Adamu Adamu
Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu

By SESAN LAOYE

The COVID-19 crisis that is ravaging the world has put Nigeria’s tertiary education crisis in stark light, a Business Hallmark investigation has revealed.

And it graphically underscores why Nigerian universities are not winning in the race to produce fit and proper academic stars that would be a boost to the nation’s business and production complex.

In discussions with administrators, unionists, students, administrators and parents of students, they spoke to the issues, saying that it is imperative that the nation learns its lessons for once and uses the opportunity provided by the contemporary challenge to fix the long-standing situation.

According to them, properly utilized, the Covid-19 phenomenon could indeed be a reverse incentive for addressing the challenge and emplacing workable solutions that would reverse the current state of dysfunction and failure into one of potential, possibility and value.

 Admitting new students into the system

For them, one opening point where the crisis is currently explicated is in the university admissions process. Following a circular from the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board, JAMB, last week, that universities in the country should commence steps to admitting prospective undergraduates that had written the Universities Tertiary Matriculation Examinations, UTME, earlier on in the year, tongues began to wag as to how universities would practically manage their student streams going forward.

At the base of the dilemma is the fact that schools have been shut for the better part of four months, a situation that has made many students to lose at least one semester of traditional study time. Added to this is the fact that on account of other domestic issues of student unrest, some other universities had even not resumed for the 2019/2020 academic year in the first place. One such university that is caught in this quagmire is Nigeria’s premier university, the University of Ibadan. The worry then is if 2019/2020 students are yet to come into the system, how then would 2020/2021 students fit in?

Responding to this and the bigger picture concerns of a possibly stymied tertiary education system in the country, the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Private Universities in Nigeria urged the National Universities Commission to intervene and help persuade the authorizes to approve that they could reopen their institutions for on-campus lectures and related activities, subject of course to meeting basic health safety conditions at a time like this. How this request would pan out with the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, who has kept insisting that the overall education complex should remain shut, remains to be seen.

 Online Matriculation and Research

Even more confounding to all is the fact that almost all systems in the overall Nigerian university system today are grounded. While the Federal University, Oye Ekiti and the Osun Polytechnic took steps recently to conduct their matriculation processes for the current session electronically, many other institutions have almost literarily shut their doors to any kind of serious activity.

In all of these, perhaps the most affected is the teaching element of the system which had before now accounted for the bulk of activities in the university system.

Equally hard-hit is the research element of the system. On a good day for example, universities are expected to be falling over themselves, exploring multiple Covid 19 research into cures, vaccines and the likes as is the practice in other climes. But here, word on practical activity in this regard is few and far between.

But perhaps the most damning of all the challenges is the fact that as at today, the university system cannot really guarantee resumption dates. Added to the other challenges where the system has long been seen as one that cannot satisfy industry in that it does not produce readily employable graduates, the challenge is such that a lot would really have to be done to fine-tune the system.

In a chat with a former vice chancellor and veteran administrator who would not be named, he put the challenge in proper perspective. The don who had been involved in almost all tiers of the system, ranging from the federal to state and private as well as in the central administration systems said that from his experience, a lot of the trouble was indeed internal:

‘A lot of the challenge has to do with our colleagues. The system is in need of retooling but they are so consumed with other matters that we cannot really practically get on to that at the moment. That indeed is the dilemma,’ he observed.

According to him, one of the platforms that should be more vigorously tapped at a time like this is the Open University platform, but even at that it is still barely developed in Nigeria and at the moment there is not even any real discernible action in boosting that.

‘A lot of the thinking about university establishment is still brick and mortar. When you apply to set up even an Open University digital based construct today, you are still saddled with brick and mortar conditions that may not be too helpful in the long run. The promoter of the open university is thinking of deploying portable sets like laptops, transmitters and internet gear and here is he being statutorily requested to make provisions for 50-100 hectares in real estate and the likes!’

There is also the general challenge of non-competitiveness in that many Nigerian universities are essentially local champions. But in a world research environment where global bench marking and international affiliations are a quintessential imperative, this comes as a real drag and the local universities find themselves and their ultimate products being hamstrung in the real marketplace.

In the thinking of analysts, one of the things to do is to open up the system to partnerships, guidance and the inflow of investors and investments.

A second issue would be to steer the system into addressing issues of felt need through ensuring steady and continuing curriculum review that would ensure that the system places more premium on these areas that would more robustly help in bridging the gown and the town.

Some such courses include Business studies, African and International Studies, Agriculture value chain development, Medical services and research, Engineering solutions, New journalism and media and Social work.

According to analysts, another critical point for curriculum reviewers and planners has to do with appreciating the nation’s immense demographic youth bulge and integrating same most functionally in the planning process.

Inadequate feeder stream quality

In addressing the challenge of educational quality at the university level, one very crucial element that has to be noted is that of feeder stream quality. Given that the university entrant has passed through the nursery, primary and secondary levels of the system, one way to enhance quality at the university level then would be to enhance output grade at those formative and foundational levels.

Asked if she would agree with those who say that the quality of instruction and learning at the lower levels of the educational pendulum has a multiplier effect on the output at the tertiary level, Mrs. Temitope Bajela-Oladeji, Director at Utol Education Konzult said that that view could really not be faulted.

‘I agree completely. Good foundation at the lower level is the only way out. The curriculum at this level is robust but usually watered down by lack of funds and lack of understanding of the importance of those themes outlined in the curriculum by some school administrators. Each step of the way prepares the child for whatever the child chooses to focus on at the tertiary level. A good lower level experience gives a learner a robust experience that enables versatility and encourages diversification in thoughts and actions. The activities at the tertiary level are in turn then meant to expose learners to all sorts so that can decide which they have passion and interest for to take a decision for life and living.’

 The case for new universities

At the moment, Nigeria has over a hundred and fifty universities spread through three categories: federal, state and private.

At the federal level, there are 43 operational and semi-operational universities in the country. These include Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Bayero University, Kano, Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Effurun, Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Alex Ekwueme University, Ndufu-Alike, Ebonyi State and Federal University, Otuoke, Bayelsa.

Others are Michael Okpara University of Agricultural, Umudike, National Open University of Nigeria, Lagos, Nigeria Police Academy Wudil, Nigerian Defence Academy Kaduna, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Abuja, Gwagwalada, University of Benin, University of Calabar, University of Ibadan, University of Ilorin,  University of Jos, University of Lagos, University of Maiduguri, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, University of Port-Harcourt, University of Uyo, Usumanu Danfodiyo University and the Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, Delta State.

At the state level there are a total of 48 universities and they range from Abia State University, Uturu, Adamawa State University Mubi, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Akwa Ibom State University, Ikot Akpaden, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Uli, Benue State University, Makurdi, Cross River State University of Technology, Calabar, Delta State University Abraka, Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki, Ekiti State University and Enugu State University of Science and Technology, Enugu.

Others include Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai, Ignatius Ajuru University of Education, Rumuolumeni, Imo State University, Owerri, Kogi State University, Anyigba, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso, Ondo State University of Science and Technology Okitipupa, Rivers State University, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, Lagos State University, Ojo, Niger Delta University, Yenagoa, Tai Solarin University of Education Ijebu Ode, Oyo State Technical University Ibadan, Ondo State University of Medical Sciences , Edo University Iyamho, Eastern Palm University, Ogboko, Imo State, University of Africa Toru Orua, Bayelsa State  and the Moshood Abiola University of Science and Technology, Abeokuta.

The third tier of the Nigerian universities chain is peopled by private universities. And this is where the most exponential growth, in sheer number terms has been recorded. Since the licensing of the first of them three decades ago, some 79 private universities have come to be partially and fully enrolled in the system.

They include the Achievers University, Owo, Adeleke University, Ede, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti – Ekiti State, American University of Nigeria, Yola, Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Baze University, Bells University of Technology, Otta, Benson Idahosa University, Benin City, Bowen University, Iwo16 Caleb University, Lagos Caritas University, Enugu, 18  Chrisland University, Covenant University Ota, Crawford University Igbesa and Edwin Clark University, Kiagbodo

Others are Elizade University, Ilara-Mokin, Fountain University, Oshogbo, Godfrey Okoye University, Ugwuomu-Nike, Gregory University, Uturu, Igbinedion University Okada, Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Ikeji-Arakeji, Kings University, Ode Omu, Kwararafa University, Wukari, Landmark University, Omu-Aran, Lead City University, Ibadan, Madonna University, Okija, Micheal & Cecilia Ibru University, Mountain Top University, Nile University of Nigeria, Abuja, Oduduwa University, Ipetumodu, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Paul University, Awka, Redeemer’s University, Ede, Eko University of Medical and Health Sciences Ijanikin and Westland University, Iwo.

Though some believe that the thing to do now is to merely strengthen the existing universities as they are, the large numbers of Nigerians continuing to emigrate for educational purposes and on premises that are beyond issues of perceived inadequate local quality is a pointer to the fact that there is still room for further expansion at this level. Indeed Business Hallmark checks reveal that at the moment, over 200 applications are already at different levels of processing at the National Universities Commission, NUC.

Challenges of private universities

When the discussion comes to the issue of private universities, a lot of the focus is on high fees and the need to continue to exclude them from gaining access to the Education Tax Fund.

But there are other issues as establishing and running private universities has to also be in line with sound business principles, even when it is an academic-oriented activity.

For the average promoter of private universities then, in addition to an expected basic passion to help train and raise the younger generation and be engaged in academic activity, studies and research, there also come hardboiled business matters such as name recognition and prestige, growing the brand, associated real estate management and cost controls and profitability.

Others are sourcing and maintaining international collaborations, practical industry and market collaborations and generating and monitoring academic cash flow in the form of tuition fees, scholarships and grants.

Place these alongside threat factors like the heavy capital outlay required by the investment, a break-even point that is estimated at no less than 10 years, getting and maintaining appropriate staffing, and navigating the contours of bank guarantees and core investor management, then it will be seen that running a private university in Nigeria today is clearly no tea party.

In addition to these there are other points of weakness that many a university founder may be faced with ab initio. These include the limited practical institutional experience of promoters, the search for financial investors and drawing up investment patterns and ICT capacity. So it comes to more than just having the opening one million naira to pick up the application forms.

Paradoxically however, it is at the private universities segment that the country can today practically get its best leverage in the COVID-19 era. With fewer student numbers and a long in-built emphasis on admitting only students that can be fully catered for (even at costs considered to be too high by average standards), the private schools have continued to demonstrate that they can indeed work around the present challenges better. However, with fewer students in their kitty overall and a less than adequate voice in the overall scheme of affairs, their inputs even at this time of national emergency are still not being given the full reckoning that it should attract. And this indeed is very sad.