Nigerian varsities and their autonomy
It is very appropriate that the founder of AfeBabalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD), Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, has called for a strict obedience of the laws, regulations and the series of court judgments delivered over the years on the limitations on the powers of Visitors, Vice Chancellors and Councils of universities if the age-long and all-important autonomy of the university system is to be preserved in the country.
Pursuant to this, he advised government functionaries like Visitors to Federal and State Institutions of Higher Education, Ministers and Commissioners of Education to begin to appreciate that Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education are not Departments or appendages of either the Federal or State Ministries of Education.
Babalola, who delivered the Convocation Lecture, titled “University Administration: the Role of Stakeholders” at the 21st Convocation Ceremonies of the Ekiti State University, Ado-Ekiti, last week equally stressed that government functionaries who are statutorily empowered to deal with universities must appreciate now than ever before these universities are not government parastatals while the Vice Chancellors are not Permanent Secretaries nor Council Members Directors of parastatals.
The frontline legal icon set the tone and agenda for the day when he said: “the unconstitutional and illegal violation of University Laws by successive governments, Federal and State, Ministers and Officers of Government makes it imperative that we should examine the role of stakeholders in University Administration”.
It is a fact that universities have existed for over a thousand years in other parts of the world before the first University in Nigeria, the University College, Ibadan, was established in 1948, less than 70 years ago. This could be one of the reasons why Nigerian universities, like its toddling democracy, are not only still toddling, they are battling with so many teething problems. After all, History has it that the existence of great universities such as University of Constantinople sometimes known as the University of the Palace Hall of Magnaura was founded in the 425 AD, University of Bologna, 1088 while the University of Paris was founded by the Catholic Church in 1150.
Babalola, who was Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the University of Lagos between 2000 and 2007 during which he was twice voted by the NUC as the Best Pro- Chancellor while UNILAG was rated the University of First Choice, said: “It is necessary to emphasize here that the Pro- Chancellors need to appreciate the burden on them. The success, failure, peace and order of the university rest on them and they take responsibility for everything, good or bad. They and their Councils must embark on policies that will ensure the smooth-running of the universities especially those that affect the development of the universities, contracts, employment of good quality lecturers, finances, including income and expenditure and auditing of university account.”
He added: “The Pro Chancellor’s job is not one which the office-holder can take lightly. As the Chairman of Council, his duty is not merely to attend meetings, collect his allowances and thereafter go to sleep. He must always think about the growth of the university and what he must do at all times to affect it positively.
“He is different from the Chancellor whose duty is to appear on ceremonial occasions only. He must be concerned about the welfare of the university community. He presides at all Council meetings, statutory Sub-Committees of the University and also at Sub-Committees set up by Council. At meetings, he is primus inter pares.”
Babalola also frowned at the prevailing situation whereby University Councils are dissolved and not re-constituted any time too soon after. To him, “such an unwholesome practice leaves so much to be desired apart from running foul of the intent and spirit of the law (establishing the universities).”
He recalled his experience in May 2004, when Councils of Universities were dissolved by radio announcement and were not re-constituted for over 11 months as a result of which the Universities lost the steam of progress. Besides, the Babalola would not understand how successive Presidents and State Governors are wont to dissolve University Councils on assumption of office just as they dissolve those of other Parastatals of the government.
For example, he recalled that when Alhaji Umar Yar’Adua took over as the President of Nigeria in 2007, he descended on the University of Lagos council which was constituted in 2004 and which had one year more in office. The Secretary to the Government announced the immediate dissolution of all parastatals including University Councils. The same trend continued when on July 16, 2015, the Federal Government announced the decision of the President Muhammadu Buhari to dissolve the Governing Boards of Federal Parastatals, Agencies and Institutions.
By this announcement which was reminiscent of a similar announcement made by the administration of the late President Yar’Adua, the Governing Councils of all Universities were dissolved. This action was one of several taken by successive governments over the years which have contributed to the decline in the educational fortunes of the country.
As it were, it would appear that over the years, government has not been able to see the intricate and time-tested nexus between stable university administration and stability in the educational sector. A situation in which the tenure of Governing Councils of Universities is not secured and the composition thereof is seen as an opportunity to reward political loyalties is not one that augurs well for our Universities. By law, University Vice-Chancellors have inviolable tenure of five years. They should be allowed to complete their tenure or proper statutory and transparent procedures be adopted, if they are accused of any wrong doings.
That is the way it is done in other climes. Ours cannot be different. We have to do things the way they are done elsewhere for us to achieve positive and pleasant results.
Olofintila, head, Corporate Affairs of ABUAD, wrote from Ado-Ekiti.