I have spent the last couple of months acquainting myself with the goings on in our private universities. The (recent) and still unresolved strike by academic staff in our public universities, and government’s pussyfooting over the lecturers’ gravamen ensures that public universities have fallen off the radar of most parents/guardians looking to advance their children/wards’ education.
There are other options, I am told, besides the local private universities, including sending these kids “abroad”. And the new “abroad” goes way beyond the traditional locations of the fabled “Golden Fleece” (the United States of America and the United Kingdom, like it was a couple of decades back), but now includes more exotic locations like Malaysia, Cameroon, and Rwanda — all of which confirm how further behind we are falling as an economy in the important area of human capital development.
However, all of these options (including the long-lived public universities) come with associated costs (and benefits, too). Sadly, the cost of seeing the kids off to some foreign destination to study is currently beyond my reach. Even then, relative to what we are familiar with locally, access to an education in the domestic private universities commands a prince’s ransom — a key reason why our avowed commitment to broad-based education for all must involve the immediate resuscitation of all public schools on a sustainable basis.
Okay, so I exaggerate a little. I had spent all of this time interacting with just one such private institution (not all of them as the opening sentence to this piece suggests). Nevertheless, because this particular one is adverted to as one of the best (in the country, today), I am worried by its generally underwhelming effect. Part of my difficulty started with the security levels going into the campus. This was not your standard check for improvised explosive devices, firearms or munitions that have become standard fare as one seeks to enter public places in the country. This is a more unforgiving search for bric-a-brac — glass containers, Coca-Cola (and allied caffeine-based beverages), and all non-plastic cutlery.
These impositions are accompanied by a squadron of “do nots” with which each student is ring-fenced, and that threaten, in my view, the free spirit without which both study, enquiry and research at such levels can only be sub-optimal. It is instructive that most parents I met justified these mental barbed wires in terms of the need to keep these kids on the straight and narrow path. Wistfully recalling my teen years, it is hard to imagine myself today, denied the rebellious paths that my teen queries jay walked through: Marxism-Leninism, atheism, and many more. All of which supported the development of a strong sense of doubt and enquiry.
A much bigger part of my worry with this particular school is that, although a relatively new institution, the dilapidation that I saw in some parts was baffling. Are we simply unable to keep our facilities in decent trim? Its lavatories were not as clean as I’d expected: the vast number of “new” shopping malls in Lagos have better facilities. Other structural failings were droll at best. Large lecture rooms with their doors struggling to keep in touch with their hinges. Lecturers’ offices (the doors to these had fancy name plates on them) with latches and padlocks to keep strays away.
The school had one good thing going for it, though. The landscaping is a sight for sore eyes. Verdant lawns all around, with trees (and shades), and garden seats to boot. In this respect, it puts most of our nature conservatories, resorts and game parks to shame. Except that rather than game it promises to help train the next generation of talent for moving this country forward.
And here, I confronted the biggest failure. No wide area network for the students. One into which each student logs in with their identity numbers. Through which they submit assignments directly to their lecturer’s email address. And through which they can do background research on their papers. Incongruously, the same school requires students to register for their courses online. How? Through accessing the internet in a cyber cafe!
It is hard to understand why the personal computer still struggles for space in our educational institutions. Across the country, employers place a premium on the skills associated with the PC (both processing and presentation) that it is criminal for a modern university not to have computers as the main medium for interaction.
While we hope that at the heart of ASUU’s current strike action is an intent that leads down this path, it is sad that private universities unburdened by government’s tunnel vision (and smothering dead-hand) still walk down the old pathways.
Mr. Uddin, an economic historian, and finance expert, writes a weekly opinion for Premium Times from Lagos.
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