DR. Abdullahi Bichi Baffa is the Executive Secretary, Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund). Before his appointment in 2016, he was the Special Adviser to the Minister of Education. In this interview with Vanguard Learning, he explained reasons for some of his decisions since assuming office as TETFund boss and also discloses how institutions could benefit maximally from the fund. Excerpts:
By Dayo Adesulu
WHAT is the mandate of Tetfund?
The Act that established TETfund clearly outlined the mandate which include these five items. To support beneficiary institutions with essential infrastructure for teaching and learning; to support beneficiary institutions with the instructional materials and equipments; to support beneficiary institutions with fund for research and publications; to support beneficiary institutions with funding for academy staff training and development; and lastly, the fifth mandate is what you can call the open ended one that gives you the opinion in the Board of Trustees which helps in promoting the growth and progress of education in our country. These are the demanded areas as defined by the Act.
You can see clearly that the founding fathers of this agency have cut out, in clear details, what they want the Fund to achieve as far as growing or supporting the growth of our higher education institution is concerned.
What is your mandate at Tetfund as an appointee of President Muhammadu Buhari in relation to the education agenda of the APC government?
My mandate is to ensure that the Act that established TETfund is followed and respected to the letter and to support in the execution of the campaign promises of President Buhari.
This project, as far as higher education is concerned, is to actualize his vision for our higher institutions within the permission of our law and to establish and pursue the provision of his party’s manifesto as they relate to education, especially higher education. It is to also get TETfund back on track and put it on the pedestal of ensuring the respect it deserves.
In the course of carrying out these duties, we would ensure that institutions comply with due process and guidelines within the mandate specified by the law. So in essence, I am a representative of President Muhammadu Buhari at the TETfund. Also, while pursuing the mandate at micro level, we have applied the same agenda of fighting corruption, of human capital development, of promoting quality education, of creating job opportunities, of ensuring the growth of our economy.
Directly or indirectly, we clearly have the relevance on all these items on the agenda of President Buhari’s administration. At TETfund, we are committed to pursuing this agenda very religiously or rather, very judiciously so that we can support the growth and the development of our country. We are very aware of the role of education, especially higher education as the vehicle that we must drive professionally to attain development.
No country will ever be able to succeed in accomplishing its dream to attain any meaningful development as long as the capacity to reproduce highly skilled manpower for it’s governance and industry for the overall value of the country. We are now aware of our role as an intervention agency playing every key role in that agenda of supporting the development and the provision of high level manpower. Our varsities are responsible for provision of a high level of manpower, our polytechnics are responsible for provision of middle and high level manpower needed by our factories, while our colleges of education are responsible for the provision of quality teachers, professional teachers that support our basic and post basic education.
So, if you look at the whole spectra of tertiary education, it will show where we are playing the role. You will see that we are also indirectly supporting the quality of basic and post basic education by ensuring quality and professional teachers are produced at the college of education through our intervention activities.
I believe you must have carried out system study as well as operations appraisal on assumption of office. What were your findings and what is the value added to TETfund?
Incidentally, I have, because of my background as a varsity don, a varsity trade unionist or maybe because of my background as someone who has a relationship with the agency in the past, knew quite a lot even before coming here. Therefore, coming to TETfund a year ago, I almost seamlessly fitted into the agency and literally continued working as though have been working here before. However, there were some very interesting findings as many people are aware that many persons have turned the intervention fund into a cash cow for some category of people to come and milk while the beneficiary institutions were left out.
When an institution applies for fund, we look at the five minded areas that I listed earlier before approving or disapproving the application. Then this education tax is collected by the Federal Government and paid into the education pool account remitted to the TETfund account. After that, we now determine from the available money how much to allocate to the institutions of higher learning. Basically, our targets are essentially infrastructure for teaching and learning, infrastructural materials and equipment for research and publications for academic training and development.
