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The South-East and its universities

By Obi Nwankanma
Last week, the Federal Government announced that it would establish forty new universities to complement the existing ones. The idea, according to government sources, is to expand access to public higher education given the increasing number of new applicants seeking university education in the country.

On the face of it, increasing access to higher education is a good thing and should stimulate productivity. But there are many things wrong with this picture in the case of Nigeria. First, critics of the new government plan point to the intolerably high number of unemployed university graduates in the country.

Unemployment among university-educated Nigerians hovers around 85 per cent, according to the Federal Government’s Office of Statistics.

It could be more. Besides the issue of government and private sector inability to absorb trained skilled manpower, there is also the question of the quality of training and the level of skills which contemporary Nigerian university graduates acquire.

Nigerian universities are far too ill-equipped to train and develop new graduates suitable for the 21st Century.

Their products are mediocre. Analysts of the situation point to the extreme level of infrastructural as well as pedagogical deficiency in Nigerian universities, the result of underfunding of public universities. Even then, visits to the new private, commercialised universities also indicate an even more grievous lack of infrastructure.

The learning environments, as well as the orientation and quality of teaching and the basis of research in these new, mostly private, parochial universities point to the  terrible downward adjustment of the meaning of the university; its connection to nation-building, and its place as an industry of knowledge in Nigeria.

Generally, the university is a specialised space of inquiry and has its own unique procedures for knowledge production. Universities cannot be run half-heartedly, or in half-measures. It is either a university or it is not.

The university certainly has prestige value, especially as every university purports to maintain and represent the highest aspirations and attributes of knowledge for which it gathers within itself the most-gifted and most-knowledgeable of men and women that every society can produce.

To gather the most- knowledgeable and the most-talented of people into one space is an expensive venture and requires a commitment of resource whose return is necessarily unquantifiable. In other words, universities by their very scope and mission are non-profits. They have immeasurable social, cultural, economic, and political cache.

Yet, the university is also built to function as the to-go place in the search for complex structural solutions to complex social problems. It is the think-tank of governments, and the laboratory for industry.

Teaching is only half the job that goes on in the university. A normal university seeks out the best from everywhere in the world and advertises itself on this very fact, that among its faculty are people with the highest expertise; those whose particular gifts make them the “talented tenth” of their society. Recruiting and maintaining such people is the imperative of a public trust and it demands resources which the South-Eastern governments now say to us all is outside of their capabilities.

They have thus rendered the universities redundant. The question we must now ask them, is why keep running these contraptions they call state universities if they are unable to maintain them? Why commission and charter a university at all if its mission is ambiguous? Why keep the charade? A university is a culture of its own as I’ve said: from the deliberate, aesthetic design of its environment to the social manners it maintains.

It must express the highest model of national culture and wealth. Its mission is the same – whether it is run by a parochial trust; a private trust, or a public trust – to create well-adjusted citizenry and high manpower. I am, therefore, intrigued by the statement released by the governments of the South-East in response to increasing public criticism about the handling of the crisis in their various public universities.

In a joint statement by the commissioners for Information and Public Affairs of the five states, these governments register what amounts to a joint-zonal or regional position, and it is vacillatory. The statement was, I think, poorly crafted. Its language is not only clichéd, its logic stinks.

Let me place in context the sum of this statement: one, that the Federal Government’s agreement with the federal universities on matters of salary parity does not cover staff and faculty in state universities, and presumably where it does, remains ultra vires. Why? Well, education is on the concurrent list and states have powers to determine their own conditions of service in their own universities.

Two, that the South-Eastern states are not in a financial position to support the kind of conditions demanded by staff. Why? They argue that the South-East is “hugely disadvantaged in the current revenue-sharing formula.” This fact – and it is a fact – may have been a valid argument if the governments had more open, transparent accounting of government revenues and spendings. How do “disadvantages” in federal revenue, for instance, affect the perks of the governors and other cats in government? Hardly.

How much of the state budgets are spent on higher education and research in proportion to say the legislature? One may be more in sympathy with states who come out publicly to say, ‘well, you see, we are no longer in a position to adequately fund our state universities. Therefore, we are compelled to close them all down and put them through liquidation.’

It would make more sense to close down these sham universities than continue to run them at mediocre or “how-for-do” levels on account of “disadvantages” in federal revenue formulas. But the argument, even, is specious at best for state governments that allocate more money monthly to the office of their governors than to the university.

It is laughable and aberrational. It is from a terrible lack of priority for higher education in the East, perhaps, in fact, because these states are unable to comprehend the economic and cultural imperative of the university.

There is hardly a connection between state administration and the public mission of the universities they create. As for fees, the governments must inevitably and realistically have to raise fees in their public universities if they must survive. But they’d also have to consider establishing Scholarship Trusts and a Students Loans Scheme.

There are many innovative ways to run the public school system; it just requires some hard thinking and some innovative spirit, and a commitment to first-rate public education. But this commitment, seems sadly lacking, currently in the East. It is a shameful development.


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