actually fund 30 per cent of the needs of that university through endowment. This is the way you can have your own responsibility.

As long as the government is going to be paying your salaries, where is your autonomy? If I continue to pay the salaries of my driver and security guard, which autonomy do I want to give them? That is the problem.

You have served as the VC of two federal universities, but never had issues with the Governing Councils. How were you able to chart your course?
Your ability to appreciate people and understand them is very important; you must know how to handle some situations with your boss. Let’s face it; the way the university is set up today is that we have a hierarchy. There is the Visitor. In fact, the Visitor, who is like the proprietor, can do anything he likes. Your recourse, at best, is the law court. He can remove you, but you can go to court to challenge it and the court will decide whether he has done it properly. Nobody will argue about whether he can or he cannot; the question will be has he done it properly or given you fair hearing. The court will go beyond the university laws to determine that.

There is the Chancellor, who is also an officer of the university, but he is just there. He only operates when they want to give degrees, which has been the tradition.

Then there is a Pro-Chancellor, who is the Chairman of Council, which is a supervisory organ of the entire university. Then, there is the Vice Chancellor, who operates as the Chairman of the Senate.

The thing is that in the day-to-day management of the university, there are times when you need to get certain things done and you are in a hurry to get them done. All you need to do is to get the pro-chancellor to approve or agree with you as to what you want to do. You cannot afford not to tell the pro-chancellor; it is too risky.


Actually, it is in your own interest to ensure that the pro-chancellor knows about your projects. In a situation whereby the pro-chancellor and the vice chancellor are not communicating, there are bound to be problems. So, in the case of UNILAG, the fallout between the two emanated from lack of communication.

There is also the issue of human management. There are ways to really deal with your boss. There are several books on how to be in control of your boss, but you must understand the techniques, you must realise the attitude of that boss.

This type of situation happens from time to time, but how it is managed is what makes the difference. Sometimes when you are in trouble and don’t know what to do, you have to use external friends of the university to solve problems that could otherwise be explosive.

What is the implication of this crisis on the UNILAG brand?
The brand goes on as long as the issue will be addressed properly. So far, I think the brand is being preserved. As you can see, the government gave the opportunity for the senate to pick the acting VC; it did not impose one, which is great for the brand.

Talking about the probe, which is more of financial issues, let it be open. I hope they will make it an open probe, because they could decide to make it secret. If it is open, there will be contributions to it and we can come out of it easier.


Students of tertiary institutions in the country, ostensibly worried about their future, protested last week over the continued closure of campuses as a result of COVID-19. As an academic, do you share their sentiment?
I appreciate their sentiment and I could imagine where they are coming from; they are bothered that they are losing opportunities.
But talking seriously, I believe we have not understood the epidemiology, physics, chemistry and possibly the biology of COVID-19. I don’t think anybody wants to stay at home. I don’t want to stay at home and I am sure that most of us would like to go out. But if you don’t understand something, it is only reasonable to take the caution to stay away from where you think you can contact it.

We are not even sure that the safety protocols we were given are working. We are getting different information from people who should know. So, we need to be patient and get somewhere before we can rush.

For young people, it is not going to be possible to keep them totally away from each other. So, I appreciate their sentiment, but I think they need to be patient. What government can do, as so many things have been frozen, is to make sure that those of them who are supposed to go for national service (NYSC) at the end of the session should still go.
But virtual learning is ongoing in advanced countries, which has ensured that their academic sessions are running, while that is not the case here..?
(Cuts in) Not really. We are also doing online here.

But it is not very effective..?
That is a question of quality. The private universities are doing online; the federal universities are not because of the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). ASUU says, ‘don’t do anything.’ That is the reason.


But private universities are doing online and some of them are actually reaching very far degrees of achievements. They are doing exams online; they have software that allows you to do an online exam and they will monitor you to make sure you don’t receive any help. There is a constant video on you, such that if you go beyond certain areas, you are shut out and you cannot do the exam again.

