Reforming Our Universities, By Ifeanyi Uddin

Decades after its ouster from office, the Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) administration remains one of the most steeped in controversy in Nigeria. How much of the country’s current baseness is the consequence of that administration turning “corrupt practices” into a tool of statecraft? You are likely to find debate heating up the more Nigerians you find gathered round a table where this question is up for discussion.

Eventually, most such fora agree that regime capture was more likely to happen under the Babangida administration than under any other (whether before or after)! Was this because the government made a persuasive case? Or because it had an uncanny knack for “settling” its critics? Much the same fervour attends discussions about the extent to which the government set back the country’s slow progress to democratic rule when it annulled the June 12, 1993 elections.

Yet, in one sense, Babangida’s administration laid the foundation for some of the more remarkable progress the country has made thus far. Most commentators still denounce the series of national conversations (supervised by the administration in the late eighties) which led to the country opting out of the IMF’s prescriptions on how to address the nation’s balance of payments problems and adopting, instead, the “home-grown Structural Adjustment Policy — SAP).

However, an unacknowledged contribution of the IMF debates to the eventual course taken by the country was the role it played in persuading the chattering classes of the need to move the country away from a government-led and towards a private sector-led growth model. A considerable part of the talk in this regard was about letting the market do more of the allocation of increasingly scarce domestic resources. Today, this is the prevailing orthodoxy. But by far the most important advance down this route was convincing a left-leaning country of the need to sell off state owned assets as part of this transition.

Labour unions and left wing academics not only failed to set themselves up against this process, but remarkably, in a number of cases did join the argument on the IBB administration’s side. Their capitulation several years ago, made possible a number of the market-based reforms implemented largely by elected governments beginning from 2003.

Since then though, would-be reformers have defined their tasks in purely technical terms. No government has sought to talk the people through the need for further reforms – appealing to the hearts and minds of the populace as part of their reform effort. And we are beginning to see the consequence of this.

Nowhere is this failing more prominent than in the education sector. Here, unreconstructed student unions, and residues of the old Marxist-Leninist apparatchiks insist on the continuation of an arrangement that has each student paying a little under US$500 for each university session. These students also expect to be taught by professors, and hand-held by sundry graduate students engaged in serious research.

Is their space for computing the cost of sending a student in Nigeria through a four-year programme in our local universities? Is the argument thereafter for the commercialisation of our publicly owned universities, or for their full privatisation?

To some degree, we do have answers to some of these questions.Existing private universities seem to have put the cost of a “basic” (is there anything like this?) university education at about N4m. This is evidently much more than the N400,000 that students in our public universities can expect to fork out over the average four-year course. It is much more, for that matter, than most Nigerian parents can put together (especially, with more than one child in school at a time).

What remains to be done? Without recovering costs, our publicly owned universities will get progressively worse than the best secondary schools (most of the private ones currently charge far more for care of our wards/children than the universities do). Yet, we have too much need for qualified workers across all sectors of the economy to agree to this fate.

Is the case for a more transparent capture of government’s subsidy to the educational sector? The problem with this solution is the possibility that it then distorts the incentives that have allowed private sector provision of university education. There is the ineluctable need for a students’ loan scheme. Nevertheless, here, the devil is in designing the structure of the loans, and repayment terms.

None of which is impossible. But all of which invite very robust debate about the entire sector.

Mr. Uddin, an economic historian and finance expert, resides and writes from Lagos.

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