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Cut-off marks, carrying capacity and the varsity

IN 1981 (twenty eight years ago), the cut-off point for admission to Pharmacy at the University of Nigeria , Nsukka was 310. This year, 2009, the highest score in JAMB examination for all courses is 310.  In effect the least score with which someone was admitted into pharmacy in UNN in 1981 is the highest nationwide in 2009.

One question would be if the questions are more difficult now.  We know, however, that, that is not the case.  If anything, JAMB examination questions as well as those of other examination bodies have become more familiar with candidates as similar questions are repeated. The only plausible explanation for the 1981 and 2009 scenarios above would be that the quality of applicants has declined.

This decline in quality is evident at the primary and secondary schools, and perhaps even more dramatic at the university level. Despite the efforts of private and religious organisations, especially at the primary and secondary school levels, the disposition of the wards at these levels is one that is less strenuous, and often distracted by society, and agents of a globalising media world.  The effect is less devotion to studies.

At the tertiary level, especially the universities, the attack by the political system and her agents have eroded quality significantly. Many academics who should be the driving force of intellectual upliftment and maintenance of standards have themselves engaged the reverse gear thereby contributing to the decline in academic quality.

The Nigeria Universities Commission in the last decade has taken the issue of students and quality seriously, as the credibility of the Nigerian university system locally and internationally is at a low level. Locally, employers of labour are stressed by the re-training of some marginally employable graduates, while a significant proportion of graduates of Nigerian universities has been written-off as unemployable.  Internationally many universities are circumspect about admitting products of Nigerian universities into graduate programmes. Our elites have of course sent their children off to other countries, including Ghana and South Africa .

The typical Nigerian university lecturer is not in a position to send his children to such countries, yet lecturers seem not to appreciate the urgent need to raise standards locally.  Without the NUC and the accreditation programmes, our universities will be worse than they are.  Clearly, the only time governments, especially state governments, are willing to provide minimal materials for the universities is when there is a risk of accusations that their universities lose accreditation (due to poor funding, lack of facilities or inadequate staffing). Afterwards, all go to sleep, awaiting the next NUC visit.

Yet even lecturers do not easily appreciate how helpful NUC visits have been. Sincerely, we do not need the NUC to force us to accept carrying capacities.

The NUC has, after investigating facilities and manpower available for each programme universities run, listed the carrying capacities for each programme.  Many universities default in this. Yet, many of us with children in private primary and secondary schools complain if classrooms are over-crowded. Many of us as university students never had classes of more than 50, yet we gladly pretend to teach one level of a programme with a population of 400. Why we are willing to continue with this has to be for reasons not altruistic.

Raw  and poorly equipped freshmen stand a chance of improvement at the university level only if there are lecturer – student contacts, in a manner and intensity such improvement can occur. A university lecture room that is enveloped in anonymity and characterised by lack of seriousness, with students adrift like idle window shoppers in a market place, will not achieve such improvement. On the contrary, as such students ripen with adult bodies in under-developed minds, society suffers.

These manifest in increasing statistics of undergraduates involved with robbery, kidnapping and prostitution. The university is supposedly the training ground for the next generation of elites. Increasingly, many persons carry around degree certificates which are not reflective of the skills they possess. We even begin to see graduates at higher levels (the Masters and Doctorates) who lack rigour and aptitude for ordinary literary, not to mention analytical tasks. Yet, this is the class that should train the next generation. Our society is in very deep trouble.

Cry my beloved country. If gold rusts, what about iron?

The universities canvassed the idea of post-JAMB test before admitting students. This was informed by clear evidence that candidates’ JAMB scores (and even school certificate grades) were becoming increasingly inversely related to their 100 level performances. Universities were being harassed by undergraduates who lacked ability to make sentences, and write essays – skills required to learn, read and respond to examination questions.

Such skills are not acquired at the university level. Sentence structure and essay writing are in the primary and secondary schools curriculum. University lecturers are not expected to be asked to teach undergraduates such.

In organising the post-UME test, some universities invited at inception those who made 160/400 in JAMB. That is 40 per cent. That led to huge population of applicants, usually chaotic to manage by the universities. JAMB in 2008 and 2009 prescribed minimum scores of 170 (42.5%) and 180 (45%) respectively.

The situation in terms of huge numbers of applicants presenting themselves for post-UME screening did not abate. A key question really is if applicants averaging 45 per cent in JAMB examinations are university materials. With over one million JAMB applicants in 2009, about 10 per cent of these are from Imo State alone. Of these, a significant proportion would have applied to Imo State University either as first or second choice.

In addition, it is noteworthy that Imo State University is a conventional university which offers a wide range of courses, compared to specialised universities focusing on technology or agriculture. But the accusation in previous years was why invite so many persons since the university carrying capacity is only about 3,000. The accusation was that the university wanted to just rip applicants off their money.

The organisation of post-UME requires funding which not even the Federal Government provides her universities, not to mention state universities that are under- funded. How else can universities finance post-UME tests without asking applicants to pay? The issue becomes how much to pay, and then JAMB steps in to say federal universities should charge only N1,000 while state and private universities charge N2,000. JAMB did not stop there, but also ordered that universities invite only 150 per cent of her carrying capacity for the post-UME.

In a university with 3,000 carrying capacity, that should mean about 4,500 for the test. JAMB has been releasing her results promptly and has sent to all universities the result of those who chose such university in the JAMB examination. When you relate the JAMB result for each course presented in the order of performance by candidates to the carrying capacity for each course, a line has to be drawn specific to each course, hence staggered cut-off marks for each course. The University of Calabar as well as the Ambrose Ali University Ekpoma, has done this for 2009.

Imo State University attempted to do that.

In a society where people have become addicted to not sticking to rules, laws and agreements, it is often strange when there is an attempt to obey. Dalton ’s third law of inertia comes in here. People want to continue doing what they have been doing even when it hurts them. It becomes even more difficult when confronted with ignorance, unwillingness to learn, power, greed, ego and self. The ability to see the larger picture, to altruistically appreciate the direction we should be headed, is lost.

Every policy change will have winners and losers.

But these gains and losses can be distinguished into private or public gains and losses. Who gains or loses when the number of applicants to Post-UME increases or deceases? What are those private and public gains and losses?

A point has been made that when a university has a cut-off mark set high, it benefits those who have cheated through miracle centres, while those with lower scores who may have written the JAMB themselves lose. That may be correct.

But as you know, you can use a truth to tell a lie. What that position assumes is that there are no hardworking, sincere candidates who make high scores. That is not also true. If two candidates with high scores one obtained sincerely and the other through cheating, are allowed to take a test, and a university obeys the carrying capacity, and places evident weight on merit in the selection process, then the more likely scenario is that the one who cheated will drop off. What the cheat would have achieved is a further opportunity for a Post-UME which he spends money on and yet will not be successful. He will find that the incentive will be to be genuinely equipped through hard work in subsequent years.

The lower scoring candidate, who has been cut-off and could not come for the test, will of course lose the opportunity to take the Post-UME.  If the University allowed him a chance by lowering cut-off marks, he of course stands a chance of surpassing the higher scored cheat but not the sincere higher scorer.  In that case, he will still not be admitted but would have lost money taking the Post-UME.  He may of course decide to cheat the following year, having been excluded this year, yet there will still be enough quality candidates among the high scored to fill the University carrying capacity.

However, the most vociferous voices against obeying carrying capacities and cut-off marks have other interests. They are mostly the powerful whose children, relatives and friends did not make the cut-off marks. They are those who will send in notes requesting for concessional admissions. Some of them are racketeers in admission who will obtain pecuniary benefits in order to peddle their links and influence on the system.

Some have interests that are purely private financial gains. They are the ones likely to pressure the university management to over-admit and then turn round to deny management. By over admitting there is perpetuation of low quality education in universities. Those who find seemingly sweet arguments to get universities discard cut-off marks with an intention to ask for public relations admission to poor performing candidates are making the younger generation believe that all is possible. These children acquire the wrong values. They are the agents of destruction of the long-term well being of society.

When they succeed in getting a university reverse a well reasoned policy, the consequence on the image and integrity of the university is dire. The damage is sever and far reaching. The university loses but also will the students who develop a belief that University rules are not serious.  In the long-run, society loses.

A university which over a long time has been badly run without insistence on academic culture develops her own unique culture, nature being an abhorrent of vacuum. That culture developed is frequently sourced from the worse society has to offer. Without focus on core principles of academic excellence and character, the drift into depth of emptiness subsists, propelled by a credo of nothingness.

Nothing comes from nothing.  From their fruits we shall know them. From every fruit come seeds of its own kind, and tomorrows fruits are in the seeds of today. Today’s harvest comes from yesterday’s seeds and so shall the harvest of tomorrow come from today’s seeds. My people perish for lack of vision, led by men propelled by greed. NEMO DAT QUOD NON HABET.

Professor Chinedum Nwajiuba, is the Director of Academic Planning of Imo State University.


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