Since we have five minded areas where 80 per cent of the money should go to, we are not easily distracted. What we discovered when we assumed office was that, rather than allocating the bulk of the money to the clearly defined areas, it was the other way round. It was spent on undefined, unspecified open ended areas as they were the ones receiving the highest allocation, while the specified were receiving less. In 2015, out of N250 billion allocated for the year, only N50bn was allocated to all 202 beneficiary institutions for those four minded areas and N200bn was allocated as special intervention which has an open ended undefined, unspecified targets.
An individual could collect an allocation letter and sell to another person and the last person will go to the institution and do a deal. What we did was to stop that, reversed what we could reverse and ensure that we allocate the fund in such a way that the full minded areas are receiving their own share.
The problem with the fifth minded areas, although it is placed somewhere in the Act, it was interpreted that where such is to be done, it should be done in equal measure in all geo-political zones. For example, if you allocate N200bn wrongfully as it were, and you were to do it equally according to the geopolitical zones, perhaps, there will be degree of fairness and compliance with that. But in the past, you would see one geopolitical zone having substantial percentage of that N200bn and some other geopolitical zone would have less.
You would see one institution in one geopolitical zone receiving a special allocation much more than what an entire geopolitical zone is getting. These imbalances are a clear affront on our establishment because it says ‘equality geopolitical zones’. If you’re going to allocate based on the fifth minded area, you must do that according to the equality of the geopolitical zones. It was supposed to be done that way but it was not. In the breach of that provision, we have reversed what we could reverse and some other projects like that are still undergoing some investigations.
Because of the way they were conducted, contractors will collect money, go to the sites, pretend that they have started the projects and continue to procrastinate and delay and eventually they will refuse to do the work. Allowing this to continue is distorting the progress TETfund is supposed to be making. Another thing I found when I came was that when you allocate money to institutions for supposed scholars to go and pursue higher degrees like Masters and PhD elsewhere, the scholars would refuse to go and spend the money. This started from 2009. We have identified them and we have told them to return the money within an agreed time frame. Some were given money to go and attend academic conference at home or abroad, they collect the money and they disappeared.
Few months ago, N74bn misappropriated fund was recovered, how many offenders have been prosecuted and what efforts are you making to recover the remaining N126billion?
It is not about recovery. The N200billion we allocated as special interventions is the 2015 money we are talking about. For the N200bn allocation, the President gave the authority that any allocation for which money has not been disbursed should be canceled and those that were canceled constituted that N74bn.
It was not that we have been paid the money. They were canceled projects that were worth N74bn. You know the funny thing, some of those allocations were given even without the money on ground. They were projecting that in 2017 and 2018, we will get the money.
The balance of N126bn we are talking about is not that we are going to recover it. The projects have started for those ones. Some are in first, second and final tranche. Some are completed. The directives given is that for those ones, the projects should be investigated after completion.
How satisfied are you with the quality of training tertiary institutions’ lecturers engage in yearly?
You cannot give a one line answer to that question because there are some beneficial institutions that send their scholars to very quality erected training. There are people that will just collect the money and just go anywhere. For some institutions, I am very happy with the quality of training they are recommending their scholars to attend. We are still working with the heads of institutions because, to be honest with you, in the past, there used to be no efforts being put to ensure compliance with the guidelines.
All these requirements are there in the guidelines but nobody seems to be bothered about the past to ensure that institutions are complying with the guidelines. But now that we are paying attention to details, we want each provision to be respected because you make rules and guidelines so that they are followed. They guide what you are going to do. They help in facilitating the efficiency of your conducts and the quality of your output.
There are scholars that out of lack of guidance and laziness will just apply and go anywhere. Trainings for scholars are in two categories. The degree training where we sponsor you to go and do Masters or Ph. D and the professional development training where we support you to go for academic conference to mingle with friends, colleagues, seniors, juniors in the same disciplines and related disciplines, to share ideas, broaden horizons and build collaborations.