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The question of university autonomy in Nigeria – Part 2

By Godwin Azenabor
13 May 2022   |   3:39 am
Today, pure academics are seen as a threat to the development of industry and commerce. Consequently, the traditional autonomy of universities founded on pure academic imperatives has been considerably modified and or limited.

Today, pure academics are seen as a threat to the development of industry and commerce. Consequently, the traditional autonomy of universities founded on pure academic imperatives has been considerably modified and or limited. The acquisition of knowledge is now being directed to the “practical application of knowledge.”

Economic Necessity, Focus or Imperative
Nigeria is listed among economically poor and debtor nations of the world. Universities in Nigeria are looked upon as producers of the required manpower to bring about the corrective change economically. Economic imperative has in fact influenced the founding of most Nigerian Universities, especially the founding of specialised universities, like Universities of agriculture as well as those of science and technology. The orientation in these universities is consequently modified from the traditional concept, to the reality of achieving the economic developmental objective. Consequently, both government and other external agencies must come to bear and control these institutions in order to achieve that goal. This limitation tends to ignite complaints of excess manipulation by the favoured group with the Nigerian community.

Egalitarian necessity, focus or imperative
There are discrepancies of power, wealth, status and privilege levels in all societies. This is the problem of equality. Hence the idea or concept of university autonomy founded on egalitarianism and academic freedom is problematic. Access to power, wealth, status and privilege levels is not founded only on ability, effort and intelligence, but rather, on certain social parameters such as inheritance. The establishment of Nigerian universities and the adoption of the concept of catchment areas, educationally-disadvantaged areas, discretion, etc., as admission criteria for students, are meant to achieve equality, equity and ethnic balancing in the distribution of opportunities for university education.

Consensus Motivation Universities are situated within a given society, and society is one in which conflicts are inherent among its various segments, “such conflicts arise from groups struggling for power, wealth, amenities and other social privileges. They struggle either for the improvement of their own positions or maintenance of the status quo.” The structures in struggle here are of two dimensions: external and internal. The external structure consists of government – Ministry of Education, and National Universities Commission, and the internal structure; the Vice Chancellor, the Governing Council, the Senate, Deans, Heads of Departments and others.

Consequent upon this struggle, there comes a need for consensus, consultation, control and negotiation in order to achieve conflict resolution. The effects of these attempts militate against autonomy. So, university autonomy is no longer an effective instrument in Nigeria, hence long-term disputes, strikes, etc.

The point I have underscored is that while a certain degree of autonomy is obviously desirable and indispensable (for universities to achieve their objectives effectively) certain realities exert and erode considerably on such factors, especially inherent in the laws establishing them and the needs and aspirations of the country, which are determined from time-to-time by government.

University autonomy: Revival strategies
There is the need to put in better perspective the idea of university autonomy. This will require a major overhauling, re-construction and reform. The needed reform should begin with the reconstitution of the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB), National Universities Commission (NUC) and the University Councils.

With autonomy, JAMB should be scrapped; it is already biting more than it could chew. The individual universities should conduct their entrance examinations and admit their students as it was in the past. The NUC should be an advisory body, to act as consultant to government on university policy as it used to be before it was refashioned in 1974/75. The NUC should protect the autonomy of the universities by acting as the buffer between the universities and government, especially in matters of funding. The university councils should be re-constituted to foster academic freedom, university autonomy and fair representation of staff and students’ interests.

In addressing the question of university autonomy we also need to re-visit the distortion in the status of the Visitor. It is instructive to note that “ this distortion in the status of the Visitor was given some legal backing in the 1966 Amendment to the University of Lagos Act, which introduced the notion of a Visitor’s court as part of the domestic arrangements of the university for resolving disputes that Council failed to resolve. The Visitor was also authorized to set up Visitation Panels to look into the affairs of the universities “at least once a year”. This, according to Prof. Ade Ajayi, has opened the flood-gates to regular interference, politicisation and the erection of governmental power in the nation’s universities.

There should be a major change in government policy and the revocation of all previous centralising legislation and or decrees. University autonomy should mean that government should no longer be part of the day-to-day running of the universities, no Visitor’s interference and no government Visitation Panels. Only the University Senate should order the closure or opening of the University.

Autonomy should mean that the university will now select its Vice-Chancellor and members of Council. Also these “officers will no longer be used as patronage for insatiable party functionaries, hungry, unemployed people who expect to live, sometimes with their guests at the expense of the university”.

Adequate funding is also needed to guarantee the autonomy of universities. To this end, funds should be tied to research and a correlation between research and the problem in the private sector or companies paying the fund should be explored and developed into consultancy services. In other words, companies and the private sector should be made to fund projects in the universities. This will encourage private sector investment in the universities. Universities should be allowed to charge reasonable fees, both in form of tuition and service charges.

So, the problem with regard to funding and autonomy will be concerned with how to balance university autonomy with loyalty and accountability to funding governmental agents. As long as the larger percentage of funds still comes from government, university autonomy will be compromised. Granting full institutional autonomy to the universities will solve the problem of inadequate finding. With this, the universities will be able to diversity their economic base and become more entrepreneurial in its management style, in the design and contents of its curriculum, as well as the mode of delivery of its programmes.


Azenabor is Professor of African Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos.