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Billionaires battle religious organisations over varsity licences



Billionaires battle religious organisations over varsity licences

– Jim Ovia, Ade Ojo, Wigwe set up own varsities

More Nigerian billionaires are increasingly establishing a presence in the nation’s education sector with the setting up of private universities to challenge the dominance of religious organisations in the sector, Business Hallmark can report.

According to BH findings, no fewer than four billionaires have either set up their own private universities or acquired licences from the government to start one in the last one year.

They include Wigwe University located in Isiokpo, Port Harcourt, Rivers State established by the CEO/GMD of Access Holdings Plc, Herbert Wigwe; James Hope University Lekki, Lagos by billionaire businessman and Chairman of Zenith Bank, Jim Ovia; Azman University Kano, founded by Alhaji Abdulmunaf Yunusa, founder of Azman Air, as well as the Canadian University of Nigeria, Abuja and Franco-British University Kaduna, both founded by Kano-born billionaire and President, African Association of Private Universities (AAPU), Adamu Abubakar Gwarzo.

It would be recalled that all universities in Nigeria were government owned until 1999 when the Federal Executive Council (FEC) granted approval to three private universities: Madonna University, Okija in Anambra State; Babcock University, Ilishan Remo in Ogun State and Igbinedion University in Okada, Edo State to start operations.

While the Igbinedion University, Okada was founded by an individual, the Esama of Benin, Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, the remaining two, Babcock University and Madonna University, are owned by religious organisations, Seventh-day Adventist and Rev. Father Ede of Catholic Church of Nigeria respectively.

After the establishment of the three universities, a maddening race to own one soon began among Nigeria’s religious houses, businessmen, past presidents and political leaders.

According to the latest data by the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC), Nigeria currently has 258 universities, made up of 50 federal, 60 state-owned, and 148 privately owned.

At a public event in November 2023, the NUC Executive Secretary, Chris Jibreel Maiyaki, had announced that it was considering licence applications from 270 new privately owned higher education institutions.

If they are all approved, it will bring the numbers of universities in the country to 528.

Despite the seemingly huge numbers of available universities in the country offering admissions to prospective students, BH checks showed that they are largely inadequate, with many prospective applicants unable to get admitted.

A data obtained from the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) indicated that the number of candidates that apply yearly for higher education in Nigeria’s higher institutions are more than their available capacity.

For instance, while about 1.8 million candidates applied for admission in 2022, only 600,000 (representing 33.3%) secured admission, according to JAMB.

Likewise, 1.6 million candidates sat for the 2023 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), but about 613,000 got admission. While the number of candidates applying for higher education in Nigeria has continued to rise beyond available capacity, majority of them often prefer the more affordable government-run institutions, which are largely tuition free.

Meanwhile, a large proportion of applicants who could not secure admission into public institutions, or whose parents are relatively well off settle for the much expensive privately owned institutions.

As a result, more private owned universities owned largely by religious organisations, especially established churches and Islamic bodies are daily springing up.


According to BH analysis, more than 70 percent of all universities operating in Nigeria are owned by religious organisations with deep pockets, while the remaining were established by rich Nigerians.

Investigation revealed that all major churches and Islamic missions in Nigeria own at least one university.

The list include Mountain Top University established by the Mountain of Fire and Ministry; Redeemers University Ede by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG); Glorious Vision University (GVU) by The Apostolic Church Nigeria (TACN); Anchor University by Deeper Life Bible Church Ministry, Covenant and Landmark Universities by World Mission International (a.k.a Living Faith Church); Babcock University by the Seventh-day Adventist Church; McPherson University by Foursquare Gospel Church; Evangel University by Assemblies of God; St Augustine University by the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos and Wesley University of Science and Technology by Methodist Church Nigeria.

Others on the list are Ajayi Crowther University by the Anglican Communion of Nigeria; Benson Idahosa University owned by the Church of God Mission International; Bowen University by the Nigerian Baptist Convention; Bingham University by Evangelical Churches Winning All (ECWA); Joseph Ayo Babalola University by Christ Apostolic Church (CAC); Kings University by Kingsway International Christian Church (KICC) and many other Christian mission institutions.

Islamic missions and individuals are not also left out in the scramble for private universities. Some of the private institutions owned by these Islamic bodies and individuals are Fountain University Osogbo established by the Nasrul-Lahi-Il-Fatih Society (NASFAT) and Al-Qalam University Katsina by the Muslim Community (Ummah).

Others are Crescent University Abeokuta, founded by former judge of the International Court of Justice, Justice Bola Ajibola under the umbrella of the Islamic Mission for Africa (IMA); Al-Hikmah University Ilorin by the Abdur-Raheem Oladimeji Islamic Foundation (AROIF) and Summit University Offa by the Ansar-Ud-Deen Society of Nigeria (ADSN).

In the same vein, former public officers, especially heads of state and president are not left out in the rush to establish universities.

They include former Presidents Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo who founded El-Amin University Minna and The Bells University of Technology Ota respectively, as well as former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who established the American University of Nigeria (AUN) Yola.

Lately, businessmen and professionals have been making forays into the higher education sector in a move to have their own share of the cake.

The successful businessmen and professionals are from various fields like banking, automobile, law and jurisprudence, where they have carved out names for themselves.

Leading the packs are business magnate and his wife, Micheal and Cecilia Ibru; Chief Micheal Ade-Ojo, founder of Elizade Group of Companies; Deji Adeleke, Chairman of Pacific Holdings and legal luminary, Are Afe Babalola (SAN).

