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How governments, NUC and ASUU ruin Nigerian universities (1)

By Dele Sobowale

“There is money out there begging for people to apply, yet we keep saying there is no funding for universities.” ProfessorJulius Okojie, Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission. PUNCH, September 3, 2013.

Professor Okojie mentioned instability of Nigeria’s academic calendar,  caused by incessant strikes, [which] had affected their taking their pride of place in Africa, in terms of research and manpower development” as one of the reasons “Why Nigerians study in Ghana” while receiving “the report of the National Review Committee, set up to make proposals for accessing the $8m grant provided by the World Bank for the African Centres of Excellence projects” – according to the PUNCH story.

The matter of access to $8m will be addressed shortly. But, Professor Okojie also made a point, at the time which needs to be represented.

Said the Executive Secretary, “I must say that it is so unfortunate that this is happening at a time the doors of the universities are shut and our colleagues who know what the benefits are have not been responsive.” It is difficult to know which among his colleagues Okojie referred to in that statement.

He is an academic in government and his colleagues in academia are at loggerheads with his colleagues in government.

Just as Okojie said “Money is involved; $8m”, he is certainly aware that this dispute which had kept the universities shut till now is also about money – loads of money which $8m cannot fully solve.

I have not read anywhere that the Federal and State governments offered to pay what they promised ASUU, back in 2009, and the university dons refuse to open the universities. On the contrary, first the Federal Minister of Finance, obviously speaking for herself in light of what had transpired, at first made the announcement that government cannot afford to pay.

Then, the Senate President passed the buck to those who negotiated the pact with ASUU in 2009. David Mark, of course, ignored the fact that the government has had four years between 2009 and 2013 to request of ASUU that the agreement should be revisited in light of circumstances beyond its control. That is why exclusion clauses are inserted into agreements.

But, government failed to do this. Instead, without making a counter offer to ASUU, while schools were still open, the Federal Government waited until schools were shut before talks started. So, which of his two sets of colleagues “have not been responsive”; and one might add, responsible?

Okojie knows the truth; but he works for government and cannot openly blame his employers. The truth is, if public universities are shut, governments shut them. And, one irresponsible governor of a state had just, on account of road terrorism, extended the shutdown in 77 universities.

However, one looks at the situation in our universities, public and private, today, the destructive hand of government can be seen everywhere. Thus, even if ASUU end its strike today, and Nigeria can access all the $8m on offer from the World Bank, it will amount to a drop in the ocean for scientific research – even if the entire amount is given to one university. When it is “shared”, to use the local expression for allocation, it will produce no excellence anywhere.

Given 78 Federal and states universities, $8m or N1,280m comes to only N16m per university. That does not buy a lot of test tubes and reagents as Professor Okojie knows very well. It might just about scratch the surface in biotechnology or DNA research. It certainly will produce no leading edge result.
Let me quickly draw the attention of the reader and Professor Okojie to one of the fundamental reasons why re-opening the campuses might not solve our problems as a nation.

Since 2009, when the Federal Government entered into these agreements with ASUU, the Federal and State governments have added 18 more universities, whose staff members are now covered by the agreement.
The present Federal Government, alone, increased the number by 11 and the states added seven of their own. Incidentally, private universities have also joined the race; 14 of them, approved by the NUC, have sprung up since then; plus about seven bogus private universities.

The quantum of capital expenditure required to bring each of the “government-decreed and NUC-approved” university up to our national standards, which are very far from global, is not yet available to us.
When President Jonathan “decreed” the establishment of nine federal universities at once, and ordered the release of N1 billion for each, it was difficult to know if he was acting on the advice of the Federal Minister of Education and the NUC or it was a unilateral decision.

If N1 billion was meant for capital and recurrent expenditure, it was clear that neither manpower development nor research would take place in those universities. And, in my trips throughout Nigeria, I have entered at least seven state universities, names withheld, and made straight for the science laboratories.

Then, I had gone on the internet to find out the contributions to scientific research from those universities. The paucity of research materials had been matched by the output. None of the professors or lecturers had an entry in their fields of endeavour worthy of note. All the Nigerians cited were teaching in foreign lands or in the first generation universities or three Nigerian private universities. None of them will ever become a Centre of Excellence by grabbing only N16 million. None.

One of the most baffling aspects in this matter has been the role of Nigerian academics in this educational backwardness. To the best of my knowledge, since 1999, and perhaps before that, the Federal Minister of Education, except Dr Oby Ezekwesili, had always been recruited from the nation’s university campuses. They were intimately conversant with the steady decline in university education before they got into office.

Vice-Chancellors of Federal universities are drawn from the ranks of great scholars, either at the same university or from another university. The same can be said about State universities. Olabisi Onabanjo University, in Ogun State for example had been unable to release the certificates of people who graduated three years ago. It might not be the only one. States universities are also headed by academics – although nepotism is common at the state universities. Yet, with the exception of a few e.g Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, FUNAAB, most are in steady decline – for two inextricably lined reasons.

The first reason, as everybody knows is funding. Depending as the universities are on the Federal and state governments, their fate is tied to the revenue generation by the states and the priority given to university education by each administration governing the state. There is little continuity and long range plans, which are indispensable for great research work is lacking everywhere.

When the Federal government increased the number of universities, in one day, by twenty-five per cent, without increasing the allocation to university education by the same percentage, simple arithmetic should point out that all the universities would suffer as a result. Some would argue that the quest for admission by increasing number of applicants forced the Federal government to take that measure.

Certainly, the pressure was there and will remain for years to come. Whether the problem is solved by lowering standards and impeding research remains to be addressed. One thing is, however, indisputable. It is impossible to produce excellence without investing in the determinants of it – infrastructure and human resources.

And, we cannot continue to depend on handouts from the World Bank and the global community to drive excellence in our universities. We must find a way to undertake the bulk of the work ourselves.

That leads me to the NUC, the body charged with regulating university education in Nigeria. Professor Okojie, succeeds several academics who had graced the office since Professor Jubril Aminu was in charge. His tenure of office had witnessed the greatest explosion in the number of universities established at any time since University of Ibadan was first established in 1948.

The most obvious question to ask is: has the NUC grown its own human resource capacity in tandem with the quantum leap in its responsibilities? Put another way: can the staff adequate to monitor the activities of forty universities be considered sufficient to handle one hundred and twenty-eight (128)? This is where we are. Can the same number cope with 200, which is where we are going in a few years?
Already questionable lapses are showing; the most urgent relating to accreditation of courses. Several universities have had problems with accreditation of courses and thousands of Nigerian “graduates” cannot be admitted to the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, because they are holding on to worthless certificates. For those under thirty(30), their future hangs on the resolution of this matter. As it is they can neither obtain employment  from reputable organizations; neither can they run for elective office in the future. That is a stiff penalty to pay for the mistakes of adults starting with the NUC.

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