So, all these things are there; they could be improved upon. But the major problem, as I told you, is that public universities have not been allowed to do so because of the strike by ASUU.

How can e-learning be deepened in the country? Are their policies you think the NUC should introduce to encourage e-learning in our universities, given the realities of the moment?
When I was the VC of UNILAG, the NUC did say we should start doing e-learning in our institutions. They actually gave us the supportive equipment to do so. But again, the union didn’t want this online thing to find its feet. So, it was not done.

What I think should happen is for the NUC to try as much as it can to ensure that they actually communicate with the unions, especially ASUU, so that they understand that we are in this same business together. The whole world is going on, but we are just being kept doing nothing because of strike and differential opinions. The world is not waiting for us.


What do you think can be done to discourage incessant strikes by lecturers in public universities?
Communication! Communication!! Communication!!! The people in ASUU are reasonable. What will solve the problem is to stop doing a comparison of what the university teachers are doing and what others in the public service are doing.

The problem is that they do the comparison and say, ‘look, it’s not fair that the university people have been sidetracked and sidelined.’ So, if government could be open and transparent and discuss this on the table, there will be no problem. They (ASUU members) are reasonable people. That is my own belief.

Let’s even look at some of their demands. Number one is that universities are different from public service. They are different from civil service, and that should be understood right from the beginning. What civil servants go through, lecturers don’t go through it. So, the very moment you start comparing civil servants with them, you lose a lot of things. Which employer will employ you and say you will work for six years and go on sabbatical on the seventh year? It is only a university system that allows that to happen. So, there are certain things they get that others don’t get.

But I could see that there is a tendency now that everybody gets the same thing. That is the problem. There must be a distinction between the type of work the academia does and the work that civil servants do.


Specifically, what preferential treatments do you think should be granted to the university system?
I am a good example. I graduated from UNILAG in 1971. When I graduated, I had offers from the Oil Producing Companies (OICs) and marketing companies. At the end of the day, I was attracted to go back to the university to take a job as a Graduate Assistant. I must have compared my options, because I saw working in the university as an opportunity for me to advance myself and reach what I really wanted for myself. I didn’t see that happening in the private sector.

So, we need to bring back these differentials we had in those days to get quality people into the university system. What we saw at one point was that nobody wanted a career in the university; everybody wanted to work in the private sector. So, we just opened our doors. Before, you hardly saw somebody with Second Class (Lower Division) being given a job as a teacher in the university. You must have at least Second Class (Upper Division). And even in administration, those who were there were special. All those disappeared when there was nobody that was interested in working in the university. So, we lost that advantage.

We need to sit down and re-create that and be very firm and open in whatever we create. There is what university academics are supposed to achieve. If you don’t achieve it, you are out.

For example, when I was the VC of UNILAG, a standing rule was that if you come in and you were a Graduate Assistant or Assistant Lecturer, you were expected to get a PhD within three years. If you didn’t, we were prepared to know why you couldn’t and give you additional three years. If after the additional three years you still failed to get your PhD, you didn’t have to be told that you had no job.


Now, some of these rules are not being strictly enforced. I had the opportunity of being Chairman of a Visitation Panel and we saw this in one of the universities. We had to ask all of them to go. A lot of things are happening in the universities that are not in tandem with the traditional ways of doing things in the university system that we know or have heard about.

So, it can be done, but it has to be done by people who know.

Studying in Nigerian universities used to be the dream of many foreign students, but we now have a situation where the reverse is the case…
(Cuts in) Oh yes! When I was in the university, there were quite a large number of foreign students from United States (US) and many African countries. I remember that they used to put them in one of the hostels during vacation. Nigeria has produced not less than three or four attorney generals for Cameroun. I don’t want to talk about other top public servants in Botswana and other countries that were trained here. That is a university.

