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Nigeria needs better, not more universities

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Executive Secretary of NUC, Prof. Abubakar Adamu Rasheed

There is a sense in which one can claim that it is provocative that the authorities in Nigeria have continued to ignore the groundswell of informed commentaries that Nigeria needs better, not more universities at this time that disruptive technologies daily shape economic development through innovation, which only research can touch off. 
 
That is why a report last week that President Muhammadu Buhari had approved N18bn for takeoff of four new specialised universities should not be taken as another meretricious dividends of democracy as the governing party’s cheerleaders have claimed. 

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Indeed, the President last week approved a takeoff grant of N18 billion for the establishment of new universities of technology and health sciences. The new universities of technology will be located in Jigawa and Akwa Ibom states, while the universities of health sciences will be established in Azare, Bauchi State and Ila Orangun, Osun State. While announcing establishment of the new institutions in Abuja last Monday, the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, said the objective is to stimulate rapid technological transformation of the country. The Minister, who was represented by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Sunny Echono, noted that the approval was also in fulfilment of Buhari’s promise to establish a National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Abuja with six satellite universities of technology, one in each of the six geo-political zones in the country. 
 
According to the Minister, the new universities of technology would be established in 2021 while the upgrade of the existing four Universities of Technology and the National Institute of Technology would come on stream next year. He said, “after a comprehensive review of the policy by key stakeholders in the education sector, it was resolved that the four existing Universities of Technology located in Yola (North East), Akure (South West), Owerri (South East) and Minna (North Central) would be upgraded and equipped while two additional Universities of Technology to be located in Jigawa and Akwa Ibom states, would be established for the purpose. 

The Minister also announced that similarly, a National Institute of Technology (NIT) shall be established in Abuja. The Institute shall be patterned after similar institutions in Singapore and Malaysia to serve essentially as a postgraduate centre devoted to research and innovation, drawing the best graduates from the six Universities of Technology, as well as other exceptional graduates from reputable universities within and outside Nigeria. The Minister noted that the new universities of technology would be established in 2021 while the upgrade of the existing four Universities of Technology and the National Institute of Technology would come on stream next year. 

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The Minister explained that “with the recent establishment of the only Federal Government owned University of Health Sciences, Otukpo in Benue State and the huge gap in Doctor-patient ratio as well as in medical research and production of pharmaceutical products, Government recognised the compelling need to establish two other specialised universities in Health, Nutrition and Medical Sciences to be located at Azare, Bauchi State and Ila Orangun, Osun State. “These shall lay a solid foundation for building national preparedness and resilience in anticipation of future challenges in the health sector while reducing medical tourism to countries like India, UAE, Egypt, Europe and the USA. To ensure early take-off of these institutions, the President approved a take-off grant of N4 billion each for the Universities of Technology and N5 billion each for the Universities of Health Science from the funding Resources of Tetfund,” the minister added. 

There are relevant questions to ask at this time: can a university’s solid foundation be laid with N4 billion just earmarked for a new university at this time? Should universities be so commonly established as hotels? Can’t the curricula of the existing 43 federal universities be expanded to accommodate the new courses the minister just advertised for the new universities? Are the existing universities enjoying adequate funding and manpower needs? What is the relevance of a new university of medical sciences when none of the existing colleges of medicine and teaching hospitals can’t be relied upon at the moment?

At the moment, there are 170 universities in Nigeria – 43 owned by the Federal Government; 48, state government; and 79, privately owned out of which 38 are faith-based (32 owned by church groups and two owned by Islamic organisations). These exclude the 20 licensed in April this year. 

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Although, the National Policy on Education promotes the provision of equal access to educational opportunities for all citizens of the country at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels both inside and outside the formal school system; it states that for the philosophy of education to work harmoniously for Nigeria’s goals, education in Nigeria has to be tailored towards self realisation, right human relations, individual and national efficiency, effective citizenship, national consciousness, national unity as well as towards social, cultural, economic, political, scientific and technological progress. 

As most commentators including experts have consistently argued, the Nigerian education system must be value-laden and tailored for the betterment of the citizens in order that they may live a better life and contribute to the advancement of society. For instance, shouldn’t Nigeria be thinking about robust funding of existing specialised universities in line with the agenda for the nation’s growth and development instead of establishing new ones? Are the specialised universities in Yola, Abeokuta, Owerri, Akure, etc meeting national objectives for establishing them?  
 
