Viewpoint

July 11, 2024

How to avert crisis in Nigerian public universities

UNIBEN

By ELVIS EROMOSELE

UNIBEN students are at home in the middle of the academic session. The institution was shut down following a peaceful protest by the students. No, they were not asking for an arm, a leg or a free pass in core courses. The demand was for electricity and water, two basic ingredients for a comfortable stay in school, or anywhere for that matter. 

The absence of electricity made the pumping of water impossible. BEDC Electricity cut off power to the school for failure to pay its electric bill of N280 million monthly. This followed a 300 per cent increase earlier in the year.

It is not however strictly a UNIBEN issue. Reports indicate that several federal universities in Nigeria are on the brink of a major crisis, with 52 institutions facing a potential collapse due to a steep increase in electricity tariffs. UNIBEN just happened to be the first to bite the bullet. 

This alarming situation has raised serious concerns among Vice Chancellors and educational stakeholders, who urgently call on the Federal Government to intervene. The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, sanctioned a 300 per cent increase in the tariff paid by Band A customers, from N68/KWh to N225/kWh is the culprit here. This decision affects federal universities located in areas designated as Band A, leading to a quadrupling of their monthly electricity bills. For instance, Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, in Zaria now faces an annual electricity bill of N4.4 billion, up from N1.2 billion. Similarly, the University of Ilorin’s monthly bill has surged from N70 million to N230 million, a situation the Vice Chancellor describes as “unsustainable”.

The financial strain caused by the tariff hike is crippling university operations across the country. Many institutions are already struggling to meet their overhead costs, and the additional burden of increased electricity bills threatens to halt their activities entirely. Professor Yakubu Ochefu, Secretary to the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, CVCNU, warns that if the Federal Government does not intervene, 52 federal universities may soon collapse.

The potential collapse of universities would not only disrupt the academic calendar but also jeopardise the education of millions of Nigerian youths. This would be an unfortunate development as Nigeria is already far behind in many educational indices and this could take the nation back decades.

The CVCNU has proposed several solutions to alleviate the financial burden on federal universities. One of the primary suggestions is to move universities from Band A to a discretionary band with lower tariffs for educational establishments. This would allow universities to pay rates closer to what they previously paid, or only slightly higher, rather than the unsustainable commercial rates currently imposed – a sensible proposal, if ever there was one. 

Given the challenges with the current electricity supply, many universities are already exploring alternative power solutions. The University of Ilorin, for instance, is negotiating for alternative power supplies and incorporating provisions for these in new building designs. Energy-saving measures are also being implemented to reduce overall consumption.

Transitioning to alternative power sources, however, requires substantial initial investment, which many universities cannot afford without government support. This highlights the need for a coordinated effort between the government and educational institutions to develop sustainable and cost-effective power solutions.

The Federal Government has a critical role to play in resolving this crisis. First, there needs to be a review of the electricity tariffs imposed on educational institutions. As non-commercial entities providing essential public services, universities should not be subjected to the same tariffs as commercial customers. Implementing a concessionary tariff rate for universities is a necessary step to ensure their financial sustainability. This must be done immediately to forestall the domino effect of student protests.

Additionally, government should increase funding for the development of alternative energy sources in universities. Investing in solar power plants and other renewable energy solutions will provide long-term benefits, reducing reliance on Discos and lowering electricity costs.

Lastly, government must engage in meaningful dialogue with university administrators to understand their unique challenges and develop tailored solutions. This includes revisiting the funding model for federal universities to ensure they have the necessary resources to cover their operational costs without compromising the quality of education.

To avert the looming crisis due to the recent hike in electricity tariffs immediate and decisive action is required. Principally, the Federal Government must step in and provide relief through tariff adjustments, increased funding for alternative energy solutions, and ongoing support for university operations.

Government must safeguard the future of higher education in Nigeria. It has to ensure that universities continue to function effectively and provide quality education to the nation’s youth. This is how to secure the future.

*Eromosele, a corporate communication professional and public affairs analyst, wrote via: [email protected]