New public universities are unnecessary – Punch

Once again, the Federal Government has concluded plans to establish at least two new universities in 2017. Both are specialised institutions, according to the ministers involved. The Nigerian Maritime University is expected to commence operations next September, while the Information and Communication Technology University will be launched in March. Similarly, the Ogun State Government is working on “the necessary details” to upgrade the Moshood Abiola Polytechnic to a university of technology and establish another polytechnic in Ipokia, a town in the West Senatorial District of the state. These proposals are wide of the mark.

Currently, there are 152 universities in the country, most of them in a shambles. Forty of them belong to the Federal Government; 44 to state governments; and 68 to private organisations. Combined, 20 of the 84 public universities are specialised. They include the ones for technology in Owerri, Minna and Akure; there are others for agriculture in Abeokuta, Makurdi and Umudike. Some are for the military, the police, petroleum industry and education.

But take a tour of some of these universities and you will see how not to run a university. Due to poor infrastructure, inconsistent funding, restrictive rules, lack of research and brain drain, Nigerian universities are not globally competitive. Their ruinous state reflects in the latest global biometrics ranking of universities. The University of Ibadan, founded in 1948, ranks a distant 1,366 in the world (19 in Africa). The Covenant University, Ota, owned by the Living Faith Ministries, is next to UI on 1,723 (25 in Africa) and the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, follows in 2,038 (32 in Africa). UI was the only Nigerian university to make the Times Higher Education list by ranking 978 globally.

Public universities are overcrowded and hobbled by meagre funding and incessant industrial actions. This is so because the government signs MoUs with the Academic Staff Union of Universities and neglects the implementation of such pacts. In protesting the anomaly, ASUU embarked on a six-month strike in 2013 that disrupted the academic calendar in public universities.

Uncertainty is rife in our public universities. A four-year course can take six years to complete. Last November, ASUU embarked on a one-week “warning” strike to alert the government to the fact that it had breached the 2009 MoU that was renegotiated in 2012 and 2013. The Federal Government had bought peace after consenting to fund tertiary education with N1.3 trillion in the six years to 2018. As usual, it reneged. In 2013, it released only N98.89 billion out of N200 billion approved. Now, the arrears total N495 billion, according to ASUU. The government, which approved earned allowances of N92.8 billion in 2009 for lecturers, has paid only N30 billion. Some state universities are on their knees as state governments have drastically cut down on their funding.

The problems of Nigeria’s university system are structural. The dearth of qualified teachers has been well-documented. The 2012 Needs Assessment report prepared by the government detailed an underwhelming personnel deficiency. It noted that only 43 per cent of lecturers had PhDs, with 57 per cent having lower qualifications. This makes teaching and learning less productive.

But nothing has changed. It might even be worse. The report confirmed that just seven universities had up to 60 per cent of lecturers with PhDs; some had fewer than five professors. At the time the report was prepared, the Kano State University of Science and Technology, Wudil, established in 2000, graduated students with just one professor, and 25 PhD holders on its teaching staff. Biodun Ogunyemi, the ASUU President, estimates that we need to attract 100,000 more lecturers to strengthen the system.

Also, while some public universities find it hard to accommodate applicants, the private institutions find it very difficult to attract up to 2,000 students, apparently because of their costly tuition. There is a sense of déjà vu about the new projects. During his five-year tenure, Goodluck Jonathan established 12 new universities, for which he gave a ridiculous seed money of N1 billion to each of them. Why then will the current administration embark on another misadventure?

Standard universities are not cheap to run.  Most world-class universities boast a high concentration of talented teachers, researchers and students, sizable budgets and a combination of freedom, autonomy and leadership. They thrive in an environment that fosters competitiveness, unrestrained scientific enquiry, critical thinking, innovation and creativity, according to a Forbesmagazine report, What makes a university great? It is argued that for most universities, the largest chunk of their income is dedicated to staff salaries and benefits (such as child care, health insurance and pensions). Also, a large chunk of spending is voted for research projects undertaken by academics and graduate students. Another large chunk of university budgets goes towards physical maintenance – including building repair and refurbishment, and investment in campus facilities such as libraries and sports centres. Any university that cannot meet these goals is nothing but a glorified secondary school.

Abuja is biting off more than it can chew, just as it is playing cheap politics with tertiary education. University education is not about quantity, but about quality or standards. Simply, the new schools will compound the complex issues plaguing the system. The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, and his Communications counterpart, Adebayo Shittu, should cancel the projects. Rather, the education minister should devise a plan to expand the capacities in the current universities to admit and train students. It should work out a system to train lecturers through non-expensive graduate loan schemes, while the Federal Government should fulfil its financial obligations to its institutions. This will strengthen them and make them economically and globally relevant.

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