Adequate varsity funding, not extra year for graduates – Punch

The mismatch between the quality of university graduates and the skills industries need came to the front burner at a recent retreat for Governing Councils of Federal Universities organised by the National Universities Commission in Abuja. The Minister of State for Education, Anthony Anwukah, in his address, was dismayed by the report that many graduates were not employable because of skills deficiency in their education. Therefore, he reasoned that an additional one year skill acquisition training was necessary to bridge the gap. He’s wrong.A

An idea like this stems from a wrong diagnosis of the ills of our university system. If the proposal is adopted, it will be dead on arrival. The re-schooling programme, the minister explains, is similar to the one-year Nigeria Law School training undertaken by law graduates and the housemanship medical students go through, before both are enrolled into their respective professions.

But unemployment knows no barriers. Even young lawyers and doctors are as challenged as graduates in other fields. Why the Students Industrial Working Experience Scheme designed for skills acquisition has failed here, as the minister painfully observed, but is effectively implemented in Germany and other climes, from where it was borrowed, is a puzzle the minister should resolve. That pupils now spend six years of secondary education, comprising three years at the junior level and another three years at the senior level, for instance, does not make them more knowledgeable than their predecessors in the remote past that spent five years to be similarly certificated.

In view of the foregoing, the problem lies elsewhere. Instructively, the Chairman of the NUC’s governing council, Ayo Banjo, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan, in his apposite response, said that adequate funding, quality of academic staff, the ratio of lecturer to students, among other inputs, aggregate to determine the quality of a university and, by inference, its output.

Indeed, the Federal Government’s funding of its 43 universities leaves much to be desired. This was why the Academic Staff Union of Universities embarked on a strike that spanned almost six months in 2013 in the wake of the non-implementation of the 2009 agreement the FG reached with it. The pact provided that the system would be funded to the tune of N1.5 trillion between 2007 and 2011. Renegotiated in 2012, government agreed to pay N1.3 trillion to the universities beginning with N100 billion in 2012, and then N400 billion annually up to 2015.

Unfortunately, these funding for revitalising the system, payment of earned academic allowance, promise to increase annual education allocation to 26 per cent between 2009 and 2020 and federal financial assistance to state universities have not been forthcoming as pledged. Thus, the universities have turned to anything but ideal citadels of learning, research and innovation.

The mess is worsened by bad and corrupt managers, either at the level of vice-chancellors, or governing councils, chaired and largely dominated by misfits.

Academic excellence takes flight in a university that admits students beyond its carrying capacity. It is now a common sight to see a class of 300 students. A majority of them sit on the floor, or peep through windows to receive lectures, in virtually all public universities. The quality of instruction, learning and evaluation would definitely be questionable in a university which has teaching staff to students ratio of 1:100 or 1:122, as Peter Okebukola, a former NUC Executive Secretary, observed in 2014. This is in contrast with the 1:3 or 1:4 ratios at Cambridge and Harvard universities, respectively.

The shortage of PhDs, as the 2012 Needs Assessment report noted, continues to gnaw at the system. Neither have obsolete libraries, empty science laboratories, lack of electricity and potable water been remedied. Amid these lacunae, as more universities are set up, these woes escalate. Therefore, government should stop the proliferation of universities, as it cannot fund them.

It is worrisome that in spite of the Benchmark Minimum Academic Standards, which guide the NUC to ensure quality control in the accreditation of courses, the process still falls short of expectations.  Reports of how some universities corrupt the accreditation process are aplenty. In 2016, the NUC discovered that 37 universities, among them the federally owned, ran 150 illegal courses.  The University of Abuja, whose medical programme was in such a storm until it was remedied, topped the list with 15 disciplines.

Examples from the West strongly indicate that adequate funding is non-negotiable in ensuring quality university education; not the number of years of study. Despite the high fees universities charge in the United Kingdom, government grants to them in 2015 totalled £11.1 billion, which were increased to £12.1 billion in 2016.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England says Oxford University got a total of £161.2 million for 2015/2016, including £19.3 million for teaching and £139 million for research. Cambridge University pocketed £144.2 million, while Imperial College, London, got £127 million. Government’s financial support to universities in the United States is clear in the $76 billion they received in 2013.

But in the 2017 budget, Nigeria’s allocation to the entire education sector was just N455 billion (about $1.4 billion). This is a far cry from the ideal. It is undeniable that graduate employment is undermined by a steadily shrinking private sector. Nigeria’s 145th out of 190 countries in the 2018 global ranking in Ease of Doing Business, makes it one of the most difficult places for job creation. Access to credit, getting electricity, registering business and obtaining construction permits, among other indices where the country was lowly rated, can improve rapidly with appropriate public policy initiatives, thus unleashing job opportunities for fresh graduates.

If the government, NUC, and university councils discharge their responsibilities effectively as regulators, then Anwukah’s concern will not exist in the first place. Nevertheless, the performance of some of our graduates in postgraduate studies abroad evinces the fact that they are not as bad as being portrayed. We need university councils that will nudge vice-chancellors to conform to the highest standards and mores of the ivory tower; and government’s courage to prosecute corrupt ones.

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