For instance, in the aviation sector today, aircraft are serviced abroad in Africa’s most populous nation. So, can’t policy makers and NUC encourage proposals for how the Aviation School in Zaria can be merged with Ahmadu Bello University and funded to develop Aviation Courses and Aeronautical Engineering? Why do we get our children to be applying and registering for almost the same poorly funded courses, which do not trigger employability skills all over the country? The ordinariness of our curricula of studies has been worsening the employability index of Nigerian university graduates. Yet no one is thinking out of the box, in this regard. 

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In 2006, a departing expatriate (Dutch) chief executive officer of Nestle in Nigeria granted an interview to a newspaper in which he specifically advised Nigerian leaders to focus on quality of tertiary education instead of wasting time to fight corruption. He lamented that Nestle was always spending millions of naira retraining and reskilling Nigerian graduates to be employable in all fields of production. The late Ambassador Isaac Aluko-Olokun, an avid reader drew my attention to the article in a business journal. No one noted the Dutch manager’s conclusion that Nigeria’s main trouble wasn’t corruption but education that no one is still paying attention to.  
 
In April this year, the National Universities Commission (NUC) granted provisional licences for 20 new universities. The new owners received their licences from the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, in Abuja. With the approval, Nigeria now has 99 private universities.
 
In my article on this same challenge titled, ‘Why we need better universities, not more,” published here on June 4, 2016, (part of the serial that gave me the ‘2017 DAME Award on Informed Commentary,’ I wrote: 

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‘…But I would like to visit the roots of most of the challenges and so, I have to sensitize all the state actors from all the 774 local governments, 36 states and Abuja to lend me their ears: I would like us to interrogate Professor Wole Soyinka’s ‘thesis’ about the expediency of closing down all the Nigerian universities for a year or two with a view to restructuring them into “Ivory Towers,” citadels of learning and centres of innovation that they should be. This is not a seminal paper on the role of the university in a developing country. Nor is it a research topic on the role of public intellectuals in development. Rather, it is a thought-provoking discussion point on why all our representatives in government should halt the “hollow rituals” called licensing of new private universities and the federal government’s own obsession with political project called federal universities in all the states of the federation…’
 
I had then asked too if there was anything that could be more insufferable than a situation whereby most Nigerian universities had become mere factories for producing unemployable graduates at all levels. All the major highways have become attractions for private universities, most of which are just for ways of laundering money for some politically exposed people who have become wealthy without work. Such characters can no longer hide their slush and stolen funds abroad. But sadly, most of the lecturers of most of our universities can no longer allow their children to be admitted into the universities where they teach. This is critical and that is why university and polytechnic teachers are always on strike. They have been asking for proper funding at all levels so that we can have universities as citadels of learning and centres of excellence and innovation. 

At this juncture, NUC and indeed our leaders should pause and ask: What is university education doing for Nigeria? Is university education addressing the manpower deficits in Nigeria? Again, do we want a knowledgeable populace or a certificate society? Again, while it is important to improve access to tertiary education, the issue of quality should be of concern to all. While there are good private universities, there are concerns that some of them have fallen short of expectation as their quality and standard of education have been markedly compromised. Some of the allegations levelled against the private universities include over inflation of unhealthy parallel grades to attract ‘customers’; inability to fulfill admission quotas allocated to them per session; inadequate funding; ownership interference, paucity of qualified teachers, among others. 

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Furthermore, it is important for NUC to take stock of the available manpower before approving more universities. There are reports that the number of lecturers available perhaps will only be adequate for about 40 per cent of the existing universities in the country today. The implication of this is that even the resource verification carried out before approval of programmes, to a large extent, is merely ‘fulfilling righteousness’ because the name of one lecturer most often than not, appears on the list of lecturers for many private universities as an adjunct lecturer, some of which are in states that are very far from where the lecturer is working full time. 

This raises questions about the frequency and quality of teaching that such an adjunct lecturer offers. Furthermore, if lecturers spend all their time teaching, when will they write grant proposals, carry out researches, participate in professional activities and do community service? In fact, it will be in public interest for NUC to do some introspection before licensing more universities even for the federal government. Therefore, for a nation that is serious about its own sustenance and improvement, it should constantly look in the direction of the quality of its tertiary education, not just more institutions of higher learning for political reasons. Higher education is for development. 

***Let’s continue this healthy debate next week so that communities just named to play host to the new universities not feel offended by this clarion call to understanding why we need better, not more universities. 

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