By Aare Afe Babalola, SAN
It is a historical fact that the first universities in the world were private institutions established mostly by students who invited knowledgeable individuals in society to teach them.
This was particularly so in ancient Athens, in Greece. History tells us of the existence of great universities such as University of Constantinople sometimes known as the University of the Palace Hall of Magnaura, which was founded 425 AD as well as the University of Bologna founded in 1088, the University of Paris founded in 1150 by the Catholic Church.
Like other medieval universities, Oxford, Salamanca, Cambridge, Padua were also founded by missionaries. When the 13th state of America was founded, private universities emerged, including Havard founded in 1636. Other private universities include Stanford, Colombia, Brown, Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth Pennsylvania and Yale.
Apart from Christian missionary universities, there were degree-awarding universities established by Islamic organisations such as the university of Al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco, founded in 859. AL-Azhar university in Egypt is probably the world’s second oldest surviving degree-awarding institute. It was founded in 970-972 and serves as a centre for Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, both Christian missionaries and Islamic organisations continued to develop more in the field of education.
CMS Grammar School, Lagos was established in 1859 as the first missionary school in Nigeria. Other such schools included Christ School, Ado-Ekiti founded by the Christian Missionary Society in 1933 and others, especially throughout the southern part of the country.
The idea of private universities in Nigeria came about with the economic decline of the late 1970s and early 1980s when the International Monetary Fund imposed an austerity package on the country as a condition for re-scheduling the crippling external loans from international financial institutions. Before then, Nigeria, like many other African countries had grown used to the idea of government as the provider of public utilities.
The IMF’s “conditionalities” fostered a new economic philosophy of privatisation – of almost everything the public had access to. Education in Nigeria was put on the concurrent legislative list in 1979, paving the way for the first wave of private educational institutions. The military took over power in December 1983, and issued Decree 19 of 1984, proscribing private universities; but this was quickly repealed due to the obvious need for expansion of university places, and the new spirit of private ownership of property sweeping across the continent and much of the developing world.
Furthermore, the first set of private universities emerged at a time when people had lost hope and confidence in the public universities due to the crises that characterise them: few admission places, decaying infrastructure, limited facilities, strikes and students’ unrest, moral decadence among students, negative attitude of lecturers, low ranking of Nigerian universities, among others.
The old philosophy of government knowing-it-all had meant that public universities had dominated the higher education landscape in Nigeria from inception. However, their inability to cope with demand from a teeming population became compelling. For example, in 1990, when about 250,000 candidates applied for admission and less than 50,000 (20 per cent) of them were successful, in 1992, 300,000 applied and 50,000 (17 per cent) were taken; in 1994, 400,000 applied, and less than 50,000 (1 per cent) were taken.
Private universities did not simply become the vogue, they have since become a huge blessing for everyone to see, as they help bridge a vital economic gap, develop and inculcate high moral and educational standards, as well as play a vital role in re-vitalising a culture of learning and intellectual skills in the country’s youth.
In his book, Perils and Promises of Private University Education in Nigeria, Professor Peter A Okebukola, a former Executive Secretary of National Universities Commission, NUC, had this to say: “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 the government. The decree stipulated the conditions that must be met to enable the NUC to assess the adequacy or otherwise of applications for government’s approval” (Okebukola, 2002; 2004).
Also in an address titled: “Reflections on the essence of university education in human development” delivered on his behalf by the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, the late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua as the visitor of Obafemi Awolowo University stated: “The emergence of private universities can be seen as a logical response to fill the demand gap located by the inability of governments to meet the number of universities required.
However, the current success of private universities as the preferred choice for students that put a premium on quality education and predication calendar, even by children and wards of professors of older federal universities, is a sad pointer to the realities of what we have jointly failed to do”.
To ensure the survival of these private universities, the government put in place certain control measures most of which are within the purview of the NUC to implement. I know that the vast majority of private universities in Nigeria have satisfied these conditions and continue to evolve new means to further improve the quality of instruction in their institutions. However, as is the case in virtually all areas of human endeavour, there are bound to be cases of inability of some operators to fully comply with these measures. All considered, private universities have done well and are the first choice for admission by many.
At the moment, the NUC adopts a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach in its regulatory oversight of all universities in the country. I believe this is wrong. If all a private university has to do to be effective is simply carbon-copy the policy and culture of the conventional public university, then, what is the point? It defeats the whole purpose.
A separation between academia and business side of university management that takes account of the symbiotic relationship between the two strands (through an appropriate corporate governance structure) is a model fit for delivery of first-class education system and competitiveness in our private universities. This reasoning formed part of the consideration that went into the establishment of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, ABUAD, in 2009.
ABUAD has grown astronomically in reputation and has won several national as well as international awards and recognition as the fastest growing (private) university in Africa, and as a shiny beacon of university education in Nigeria. The reforms we embarked upon at ABUAD cut across curriculum development, practice-based learning, funding, teaching, research, entrepreneurial and vocational skills. Consequently, within ten years of its establishment, ABUAD has been recognised by the NUC as “a model, benchmark and reference point for other universities … the pride of university education in the country”.
In a lecture delivered by Professor I. A. Olaoye, Professor of History and International Studies and Director, Centre for Archives and Documentation, University of Ilorin, he acknowledged the immense contribution of Chief Obafemi Awolowo Foundation saying: “One cardinal philosophy of the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation is to preserve and nurture the legacy of education of the late sage to fruition.
In this regard, the hope of a rewarding education system in future is not lost. In the same vein, the gigantic stride of our father and mentor, Aare Afe Babalola, in the establishment of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, is an indication that there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Although, I have not been to the university, but what I have been seeing on television and reading from the newspapers are symptomatic of the ‘renaissance’ that promises a rebirth of glorious period of education in Nigeria”.
Recently, a prominent physician in Halley Street, London who visited our university said: “You knew that if you build for quality education, people will travel to come to you, and your students come from such a wide spectrum of society, tribe and country. What an education that is in itself.
You have never patronised your own people to a sense of “good enough” because you have lived supreme achievement on your own merits. Your visionary genius is based on decades of critical observation of the international scene, as well as what is needed for Africa. This is no clone of Harvard, this is a quality university in its own right and its own style”.
Dr Yemi Johnson, the Cardiologist, wrote in our visitor’s book as follows: “I can say without any equivocation that this hospital has more high tech medical equipment than all the hospitals in Lagos put together. This is most certainly the best-equipped hospital in sub-Saharan Africa”.
The hope of a rewarding education system in Nigeria is not yet lost. The commitment and aspiration of proprietors of private universities is to do all that is humanly possible to make the Nigerian university system one of the best in the world. I am very confident that we will get there. We perceive education as the full development of the human mind, cutting across cognitive, affective and psychological domains.
Education goes beyond schooling, it transcends classroom teaching. It is the process of inviting truth and acquiring all-round knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and character needed to become better citizens.