We have seen a lot of Americans come here to be able to study and understand the African culture. Even now, top universities in the US insist that you must have a developing nation experience whatever your discipline, but especially engineering. They want to see how you are going to do it without all the sophistication of equipment. It’s a good thing.


But that opportunity has eluded us most of the time because of this unstable academic calendar as a result of the various strikes that we had. We, therefore, need to find a way to stop hurting ourselves.

When I was the VC of UNILAG, we conducted a study whereby we discovered that 23 to 24 per cent of the students of the university were children of the staff of the institution. So, why cut off your nose to spite your face? Say what you think should be done, but ensure that these things do not stop. The Nigerian academia has lost so much respect internationally, because they don’t even know when we are in and when we are out. That is the problem.

When we graduated, we moved straight to graduate school; we were all in the Masters class with anybody else from any university anywhere. It’s not happening anymore. Some of our students are being asked to repeat the final year of their Bachelors degree before being admitted to graduate schools abroad. Thank God they always do well, may be because of the few things we have introduced.

So, we are not feeling it right now, but we need to sit down and honestly address the issues. We need to decide on our own to go ahead and do things right. That is the challenge.


Fortunately for us, we don’t have to import people who can do this, as Nigeria has all the expertise to achieve all the turnaround needed.

The expertise might be there, but what about funding, which has been one of the major banes of Nigerian universities?
A few things can be generated if people are motivated. For example, there are a few opportunities internationally that could bring a lot of funding into the Nigerian academia. Let me give you an example.

When I was the VC of UNILAG, I realised that China would play a very major role in the world. I felt that the best way to put UNILAG on the map was to introduce some level of Chinese language and Chinese understanding. So, we set up a centre. We were able to get support through the embassy of China such that we now have a blooming Chinese programme at UNILAG.

Now, I can imagine that the Chinese that are busy giving us loans for road and railways would be most willing to give us support for the transformation of the educational sector. That is why I am saying that funding is an issue, but it is not a big issue. We can attract sufficient funding with openness. But in Nigeria we don’t like things to be clear. That is our problem.

Look at research grants, for instance. From the UNILAG point of view, look at how much grants they said they have attracted. The NUC is doing excellently well in this regard, providing opportunities for them to compete for grants and it is quite substantial. So, it can be done.


What comes to your mind each time the world university ranking is released, with no Nigerian university making the first 200?
I feel unhappy about this, I must tell you, but there are things we can do to make us more visible. One of it is the insistence, as it were, that every university teacher would upload a CV with all his publications, which should be there for everybody to see. It is not all of us that are doing that; that is why we have low ranking.

The other thing is joint research. We have to encourage joint research. The days of solo research are over. You can conduct a research with your students or your colleagues and that research should be uploaded and publicised.

So, one of the challenges that we have is that we are not taking full advantage of technology. If we were, there is absolutely no way Covenant University would rank better than UI. It’s not possible. Do you know the number of professors in UI or UNILAG? But the people in Covenant University, because of the discipline there, ensure that every academic staff does what he/she is supposed to do to support that ranking. But it is not so in federal universities.


That is one of the things I can say should come in. If you want to be professor or teacher, there are certain things you must do. They have something they call APA Form. It is an appraisal form that must be filled religiously and looked at independently. All that can be done and I’m sure our ranking will shoot up if we do that.

We have the people here. I have been to so many universities in the US and Europe and have seen that our people are not as bad as those ranking parametres indicate. It is just that they have not been motivated to do what I consider to be the best thing.

What should be the focus of Nigerian universities post-COVID-19?
Innovation! People are going to be rewarded for innovative ideas. Look at what Coronavirus has done to us; we are totally harassed. It should not be a comfort in anyway that we say it is a worldwide pandemic and so we cannot get anything done. We must be innovative and encourage people who have innovative ideas.

So, post-COVID-19, the focus should be innovation. Let us start doing research; let us encourage those doing research for the next big disruption. COVID-19 is a disruption. There is going to be a bigger disruption. Let us start doing research for that bigger disruption.


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