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Getting Nigeria’s universities back

By Tunji Olaopa
14 July 2017   |   4:04 am
Politics commences at the level of autonomy, and what it means for the universities and knowledge production. The university as a unique institution is founded on the idea of autonomy.

Politics commences at the level of autonomy, and what it means for the universities and knowledge production. The university as a unique institution is founded on the idea of autonomy.

With the newly published book, Getting Our Universities Back on Track, Professor Oluwafemi Mimiko has boldly brought to the forefront again the significant and centrality of the universities and tertiary education to Nigeria’s development future. There are two significant but interrelated reasons why this book is a very significant addition to the scholarship on tertiary education in Nigeria. One, the author has supervised a typical postcolonial university mired in the toxic environment of underdevelopment, and especially the underdeveloped context of Nigeria. Such a university is therefore faced not only with the generic challenges that confront all universities everywhere, but also with the specific geographic, governance and intellectual impediments that restrict the vitality of universities as significant frontiers for cutting-edge knowledge production and human capital development necessary in the development dynamics of any nation.

The second reason the book is timely is that analyses and interrogations it contains derive from a deep personal assessment of the university system in Nigeria from the challenges emanating from running a specific university. If I am asked, I think it takes a unique mind to be able to stretch deductions to cover a whole from the point of view of a particular. Universities in Nigeria are all mired within the same debilitating conditions that vitiate their capacities and capabilities to meaningfully intervene in the national development process in Nigeria. Thus, it takes a patriotic and concerned mind to be able to speak out not only on the negative understanding of the failure of higher and tertiary education in Nigeria, but to also dedicate pages of arguments and analyses to how Nigerian universities can be taken out of the woods and reinvented.

There are several issues that are militating against Nigerian universities becoming world class institutions with global and national relevance. The best place to begin the excavation of the relevance of the universities is to note that education itself is political. This simply means that education and the production of knowledge plays a critical role in what any nation makes of itself. Knowledge is a key factor in national development. And this is not just knowledge for knowledge sake, but a knowledge dynamics that is deployed to making a nation true to its responsibilities and mandates towards its citizens. We can hypothesize that the extent to which a nation-state can function in developmental terms is conditional on its significant human capital (SHC) which is determined by the state of its higher education. There is therefore no nation that can assuredly rise above the quality of its own SHC or its higher education objective. If the universities fail to take their place in the development matrix of a state, then that state will continue to flounder. In the third world, and especially in Africa and particularly in Nigeria, the truth of the disconnection between the SHC and national development is brought home forcefully and unfortunately.

Thus, even though we understand the political status of education, politics is also critical to the debilitating status of Nigerian universities at the moment. It is essentially politics that is at play in the industrial action that pitches the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and other trade unions against the state and federal governments on issues which are important for making the universities functional; issues which are central to the critical analyses and interrogations of Professor Oluwafemi Mimiko. There is hardly any Nigerian universities that are innovative and optimally efficient enough to facilitate Nigeria’s entry into the knowledge and technological society. Higher education particularly represents a nation’s window into the global flow of ideas, dynamics, strategies, paradigms and best practices. Higher educational institutions facilitate the process by which insights are adopted, adapted, domesticated and calibrated for optimal national rejuvenation. Indeed, higher education monitors and induces progress and change not only through the measurement of developmental impulses, but also through the reproduction of these impulses within its administrative and research frameworks. From the First to the Second and now the Third Industrial Revolution, higher education is now in the forefront of the increasing move by all societies towards what we now call the knowledge society.

Politics commences at the level of autonomy, and what it means for the universities and knowledge production. The university as a unique institution is founded on the idea of autonomy. This implies that both academics and students find themselves within a context of freedom that allows for a free flow of research, discourses and association that enables the mind to generate ideas and innovation on issues bordering on human survival and creative development. Universities therefore constitute one of the testaments to human ingenuity and dynamics when allowed to flourish according to their own trajectory. In fact, a university is not a university if it loses its autonomy, even the freedom to be heretical in the generation of ideas.

However, most universities in Nigeria operate at the level of an attenuated autonomy that means that the Nigerian state intervenes and interferes regularly in the governance structures of the universities. Two instances are apposite. The first is the appointment of the Vice Chancellor which has become an essentially political one. The second is the issue of funding. This aspect of the autonomy is complex: Should universities be funded or not? If funded, can they ever escape the nosy interference of the governments in their internal governance issues? If not funded, is the university’s internally generated revenue sufficient to enable functional research? This is a significant policy juncture that requires serious diagnosis and reflections. This is because, most of the significant issues raised by Mimiko, especially the issue of modernising the universities hinges on it.

