By Levinus Nwabughiogu
He showed passion as he spoke. He also radiated adequate knowledge of the topic being evaluated. And so, at every stage of the interview, Elder Alwell Abalogu Onukaogu, Rector, Abia State Polytechnic, Aba, cited instances and made several allusions to support his views. Even though he is a product of the university system, he doesn’t believe that there exists any dichotomy between Higher National Diploma (HND) and Bachelors of Science/Arts (B.Sc/B.A) degrees awarded by the polytechnics and the universities
respectively. Rather he said the holders of both certificates play complementary roles.
As a teacher and head of a polytechnic, aren’t you disturbed by the disparity between HND and B. Sc/B.A?
There is no disparity. What we have are idle minds, minds that are not well equipped, minds that think that the brandishing of certificate is what determines; there is no disparity. The Nigerian Law and Educational Policy is very clear about it. Those who think about disparity are those who think that the eyes must perform the same function as the noses or the fore limbs must perform the same function as the hind limbs. It can never be so. But think of the entire system as a human body, then you know that none is superior and none is inferior. So, the idea of thinking about the superiority or inferiority of a B.Sc and HND is something that derived from a negative mind and a mind that is not well informed. Let me tell you, School Cert is not even inferior to B.Sc. The artisan is not
inferior to the engineer. The professor is not superior to the headmaster. Everybody has his role in the system. Where anyone fails, the entire system collapses. So, there is no real controversy. It is just ignorance that is playing itself out in Nigeria.
If that is the case, why do some employers of labour put bar against the holders of HND?
When I was growing up, we had Standard Bank of West Africa, Barclays Bank, First Bank is not what it is today. If you were to work in those banks, you didn’t even need Grade One, you didn’t need School Cert. All you needed was to fail your School Cert
or to have what we called “Government Class Four”. The reason was that these ones are not going to leave tomorrow for the university. And they worked in those banks. And the banks did not fail. What am I saying? You don’t need B.Sc to be a counter-clerk in any bank. What is happening is that banks are exploiting the economic situation. When you hear of slave labour, when you hear of the exploitation of the youth; that is what is happening.
There is a bank; I won’t mention its name, that hires staff with HND and others for N30.000 per month to do the job that they do and, at the end of the year, declare billions. What is happening is that the economy is low and the employer has his way. You don’t even need Adams Smith economics to know that there is a relationship between supply and demand. The supply now is far more than the demand in terms of labour arising from the economy.
That’s why you hear Dangote talking about PhD holders applying to be drivers in his establishments. So, what is happening is that the banking institutions in particular and several others are just exploiting the downturn in the economy. The day the economy picks up; you will look for people without certificates to play their role in the economy. Now, when I say that there is no dichotomy, what I mean is that the educational system is so clad that the polytechnic product has a specific role to play which the university graduate cannot. The university graduate has a specific role to play which the polytechnic graduate cannot. Those in the oil companies, what degrees do they have, particularly those doing white collar jobs? Some of them are not more than technicians or technologists. They are very well paid, not on the basis of their certificates but on the basis of their productivity. I have built so many projects in Abia State Polytechnic and I have had situations where we have gone to Togo, to Benin Republic to look for bricklayers who know how to plaster. We would have been willing to pay them more than we would have been willing to pay those degree holders. So, it is not a question of whether you are a university product or a polytechnic product. Everybody has a role to play. The most important thing is, can you play your role effectively?
Would you have held this opinion assuming you were not within the polytechnic system?
I have university first and second degrees and I know what I was trained to be and I know it took me about five years of hard work to acclimatize and domesticate myself to the polytechnic environment. And I know what we teach and I know the circumstances under which we study. So I am in a good position to know. The university graduate is a theorist. He is a designer. He draws the plans, he does the concept, but he cannot bring them into being, but the polytechnic person practicalizes. He realizes. He nurtures. That is the difference. The university person designs and leaves it as designed. But until it comes into functionality which is the duty of the polytechnic graduate, it is useless. So, no one can do without the other. Someone has to do the designing. Someone has to do the actualization.
Some people believe that the society stigmatizes the polytechnic graduate…
I said it is a mindset. That is the problem and this is happening because of the pace of the economy. Before I went to Government College in 1976, my brother, who is ,today, a Professor of English in the University of Ife, was a clerk in the Ministry of Works in Abakalika. He had a boss who had City and Guild and he was in charge of road maintenance from Abakalika to Ogoja. The Head of Ministry of Works in Abakalika was a B.Sc holder in civil engineering but the man who did his work was a City and Guildl’s man and it was so in various other divisions. If you go to Shell, some of these expatriates don’t even have degrees. They are people with diplomas in underwater wielding. But once you leave the university or the polytechnic at convocation, nobody will ask you which school you attended. What is important is, what is your contribution? As a bricklayer, can you plaster well? If you are a carpenter, can you do the job well? That is what is important. It is only in those days when you are doing your convocation that people will say,’This one went to university, and this one went to polytechnic’. In the end, it is your output that determines your value in the society. The medical doctor, for instance, the greatest surgeon, as competent as he is, cannot do without anesthesia, and sometime he cannot do the work of the radiologist who will look at the inner organs and tell him his findings. He cannot even do without the technician who will mount the light. If in the process any of these electrical appliances fails, all will come to naught. What I am saying is that every sub unit is supposed to contribute to the success of the total system. Nobody is superior to the other.
If that is the case, why are people with university degrees placed on salary scales higher than their HND counterparts?