While Micheal Ade-Ojo set up his own University, Elizade University in Ilara-Mokin, Ondo State; Adeleke’s University is sited in Ede, his home town; Afe Babalola University is based in Ado-Ekiti and Micheal and Cecilia Ibru University, Agbara-Otor, Delta State.

These institutions set up by some of Nigeria’s wealthiest individuals, BH learnt, immediately began to challenge the dominance of faith-based universities like Covenant, Igbinedion, Babcock, Madonna and Bowen, which dominated the space for several years.

Meanwhile, the recent entrance of James Hope and Wigwe Universities, owned by two of Nigeria’s money bags, Jim Ovia and Herbert Wigwe, has further ignite competition among players in the industry.

Wigwe University, which kicked off in September 2023, has already gulped over $500 million in infrastructural spendings.

The university’s curricula include management, science, engineering, information technology, and creative arts disciplines


Its excellent infrastructure, consisting of modern training tools, experts say, will transform the landscape of higher education in Nigeria and the West African sub-region.

In his quest to put the school on a sound footing, the financial guru travelled all over the world before settling down in Philadelphia in the United States to head hunt Prof. Miles Davis as the pioneer vice chancellor of Wige University.

Speaking on the newly established school, its founder, Herbert Wigwe, said the coming on board of the university is the culmination of his lifelong ambition to build an exceptional, world-class, innovative, yet uniquely African institution to grow the next generation of leaders, who will change the face of the continent.

“It is the African gateway to the world of entrepreneurship, technology, innovation, and impact. My mission, through Wigwe University, is to change the course of Nigeria’s future through committed and world-class faculty and globally relevant and locally impactful curricula taught through novel methods to rival the globe’s most respected universities.

“All our programmes are delivered to an international standard in collaboration with key international partners. Our approach puts us in touch with world-leading curricula, joint research and international exchanges and internship programmes”, he stated.

Apart from Wigwe University, another promising university out of the 37 private universities granted provisional licences by the NUC in 2023 to start academic programs is James Hope University by Jim Ovia.

According to Jim Ovia, the institution, located in Lekki, Lagos, is committed to the highest standards of international education.

“We aspire to integrate global models of academic excellence to advance the knowledge economy, further innovations and breakthroughs, and rapidly propel the economic and sociocultural lives of humanity.

“Through strategic partnerships with leading global academic institutions and crucial enablers, JHU is launching its School of Business, one distinguished by academic excellence and cutting-edge formation of future professionals.

“James Hope University aims to become a global institution, building on its upcoming reputation as a provider of world-class business education globally in Lagos, Nigeria, the largest economy and an emerging market in Africa.

“James Hope University is open to recruiting international students to deliver unparalleled, world-class educational programming to the future leaders of Nigeria and West Africa.

“Over the next decade, the University will expand its academic programming and service to the community through forming partnerships with top global industry change-makers and fellow educational institutions.

“We also aim to grow the international community on our campus in Lagos to become the institution of choice for students from Nigeria, other regions of Africa, and around the world”, the university stated on its website.

Already, stakeholders in the education sector are referring to the elite universities as Nigeria’s Ivy-League institutions.

According to the stakeholders, many rich Nigerians now have the opportunity of sending their wards to the best schools locally, instead of the old norm of sending them abroad due to the absence of top rated institutions in the country.

“With these new universities, Nigerian parents who want something similar to Ivy League education for their children can now look inward. These universities can favourably compete with institutions like the Carnegie Mellon American University in Rwanda”, said Prof. Kemi Olatunde, a consultant and retired lecturer at the University of Ibadan.


BH reliably gathered that one of the major factors fueling the establishment of private universities by rich Nigerians is the constant spike in the dollar exchange rates.

According to experts, many Nigerian parents and foundations are daily finding it difficult to retain their students abroad owing to the continued fall in the value of the naira.

“To school in Europe and America today, you will need between $15,000 to $75,000 annually as tuition alone, depending on the institutions. If you convert that to naira, that is massive.

“For instance, if you pick the least paying university in the U.S, which charges $15,000 annually, you will need N18.8 million in local currency at the current exchange rate of N1,250 per dollar.

“However, I don’t think any Nigerian University, even the international ones charge above N8 million for medicine, which should be the most expensive course in the country.

“If these new universities can provide quality services, they will benefit from a lot from the foreign exchange crisis as many Nigerians will prefer training their wards at home, thereby savings millions of naira in the process”, a director in the Lagos State Ministry of Education, Enitan Sobowale, noted.

Another respondent, Dr. Bolanle Shotunbi, told our correspondent that many Nigerian students schooling abroad are being recalled home after their sponsors find it difficult to pay their fees.

“I am a member of a selection committee of a Nigerian foundation that send students abroad on scholarships. Prior to June 2023, our budget for 20 students is N350million ($25,000 or N17.5million each per student/inclusive tuition, boarding and living expenses).

“Last Monday, our total estimate for 2024 came down to N624million ($25,000 or N31,250,000 each on the 20 students at the exchange rate of N1,250 ). Meanwhile, the rate is still climbing. It climbed over N1,300 on Friday. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow.

“The sponsor has told us (screening committee) that we should cut down the number of beneficiary students to 5, and look at the option of bringing the rest home to complete their studies in Nigerian universities.

“Caught in the web of the prohibitive cost of education abroad due to the free fall of the naira in foreign exchange, parents and foundations are looking locally for the best alternative education with high-quality services and good environment for their wards

“I believe this is one of the factors driving the rush for private universities by Nigerian businessmen looking to benefit from the trend”, Shotunbi noted.


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