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The question of university autonomy in Nigeria

By Godwin Azenabor
12 May 2022   |   3:50 am
Education is the indispensable key to sustainable development. Our enthusiasm and high expectations for education in Nigeria are displaced by the major crises in the field which now confront policy makers and educational researchers.

National Universities Commission building

Education is the indispensable key to sustainable development. Our enthusiasm and high expectations for education in Nigeria are displaced by the major crises in the field which now confront policy makers and educational researchers. The fundamental source of the present crises in the Nigeria “education system” has to do with either a failure to appreciate and therefore come to grips with the truth that education is the indispensable key to sustainable development, human capital being the most crucial factor of production, or with the historic lip service that leaders have characteristically paid to that truism.

Universities all over the world have basically three statutory functions. These are: research, teaching and community service. Apart from these functions, the aims and objectives of University are provided for in the National Policy in Education (1977 & 1998) i.e. to serve as instrument for individual, societal and national development and for acquisition of skills, development of mental, physical and social competence which are useful to the society.

In achieving these objectives, the Nigerian universities are faced with many problems. One of the most crucial of these problems is University autonomy. This write-up examines the problem of the lingering question of autonomy in Nigerian Universities.

In Nigeria, a University Autonomy Bill was passed by the National Assembly in 2004, which aimed at making new and better provisions for the autonomy of universities in Nigeria. University autonomy simply means self-determination and self-governance or self-rule. It refers to the right of the universities to determine the manner in, or the ground rules by which they are governed and their capacity to control their own affairs and shape their own destiny, free from external interference or control. In the Autonomy Bill, titled: “An Act to Amend the University (Miscellaneous provisions) Act and to make new and better provisions for the autonomy of universities and other related matters”, Section 2.3, page 2, describes university autonomy simply as the capacity of the university to govern itself.

A concept that is a corollary to University autonomy is academic freedom, which constitutes the soul of the university. University autonomy is to guarantee academic freedom, which is vital to the university. Academic freedom refers to the freedom of scholars to conduct research, advance the frontier of knowledge and disseminate the results of their research without let or hindrance. It is the right to hold any opinion, no matter how unpopular, to express it freely and the tradition of not only tolerating but also encouraging the holding of diverse and differing views on any issue, is the hallmark of academic freedom. (University Amendment Miscellaneous Provision Act, 2003:3).

Autonomy characterises the university system worldwide. It is one of the cherished ideals of a university. Autonomy is opposed to centralisation of the control of universities. It confers on each university the right to select or admit its own students, decide what to teach and determine areas of research. These ideals of university autonomy have however been eroded in Nigeria by certain national imperatives and constraints. A major erosion was made into the autonomy of the universities when universities staff ceased to be employees of different autonomous University Councils, and in the words of Ade-Ajayi, “became government parastatals monitored by government ministers with condition of service that henceforth had to be negotiated with the government”.

With the National Universities Commission (NUC) monitoring and supervising the universities, the prestige, autonomous status and effectiveness of the universities were lowered and eroded. So, government brought in NUC as a weapon of its centralised control. It prescribes terms of accreditation of universities and minimum standards. Even where a separate salary scale has been worked out for the university staff, it remained under government control. Another by-product of the loss of university autonomy and its subsequent integration of the universities into the civil service structure was the emergence of the Visitor, Chancellors and Pro-Chancellors as heads of the universities. Whereas, “nowhere does the original act of the universities list the Visitor among the constituent bodies making up the university.”

A further problem eroding the autonomy of Nigerian universities is the taking over of admission and the centralisation of same in the hands of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) that is controlled by government. So, we now have a long list of admissions not based on only merit, but also on discretion, educationally- disadvantaged areas, catchment areas, etc. The universities have thus lost control of the choice of who comes into the universities. Consequently, we have many students on campuses who are morally decadent, drug addicts, cultists, and academically barren, who have not been properly admitted by the university as such. Some campuses are even over-populated, thereby endangering lives and properties.

Why the quest for university autonomy in Nigeria? The reasons are: It is a traditional right, which has worked over the years. The responsibilities of creating new knowledge through scholarship and research, transmitting and preserving culture, developing the capacity in students for critical and independent judgment, and cultivating aesthetic sensitivities are best carried out in environments free from direct external control and domination. The complexity of academic work requires a fair measure of independence. Autonomy provides for both staff and students checks and balances and better morale in a democratic society.

Also, given the intricacies and complication of education, especially of learning and investigation in higher institutions, a high degree of autonomy or freedom from external intervention and control is rather imperative, if an institution is to perform effectively and efficiently. Autonomy prevents forced loyalty to the party in power, political consideration rather than concern for truth as decisive factor in determining intellectual issues. It prevents job insecurity and rubber-stamping of government decisions. Autonomy is necessary to safeguard the highest standard of intellectual, social, moral and political performance of scholars. Autonomy facilitates the university’s educational research, teaching and social responsibilities/ services.

Even though, autonomy is indispensable to the universities, it is a relative term. Autonomy must be contextualised and specified. It must be seen in relation to what? This means that university autonomy in a developing country, like Nigeria, must be understood and limited by the realities of our social imperatives or needs. Collier has identified four of such societal realities that tend to influence, limit or erode university autonomy. These are academic, economic, egalitarian and consensus imperatives/needs.
Academic Necessity, Focus or Imperative

The primary aim of setting up universities all over the world is to produce intellectuals, researchers and teachers with formal academic orientation. What necessitates the founding of universities is that the academic world is conceptualized as being founded based on values, like reason and logic, focusing on the ideals of knowledge, truth and excellence. Here, autonomy can be easily achieved. But in a developing country like Nigeria, pure academic motivation is no longer current or reckoned with. This is because of societal demands and challenges. There is a new demand by industries and government establishments which makes graduates with just academic orientation out of tune with the realities. Hence, there are a growing number of technical and non-academic institutions.
To be continued tomorrow
Azenabor is Professor of African Philosophy,
Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos.

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