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Establishing and nurturing Nigerian elite universities

By Ladipo Adamolekun
13 February 2020   |   2:56 am
It is to the elite universities that the country will look for the education that promotes the sort of creativity and skills required to successfully compete as a big player in the world economy from the 2030s onwards.

It is to the elite universities that the country will look for the education that promotes the sort of creativity and skills required to successfully compete as a big player in the world economy from the 2030s onwards.

In the Maiden Convocation Lecture that I delivered at the Federal University of Oye-Ekiti (FUOYE) in April 2017, I made the point that Nigeria needs some elite universities. I prefaced my advocacy on the issue with the following:

The idea of selecting and nurturing a small number of elite public universities in the country has been raised in the media, by think tanks, and especially by the NUC since the early 2000s. (I have been an advocate of “a dose of elitism in the Nigerian University system” since 1990). Simultaneously, a significant number of universities (public and private) have expressed the desire and/or determination to join the ranks of world-class universities…
And I concluded my advocacy as follows:

I strongly recommend the selection of six public universities, one from each geopolitical zone, to be nurtured as elite universities with the following specific goal: to have one in the top 100, two others in the top 200 and the other 3 in the top 500 by 2030(sic).

It is to the elite universities that the country will look for the education that promotes the sort of creativity and skills required to successfully compete as a big player in the world economy from the 2030s onwards. Unexpectedly, a first concrete step in the direction of promoting and nurturing world class universities in the country was recently launched: Central Bank of Nigeria Collaborative Post Graduate Programme (CBN-CPP) partnering with the University of Ibadan, University of Nigeria Nsukka and Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. According to the CBN, “The aim is to provide world class postgraduate studies in Economics, Accounting, Banking and Finance, and Business Administration comparable to what obtains in the best business schools across the globe” (bold and italics added). CBN has built a Centre of Excellence (CoE) at each of the designated universities and academic programmes were scheduled to commence in October 2019 – See Financial Times (London), August 13th 2019.

In this Discussion Paper, I examine key issues relating to the establishment and nurturing of the proposed six elite universities. The Paper is in three parts. Part One is focused on the selection of the six elite universities. In Part Two, I lay out three phases of development for the selected universities: Take Off phase, 2020-2023; Consolidation phase, 2023-2028; and World Class phase, 2028-2030.Part Three is devoted to relationships among the selected universities and between each of the universities and a varying number of public universities across the country. Furthermore, possible African and international linkages for the elite universities are highlighted. In the concluding Part Four, measures for assuring effective implementation, evaluation and monitoring are summarised.

In the Convocation Lecture mentioned in the Preamble, I made the point that the University of Ibadan is a self-selected elite university, based on some outstanding achievements. First, in 2010, the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences (including Health and Agriculture) of the Pan-African University (PAULESI) was established at the University of Ibadan – selected as one of the continent’s “existing universities of excellence”. PAULESI at Ibadan is focused on one of five thematic areas that constitute a post-graduate training and research network across the five regions of the continent (Central, Eastern, Northern, Southern and Western). The network is supported by the African Union and Association of African Universities with financial assistance from the African Development Bank.

Second, according to the widely-acknowledged university ranking leader, the Times Higher Education (T.H.E) World University Rankings (founded in 2004), Ibadan was the only Nigerian university ranked among the top 1000 leading universities in the world in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, one of three in 2018-2019, and one of four in 2019-2020, based on the following five criteria: citations (per faculty member); teaching (especially learning environment); research (volume, income and reputation); industry income (to measure research influence); and international outlook (percentages of international faculty and overseas students).

A third evidence is Ibadan’s dominance with respect to the distribution of Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) laureates: by December 2019, thirty-three of the sixty-nine laureates with undergraduate degrees – about 48 percent -graduated from Ibadan, compared to ten –about 14 percent – from other Nigerian universities.(Twenty-six laureates obtained undergraduate degrees in universities outside Nigeria and seven had no undergraduate degrees).

Fourth, and finally, Ibadan is a member of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), comprising sixteen self-selected “leading” universities in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Established in 2015, ARUA “is set to become a pan-African network for bringing research and academic excellence to the fore throughout the region by developing strong and viable research universities.” And its goal is to enhance “research and graduate training in member universities through a number of channels, including the setting up of Centres of Excellence (CoEs) to be hosted by member universities.” By mid-2019, ARUA had established thirteen COEs and Ibadan senior academics are active participants in some of them.

Although the robust self-selection argument for Ibadan cannot be made for Nsukka and Zaria, there is strong evidence that each stands out among the universities in its zone. Nsukka joined Ibadan and Covenant University in the T.H.E World University Rankings 2018-2019(in the 1000 – 1258 category) and was ranked among the top 1,396 universities in 2019-2020. Both Nsukka and Zaria have been selected by CBN for support to develop and nurture world class post graduate studies (see Preamble). Furthermore, Nsukka hosts one and Zaria hosts two of the seventeen African Centres of Excellence (ACE) designated in Nigeria by the World Bank in 2018. Zaria also hosted one of the ten ACE designated earlier in 2014 by the World Bank. In addition, both universities are among five Nigerian universities (excluding Ibadan) that have produced NNOM laureates – Zaria (4) and Nsukka (1). Given these accomplishments, I would propose that Nsukka and Zaria should be selected as the elite universities in their respective geopolitical zones (South-east and North-west).

Consequently, the selection exercise should be focused on the remaining three geopolitical zones (North-central, North-east and South-south) – one elite university in each zone. I propose that the selection should be through open competition among all the federal universities in each zone. The coordination of the selection exercise should be entrusted to a body of about seven experts comprising distinguished scholars with extensive teaching, research and university administration experience. I would suggest that the criteria for the selection of the universities should draw, to the extent possible, on the lists of methodology used by three leading institutions that currently conduct World University Rankings: (i) T.H.E World University Rankings, (ii)Quacquarelli Symonds Limited (QS) World University Rankings and (iii) the Academic Ranking of World Universities, (ARWU), also known as The Shanghai Ranking. The announcement of the Open Competition for Selecting Nigerian Elite Universities should be sent to all the federal universities in the three geopolitical zones.

It is important to stress that the number of elite universities could be increased after 2030. For example, Germany started with three elite universities in 2006 and by 2016, the number had increased to eleven. Another example is the self-selected Russell Group of elite universities in the United Kingdom (UK): starting with 17 members in 1994, the current total is 24. So, the number of Nigerian elite universities could be twelve or higher by 2050.

The obvious starting point would be a rapid baseline assessment of each of the six selected universities. The proposed baseline assessment should be an update of the section on each university in the 2012 Report of the Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities. Each university could be requested to constitute an assessment team that would comprise both insiders and outsiders with an outsider as the coordinator and all assessments should be completed within six months. Based on the assessments, each university should also be requested to arrange to complete a ten-year strategic plan covering 2020/2021 to 2029/2030. This should be completed before the end of the 2020/2021 academic year.

The Strategic Plan should lay out clearly the timelines for the proposed three phases: Take Off phase (2020 – 2023),Consolidation phase (2023 –2028),and World Class phase(2028 – 2030). The activities to be carried out under each phase together with the resource requirements (human, physical and financial) should also be clearly stated. And the expected results should be consistent with what would constitute effective Take Off as well as what would constitute the distinguishing characteristics of the Consolidation and World Class phases.

Expectedly, each university would have its peculiarities with respect to timelines, planned activities and expected results that will be spelled out in its Strategic Plan. For example, the University of Ibadan that has been consistently ranked among the world’s top 1000 since 2016 might consider one year, 2020/2021, adequate for its Take Off phase thereby having only two phases of development in its 10-Year Strategic Plan: Consolidation and World Class phases.

Next, Ibadan might decide on Consolidation phase activities that would ensure that it is ranked in the 201-300 category in the last year of that phase (2028) and in the 101-200 category in the last year of the World Class phase (2030).

(The highest ranked African university since 2016 is South Africa’s University of Cape Town, consistently in the 101-200 category). Two of the other five should aim to be in the 401-600 category by 2028 and 301-500 category by 2030 and the remaining three should aim to be in the 801-1000 category by 2028 and 401-600 by 2030. A good outcome by 2030 would be: Ibadan to rank among the best 200, three or four others among the best 500 and the remaining one or two in the 501-600 category. (cf. Four South African universities were among the best 500 in T.H.E World Universities Rankings in 2019).
To be continued tomorrow
Professor Adamolekun wrote from Iju, Akure North, Ondo State. Note: I hereby acknowledge the helpful comments of three colleagues who read the initial draft of this paper.