Breaking the Nigerian Higher Education Code (Part 1), By Akanimo Odon

Akanimo Odon

A system used for brevity or secrecy of communication, in which arbitrarily chosen words, letter or symbols are assigned definite meaning – that’s how the dictionary describes the word code. This speaks more or less of some complex item or situation requiring ingenuity to decipher. You now must wonder why all this talk about codes.

Irrelevant as it might first sound, it is actually the way one feels when you think of the Nigerian educational system. It is like a huge collection of stakeholders made up of proprietors and beneficiaries, assessors and regulators, all pulled together and apart in random and unclear directions. Have they found an answer you ask? Persistent academic strike actions, constant bickering from different circles, educational migration of Nigerians to even French speaking African countries and the perpetual advert placements of ‘asylum’ opportunities in national dailies by foreign institutions probably gives a hint that the answer has not yet been found.

There is actually no single all-solving answer like some ‘almighty formulae from worlds unknown’ and I do not attempt to even hint that I have all the answers. It is quite a complex code as it now stands. However, what I do know is that through a set of processes, rigorous strategies and efficient stakeholder engagements, this code can be broken.

To attempt to start this conversation, there is need to beg for pardon for seeming naivety from someone who lives in the Diaspora though works predominantly in Nigeria, or in some cases the lack of accurate data, which on its own is another challenge strand to an already complex subject matter. However, this is articulated to start a conversation with the powers that be and the players that think they are, in an attempt to salvage a now struggling educational sector. First, a premise or context will suffice.

Not very long ago, Nigerian universities, especially the federal more established ones, were closed down for over five months. When I spoke with international development experts, the undertone was that of unbelief and abomination. Not even poorer, less developed nations will let that happen. Education is the corner stone of a nations growth and higher education the chief corner stone of its development. All in all, the issue was centered on funds. I am not an advocate for the government or the universities as they probably both have impressive arguments why a compromise couldn’t be reached. I am an advocate of efficient structures, standards, processes, strategies and plans so that there is little or no need for compromises to be reached in the first place. It would seem therefore that funds, whether its availability or appropriation, is a crucial challenge in this entire set up. It always has been.

Every year, Nigerians studying overseas spend over 500 Million US Dollars and the number of Nigerians even going to study in other African countries has increased substantially in the last couple of years. That Nigerians now go to study in even French speaking African countries and in some cases non-English speaking institutions have developed English-based programmes just for Nigerians. There is insufficiency of Nigerian based institutions to cater for it’s higher education demands. Some information sources reckon that over 1.8 million people apply to enter into first-degree programmes but the Nigerian universities carrying capacity is less than 700,000 yearly.

So we have a first problem of catering for demand. In an attempt to help the supply-demand situation, there has been an opening up of the Nigerian education market and an allowance of new private Universities’ set up. This has been a great positive step by the authorities to address the gap. Numbers of private universities soared from just 7 in 2003 to 40 in 2010. Don’t even ask me how many private universities there are now in country.

You only need to drive past an old patch of land on the express way bordered by high fancy walls, an intimidating welcome main gate and delineated a posh University name to be introduced to a new one. So in an attempt to solve the demand problem, might we have created an even bigger problem increasing the complexity of the code?

So now medical doctors, business executives, traditional rulers, politicians and even religious leaders can now own and start a private university which is okay except when it is becoming a bug that can be caught, an aftermath of a chain reaction, a trendy possession added to the lot or even an asset with a non-academic agenda. Do proprietors have the required acumen to run these private institutions? So then the next problem is that of management expertise.

The higher education regulatory authorities probably have robust criteria in place for establishing these private institutions. At least at the moment, not just any tom, dick or harry can set up a private university in Nigeria or could they? I wonder. Assuming setup procedures and establishment requirements are all intact and to international standards, which I know they are not, to what extent is the monitoring and evaluation intact? Within these set up requirements by the Nigerian University Commission, is there a minimum investment required or aspired before a private university can be set up? More so, is there a minimum investment expected to set up a new course? This is crucial because one cannot spend one million dollars and ten million dollars setting up a new course and get the same quality results on both spends.

Is there a request to submit a comprehensive business plan with a five-year work plan? Is there a request for an academic, social and economic impact analysis? Is there a request for submitting an internationalization strategy especially in a now globalized world? Oh wait a minute, why should we be asking these new private universities all of these? Do the older more established universities have them in the first place?

Anyone can access a top global foreign University’s strategic plan and internationalization strategy. It is a public document informed by stakeholder engagement and impinged by short, medium and long term planning. Little wonder it drives their visions, strategic partnerships, content development, management oversight etc. No wonder they are a top university. So it would seem another problem could be tagged regulatory and governance framework. Let’s throw that into the code pot.

A simple test to assess if the above were fundamental in the set up process is a visit to a private university. When you do go, find out how many senior lecturers are on part-time status because they are also full time lecturing staff of older federal and state universities. The numbers would surprise you. Isn’t that simply incredible? Is the Nigerian education sector fast becoming a recycling bowl of stagnant archaic processes and unchanging systems in a changing world? What we do find is a transfer and somewhat adaptation of old lecture notes from the older universities into the private universities.

The difference is that the pay is more in the later. Well so I hear. So I visited an old federal university and assessed lecture notes of an old Zoology course and then I compared it with lecture notes of a new Zoology course in a private university department not so far away, and it was the same. Well, that is not a crime, neither is it an academic issue except that the zoology graduates end up working in the bank. I should know this first hand because I did study Zoology and I did work in a bank. Should any university still be offering Zoology as a course? May be under the right circumstances of re-mapping the course to fit national gap areas. It opens up a new dimension that seems to suggest that this is more a developmental issue and the lack of innovation on all players’ government and proprietors alike. I dare to emphasize.

There is a huge gap in key national industry areas like maritime and shipping, oil and gas (in the South) and minerals management (in the North), aviation and aeronautics, film and creative media, environmental and biotechnology, hospitality management, forensic technology and even international business schools and the list goes on. How can a country be the third highest producer of movies in the world after China and India and yet not have a state-of-the-art, international standard film school in place. I didn’t say a department of theatre arts. I actually said a film school. How can a country be bedeviled by so much security crises and for this long and yet no single university I know (pardon my naivety), offers a course in security management and strategy. How can a country that has explored its natural resources for over forty years have so many universities offering first degree programmes in oil and gas and petroleum engineering and yet a large percentage of graduates in this field absorbed into the oil and gas industry, either did their post-graduate programmes in foreign institutions or went through specialized programmes owned and administered by oil and gas operators. My personal favourite is that Nigeria has the largest telecommunications industry in Sub-Saharan Africa and yet no single or very few universities offers a masters degree programme in telecommunications. Note this challenge right here is the one I like to call disconnect from national priorities. However, it is an opportunity for investors, international institutions and educational organisations interested in the Nigerian Higher education market to pitch their tent. How you might ask?

 

Dr. Odon is an international strategy and business development executive (UK/Africa/Emerging Markets) akanimoo@aol.com


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