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University admission: Pros, cons of abolition of catchment areas policy

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By Adesina Wahab and Elizabeth Uwandu

President Muhammadu Buhari

RECENTLY, during the 45th convocation ceremony of the University of Benin, UNIBEN, President Muhammadu Buhari, who is the university”s Visitor, made a policy statement that may eventually change the admission policy into all federal universities. Buhari, who was represented on the occasion by the Deputy Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission, NUC, Suleiman Yusuf, abolished the use of catchment areas as one of the criteria in admitting students into federal universities beginning from next year.

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Up until now, admission into federal universities is based on three main criteria. There is the merit criterion, in which 45 percent of applicants are taken in, catchment area for 35 percent of admission seekers and 20 percent for educationally less developed states.

The educationally less developed states, axcording to the National Universities Commission, NUC and the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, JAMB, are Adamawa, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Ebonyi, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, and Kogi. Others are Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau, Rivers, Sokoto, Taraba, Yobe and Zamfara.

The catchment areas of a federal university include its state of location and surrounding states. For instance, the University of Lagos, UNILAG, has Oyo, Lagos, Osun, Ogun, Ondo and Ekiti states as catchment areas. The intention of the catchment areas policy is to give host communities sense of belonging and the universities doing a sort of corporate social responsibility to the communities.

Buhari’s grouse against the policy

The President feels it is denying people from other areas the opportunity to be admitted or even be employed in such universities. “If you look at the demographics of the various Nigerian universities, it reveals a preponderance of over localisation and over indigenization with only a few universities including those owned by the federal government having a semblance of national institutions in terms of the national spread of their staff and students population. Universities should be more broad-minded, less parochial and eschew over indigenization,” he said.

President Buhari warned that any institution found going against the directive would be sanctioned, adding that he has directed the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) and the Nigeria Universities Commission to ensure compliance commencing from the 2020 admission season. President Buhari said the NUC and JAMB have been directed to thereafter carry out a comprehensive student audits to ascertain compliance.

Is the President’s directive in order?

According to the President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, such a policy could only be implemented when certain things are done. “This is part of some of the things we say about university autonomy that the Federal Government is trampling upon. There are laws that set up each university in the country. Those laws are there, they have not been changed. We cannot just say we are doing things unilaterally. These laws cover a number of issues including the catchment areas policy and they must be respected. Until the laws are amended, such a policy may not just work, he said.

In a similar manner, Dr. Charles Oni, the Head of Department, Mass Communication, Yaba College of Technology, Yabatech, explained that there was nothing wrong in taking into cognisant the issue of catchment areas in the admission process of federal universities. “There is nothing wrong with the catchment areas principle as it currently exists, only that people abuse principles that ought to have benefitted the larger majority with impunity. Left to me, the catchment areas principle is more or less higher institutions corporate social responsibility to their host states and states contiguous to the direct hosts. The principle was targeted at promoting sense of belonging and sort of prevent inbreeding or parochialism.

“I think what the government should check now are public institutions like Federal University, Oye Ekiti, which are being run like private universities. I have studied and worked across this country, I have not seen a public university, even state owned charge N50,000 as Acceptance Fee and N10,000 for Medical Test. Only FUOYE does that. Unfortunately, if you check the pedigree of the administrators of the institution, you may find they went to school on scholarship. How can an institution situated in an agrarian community be that wicked. The government should examine what went wrong,” he advised.

However, Dr. Charles Owunali, a Senior Lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, UNILAG, Akoka, said the abolition of the policy was long overdue.  His words: “The decision or proposal is long overdue. It has not served any useful purpose. Currently JAMB administers it ostensibly to reduce the abuse inherent in the system. With a large number of state-owned and private universities, the cry for lack of university space for marginalised groups should have reduced. Even many state universities are still talking students from the so-called advantaged states to fill programmes that need students. UNILAG and other federal institutions follow JAMB’s admission guidelines and would gladly welcome a reversal of the policy that never in reality achieved its lofty objectives. In any case the catchment policy has only succeeded in ethnicising the federal universities instead of encouraging scholarship and healthy competition.”

Fear about implementing the new directive

A parent, who is also a school owner, Mr. Doyin Suyi, wants the FG to evolve a fair, credible and acceptable process through which the 35 percent to be taken away from catchment areas policy will now be utilized. “For now, the government is silent on the 35 percent that is to be taken away from the catchment areas criterion. Will it be added to the merit list or the less educationally developed states’ list?”

Going by the tone of the President’s statement that every local government, every geo-political zone should be represented in the admission of students by the universities, my fear is that a large chunk of the slot would be added to the less educationally developed states. “What does that mean when it is done? It will simply reinforce the mediocre system we have been living with in which a student from say Jigawa will score 120 in UTME and will secure admission to read say Medicine and somebody from Abia will score 320 and won’t be admitted. My candid advice to the President is that merit should be the major beneficiary of this policy because if we produce mediocre graduates the society will eventually bear the brunt,” he submitted.

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