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Inside Nigeria’s private universities: The good, the bad, the ugly

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[FILE PHOTO] Adamu Adamu, Minister of Education

The news that the National Universities Commission (NUC) is considering over 300 applications for new private universities in Nigeria has continued to generate diverse comments – partly agonizing, some appalling. The proliferation of private universities has been a mixed bag. Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL interrogates the good, the bad and the ugly of the situation.

By 2050, Nigeria will become the third largest country in the world, according to the United Nations, with 399 million people – many of them will be enthusiastic and ambitious youth with dreams to acquire university education. But it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the youth to gain admission into government-owned universities. To illustrate, only 30 per cent out of the 1.7 million candidates who wrote the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) were admitted in 2017.

According to the World Education News and Review (WENR), Nigeria’s higher education sector has been “overburdened” by strong population growth and a significant youth population explosion – with more than 60 per cent of the country’s populace under the age of 24.

“Rapid expansion of the nation’s higher education sector in recent decades has failed to deliver the resources or seats to accommodate demand. A substantial number of would-be college and university students are turned away from the system. About two thirds of applicants who sat for the country’s national entrance exam in 2015 could not find a spot at a Nigerian university,” WENR said in a report posted on its website.

In 2016, a total of 1,579,027 students sat for the UTME with 69.6 per cent of university applications made to federal universities, 27.5 per cent to state universities, and less than one per cent to private universities. The number of applicants currently exceeds the number of available university seats by a ratio of two to one. In 2015, only 415,500 out of 1,428,379 applicants were admitted into the university system.

“This admission ratio, low as it may be, is a significant improvement versus 10 years ago when the ratio was closer to one in 10 for university entry. But the admission crisis continues to be one of Nigeria’s biggest challenges in higher education, especially given the strong growth of its youth population.

“Nigeria’s system of education presently leaves over a million qualified college-age Nigerians without access to post-secondary education on an annual basis,” noted WENR.

In 1948, there was only one university in Nigeria – the University College of Ibadan, an affiliate of the University of London. By 1962, the number of universities had increased to five, namely, the University of Ibadan, the University of Ife, the University of Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Lagos. Between 1980 and 2017, the number of universities grew from 16 to 152.

Enter private universities. What seemed the exclusive preserve of the affluent, the proliferation of private universities has become a game-changer in Nigeria’s tertiary education system and its economic ecosystem. As of 2019, according to the National Universities Commission (NUC), there are 79 private universities (in 1999, there were just three private universities – Igbinedion, Madonna and Babcock), 48 state universities and 43 federal universities.

In fact, the emergence of private universities dates back to the Second Republic (1979-1983). Even though these universities were initially declared illegal by the then government, they had legal backing by the Supreme Court judgment of March 30, 1983, in favour of the Imo Technical University. It was the military regime of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari that proscribed the existence of private universities though through the promulgation of the Education (National Minimum Standard and Establishment of Institutions Amendment) Decree No 9 of 1983, the regime later allowed for the establishment of private universities.

There have been mixed reactions to the disclosure by the NUC that it is considering over 300 applications by some individuals and organisations to operate private universities in the country. Some of the issues are not far-fetched.

Recently, the NUC Executive Secretary, Prof. Abubakar Rasheed, had condemned the proliferation of under-funded private universities in the country, claiming that many existing private universities not only lack adequate funding, but also “due respect for laid-down rules and regulations.”

The NUC boss while acknowledging that private universities have opened admission space for the growing number of admission seekers in the country, lamented that only about 500,000 candidates secured admission, out of about 1.5 million candidates who sit for the UTME every year.

At the moment, the exorbitant school fees charged by the private institutions also stand in the way of admission seekers. Yet, stakeholders in the sector believe that with the establishment of more universities, tuition fees will come down and there will be plenty of options for many students to choose from while they still acquire the minimum standards of tertiary education.

Apparently, the issue of “carrying capacity” is a serious concern for NUC and the general public.

“The issue of carrying capacity of the private universities is also of great concern. Carrying capacity is a new dimension introduced by the NUC to enhance quality assurance in the Nigerian university system,” said an education expert, Olalekan Arikewuyo, who carried out a research on proliferation of private universities in Nigeria.

He added: “Carrying capacity means that students are admitted based on the facilities available. These include such things as adequate lecture rooms, well stocked libraries, good staff-student ratios and accommodation.”

Information obtained regarding the carrying capacity of these private institutions from the NUC website showed that 80 per cent of them did not have the capacity to admit 1,000 candidates in the 2011/2012 session – with many admitting between 500 and 800 candidates. The NUC statistics revealed that just eight of the universities admitted more than 1,000 for that session.