The modernising imperative is not new to me. It seems to constitute one of the most significant imperatives in the administrative reform of the civil service. It simply implies bringing the machineries for getting the business of the government in tandem with modern competences, ideas, benchmarks and best practices in a manner that gets the work done in more effective and efficient ways. The administrative efficiency of the university is not all that different from that of the civil service. The university itself also develops significant services to its community, the society and the state. It therefore requires a modernised processes, frameworks and functions to get it done. Effective administration in the university revolves round the University Council, the Senate and the Office of the Vice Chancellor. What are the current policies guiding the composition and operations of these governance juncture, and how have these policies hindered or promoted the efficiency of university administration?

It is significantly interesting for me that Mimiko mentioned the New Public Administration (NPM), with obvious fascination, as a novel administrative strategy which enabled him to integrate private sector administrative acumen and processes within the management of the public university. I do not know to what extent this grafting of the NPM onto the university governance structure succeeded, but I know that the NPM is an approach which one needed to be critical about in public administration. I have researched its unique evolution and limited application in the African public administration. I doubt that the university governance can constitute an exception. This is equally a policy juncture that requires reflections. To what extent can the university governance structure be activated for efficiency and effectiveness through the private sector modalities?

It is gratifying that Mimiko’s book confronted squarely the issue of a regulatory framework for Nigerian universities, and the operational logic of the National Universities Commission (NUC) that was set up to have total coordinatory control on the affairs of the universities, especially in terms of finance, courses and staff. The essential essence of the NUC is determined by the National Minimum Standards and Establishment of Institutions Decree16 of 1985. This mandate touches on curriculum matter and the enforcement of a minimum standard for all academic programmes and curriculum in Nigerian universities. This already immediately creates a point of anxiety as to why universities situated in different regional locations, with unique challenges, should have their programmes streamlined. Does the centralisation of the university curriculum assists or impedes the proper functioning of the university? To what extent then should a regulatory body coordinate university affairs without intervening in the responsibility of the university to its environment? What policy alternatives then should attend the NUC and its regulatory function?

This leads us automatically to considerations about entrepreneurship education which Mimiko contends is the only issue which constitutes the common denominator among Nigerian universities under the coordination of the NUC. This is indeed a most commendable development that is meant to imbue human capital with a creative disposition that is not sidetracked by with-collar jobs. But entrepreneurial education itself is a great idea which requires policy vigilance that could facilitate its operational effectiveness. As Professor Mimiko noted, to what extent should entrepreneurship be reduced to vocational education? What is the functional place of technical and vocational education in Nigeria’s tertiary dynamics and development framework? What policy innovation can allow both entrepreneurial and vocation education take their functional place in Nigeria’s educational philosophy and development objectives?

The university’s administrative and governance dynamics will remain ineffective if the pandemic issue of industrial action is not attended to. ASUU is the most visible of the trade unions in the higher education sector in Nigeria, and the most active in terms of unionism and contestations. There is no vice chancellor, not the least Mimiko, who could claim to have a magic wand for dealing with unionism and constant strikes which destroys school calendar and responsible research. The former vice chancellor was right to concede that managing academic and staff union was the most challenging of his duties as a vice chancellor. What Mimiko calls “unionism beyond agitation” is what I have called a developmental collective bargaining that focuses on the shared interests of the participants who essentially become social partners rather than enemies. The interest-based collective bargaining framework ensures that the participants in the negotiation realize that there are many ways to resolving a problem beyond the rigid perception of each participant. This need not make them friends, but “friendly adversaries” who are willing to agree to resolve immediate problems with future consequences, make concessions that are mutually beneficial and set the template for future relationship. But then, how do we arrive at the policies which enable the evolution of developmental collective bargaining in Nigerian universities?

The policy architecture which Nigerian universities require stands at the juncture of governance, pedagogy and research. This demands that relevant stakeholders will be willing to take Mimiko’s commendable work as a starting point for a critical discussion on the state of Nigerian universities and how they can be reinvented to get back on track. It is at this critical policy juncture that the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) wants to situate itself through its seminar which explore the critical analyses of Mimiko in conjunction with the voices and experiences of other critical players in the higher education sector. With the July 10 seminar, ISGPP hopes to facilitate a national thinking process that will take Mimiko’s personal narrative to the point of national discourse and policy interventions.

Dr. Olaopa is Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan.