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The ASUU strike highlights the rot in Nigerian higher education

By Obi Nwaknma
LAST week at the Abuja Sheraton Hotel, I told Dr. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, tongue-in-cheek of course, that I’d expected that he would be among those leading the charge to renew the mission of the University of Nigeria Law


School at Enugu. Dr. Odinkalu is a highly trained legal scholar and activist. He is one of those who, had the Nigerian university system still been in the business of higher education, would be head-hunted to dignify the congregation of a university.

In other words, any university would be honoured to have Dr. Odinkalu on its Law Faculty. His retort to my suggestion was startling and incisive: “Charity will not restore the University of Nigeria,” Dr. Odinkalu, now of the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute in New York said. I did not then find his statement funny.

It was of course not intended to be amusing. Yet the more I’ve thought about it, the more I find those words haunting, perhaps because of their brutal clarity. Yet, even though I do not find Odinkalu’s statement and position absolutely correct, I understand the full import and the sentiment behind it.

He was basically suggesting that public education in Nigeria must be fully accorded the institutional guarantees and support necessary for its function and its mission. Education is the very foundation of cultural production. It is the producer, not only of value, but also of the meaning of nation, especially in its fundamental link to the shaping of nation and national-belonging. In simple terms, the crisis of the nation is fully manifest in the state of its centers of learning and research.

The idea of the university in Nigeria has been turned into a huge joke. Frankly, I have a suspicion that those in Nigeria’s ministry of education are too exhausted to think clearly about public education and its meaning.

For instance, one of the most terrible aspects of the Nigerian education policy in the last decade has been the certification of all kinds of private enterprises that now go by the term, “private universities” in Nigeria. I have seen some of these eyesores so called.

They constitute an insult to real university education. Many of these so-called private universities are established by religious organizations who use them as avenues to ventilate their religious sentiments and continue their works of evangelization. Some see it as avenue to make piles of money off Nigerians who have long been disgruntled with the quality of education now retailed in our once vibrant public universities.

The universities, in other words, have been turned into the den of profiteers – it is no longer to be regarded in the cloistered terms of the ivory tower. Indeed, typical Nigerian sceptics suggest that officials in the ministries of education are helping to midwife policies aimed at deliberately downsizing and degrading Nigeria’s public education in order for these private institutions to gain currency.

The only explanation may be that many top ministry officials have stakes in the growth of private institutions for rather obvious reasons. But the university is a far deeper construct than have been understood by the mission of these so-called private universities in Nigeria, who I personally think have neither the aesthetic, moral, nor the philosophical girds to constitute the mission of educating the nation.

For instance, the idea of the “private” university in America is quite different. It is often  a public trust endowed by private funds for the humane quest of  higher knowledge that serves society.
Harvard, for instance, or the Washington University in St. Louis, or Princeton, or Cornell, or many of America’s powerful centres of education and research were established by such private endowments and managed as public trusts. Higher education is not just for the purpose of awarding degrees. It is for the shaping of the higher public imagination. These private universities in Nigeria, in their current shape and forms are not in a position, I dare to say, to create well-educated people capable of transforming the nation, or creating the distinct higher value so fundamental in shaping the economic, cultural, and political life of the nation. They do not have the kind of resource capable of building true universities. In Nigeria, the “liberalizing” of higher education, and the certification of all kinds of places, amounts to the continual going to the well until, as the poet of the “silences” says, we smash all our calabashes. Meaning it is futile, self-regarding and licentious to continue to populate Nigeria with all kinds of third rate places built like chicken coops that pass for universities. The only institution in Nigeria still capable of building and maintaining a decent university remains the government with its access to public funds. Often, defenders of private universities in Nigeria argue that one of the real reasons why higher education was privatized in Nigeria was to free the space and lift the increasingly overwhelming burden of admissions from already over populated Nigerian universities. This is cant at its most obvious.

First, the solution to the crisis in Nigerian public education is not in
the creating of more second rate degree mills that have neither reason nor rhyme. It is in the proper funding, planning, and elevation of existing public universities. Second, it must be emphasized that not everybody currently in the university is made for university education.

It is not difficult to see the third point, which is, that these degree mills are producing unemployable graduates with scant depth or expertise.

Indeed, given the level of graduate unemployment in Nigeria, the aim of planners of Nigerian public education should be quality rather than quantity.

It should be to streamline already existing infrastructures, rebuild them, and offer high quality university education to some, while many more others must be given equally high value technical education. But it is clear that Nigeria has reached a certain kind of dead end with this question.

The funding of higher education, particularly university education remains a serious problem. The Academic Staff of Nigerian universities under their organization, ASUU, have carried on the battle with the Nigerian government in the last 20 years at least, over issues of funding of Nigerian universities, aimed especially at arresting the decline in university education that became clear from 1987 in Nigeria.

ASUU has embarked on yet another strike to press home its argument, and to get the government to meet with its own part of the agreements reached under arbitration, and guaranteed by the Onosode panel.

The government meanwhile has thus far been playing the ostrich on this matter. Indeed, the minister of education, Dr. Sam Egwu, was caught with his feet in the mouth, in his attempts to toe the government’s line, and deny any agreements with the university teachers.

He was forced to modify his position, claiming that the current meltdown makes it impossible for government to meet the terms already agreed with ASUU. I think this utterly disingenuous. It is only an insane society like Nigeria that would pay legislators and politicians emoluments amounting to millions of naira, while its top researchers and scholars live wretchedly.

It is this situation that makes it impossible for government to attract the kind high value manpower necessary to revitalize public  education in Nigeria, and therein lies the truth in Dr. Odinkalu’s assertion that charity cannot save Nigerian education.

Only clear and purposive action. As it stands now, the students are home again, Nigerian universities continue to produce thorough ignoramuses. But all for what?


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