Versities Talk With Dele Sobowale
Federal and states budgets remain uncertain for 2015 as the price of crude oil continues to decline. November 2014, the Governor of the Central Bank, suggested that the price would go as low as $50 per barrel. Today people mention prices as frightening as $20 per barrel. The forces depressing the price of crude oil remain relentless and appear to be gathering momentum.
Chief among these is increasing export of crude oil by USA. The US had transformed itself from the world’s largest importer of crude to an exporter and it is determined to expand its market share of global sales. That is bad news for Nigeria and it is a development which will not soon reverse itself. In fact, if the truth must be told, we have lost that customer permanently.
Next in line is the fact that the Asian and European customers who took up some of the slack in exports to the US are experiencing serious economic recession. Crude oil consumption will be down for the balance of this year – which is just starting.
Altogether, there is every likelihood that the 2015 budget, at all levels, will be slashed drastically and education will not be spared from the knife. Indeed, what we now face is the possibility that allocations to varsities, hitherto inadequate for their needs might not even cover the recurrent expenditure. Any expectations on capital expenditure might be illusory. The consequences for universities will be very grave because development of varsities will not just come to a halt; deterioration will occur. We have been through this before. When the price of crude oil started its downward trend, from over $28 per barrel in 1982 to $9.90 in late 1988, universities and their physical structures were among the major victims. As a frequent visitor to the University of Ibadan in the 1970s and 1980s, the change for the worse occurred right in front of my eyes. Halls of residence, usually given face lifts periodically in the past were suddenly left un-renovated for years on end; such that visitors to the university in the 1970s could not recognize the university in the 1980s.
The same deterioration was noticeable in the academic buildings. Classrooms and laboratories were also left to decay – not because the administrators of the universities were corrupt or incompetent, but because there was simply no money. It was not just U.I which suffered the collapse of infrastructure. With just about 20 Federal Universities and less than 10 state varsities to provide for, the governments, at all levels, were overwhelmed. The first major incidence of brain drain – exit of Nigerian academics to foreign universities took place then. However, Nigerian scholars were still highly regarded at the time.
This year, we enter into another era when history seems ready to repeat itself. Slumping oil prices, inflation, increasing unemployment seem certain to bring universities down on their knees once again. The differences this time should not escape us. Two are prominent.
First, with the economic downturn becoming global in nature – except for America and Canada – opportunities for varsity dons to migrate might not be as abundant as in the 1980s. Second, for those who received their doctorates in Nigerian universities, the chances have narrowed even more. The withdrawal of 19 Ph. Ds by Lagos State University, LASU, years after they were awarded, was a shot heard around the world. Formerly, it was our undergraduate degrees that were suspect. That incident had also devalued our graduate certificates – including doctorates.
If the price of crude remains under $55 per barrel for more than one year, then we can all expect a return to the days when laboratories were empty and science students had to memorise diagrams instead of performing real experiments and medical students cannot find cadavers to work with or the laboratory equipment needed to open up the bodies. The Engineering and physical science departments tend to experience the most deterioration leading to the graduation of people which prospective employers find unemployable. Unfortunately, making the President and the state governors ‘Visitors’ to our universities constrains innovation and creative management of what will certainly become scarce resources.
When the Adekunle Ajasin University, Ondo State, opened its astonishing senate building recently, the first thing, naturally, was amazement that a state government could conceive of such a structure.