But Arikewuyo, in his research, justified the proliferation, saying: “The proliferation of private universities can, therefore, be justified because the existing public universities are still unable to cope with the yearly increase in the number of applicants.”

He pointed out that the low carrying capacity of the private universities stems from the type of courses offered by the institutions. For example in 2012, most private universities in the country offered courses only in management sciences, social sciences, arts and the natural sciences – with very few admitting students to study engineering, medicine, technology, and agricultural sciences.

It is apparent that the private universities prefer to offer courses requiring less infrastructural and manpower investments. With limited infrastructure and spaces though, private universities are said to be able to engender better learning outcomes than public universities. While the innovation in teaching and learning in private universities has been lauded by many, some critics said the institutions lack the wherewithal to attract the best hands in the education sector as many of them reportedly rely on part-time lecturers to fill the void in their academic staff roll.

Today, there is much ado about graduating with a First Class with some accusing private universities of churning such class of degree with ease and on the other hand praising public universities for being able to produce graduates with first class degrees even though the general standard of education is said to have fallen.

Recently, the University of Lagos had 3.25 per cent of its graduating students with a First Class; in the University of Ibadan, 2.24 per cent of the graduands had first class; it was 1.2 per cent in Kaduna State University; Ahmadu Bello University had 0.67 per cent; University of Benin, was 1 per cent; Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, 0.57 per cent; and Obafemi Awolowo University had 0.84 per cent.

The picture of awards of First Class degrees was more colourful in private universities in the same period. Bells University had 6.15 per cent of its graduands coasting home with First Class; Benson Idahosa University, 5.62 per cent; Covenant University, 7.9 per cent; Babcock University, 3.88 per cent; Adeleke University, 8.8 per cent; and Landmark University, 10.35 per cent.

Not a few people are worried about the development.

Dr. Idris Oyemitan of the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences, at Walter Sisulu University, South Africa, speaking on the issue a couple of years ago had said: “It is very absurd that students that failed to obtain anything close to 250 in their Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination scores or Post-UTME examination are now being awarded First Class degrees. Almost all of them scored below average or minimum scores that would not have qualified them to gain admission into leading (public) universities in Nigeria.

“Most of these private universities cannot compete with the public ones in areas of qualified lecturers as they mostly rely on unemployed, retired, visiting, part-time and sometimes grossly incompetent academic staff to churn out these half-baked graduates.”

He further claimed that most private universities couldn’t boast of standard laboratories, qualified and competent technical staff.

“From the foregoing, most of the first class graduates produced by these private universities would have at best obtained Second Class lower or Third Class degrees from functional standard universities across Nigeria,” Oyemitan had stated.

In January 2019, during the presentation of licences to Greenfield University; Dominion University; Trinity University and Westland University, the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, praised the role of private investors towards the development of university education in the country, noting that it was a clear manifestation of the continued partnership between them and the government in the provision of quality university education.

Private universities, the minister claimed, had over the last 20 years contributed in opening access for the growing population of candidates seeking university education “with their emergence also creating healthy competition and stimulating quality service delivery in the system.”

Adamu, however, said the new universities would be attached to older universities for administrative mentoring, moderated by the NUC. This, he said, would create room for effective mentoring and qualitative growth within three years of their operations before substantive licence would be issued after adjudged as being well-governed during the probation period.

Though the country boasts of the largest university system in Africa, the NUC boss called for more private initiatives as efforts must be made to enhance access, expressing worry that despite the growing number of universities every year, a large number of qualified candidates seeking university education could not be absorbed due to limited carrying capacity of the existing universities.

There is also the concern over the ownership of these private universities, which often has a bearing on how the institutions are run in terms of administration and academics.

It was little wonder when Prof. Rasheed earlier in the year advised private universities’ proprietors to promote freedom of speech in their respective institutions, warning that the NUC would not play down on any form of misconduct or extension of unnecessary private influences and religious interferences in the administration of the universities.

For stakeholders and education experts, the licensing of more private universities has been a curse more than a blessing.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), former Minister of Education, Chinwe Obaji, distinguished Professor at the University of Lagos and former vice chancellor, Caleb University, Prof Ayodeji Olukoju and erstwhile Vice Chancellor, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Prof. Liadi Tella described the quality in the private universities as very low and called on the government to fund and strengthen existing ones to be able to accommodate the teeming admission seekers and churn out quality graduates that can compete globally.


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