BY OLATUNJI LAWAL
LET us start with a frank admission: degrees awarded by the Lagos State University, LASU, are anything but respected. Employers recruit graduates of this university, like their counterparts from other state-owned universities in Nigeria, if there are no candidates with certificates from first generation universities or from other federal universities or from private universities like Covenant, Babcock and Madonna. A doctoral degree from LASU is unlikely to earn a person an academic position at the neighbouring University of Lagos, UNILAG. This is how much diplomas from state universities in Nigeria are discriminated against.
In the last few years, LASU has been in the class of community colleges in the United States where education has been virtually free, but unfortunately its diplomas (degrees and certificates) scarcely secure employment for the holders except in a few government establishments. What some clever Nigerian parents and guardians do is to send their children and wards to community colleges in the United States for the first two years in order to save costs and then find them admission into proper universities to complete their four-year bachelor programmes. These parents and guardians know that it is easy to get jobs with degrees from community colleges as it is to find a needle in a haystack. People living in Lagos with LASU certificates have been going to UNILAG, Covenant and Babcock to obtain higher degrees in order to enhance their chances of employment. Dr Reuben Abati, the Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on Media and Publicity, holds a LASU Bachelor of Laws degree, but this is hardly disclosed in any of his academic citations; rather what we see in his curriculum vitae is that he obtained bachelor’s and research degrees from the University of Calabar and the University of Ibadan.
The Lagos State Government could have chosen the convenient and easy route to the LASU problem by merely continuing with the status quo. That is, it could have continued with the populist system of charging students a paltry N25,000 yearly as school fee. This would have made the government win some cheap popularity. After all, ours is a democracy where everything, no matter how sacred, is seen always in terms of electioneering campaign. But the government chose to do the right thing. A little over two years ago, the state administration reviewed the school fee, with prospective students wishing to study certain courses now required to pay higher than some others. The upward review was prompted by the fact that the allocation to the university was grossly inadequate to meet the growing financial challenges of running a university, especially one which is light years away from competing with other global institutions in the 21st century.
The decision did not go down well with a lot of students and even lecturers, even though the government stated unequivocally that the decision would not affect those already studying at LASU. After the initial brouhaha, the matter was resolved. Academic studies and programmes have been going on well. But two years down the line, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, has been threatening fire and brimstone over LASU fees. Speaking a few days ago at the University of Ibadan where Education Rights Campaign organised a symposium, ASUU National President Nasir Faggae declared that the union would not accept the new school fees, saying that the government should establish universities for knowledge acquisition, and not profit making. Ever since the declaration, some activists like Dr Ademola Aremu, the ASUU National treasurer, have been beating the war drum against the state government. This action has led a number of pundits to conclude that a handful of ASUU members are itching for a showdown. In a country where university lecturers have just ended a strike which lasted a whole five months it would be unthinkable that any person, let alone a stakeholder in the education industry, should be enthusiastic to disrupt the academic programme of any tertiary institution.
According to the ASUU, the new school fees have caused a reduction in the student population which could, in turn, affect the number of courses available. In other words, some ASUU members are afraid that they could become redundant, and this could result in their disengagement. Put succinctly, the ASUU activists are acting out of self interest, and not out of a deep concern for the common good. Much as it is recognised that ASUU is a trade union, we expect it to sometimes display a concern for the good of all in society. For instance, ASUU fights for the welfare of members by all means possible, but has never bothered about such factors as sex for marks, outright demand for bribes by teachers from students and sale of handouts which contribute to a large extent to the ongoing ruination of the Nigerian university system.
ASUU should worry about the unjustifiable expansion of programmes in our tertiary institutions. Why is it that no sooner is a university established in Nigeria that it begins to carry out postgraduate programmes, including doctoral ones? In the United States, for example, there are first class institutions over 100 years old like Boston College which do not award PhDs. Amherst College in Massachusetts where the annual school fee of an undergraduate student is over $33,000 is the alma mater of the world famous Nobel prize winner in Economics, Joseph Stigler, yet it does not run PhD courses. In fact, some great American higher institutions do not run even master’s degree programmes. It is, therefore, very sad to see newly established state and private universities in Nigeria award postgraduate degrees. ASUU should protest against such practices. It is a far more noble thing to do than to be obsessed with the pecuniary interests of members, even if it means the country’s education system going to the dogs.
The mindset of some ASUU members is unfortunately irreconcilable with the true demands and challenges of 21st century higher institutions. The ASUU National Treasurer, for instance, has been saying that universities are no business organisations. Of course, universities are not always for profit making. But what his statement reveals is a failure to acknowledge that the world is now in an era where the gown and the town meet, unlike in the past when, as a result of our British colonial heritage, the university was far removed from society.
American professors and researchers have always been encouraged to work closely with the industry, that is, to engage in what we call in Nigeria private practice. Consequently, they make money for themselves and for their institutions. In this connection, LASU should benefit from its location in Nigeria’s commercial centre of Lagos to engage in research for companies. Its medical microbiology department, for instance, can conduct rewarding research for companies like Nigerian Breweries and Guinness. Its School of Management and College of Engineering can earn considerable income by working for several local and multinational firms.
ASUU must come to terms with the fact that the time for cheap populism is over. LASU needs all the money it can generate to become a respectable institution. It must produce credible certificates, and not fanciful degrees not worth the paper on which they are written.