By Wale Akinola
Prof. Diji Aina is the Vice Chancellor of Caleb University, Imota, Lagos. In this interview, Aina disputes the claim that private universities fees across the country are too high, saying the current fees are sustainable only because the owners subsidise. He also says the products of private universities are of high quality contrary to the notion in some quarters.
There is this notion that there are too many private universities in the country, and that the situation, if not checked, may lead to standards being compromised. What is your perspective?
I think those who are saying that are saying so out of ignorance.
I’m not sure the number of universities we have in Nigeria is comparable to that of the United States and other climes? There are over a thousand universities and colleges in the United States. Is this not amazing? The US has a population in the region of 300 million people while Nigeria is about half of that population with about 150 universities.
Out of this figure, the number of private universities in Nigeria is just a little over 50 (note that eight new ones have just been licensed). The implication of the foregoing is that if our leaders plan the human resources very well, Nigeria can sustain 400 universities. We need more universities in Nigeria.
If the problem is not about the number, what then is it?
The problem is not about the number of universities, it is about how government can help proprietors of private and public universities to do what is right, and this comes in many ways.
First, the operating environment must be friendly for the survival of universities. Government has a big role to play in power supply at reasonable cost guaranteed by economy of scale. If there is steady power supply, it will help reduce the cost of running universities by cutting down on money spent acquiring generating power plants and buying diesel.
Second, government should fund research in the universities. Education is the bedrock of development, and research drives development. The little intervention through TETFUND is grossly insufficient while additional constraint is placed on the system by its restriction to public universities. Is it not curious that money generated from private enterprises are spent only on government institutions?
Meanwhile, note that we in the private tertiary institution sector are not asking for money to pay salaries but that TETFUND should be available to assist students in private universities in the areas of research, library, and ICT intervention. When these students are trained, they graduate to service the Nigerian economy and not work for their universities.
If the federal government of Nigeria can emulate the Swedish government or even that of South Africa where special attention is accorded funding matters relating to education, especially the research aspect, then the institutions will not only enjoy a new lease of life but will also have a lot of researchers and scholars being attracted to Nigeria. This will reverse the problem of brain drain to brain gain.
Does it mean Nigeria does not have the number of staff needed to sustain the envisaged growth?
While it is true that we need more senior hands to manage the universities, the idea is not for all members of staff to come only from one state, one geo-political area, or even Nigeria. Universities are supposed to be global in nature, character, purpose and finality. What this means is that universities are supposed to be centers of attraction for global excellence and competition. If you have more universities in Nigeria, and the operating environment is conducive, the better for Nigeria. Note that intellectual capital is a mobile capital. If the Nigerian education sector is attractive, there will be migration of highly competent scholars to our universities, just the way some of our colleagues are currently attracted to some countries now.
I was recently in Ghana on a recruitment exercise for Caleb University, a lot of graduates with first class and others with Ph.D, including professors responded. They were ready to move with attractive packages we offer and we were still discussing when suddenly the naira took a plunge against the dollar.
Why recruiting in Ghana, are there no competent or qualified hands in Nigeria?
For any university worth its salt, you recruit the best of the best as your members of staff especially for the academic sector from any part of the world. It doesn’t matter where such people come from, what matters most is what they can offer in terms of academic scholarship. We have even just recruited from South Korea. This is the whole idea of a university.
The idea of a university is that you have an academic plan, and a brief on how to excel. What turns a university around is the enabling environment when a university is set up in a conducive environment, you can now attract the best staff from any part of the world.
So what you are saying is that the requirements or what is needed to run a university is conducive environment and not necessarily a multitude of staff comprising scores of professors and others?
What the National Universities Commission, NUC, requires to run an undergraduate programme is a minimum of six staff comprising a professor, two senior lecturers and three others.Then as you grow in your enrollment figure, you have the student/staff ratio which should be balanced with the minimum requirement. In management sciences for instance staff student ration is 1:30. This means you need 12 academic staff to support 360 student population, which in turn should be two professors, four senior lecturers and six others.
Then universities should be centres of research and academic excellence. Those who are saying the number of universities in the country is too much are saying so because they are limited by knowledge and scope..
Is the drive to get the best staff from other parts of the world partly responsible for the charges by the private varsities which many believe are on the high side?
I disagree with that notion. Private universities charges are not on the high side.
When some people say private varsities charges are higher, I don’t know what they mean. For the fact that some people can’t afford to send their wards to private varsities doesn’t mean the charges are on the high side.
