Prof. (Mrs.) Otete Okobiah is the Vice-Chancellor of Western Delta University, WDU, Oghara. In this interview with ANTHONY ARUGBA, she speaks on her one year in office, and assesses the achievements and challenges of the university in the past decade of its existence amongst other issues.
How has it been having spent one year in the saddle as Vice-Chancellor of Western Delta University?
Well, it is quite challenging because I am dealing with staff, students and the economic situation of the university. But in all we give glory to God. Since I came on board, the feedback I have been getting from lecturers is quiet encouraging. In fact, they keep telling me that since I came on board, they are now have that feeling of a university because, before now, the lecturers exuded some form of lackadaisical attitude to work, but all that has changed now. Also, standard have been set because lecturers are beginning show greater commitment and dedication to duty. I will continue to do my best to improve the situation because there is always room for improvement.
What informed your decision to take up the appointment as Vice-Chancellor considering the comparative advantage Delta State University has over the WDU, in terms of funding, student population and security of tenure?
Actually, I have been a member of Council of this university from inception. So, when we began to have issue of vice-chancellor, you know, the Council met and set up a committee to search for a VC, and I was in the committee. And as we progressed in the search, one fateful day, the Pro-Chancellor called to inform me that the committee had met and decided to appoint me as the vice-chancellor and I shouted ‘ how come the committee met without me?’, but he simply told me to think about it. Thereafter, I discussed it with my husband and he told me to take up the appointment, but I was hesitant because of the myriad challenges confronting most private universities. He encouraged me and told me that God will give me the strength to overcome the challenges. He also told me that everything was not about money because I asked him so many questions. So, I took up the appointment even though I had my reservations.
Frankly speaking, I knew I that was coming to face a huge task because in any venture one decides to embark on, money is a critical factor. This is a university in Urhobo land. The university, in my own opinion, is for all Urhobos, Deltans and Nigerians as a whole. It provides an opportunity for parents to train their wards. For instance, people residing in Oghara, Jesse and environs can come to school from home. This will eventually reduce the cost of maintenance,paying for accommodation, transportation, feeding among others. They can really slug it out in this environment and as a professor of counseling psychology; I know the importance of education, regardless of the non-availability of jobs in the country. Again, one of the things I cherish most in life is being a model to young females, including those in this community with unenviable past in terms of giving birth to children whose fathers they could hardly identify. So, I see myself as an inspiration to many young girls. These among others inspired me to take the appointment. Working here is an opportunity for me to be closer to my people and see how I can affect their lives positively and I have no regrets taking the appointment.
From your own experience, which aspects of this university can you identify as points of divergence from the peculiarities of Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka, where you came from?
Of course, as a public university owned by the state government, the issue of payment of salaries is much more certain because the government is responsible for the payment of staff salaries. Again, the issue of infrastructure is being taken care of by the government. Also, you have TETFUND, ETF and other intervention agencies also complementing the efforts of the state government. But here, as a private university, we don’t have such luxury. And I think it is not fair to private universities because we are also involved in the training of manpower for the society. I mean, private universities are part of the society and even the workers pay tax. We are supporting the government. As you know, government alone cannot shoulder the responsibility of funding education, so, for the fact that private universities are involved in the business of training manpower, the government should assist us by way of financial grants to private universities.
The university is 10 years now, how would you summarize the achievements of the university in a decade, in terms of manpower development and offering opportunities to young people to acquire higher education in Delta State?
Really, one can say there is improvement in the university. Without doubt, this is a young university and it is still growing. In terms of staffing, the university tries to assist those doing their Ph.D and those going for conferences, although; it may not be full sponsorship but somehow, we are encouraging them. Again, the staff strength is also improving because we now have lecturers with doctorate degrees in the university.
There are others that are currently running their doctorate programmes compared to the past when we have only master’s degrees holders as lecturers. On students strength, there is growth even though it has not really reached the level we had expected. Less I forget, when I came on board, they had not moved to the permanent site, but this year we have moved to the permanent site. And I strongly believe that as vehicles move from Benin to Warri and Warri to Benin, and they see people entering and exiting the university, there is an awareness of a university because of its location. It is in a prime position. Prior to this time, many persons never knew the university had begun operations and each time people called to know if we have started, I would simply laugh because the university started 10 years ago. Without doubt, moving to the permanent site is a major achievement of this university. And if NUC approves the Law programme we are working on, it would be a major achievement.
Given the low students enrolment which stares private universities in the face, what is WDU doing to attract students and invariably enhance the financial profile of the institution, especially now that a new academic session is about to begin?
This year, we have aggressive machinery in place to ensure that we get students. For instance, we have so many centres in Lagos where prospective students can purchase their forms. Also, two weeks ago, when the Urhobo Foundation had their conference, I attended the conference and prominence was given to university and I, perhaps, because I was the only female at the high table.
We are also making efforts to reach out to the media. In fact, we have obtained contact persons for select newspapers here in Oghara, to help us insert the flyers into the papers and I am confident that will help us market our institution in the country. We have also made efforts to advertise in other newspapers. We also have purchasing centers in Abraka, Sapele, Asaba, all in Delta State; Yenagoa, Bayelsa State; Benin, Edo State and Ekiti State. We are really spreading our tentacles; we also have radio and television advert, and three online advert platforms. We also advertised in a local newspaper read very widely in this part of the state. So, this is the much we are doing and we hope that God will help us. We also have other plans like putting our sign board in a prominent place in Benin so that those going to Lagos can see it and through such means, we are creating awareness about the university.
Again, there is this JUPEB programme. We have applied and they are responding to us and we are hoping that if the programme starts, we might get some students from here. Also, we are looking at the federal government programme for students and hopefully we will get students from them. Honestly, we hope that this academic session should be better than the previous one. We are also preparing for National Universities Commission’s (NUC) visitation for results verification. If they come and approve what we have for Law programme, we will heave a sigh of relief. We also have two other programmes-
Internaional Relations and Criminology and Security Studies. So we are hoping that if we expand the base of academic programmes; we might have more students and that will improve our developmental initiatives. We are also planning to have Medicine and Surgery programme in the next two years. We have started preparations for the building of the structure. We hope that all these methods of advertising will yield fruit for us.
There are four private universities in Delta State, namely Michael and Cecilia Ibru University,Agbarha-Otor; Novena University, Amai; Western Delta University, Oghara and E.K. Clark University, Kiagbodo and there is this strong belief that these four universities should complement DELSU in meeting the aspiration of young Deltans to acquire higher education.What would you therefore attribute to the low student population in private universities?
Well, in some cases it is lack of funds and awareness, but majorly lack of funds. The students we are talking about come from different homes, and as you are aware parents working in public sectors are not being paid their salaries and those on pension experience same ill fate as they don’t Vget to receive their pay as and when due. These people have not being paid a dime for months and they have to provide for the education needs of their children. So, in view of this constraint, most parents opt for universities with the cheapest school fees like DELSU which charges lower fees of N28, 000, as against the N400,000 and above fees that most private universities charge.
With the prevailing economic recession, don’t you think it has become imperative on the part of private universities to reduce school fees amount to N250, 000, in order to increase students base, considering the fact that private universities are the worst hit in terms of students population in the country?
When you look at it critically, you might think is the way out but it’s not. In fact, they can’t survive on N250, 000 because the amount expended on diesel alone is huge. Most times, we don’t have light and so we cannot afford reducing the amount; we cannot survive it at all. Even at the moment, most private universities are having difficulties paying workers salaries; so,reducing it will spell doom for us. You may think that if we reduce the school fees amount people might come, but I tell you people might not come after the reduction of the school fees.