It is still a mindset.Those who went with degrees to the banks went to apply their theories in failure. I told you that those in Barclays Bank could not have failed. Now, because of salary scales of bankers, those who had degrees caused the banks to collapse. The collapse of banks was facilitated by them. Now, you don’t need a B.Sc to punch a computer to balance an account in a bank. Anybody who has a reasonable level of computer literacy can work in a bank because programs have been set and put in them. You know it and you operate them. You have first class in economics and you go and sit in a computer in a bank and you say they are paying you. I have said that the banks are exploiting a situation where the economy is slow, where there are so many unemployed people looking for very few jobs. Let me tell you, in the next six months, if the situation does not change, you need to have a PhD to be a bank clerk.
How would you rate admission into universities and the polytechnics?
We do the same entrance examination. The entry qualifications are the same: five credits for polytechnics, five credits for universities.
Have you not noticed the preference for university?
The simple reason is that we are in a culture where people are fooled into thinking that brandishing the degree is an indication of knowledge. One of the problems we have in the education system in Nigeria today is that education is no longer for the educatable. The educatable, many of them can’t even go to school. Those who go to school are those who can afford the fees. Tell me, which honest civil servant or public servant can train a child in Covenant University? Which honest public servant or civil servant can train a child in Madonna University, not to talk of the one in Adamawa they call American University? When we went to school, you didn’t need to be a rich father. All you needed was to show the potentials and government will make sure you they train you. Today, only those who can pay can go to university, when I say “can pay”, not only paying the fees but also the lecturers, so that even when they don’t go to class, they get their certificates and come out.
In the polytechnic system, you hardly can see a professor?
Can you recall how both systems came into being? The law that established the polytechnic system says it is our duty to produce middle-level manpower. The law that established the university says that their duty is to produce high-level manpower. Let us assume that the university produces the head and secondary school produce the limbs, we produce the linear region, tell me a human being that does not have head and has leg whether he is alive. Sometimes, like the men say they are the head of the family. Tell me a family that succeeds without the neck. So, the principle of complementary is there. In the US and other advanced countries, the university lecturer/ professor has his recognition, so does the mechanic, so does the brick layer. But here, if you are not a scientist, you are doomed. Tell me a country that legislates against arts in preference of science. A good government will give level playing ground so that you realize what you can according to the competence.
You have been a teacher in both systems. How would you compare both?
I will never talk about tales of superiority or inferiority, better or worse, but I will say that when I taught in the university, I taught as somebody contributing his quota. I don’t think that the quota I contributed to the university system is superior to what I am contributing in the polytechnic; in fact, it is more difficult in the polytechnic that teaching in the university. In the polytechnic, you are in an environment that people find difficult to appreciate. For you to perform to the level of appreciation of the biased general public, you have to work harder than in the university. But I thank God that I am serving in the polytechnic sector because any country that does not pay adequate attention to its technicians is doomed. The problem we have in this country is that we are much more concerned with the roof of the house. We spend so much money designing the roof, consolidating it and we put the roof on a feeble foundations. That’s why it is collapsing. The foundation is the primary and secondary schools. Look at our primary and secondary schools and see what they are. You have about 150 polytechnics and universities of science and technology; we don’t have up to 60 technical colleges. Of the secondary schools we have, 20 percent of them may not have functional physics,chemistry and biology laboratories. But we have very sophisticated tertiary institutions in science and technology. We have roofs, the lighting system is euphoric, long span, everything, but the foundation is on Indian bamboo. It cannot last.
There are calls to confer university status on some polytechnnic. What do you think?
It is not necessary. Let the universities do their job, let the polytechnic do their job. The bricklayer can never be forced to be a carpenter and vice versa. Polytechnics have a mandate. Let us do our job and let the universities do their job. Can everybody be a graduate? Is it necessary? Is it necessary that every body must have PhD? The National Universities Commission (NUC) says for you to be in the university, you must have a PhD. Nonsense. Big nonsense and that is why today, many people who have not gone to university have acquired PhD. It wasn’t so before. Those who are making these decrees did not acquire PhD. The NUC Executive Secretary, ask him, did he have PhD before he taught in the university? He didn’t. If you had second class upper or a good first degree, you became a graduate assistant or a research fellow and then you started teaching and understudying the senior people and you began to read. In the next five to six years, you own your PhD. So, the university did not allow its best brains to leave the shores. They did not work in oil companies. They did not go to banks. That’s how it was done. That’s why somebody like Achebe became a professor without PhD. But today, you go and get all sorts of people to acquire Ph.D through dubious and bogus means. That does not make them good university teachers. Some sound first degrees, second class upper and school cert holders can do far better than people with amorphous PhDs. I am not saying that it is a crime to have Ph.D but I am saying that you don’t need to start with PhD.
There is no university that is worth its salt that allows its very good degree holders to go, you keep and nurture them.
Have you noticed that some universities and even polytechnics have left what they are supposed to be offering conventionally and delved into other disciplines, For instance, a university of agriculture offers law and polytechnic offering management courses like
I don’t see polytechnics offering what they are not supposed to offer. What we call it is accounting technology. But the point is that the polytechnic should not do more than 30 percent humanity- based. For instance, there should be no polytechnic that does not have engineering or environment sciences. But that does not mean you cannot produce technologists in accounting. We can and there is nothing wrong with that. And you find that if you want to test, if you bring an HND holder with a B.Sc holder and subject him to some of the exams of the Chartered Institute of Accounting (ICAN), you will find out that the polytechnic person will do better because he is grounded in the practical aspect of accounting. The difference is not in the
programme or the course but it is what they tend to achieve. When a university begins to award diploma, then they derail because only the polytechnics by law are authorized to award diploma. The only the certificate universities can award is post-graduate diploma. Now, a polytechnic cannot also go and award B.Sc. It is not in our mandate. So, when people delve into areas they are not empowered and qualified to go, that is the problem. You can teach accounting in the polytechnics to produce technologists while the university man teaches accounting to produce an administrator.