By GBENGA OKE & LAJU ARENYEKA
Professor Christopher I. Chalokwu is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and professor of geochemistry and physical science at Saint Xavier University,
Chicago, United States (US). He was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Tennessee, US and presently a co-founder of Three Rivers Academic Consulting and Assessment Group in Africa as well as President/CEO of Medical Assay Laboratory, Chicago, US. During a recent visit to Nigeria, he bared his mind on the education sector just as he said it is unfortunate that Nigeria cannot produce one university that ranks among the top 30 universities in Africa. He also told the story of how he rose to become the first full tenured black professor of a US university.
As a co -founder of Three Rivers Academic Consulting and Assessment Group, can you give us aninsight into what this group is all about? Also, as a group that rates universities in Africa, how do you rate Nigerian universities compared to others in the continent?
Three Rivers Academic Consulting and Assessment Group was founded by a group of academics and seasoned university administrators (Prof. Christopher Chalokwu, Prof. Diedre Badejo, Prof. Joseph Orban and Prof. Godwin Mbamalu) who wanted to contribute to the advancement of best practices in education in Africa and the Caribbean.
Our mission is to assist higher education institutions in Africa to develop their human capital needs through an effective recruitment process, improve student learning outcomes through robust assessment, and to build institutional capacity for teaching effectiveness, research, service and extension in an atmosphere that is characterized by trust and a commitment to academic excellence.
We specialize in providing services including but not limited to : assessment of programs for accreditation, strategic planning, development of student learning outcomes, grant writing skills, recruitment of qualified faculty and staff, training workshops and seminars for faculty development and technology integration., and leadership and management training that emphasizes data driven decision making.
Our group is dedicated to partnering with higher education institutions in Africa to develop a holistic approach to recruiting and retaining faculty, staff, and administrators. We assist institutions with securing grants within and from outside Nigeria that are transformational in nature and with accountability on how the grant funds are utilized based on outcomes.
Because African institutions of higher education face 21st century challenges and needs, our group offers a unique approach to academic consulting that begins with understanding the current state of the client institution, its mission and future direction.
Our professional team brings to the process several decades of experience in developing curricula, assessment criteria, student learning outcomes, and public-private partnerships in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa.
Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, cannot produce a single university that ranks in the top 30 or 40 of universities in Africa by most measures. Most objective ranking of universities attempt to measure the extent to which a university is achieving its mission, which generally includes teaching, research, service and knowledge (technology) transfer.
In the final analysis, institutional mission and student success are indistinguishable. Top rank universities in Africa such as the University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand, Cairo University or the University of Nairobi excel across a broad spectrum of indices. Universities in Nigeria are competitively disadvantaged by the lack of adequate infrastructure to support teaching and research mission.
Brain drain of both faculty and talented students and mismanagement of scarce resources are contributory factors in the poor ranking of universities in Nigeria compared to other universities in Africa.I see a glimmer of hope in the private universities in Nigeria. The new private universities in Nigeria should develop curricula that are innovative and timely especially in the STEMM area instead of curricula that are merely duplicative of programs at other universities in Nigeria. The private universities have a potential for improved ranking if their resource base can be sustained.
What is your assessment of strikes every time in the education sector in Nigeria?
The crisis rocking the education sector in Nigeria is no different from the crisis in the petroleum sector, power sector, aviation sector and many other governmental sectors. My role here is not to be overly critical but to propose ideas and solutions that upon further development and implementation could improve the educational sector in Nigeria. It pains me to admit that a great part of the problem stems from corruption, centralization of power at the federal level and leadership appointments based on nepotism with very little consideration for merit.
University leadership appointments are currently politicized with little or no expectations on performance, transparency and accountability. This often breeds discontent between university leadership, the academic and non academic staff and ultimately results in a lack of trust. What is needed is a paradigm shift in the governance structure of Nigerian universities from a centralized top heavy administrative model to a structure based on shared governance whereby administrators, academic and non -academic staff and students collectively develop a shared vision for their institution.
The private universities should be the laboratories for testing the new paradigm. The crisis in the education sector is also a crisis in management. The National Universities Commissionl and the governing councils of Nigerian public universities need restructuring with roles and responsibilities that are benchmarked and assessed continuously. There is also a misalignment between the needs of the country, the intellectual and pragmatic capacity of the population, and the creation of new knowledge relevant to the natural and human resources available for the development of the Nigerian people and the country at large.
The following should be emphasized: Nigeria’s new knowledge agenda must be based on an educational curriculum designed to reflect and unify the country; around its dynamic cultural and ethnic heritages, its complex national history, multicultural identity, and its ancient technologies, creative arts, archaeology, iconographies and epistemologies. These markers allow people to build upon what they know and to connect with what they don’t know and seek to achieve.
In short, Nigeria’s education and future success rests upon taking pride in its patrimony as the foundation of its ascendancy. In the national interest, the country’s education policy must envision the competitive training, research and development of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) citizens who focus on the national needs as an engine for driving the national economy and global competitiveness.
The national education agenda must revamp universal, free, quality, pre-school to secondary school pipeline. It would be wise to incorporate traditional knowledge including medicines into the curriculum through the study of local flora, fauna, and geosciences.
A national assessment instrument that incorporates the effectiveness of such alignment and national goals at diverse levels within the country is essential for driving the education, development and employment sectors.
The funding base needed to achieve the broader educational agenda for the country must be increased at all levels with a portion centralized in an infrastructure trust fund disbursed by a competitive process that is truly accountable and transparent. A radical approach is to entrust the infrastructure trust fund to the control of a single individual who would be accountable to all because the other methods of funding have not worked.
As a result of the crisis in the education sector in Nigeria, the country is experiencing brain drain.What do you think could be done to stop this?
Most qualified Nigerians who leave Nigeria do so for a number of reasons which may include but is not limited to the academic environment. People generally seek opportunities to better their life and that of their families.
Faculty leave the country to pursue their research in more stable, conducive, productive, and competitive environments. In order to minimize the brain drain, government must confront the lack of incentives to work in Nigeria, for example, overcrowded, poorly equipped classrooms; inconsistent electricity, inadequate facilities, and generally unpleasant, dilapidated infrastructure.
There’s no real reason for such disincentives to exist. Adequately funding research opportunities that contribute to the overall well- being of the nation would also appeal to Nigerian and other professionals who wish to contribute to the national good. Such competitive research contributes to the local, state, and national conversation and pride that is essential to academic quality and innovation. The brain drain also applies to talented students who seek admission to study abroad.
Therefore, to slow the brain drain, all academic and non-academic needs must be addressed to improve the learning and working environment and enhance the quality of lives of Nigerians.
Nigerians are hungry for a well-developed, transparent, and reliable funding strategy and mechanism that provide enough accountability at funding levels that can seriously address the sagging infrastructural and material needs of the entire educational system.
The following should be considered: A national funding strategy that includes all levels of governance with fiscally responsible, well-trained educational leaders who know how to leverage buy-in and generate ideas and partnerships with local and business communities; provide resources at levels designed to increase wages and subsidize more impoverished local areas to caste a broad educational net in order to harvest multiple talents from the vast populations and cultures addressed above; provide separate infrastructural funding that is conducive to learning and that inspires students and graduates to maintain loyalty to their institutions and county and that respects the people who enliven the institutions; compete globally for the best technology and trained technicians to maintain the investments in teachers, students, and citizenry.
That means taking advantage of technologies such as smart classrooms, laptops, and iPads to drive innovation; upgrade all levels of post-secondary education including teacher education and technology, and build on both National Youth Service and the diversity of existing post-secondary institutions as crucial parts of a national education strategy with specific and measurable goals; address infrastructural obsolesce and poor facilities maintenance as central to internal respectability and global competitiveness; and provide regular internal, national as well as international opportunities for faculty, students, and members of the public to engage in collaborative experiential learning opportunities. These ideas are not new or unique.
What is lacking is the willingness to innovate.
What we have seen from time to time in the education sector in Nigeria is strike upon strike. How do you think this could be stopped citing examples of how education is run in the United States?
Wherever there is a union and collective bargaining agreements, there will always be strikes, even in the United States. In the US, the salaries for US senators are not much different from that of a
professor of any major university, while in Nigeria the politicians arbitrarily assign their own salaries with allowances and bonus which are often several folds higher than their salaries. ASUU should be at the table where the federal budget on education and funding priorities in education are set. I am advocating an administrative system that is transparent and involving some form of shared governance at the level of the National Universities Commission and other regulatory bodies that oversee education in Nigeria.
The problem with shared governance in a union environment is that collective bargaining by its very nature is adversarial. In return for sharing governance, ASUU should clearly articulate its position on student learning outcomes, and how faculty reward and pay structure can be tied to a transparent faculty evaluation mechanism that include courses taught and contact hours actually spent on teaching students.
