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Nigerian universities and funding dilemma

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As the current industrial action of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) continues to impact negatively on national productivity, there is not a more appropriate time for the Federal Government to have confessed to the truth that every concerned citizen should have known all along: that it (the FG) cannot effectively fund tertiary education in the country anymore.

This is this newspaper’s third comment in two months on the future of the country that the authorities at all levels in the country have been gambling with: precarious state of education in the country – where leaders too lament on the decadent state of institutions we elect them to rebuild.

Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, who represented President Muhammadu Buhari at the convocation and 70th anniversary of Nigeria’s premier university, the University of Ibadan again, confirmed the parlous state of education and government’s helplessness.

While acknowledging that ASUU does have a point in its agitation for better funding for universities, Osinbajo pointed out that an insistence on sole government funding for universities is nothing but an invitation to repeated failure. “None of the universities especially in the free world,” said the vice president, “is fully or even substantially funded by the government. The task of fundraising is precisely what the universities are established to do; to solve problems and to create solutions that uplift the society.”

He therefore proposed alternative sources of financial provision for universities, including in particular the raising of funds from the capital market and a greater reliance on alumni networks for gift donations.

It is especially refreshing, indeed, that these words are coming from a spokesman of the Federal Government which has, over the years, become so corruptibly used to controlling virtually everything to its own advantage and to the detriment of the effective management of the country’s resources. But before going too deep into an exultation of the government’s new approach, it is important to lay bare and analyse the issues involved in this discourse on funding.

But this revelation too is still part of executive sophistry coming too late in the day. Where is the blueprint for the model that government that has promised declaration of emergency in the same education sector and failed several times since last year December? Government officials are not expected to suggest. They are in office and power to solve problems of society including funding of basic and higher education.

Many stakeholders, including some striking university lecturers, have kicked against the deployment of the capital market option for two major reasons. The first is what has been called the “unviable” nature of the project. As a university don in banking and finance noted the other day: “The government has in the past raised so many bonds and there is a heavy commitment on the part of the government because it has too much debt. Adding another one for the universities will further increase the already heavy debt portfolio of the government.”

It would have been easier, perhaps, if the universities were run fully on a commercial basis. The reality, alas, is that in Nigeria, university education is seen almost as a right, or at least as an extension of government charity to whosoever wishes to receive it, with people paying ridiculously low to obtain a certificate that will eventually mean very little to employers.

By no means, truly, will universities under these circumstances make profit enough to help offset the debt incurred for the purpose of their own survival?

The second reason for the rejection of the capital market solution is corruption. Embedded in this is a two-fold concern. As it has to do with the capital market itself, it is alleged that a sector as important and pivotal to the nation’s future as education is, should not be put at the mercy of the Nigerian financial system, which is widely considered to be fraught with impropriety and unethical practices. Due to lack of proper control and/or the deliberate retention of criminal escape valves within the regulatory system, financial dark arts such as insider trading have remained prevalent in the country’s money market. So, the fear is that some of these underhand fiscal practices will somehow get to influence and eventually destroy an already ailing educational sector.

And to move to the other angle of worry, what about the judicious deployment of the funds from the capital market? The steady decline of sagacity in the administration of universities makes this a very potent fear. And if, perhaps, there is a connivance of corrupt purposes, a corporate donor/lender can as well offer hand-outs in exchange for the right of direction of research. In paying the piper, these fat purses may as well demand to call the tune.

All of these are, of course, valid misgivings to have about the current funding suggestion(s) of the government. Moreover, distrust for government solutions is, due to an almost exclusive fault of government itself, at an unprecedented height. Nevertheless, it will be useful to point out that these well-identified threats to the successful application of alternative funding are exacerbated by the entrenched structure of education management in the country.

The first, most fundamental mistake is to propose these solutions while still seeking to maintain this dysfunctional system of university management. The Federal Government, it seems, wants to relieve itself of the burden of providing direct, continuous capital for tertiary education (which it should), without wanting to let go of its stranglehold on these universities. This, unfortunately, is never likely to work. That is why the university autonomy should be revisited in a more robust manner, in this regard.

The real issue at play here remains the positive clamour for a substantive and holistic autonomy for Nigerian universities. It is only when this is effected that these institutions of higher learning can begin to operate with an eye for adequate profit towards the repayment of whatever (loan) capital they have raised from wherever. Moreover, if the Federal Government has a debt profile that is already embarrassing and debilitating enough, individual universities may still possess a greater promise and better fiscal portfolio for the purpose of attracting substantial investments from the private sector. Capitalists, therefore, may be much more favourably disposed to financing universities than lending to government, unless of course there is some political advantage to be gained or lost.

In a world of autonomous universities, the unviability argument also collapses because, then, as the failure of any one university will no longer be attributable to the failure of government: these institutions will thus become more careful and rigorous in the selection of their administrators. Aspiring Vice Chancellors, Pro Chancellors, or presidents as the case may be will have to provide blueprint of visions of how they will pay the salaries of staff, fund research and innovation, and generally chart the course to greater efficiency and higher placement in the rankings during their tenures. Besides, lecturers will be more productive, encouraged by more buoyant incentives, and checked by tighter corporate sanctions. Even students will no longer take their studies for granted since university education will, in such a world, bear a respectable and non-negligible cost.

By no means do the foregoing submissions amount to an advocacy for a laissez-faire educational system with absolutely no monitoring. The point precisely is that monitoring, not active financing, is the ideal job of government in higher educational affairs. It is in light of this that the Federal Government will still be encouraged, even after autonomy has been granted, to take its oversight functions seriously. This can be done perhaps through the National Universities Commission, whose powers have to be reduced in any case.

An equivalent of the American Council for Aid to Education can also be established so that the payment of gift donations by alumni and other charity investors can be properly tracked and accounted for. This newspaper has always advocated a second look at the structure of things in the country.

We believe that the government’s proposed solution is workable, but never within this shambolic structure and organisation of university education. In the main, restructuring of the tertiary education system deserves priority attention more than ever before. Just as we noted the other day, ASUU members and authorities should be more interested too in robust ideas that will make investment in higher education more purposeful at this time.


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