That I don’t have enough money to lodge in Sheraton Hotel doesn’t mean that the charges for lodgings are on the high side. It simply means my income bracket cannot afford staying there.
If you go to any five-star hotel, they have special packages which they promise customers. The same applies to private varsities? If some special facilities are put in place which you enjoy you have to pay for it. In public universities, government pays for it, and even that now comes with the challenges that the economy is on the slow drive because of recession.
When you say charges are high, I disagree with proof. For instance, you pay a professor between N400,000 and N500,000 gross. If you have 3,000 students, you need 100 academic staff if you use the social science students staff ratio or between 120 to 150 staff for the sciences. Multiply the monthly wage bill, including those of non-teaching staff that is usually double or triple the number of academic and tell me if the fees are exorbitant. Recall for instance that Caleb University charges 350,000 as tuition, so it not difficult to project income accruable less those on scholarship and those who will never be able to pay. Think now outside salary and overhead costs and imagine what goes to provide power supply, laboratory equipment and consumables, and most significantly buildings and other infrastructure provisions.
When you talk about physical infrastructure, the academic infrastructure we are putting up ranges from N400 million to a little less than N2 billion. Then you talk about equipping the buildings. In the midst of these, you now have somebody paying N350,000 as tuition bragging that fees are on the high side. This simply comes to anyone as the product of ignorance or the Nigerian ways of just feeling good feigning oppression and helplessness. What do you expect from a father of two students in a private university, a civil servant whose salary is a paltry N80,000 with no access to the treasury as a result of the TSA policy of government.
The truth is that the charges are not expensive compared to the services provided by private varsities but may be truly unaffordable to the civil servant or any other salary earner. What you see is that at Caleb University, like some other private universities, the proprietor gives not less than N500 million every year to subsidize our budget when no major construction work is on-going. This is highly commendable and a noble cause.
If we have many other Nigerians that can do this, it will have significant and positive effect on our education sector.
Talking about the physical size of some of the private universities, some people have claimed that some secondary schools occupied bigger spaces than them …
Cuts in … What you put in place is a function of your business plan.
The size doesn’t make a university. Buildings don’t make a university. It is the quality of graduates that are produced that makes a university and of course functionality of the facility in delivering on its academic mandate.
While one can’t diminish the fact that you need facilities in place, facilities are not the only thing you need to make a university succeed. You also need proper training and proper use of those facilities to make the best out of the students.
There is this thinking that the way many students in private universities get first class can diminish respect for distinction unlike before when it was rare to produce many first class graduates.
There is so much ignorance in the public arena, and that is why we need to continually educate members of the public. I see mischief employed by some people who have peculiar interests in the matter, while some people are actually ignorant about the whole matter. Caleb produced for this session 15 first class out of 355 graduates. Is this too much? Must we scale people down or give them what they deserve? Are these not grades earned over a period of four to five years, eight to ten semesters with about 150-160 credit units of courses taught by a variety of staff? Why this high level of ignorance or mischief by those who see private universities as alternative to take shine away out of the unionists who have held the system to ransom for decades on less important excuses.
The point has to be made that many people have not bothered to find out whether the first class degrees produced by private varsities are of standard? Ideas rule the world. People should come up with data. Data should drive our commentaries as informed people.
For example, federal government, through the NUC, in the last two or three years has been taking applications from first class graduates for overseas scholarship. It was gratifying to know that one private university in Nigeria has been having 10 per cent of the first class graduates selected for the scholarship.
This scholarship scheme for 200 first class graduates scheme is reputed to be very competitive, and just one private university for the first two editions produced 20 out of the 200. Other private universities took a larger chunk of the remaining slots. The immediate past Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, Professor Julius Okojie, was full of praises for the quality of graduates from the private universities. He said the results have shown that private universities have been living up to standard.
What some critics have refused to acknowledge is that in private universities, the selection process for admission is very rigorous. At private universities, we place emphasis on merit, and that is one of the reasons we do rigorous screening for admission. We are also particular about selecting brilliant candidates who will not fall by the wayside. It is a well-known fact that some lecturers in public university deliberately set limit or bar on what highest score can be in their classes without due regards to student ultimate performance. In most private universities, we canvass that whatever a student scores should be given to him.
We recruited some of the best lecturers and students get the best academic attention. Remember also that we have no strike and no disruption of the academic calendar.
Somebody with first class grade result can’t be assisted. The result can’t be padded. You get the result on merit. You must work hard to get it.