I believe strikes can be minimized if all parties feel equally disadvantaged by the outcome of a strike. Paying competitive, timely wages incentivizes professionals to stay and contribute to the educational enterprise. This of course helps to improve the overall economy as well as the commitment of the citizens to the nation.
This also includes paying the lowest level workers a living wage as well as the top earners, and would go a long way in addressing the constant strikes and improve the level of confidence in the nation’s commitment to the educational sector. It would also make workers feel valued by their national institutions. Changing the voluntary academic retirement age to 70 ill reap the benefits and collective wisdom of long-time faculty expertise and their collective institutional memory.
Education in the US, especially now, may not be the best example of stopping faculty strikes, especially since faculty in some post-secondary sectors do strike, usually over working conditions and salary. The University of California and California State Systems are examples. The difference is that when strikes occur in the US they are usually short-lived often lasting a few days; the current ASUU strike in Nigeria has lasted over four months. There are many state universities in the US that face budgetary challenges, and the way these institutions thrive is through a transparent budget process, prioritization of scare resources and adopting corporate practices.
How does a Nigerian like you scale above all odds to attain such heights in an American education sector?
There is no substitute for hard work in American education sector where success is based on merit. The grant of tenure and promotion through the academic ranks in an American university is usually based on one’s teaching effectiveness, research publications, service and external grants and contracts depending on the complexity and mission of the institution. Merit also determines faculty rewards in the form of salary scales and annual increments. For any Nigerian to attain great heights in American higher education, the individual must minimally be as good as but preferably better than his American born counterpart.
All my schooling from undergraduate to post -doctoral was done in the US. I arrived at Auburn University, a major land-grant, research extensive national university in Alabama in 1984, as a faculty member in geology and geochemistry. I immediately developed a teaching and research agenda designed to earn me tenure, which is the first step to becoming a permanent faculty member with job security.
I was fortunate to attract talented graduate students to my research program and benefited from financial support for my research from my university and grant funding agencies. I quickly rose through the professorial ranks to become the first tenured, black full professor in the 140-year-old history of the university. My success as a faculty member at Auburn University, election by the peers to Fellowship of prestigious scientific societies, and a Fulbright Senior Fellow grant became prerequisites for deanship, which led to my appointment as Dean at Benedict College in 1996. By most accounts I was a successf
ul Dean, which led to my appointment as Vice Chancellor at the University of Tennessee, and later as Provost and Vice President at Saint Xavier University. In all my academic and administrative appointments, each position held was the outcome of a competitive national search whereby hundreds of applications are screened by a search committee consisting of representatives from a cross section of the university community (the internal stake holders) and external business leaders and supporters of the university.
Transparency in the search process for faculty and administrative positions in American Higher Education engenders trust and ensures an acceptable outcome. Although all institutions have their own internal dynamics that could lead to politicization of searches for administrators, they are never along the lines of political parties, nepotism or cronyism.
In 2012, Nigerians were spending about 160billion on tuition in Ghana about 246million pounds in the United Kingdom. What do you think are the reasons for this craze for education outside Nigeria’s border and how can Nigeria improve on its education sector to attain some level of improvement like we have in the United States and United Kingdom?
Nigerians flee to Ghana and other countries in search of education institutions that are stable, devoid of strikes and with infrastructure that supports teaching and learning. In my early career, I spent some time teaching and conducting research at the University of Ghana, Legon. While universities in Ghana face financial challenges as well, I appreciate their commitment to student learning, which is clearly what is attracting students from Nigeria to Ghana. Nigerians flee to Ghana in large part to gain admission to a university due to the chronic shortage of slots in Nigerian universities and the instability caused by persistent strikes. Education in Ghana is stable and I would argue that the curriculum in Ghana is sufficiently challenging.
Certainly, there are negative implications for Nigerian students studying in Ghana in large numbers, particularly the brain drain as these students are not part of the learning community in Nigerian institutions.
I reject the notion that Nigerian studying abroad represents a capital flight because the capital provides access where one is lacking. This trend can be reversed by the creation of more private universities or branch campuses of the major universities in order to accommodate the growing number of students hungry for education. What sets education in the United States and United Kingdom apart from most countries is the issue of access.
The current funding base for education in Nigeria is grossly insufficient to support the enrolment base and infrastructure needs for the development of a 21st century academic institution.