.Despite huge admission deficit, private varsities are losing appeal
By Dayo Adesulu
THe establishment of private universities in Nigeria dates back to 1979 when education was placed on the concurrent list in the nation’s constitution, permitting individuals and organisations to establish private universities. Within a period of four years, 24 of such universities were established in the country. Some of the universities were hurriedly established without proper planning.
It was observed during this period that the threat to qualitative university education was so real that its subsequent devastating effect in Nigeria would be irreparable hence the promulgation of Decree No. 19 of 1984 and 16 of 1985 to sanitise the system. The growing increase in the number of prospective candidates for admission into universities and increasing inability of existing public universities to cope with the increase in demand for university placement, necessitated a review of the 1984 ban.
The review led to the enactment of Decree No. 9 of 1993, which allowed individuals, organisations, corporate bodies as well as local governments to establish and run private universities upon meeting laid down guidelines and obtaining approval of government. According to Prof. Peter Okebukola, the NUC scribe, the decree stipulated the conditions that must be met to enable the National Universities Commission (NUC) assess the adequacy or otherwise of applications for government’s approval.
Six years after the promulgation of Decree 9 of 1993, the first set of private universities were licensed. These are Igbinedion University, Okada, Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo and Madonna University, Okija. Thereafter, five others were licensed between July 31, 2001 and May 28, 2003. In 2005, 15 private universities were established and the rate had maintained a slow and steady climb bringing the total to 61 as at September 2015.
Thus, North-East geopolitical zone has two private varsities, North- Central has 10, North-West has one, South-East has nine, South- South has 11, South-West has 28, bringing the total number to 61. The increasing number of secondary school leavers angling for limited university spaces was a key factor in the Obasanjo’s administration, giving room to private university providers.
The expectation was that not less than 20% of enrolment in the university system will be ascribed to the private university sub-system, according to Prof. Okebukola In the early days, especially between 2000 and 2004, the private universities that were granted licences, had respectable enrolment, raising the hope of attainment of the 20% target by 2015.
The factors which accounted for the choice of private universities in the early days included their credentials of providing more conducive environment for learning and the non-traditional courses which they offered. The factor of preference of parents for small class size that the private universities offered and the possibility of individualised attention to their children and wards was also strong.
Perhaps, the most important of the factors was the notoriously unstable calendar of public universities. Between 1992 and 2001, the public university system suffered protracted strikes for a cumulative period of 37 months which led to the loss of three academic sessions.
The private varsities offered a strike-free environment and a guarantee of graduation in normal time. Therefore, candidates, inspired by their parents, headed for private varsities. Not long after, at least three factors conspired to reverse the upward swing in enrolment. First was the relative stability which has returned to the public university system.
By 2002, apparently weary of strike actions, the staff unions took a long break from the usual national strikes and academic calendars were hardly interrupted for long spells. The pull back to public universities gained momentum and application to private varsities took a plunge.
Secondly, the number of private universities grew and this caused a reduction in the total number of applicants to each university. The third factor was the increase in the national poverty rates which hindered parents from generating enough resources to pay the high tuition for private university education. It got so bad that some private universities had less than 10 applicants for their degree programmes in 2015.
The data below shows the private varsity application statistics of 2015, top 10 and bottom 10.
By 2014, and to the dismay of university planners, the private varsity sub-system was only able to attract less than 6% of the total enrolment in the Nigerian university system. The 20% anticipated enrolment flopped. Today, even with the encouragement by JAMB that candidates should apply to private universities within and outside their geopolitical zones, the response has been largely negative. Our investigations confirm that the key factor shaping interest or otherwise, is the high fee regime of most private varsities.
If the aspiration to get at least 20% of the candidates enrolled is to be achieved, what strategic options should we explore? In its quest to proffer solution to the imminent collapse of private varsities, Prof. Peter Okebukola during his speech at the maiden convocation lecture of Samuel Adegboyega University, Ogwa, gave few suggestions.
He said: “Lowering the cost of education to be borne by students or their parents in private universities is a promising option. This cannot be ordered by governmental fiat but induced through financial support systems and tax incentives. Governmental financial support is applied to public universities through the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund). The enabling law of the Fund partials out private universities in the regular support system.
Strong opinions for and against the provision have been argued. Those in favour have hinged their argument on the simple logic that being private providers, government has no business in offering financial support in any form to private universities. After all, the argument continues, the owners of the universities paraded a business plan to the NUC claiming to have the financial muscle to carry the load of delivering quality varsity education if granted licence.
The same individuals or groups cannot turn round few years down the road to claim errors in the original business plans. “The counter arguments of those who believe that TETFund should provide a place for private universities in its intervention net are equally strong and convincing. There are three strands of arguments. Over 70% of the intake into TETFund is from taxes of private companies. Excluding private universities from benefitting from what its sector has amassed is adjudged inequitable and discriminatory.
From their point of view, private varsities should be apportioned larger share of the TETFund revenue. The second line of argument is that all graduates from the university system whether from public or private varsities are prepared to serve the national economy. The national economy will be severely hurt peradventure products of private varsities end up being of lesser quality than the public.
If the goal is to produce quality graduates regardless of the source (public or private), then private varsities need to be equally served by TETFund in its intervention. Champions of the argument have often asserted that the chief executive officers of former ETF and now TETFund have been from the northern part of Nigeria where private universities are sparse and where the belief to slow down the south from further outpacing the north in educational development is prevalent. There is no empirical proof for this assertion.
“It is not impossible, though will be time-taking, to amend the TETFund law to offer a line of support for private universities. Even within existing law which supports only public universities, it should be possible to indirectly support private universities. How this can be achieved should be creatively explored.
The answer to improving enrolment into private universities rests largely on TETFund support which will translate to significant lowering of the fees which in turn will attract a larger proportion of candidates than currently witnessed. The TETFund offer should support provision of teaching and research equipment, training (capacity-building) of lecturers and infrastructure development.
Its annual renewal should be based on positive inspection reports and evidence of judicious and transparent use of funds. Such grant-aiding of private institutions is not new. The 1882 Education Ordinance and the 1890 Education law make explicit provisions for grant-in-aid to private schools. Government of the Colony of Lagos as well as the Southern and Northern Protectorates instituted the grant-in-aid scheme to ensure that privately-owned schools, especially those owned by missionary bodies did not fall below established quality standards.
“While awaiting the realisation of TETFund intervention to private universities, there are a number of actions that the managers of these universities can take to boost enrolment. Intensive publicity is one such way. Newspaper and radio adverts will hardly do the trick. Big gains can be achieved by a more sonorous chorus across the country and outside of it.
Great dealof fluency
Relatively new British universities have attained a great deal of fluency in the enterprise of selling their schools. They run fairs as a consortium in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt and in other cities in West Africa. Their harvest is usually rich. Private universities in Nigeria can learn a lesson from this model. Samuel Adegboyega University can enter into a marketing consortium arrangement with a number of private and public universities in Nigeria to undertake roadshows, exhibitions and fairs in choice locations in Nigeria and some neighbouring West African countries. In a couple of years, the harvest of candidates will be bountiful.
“Equally worth adopting is publicity through activities of the university and its staff. Public lectures organised by the university or a particular department or faculty should be accorded huge media publicity. Laurels won by students and staff should be celebrated in the press. The VC should honour invitations to academic events outside the varsity and use the opportunity to sell his or her university.
Radio and TV discussion programmes are other avenues which the VC should take advantage of to publicise the university. With the name of the university made popular in the media, prospective candidates will have increasing awareness of the existence of the university and this will raise the volume of application for admission.’’