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Okebukola: Exclusion of private varsities from generic, specialised interventions no longer tenable

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The Chairman of Council, National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), Prof. Peter Okebukola, in this interaction with ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, said since over 70 per cent of the intake into the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) is from taxes of private companies, excluding private universities from the pool of beneficiaries is inequitable and discriminatory. Okebukola, a former executive secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC) also insists that these institutions should be apportioned larger share of the TETFund revenue, even as he advocates a 50-year-long grants-in-aid to private universities to enable them reach cruising altitude.

From the provision of infrastructure and manpower development, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) is now focused on research and development. What other critical areas of need do you think TETFund should pay attention to, especially now that it is investing in critical infrastructure in support of e-learning among others

In our search for critical areas of need, we should not look too far. Yes, in this COVID-19 environment where e-learning is holding sway, it is a good area for investment. The other areas (including e-learning) are well documented in the 2019-2023 NUC Rasheed Blueprint for the Rapid Revitalisation of University Education in Nigeria.

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The implementation of the five-year plan is expected to cost over N820 billion, and TETFund should be part of the funding action. The cost-sharing scheme proposed for carrying the funding burden is 75 per cent by the proprietor (government for public universities and owners for private universities), 20 per cent from internally-generated revenue of the university and five per cent from other sources, including alumni, endowment and donor support. What will this amount deliver? It will lead to the attainment of the following goals: One, by 2023, access to university education should have increased by a factor of 20 per cent over 2018 figures. Two, by 2021, the curriculum of Nigerian universities should be rated among the best three in Africa in terms of its relevance to producing nationally and regionally-relevant graduates who are high-level human resources for delivering on Africa’s Vision 2063 and addressing global SDGs.

Three, by 2023, at least 30 per cent of facilities for teaching, learning and research should have been upgraded to meet international standards and maintained thereafter. Four, by 2023, the gap in the number of teachers needed in the Nigerian university system should have been reduced from 30 per cent to 20 per cent. Five, by 2023, the quality of graduates from Nigerian universities should be improved by at least 20 per cent as captured in feedbacks from employers and users of the products of the system. Six, by 2023, scholars in Nigerian universities should be among the top three in productivity as measured by national and global productivity standards and reflected in relevance to solving Nigeria’s socio-economic challenges. Seven, by 2021, the NUC should introduce enforceable minimum standards in governance that will ensure at least 10 per cent increase in efficiency in the university system etc.

TETFund appears to be disposed to the idea of Ph.D holders in private and public universities partnering in the area of research, there is also a post-doctoral research that even private universities could benefit, especially for fresh Ph.D holders. Why are private universities not taking advantage of this foray into new research areas? 

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There are several reasons; I can mention two. First, is the lack of awareness by many PhD holders in private universities of the availability of such facility. Many staff in the private university subsystem are buried in the belief that TETFund does not touch private universities with a 10-metre funding pole, so can never imagine the window of opportunity, which is available for post-doctoral research. Second, partnership for joint research has only started to gain momentum, less so between public and private university staff. For these two reasons, NUC and TETFund will need to oil the machinery of awareness-raising and incentivise proposals with mixed authorship of private and public university PhD holders.

Amending the TETFund’s Act will ensure that private universities can benefit from not only joint research with public universities, but also from post-doctoral research. Isn’t it high time the amendment was carried out in view of potential benefits?

Amending the TETFund Act to accommodate private universities in generic intervention and specialised intervention for research is overdue. The case for TETFund support to private universities rests on two major planks which cannot be faulted. These are equity and history. On the equity argument which has two strands, what TETFund rakes into its revenue pot in the region of N23 billion annually, is largely derived from the private sector of Nigeria’s economy. The goose that lays the golden egg that all public universities in Nigeria are enjoying its yolk is the private sector. Equity demands that private universities should also be served by TETFund intervention. The analogy of sharing Nigeria’s revenue from oil as provided in the Constitution is applicable here. All states have fair share but states where the oil is derived have special top-up via the derivation formula. Some have argued that what we have now is a classic case of ‘monkey dey work baboon dey chop.” If the private sector is working to get the money into TETFund purse, then private universities alongside their public counterparts should derive benefit from this commonwealth.

