Quite frankly, the assumption that funding our universities to the desired level will be the only magic bullet is a farce, going by available evidence. Many university administrators are not in any way different from rogue public office holders in material acquisition… It is why a cocktail of abuses of university tradition, corruption, diversion of funds, and the hiding of financial records from governing councils, are rampant in our universities.
Many observers had hoped that with the Chief of Staff to the President, Professor Ibrahim Gambari’s replacement of the embattled minister of Labour, Chris Ngige recently, as the chief negotiator, in a slew of meetings to resolve the trade dispute between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and government, a bargain was well-nigh. Any such optimism seems to have been misplaced as things stand. Even if a rapprochement is reached by the time you read this piece, it won’t change anything. The truth, and sadly so, is that the crisis has become an incubus. Besides ASUU, at the meeting were representatives of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities; Non-Academic Staff Union and the National Association of Academic Technologists – a tri-dilemma that indicates the depth of the miasma.
Curiously, the meeting ended with the usual official rhapsody: “We reached some agreements and we hope that by next week (this week), those agreements will start maturing,” said the minister. This sounds like déjà vu. Between 2009 and now, a countless number of such understandings have been reached. But if similar memoranda of understanding in the past had been effective, the universities would not have been shut since March 14. At issue is the implementation of the 2009 agreement the Federal government reached with ASUU, which was renegotiated in 2013, for which N200 billion was released for the revitalisation of universities. A yearly release of this amount for five years, payment of “earned allowances” in excess of N284 billion in arrears, adoption of the UTAS payment platform, and increase in salary are among the charter of demands.
As it is well known, universities are pivotal to knowledge production through research, teaching and learning in developed societies all over the world. Sadly, the picture in Nigeria is different. Education enjoys no priority attention. And for evidence, look no further than the infrastructural decay in our presumed intellectual saloons: ill-equipped libraries and laboratories; shortage of classrooms; the paucity of research funds, dearth of skilled manpower and mismanagement of resources. What has complicated the matter is the proliferation of universities by federal and state governments, which some private rentier buccaneers have completed. Imagine 303 applications to the National Universities Commission (NUC) in 2019 from private individuals to set up “universities!”
The rot in public universities led to the 2012 Needs Assessment of Universities, which confirmed already known notorious facts. When the report was presented to the Federal Executive Council meeting under Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency, its attention was drawn to the fact that “students cannot get accommodation, where they get (it), they are packed like sardines in a tiny room,” and “No light and water in hostels, classrooms and laboratories,” among other shortcomings. Yet, between 2011 and 2013, that regime set up 12 universities, nine of them in 2011, which it barely funded. It is ironic that President Muhammadu Buhari, who on assuming office, citing lack of funds, reversed the university status of Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Yaba College of Technology, Adeyemi College of Education, and College of Education, Kaduna, which President Jonathan had upgraded in the twilight of his tenure, could then proceed to surpass his predecessor’s folly.
His regime has not only ensured the establishment of a University of Transportation in Daura, his home town, but it also approved the creation of universities for the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Police, in addition to the Nigeria Defence Academy, which has university status. The National Assembly too has an Institute for Legislative Studies, producing degrees. At the last count, Nigeria has 45 federal universities, 54 owned by states and another 99 established by private individuals and organisations. States have embraced this recklessness, among them Lagos and Delta States, with three and four universities respectively, despite their underfunding of existing ones. This explains why the ASUU jeremiad will not abate. It benumbs to hear a university professor at the highest salary bar, declare that N427,000 is his monthly income. This kills morale, hampers dedication to duty, and discourages brilliant young minds from taking to academics.
In 2016, the same NUC indicted 37 universities for running 150 illegal or unapproved courses, spanning engineering, humanities, law, sciences and education. This explains why lecture halls are filled up like political rallies, with students sitting on the bare floor and half of them peeping in from windows outside. The corrosive effect of these absurdities on existing infrastructure and university ethos stick out like a sore thumb.
With the humongous amount of funds needed to breathe life into the universities, if they are to be counted among the league of worthy citadels of learning globally, it is time a genuine national emergency is declared on education in Nigeria. The state of the union, in my view, suggests that government alone cannot provide all the funds required to run tertiary institutions. The best universities we all envy didn’t achieve their statuses through such a financial model. It follows, therefore, that addressing the problem should be a shared responsibility between the government and parents. A denial of this reality smacks of playing the ostrich. Also, the corporate world, declaring hundreds of billions of naira in quarterly profits, amid a sclerotic economic climate, should be encouraged to contribute more.
Regrettably, there is enough blame to go round over the slough the universities are into. The Federal Government and the states are always the most criticised, and for obvious reasons, each time there is a public debate on the subject, to the exclusion of the universities. It is a squinty perception of the issue that doesn’t help the ivory tower. ASUU’s stratagem, as far as I am concerned, has been at best tepid and unconvincing since the struggle to enforce the 2009 agreement began. Take, for instance, its predilection to fall for tokenism each time the government dangled a part of the so-called “earned allowances”, thereby betraying the bigger picture of ensuring the total rebirth of the system. What is needed to rewire the DNA of the system is not the drivel of rough policy patches, but a radical departure that will rupture the system for its own good. The Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, once suggested one of such options – closing down the universities for two years to fashion out a renaissance, the Ghanaian way. But nobody listened. The affliction of universities is gangrenous. Such an ailment requires a decisive surgery; it is like a revolution, which sometimes devours its own children for effect.
