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TETFund and grants’ misappropriation in ivory towers

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Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), an interventionist agency mainly saddled with funding academic research in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, the other day passed a blanket vote of no confidence in lecturers in public higher institutions over alleged misappropriation of grants. Although the development is regrettable, it suggests that Nigerian academia has excess research grants than the evidence will support. Tertiary institutions globally have the core mandate of research and advanced learning to solve diverse problems and better a lot of human society. Research, especially, is an expensive venture and the thin divide between knowledge-driven advanced economies and others occupying the infamous underdeveloped or third-world category. 
 
Apparently to remove Nigeria from the third-world group, TETFund was rejigged in 2011, from the rubble of the old Education Trust Fund (ETF) established in 2003 as it was originally known. The body has the mandate of collecting two per cent education tax on the profits of Nigerian registered companies, to fund intervention programmes in the Federal Government-owned tertiary institutions. A key component of the function is the disbursement of grants and monitoring of research and development programmes in the ivory towers. 

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Curiously, the body recently released its report card – not here in Nigeria, but in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And it turned out to be damning report card despite tremendous gains over the years. TETFund accused some lecturers in Nigeria of diverting research grants to build houses, buy cars and other frivolous activities like more wives. TETFund’s Director of Research and Development, Salihu Bakari, said a huge sum of money made available to the individual lecturers and sometimes teams for research exercises, conference attendance, among others, are usually misappropriated. Not done; he said: “Through our recovery efforts, we had traced monies to houses built by lecturers with the public fund; there are cases of cars purchased with the money, without any research work done. And these are the people who would be accusing politicians of being corrupt.”

TETFund is right: misappropriated public fund and diversion of grants aimed at solution-oriented investigation are criminal and condemnable. However, such social malaise should not be unexpected in institutions of higher learning as a sub-set of the Nigerian society. Therefore, some mothers do have them! As a matter of fact, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) the other day also levelled allegations of personnel budget inflation against some academic and healthcare institutions among 300 MDAs that cumulatively padded payrolls in excess of N18.6 billion. This is alarming and a shame to the leadership of all institutions fingered. 

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However, the manner and implications of TETFund’s allegation should call for bigger concerns. The weighty allegation was a radical departure from what the public has always known of the tertiary institution and gross underfunding of research grants by the state in particular and the society in general. Recall that the funding of education has been abysmal in the last three decades, with the highest cut never exceeding 10 per cent of the budget. Under the current administration, education funding has further nose-dived to about seven per cent range of our yearly budget. This is contrary to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) minimum benchmark of 26 per cent for developing countries like ours. TETFund has not done any better from the meagre two per cent education tax deductions from the flagging economy. 
 
The agency last year had a total of N161 billion as intervention fund for all 220 institutions under its care. It was an improvement from N61 billion in 2007 and N131 billion in 2018. But the N161 billion amounts to an average of N731.8 million per institution. Since about 80 per cent of the allocation has been channelled into physical infrastructure on campuses, we can imagine how much of quality research would come from the balance of N146 million among 500 to 1000 lecturers in an institution.
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Comparatively, the average of N732 million or $2.03 million equivalent per institution is a far cry from $32 million the University of Ghana alone received from research donor agencies for 2015-16 academic year. Even Ghana does not compare with top 10 universities in South Africa in terms of research grants. How much more Harvard University with $1.6 billion, University of Washington $727.9 million or the University of California, $673.5 million for 2020 research grants alone.
 
It is, therefore, a little wonder that many of our lecturers consider it a waste of time to expect a grant from the Federal Government to conduct any research. An average lecturer could submit 10 research proposals and not get a grant for any. Even when a grant is given, the highest awarded was N3 million for a group of three to five researchers. The best bet among our research-minded dons is to seek adventure overseas. It should surprise no one also that no Nigerian public university is ranked among the top 800 in the world or among the top 20 in Africa in terms of quality researches for development.   
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Based on the foregoing, it beats our imagination that the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education have gone from almost zero to abundant grant overnight, with so much to go around for collective embezzlement, as TETFund has alleged. In the accusations, the body first branded all as corrupt, then claimed that lecturers were not accessing funds and later disclosed plans to shift gear from physical infrastructure to content creation. These are all contradictions.
 
As a sensitive organisation, TETFund should have been more clear-headed, graphic and convincing with full disclosure of the misappropriated sum and those behind it, if any. Without that, the agency has embarked on a witch-hunt or blatant cover-up of inefficiency. Either way, it amounts to a criminal demarketing of an already battered Nigerian education system and longsuffering lecturers. Ideally, bodies like the Academic Staff Unions of University (ASUU) should not take such lightly but take on TETFund to substantiate such damning claims or perish the thought. 
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It is also most regrettable that the research funding body had no better forum for disclosure of local folly than at a capacity building workshop in UAE. TETFund is apparently ignorant of the fact that there are more Nigerian researchers on diverse collaborative works with international counterparts and private organisations than it currently caters. How did such shameful performance help the interest of these researchers of international repute? To cover all with a blanket of corruption is a disservice to the teaching profession and the country at large. Besides, branding the entire ivory towers as corrupt and immoral, for whatever reason, especially outside the country cannot be nationalistic in purpose. No matter how bad a system is, a rule of the thumb is to follow the internal governance policy for dealing with such infractions.
 
As an agency that has all the information, it behoves on TETFund to do due diligence to name and shame the culprits, or simply shut up. The fallacy of over-generalisation is disastrous in this matter and unacceptable. We cannot because of the sins of a few punish all. While the sinners should be punished severely, the saints and patriots deserve a reward for good measures.

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Besides, the body should also tidy up its acts and processes to be ahead of the game. Grants are not given in lump-sum, rather in tranches. It is the duty of TETFund to monitor every stage of the research and match pennies with the progress made. A so-called researcher that has another wife or car as the only evidence of research cannot be deserving of the next stage of disbursement. If he or she does, then it is more of the fault of TETFund’s institutional weakness than of the ivory towers.
 
The tertiary institutions and MDAs alike must begin to lead by example in transparency and accountability in the handling of public funds. Already fingered by ICPC in budget padding scandal are University of Benin Teaching Hospital, Federal Medical Centre, Bayelsa, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, University of Jos, University of Ibadan and its College Hospital (UCH). The truth is that many of our institutions lack financial discipline and standard internal auditing system. All those culpable should be dealt with severely to serve as a deterrent for others. The institutions cannot continue to be the cesspit of corruption or showing appearances of impropriety and expect the public spaces to be any better. In the main, charity should begin from the ivory towers – as standard reference points to the MDAs. 

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