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The second line of argument on the equity front is that graduates from private universities offer service, not on the moon or on Mars, but within the Nigerian economic space, just like their counterparts from public universities. The summary of the equity considerations is that since over 70 per cent of the intake into TETFund is from taxes of private companies, excluding private universities from benefitting from what its sector has amassed is adjudged inequitable and discriminatory. From this point of view, private universities should be apportioned larger share of the TETFund revenue. The second line of argument is that all graduates from the university system whether from public or private universities are prepared to serve the national economy. The national economy will be severely hurt peradventure products of private universities end up being of lesser quality than the public. If the goal is to produce quality graduates regardless of the source (public or private university), then private universities need to be equally served by TETFund in its intervention.

Let me briefly narrate historical considerations. In the early days of private primary and secondary education in Nigeria, government provided grants-in-aid to assist the private providers to have a good start. The 1882 Education Ordinance and the 1890 Education law made explicit provisions for grants-in-aid to private schools. The government of the Colony of Lagos, as well as the Southern and Northern Protectorates instituted the grants-in-aid scheme to ensure that privately-owned schools, especially those owned by missionary bodies did not fall below established quality standards. This trend persisted till after amalgamation and even slightly beyond 1960 when independence was secured. When the private schools reached what can be described as “cruising altitude,” the umbilical cord was cut and the institutions were allowed to stand on their feet. Today, the private basic education system is outperforming the public on many educational indicators. Walking along the same historical path, since private universities are new in the education firmament in Nigeria, we should learn from the success at the basic education level by government offering grants-in-aid to private universities for at least 50 years to allow these institutions reach cruising altitude. Such grant-in-aid should come in the form of TETFund intervention.

TETFund Executive Secretary, Prof Suleiman Elias Bogoro, last year deplored the alleged low capacity of Nigerian professors to write fundable research proposals, hence their inability to access global grants for impactful research. What do you make of this assessment and what recommendations would you give on how to address this challenge?

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The TETFund boss is right, at least in part. We cannot generalise to the universe of professors in the Nigerian university system. I am a professor in the system, and I know how to write grant-winning proposals. I have won several grants to back up my claim. There are several in my group. Professor Bogoro is right to the extent that a sizeable chunk of the professoriate lack the technical skills to write grant-winning proposals. This may not be entirely their fault because of the weakness in the training regime of scholars in the system. To urgently address the problem, I offer only one recommendation- intensive training/capacity building in the skills of writing proposals to access national and global grants. I am aware that many universities such as Lagos State University, and the University of Ibadan have embarked on such training, but there is a need to make this a matter of urgent system importance, with the NUC as the coordinating agency. The Rasheed Revolution Revitalisation Plan of 2019-2023 has this as a major milestone.

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We need to implement this plan with great vigour in the months ahead and sustain it in perpetuity. We should also insert as an element in the promotion guidelines from Lecturer Grade 2 and above, evidence of winning research grants. This will encourage our scholars to take steps to learn the ropes of grants writing on their own and when opportunities arise for such training by the university, NUC and TETFund, take the exercise seriously.
Despite priding itself as an impactful organisation in our educational milieu, TETFund has been criticised for its guidelines, which many schools have described as stringent. Do you agree with this assessment, and what is your criticism of the outfit? 

What my few years of university administration has taught me is that if you are slack in your approach, including enforcing guidelines, people are apt to be nonchalant. TETFund is dealing with money matter and it has to be one of the best exemplars of accountability and prudence.

These attributes are Siamese twins of stringency. If you are not stringent with the guidelines, people will take advantage and explore loopholes in the system.

By the way, why shout wolf now when the institutions drawing funds from TETFund know the rules of the game ab initio. They had the option of opting out of TETFund support if they considered the guidelines to be stringent. Worth asking is: “what is stringent about TETFund guidelines”? I have gone through the guidelines and I found them to be aligned with international best practices. If the persons claiming that TETFund guidelines are stringent, I invite them to see the guidelines of UNESCO, African Union and the World Bank. They will literally put their tails between their hindlegs and scamper for cover!

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In this article:
NUCPeter OkebukolaTETFUND
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