Quite frankly, the assumption that funding our universities to the desired level will be the only magic bullet is a farce, going by available evidence. Many university administrators are not in any way different from rogue public office holders in material acquisition. Peter Okebukola, a professor and former executive secretary of the National Universities Commission, in dissecting the rot in the universities a few years ago, inadvertently noted this when he said: “Universities need to be in the hands of managers who can run the institutions efficiently and prudentially manage resources.” The universities that boast such quality managers are scarce. It is why a cocktail of abuses of university tradition, corruption, diversion of funds, and the hiding of financial records from governing councils, are rampant in our universities.
As regulatory bodies confirm, almost every public university admits students beyond its carrying capacity. This makes the delivery of quality instruction and evaluation of students a sham. Just in March, Professor Oloyede of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) raised the alarm about the discovery of one million illegal admissions. Only less than five per cent of beneficiaries of this perversity have been uploaded on the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) portal to qualify them for national service. To correct this anomaly, the minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, had to legalise the admissions on the basis of appeals to enable those who have graduated to partake in the NYSC scheme. In 2016, the same NUC indicted 37 universities for running 150 illegal or unapproved courses, spanning engineering, humanities, law, sciences and education. This explains why lecture halls are filled up like political rallies, with students sitting on the bare floor and half of them peeping in from windows outside. The corrosive effect of these absurdities on existing infrastructure and university ethos stick out like a sore thumb.
I wonder what the Professor Emmanuel Osodeke-ASUU can make of Professor Oyewale Tomori’s 2016 philippic, during the University of Abuja Convocation Lecture, that NUC accreditations of courses in universities are allegedly compromised: “When there are allegations that some of the people who conduct accreditation exercise in the name of NUC receive brown envelopes, the NUC will ask: Are those who give or take the envelopes not your colleagues?”
Nigeria has to make a choice between quality and quantity in education. If the preference is the former, then, the mushrooming of universities must be staunched for existing ones to consolidate. Every new university erodes personnel of older ones, especially those academics, whose ambition of becoming professors must be achieved by every means possible. Policymakers and regulatory agencies, especially the NUC, have crucial roles to play in halting this drift.
Therefore, ASUU must wean its members and the university authorities of graft for the ideal academia they crave to thrive. It bespeaks ill of the Union that the interventionist Tertiary Education Fund (TETFund), which sprouted from its struggle, is being abused by its members. A director of the agency, in faraway Dubai in 2020, accused some beneficiaries of research grants of using them to buy houses and cars, instead of committing them to the purpose for which they were given, just as the executive secretary of the TETFund, Abdullahi Bafa, said funds allocated for upgrading libraries were enough for institutions to set up world-class libraries but for malfeasance in these schools. Mr Bafa said, “I have seen a request that was sent to the Fund where a book that I know costs only N1,500 was said to have been procured at N150,000. This is how the institutions are squandering public funds.”
It is surprising that nobody is ever punished for these aberrations that negate the effort to revamp the system. This culture of corruption and lack of accountability, be it in tertiary institutions, in the lower cadre, or at the policymaking level, was why Nigeria was classified by UNESCO in 2014 to be among 37 countries globally, especially in Africa, Asia and the Latin Americas, that lose over $129 billion annually in funding education that is bereft of learning. Nyesom Wike’s lamentation as minister of state for Education at the Nigeria Economic Summit, with education as its focus, that the Federal Government had injected N7.97 trillion in education between 2003 and 2009, yet without much improvement, underscored this concern.
Nigeria has to make a choice between quality and quantity in education. If the preference is the former, then, the mushrooming of universities must be staunched for existing ones to consolidate. Every new university erodes personnel of older ones, especially those academics, whose ambition of becoming professors must be achieved by every means possible. Policymakers and regulatory agencies, especially the NUC, have crucial roles to play in halting this drift. It was not for nothing that the United Kingdom recently excluded Nigerian graduates, even PhD holders, from its special visa application process for 2022. Our universities are not even among the top rank in Africa, let alone competing with the best in Europe and the United States of America. This is a shame, considering the fact that the University of Ibadan used to be among the best in the Commonwealth in the 1960s, a period when white students preferred the institution to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, for a PhD in African history, where Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike was the supreme deity.
In the ASUU/Federal Government impasse, I find a huge burden on Mr Gambari’s shoulders. He was an Ivy League-trained and respected academic during his time. He should work his talk, given his spot-on assessment of the malaise. He said, “Not long ago, we had professors and students from universities in other countries coming to work in our universities. Not long ago, we had a calendar that allows predictability of when a student enters the university and when he or she can graduate. But we all know that all of that has changed and the impact on our educational system and even the reputation of our universities has been devastating.”
If the future is still considered crucial in this clime, all the stakeholders must come together to fashion out a template to make our universities what they are meant to be and “insulated from the hot and cold winds of politics”, as the Ashby Commission counselled way back.
Chiawo Nwankwo is a member of the Premium Times Editorial Board.
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