Approving more universities aiding collapse of academic standards – ABU VC

Professor Ibrahim Garba, the Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria,  in Abuja, spoke about a wide range of issues bothering the Nigerian education sector, as well as the multifaceted challenges facing the ABU.

He also talked about many initiatives by the institution to address its problems. The VC equally touched on many interesting areas.



What are the major challenges of running a university like the ABU?

The challenges are certainly enormous but we have grown a culture in the ABU of not lamenting or of accepting our fate that we will remain with the challenges that are facing us. The main thing is finding ways in which we can overcome. For university like ours, I don’t want to talk about the normal thing everybody is talking about which is funding or how much funding is sufficient.

We found ourselves in today Nigeria where despite all the efforts and resources that we put, we cannot be able to accommodate the teeming number of candidates that will want to come to the university.

The ABU is the largest and has the largest carrying capacity in the country and even when JAMB (Joint Admission Matriculation Board) and NUC (National Universities Commission) allocate carrying capacity, we always have the largest number; what we are allowed to take as a university is 11, 000. But these 11, 000 are going to come out of over 80,000 that have applied; out of these, more than 30,000 are fully qualified and then you have to take 11,000.  It is difficult that you have to leave two thirds of qualified candidates which ordinarily should be admitted.

Today, all over the world you find out that as long as you are qualified and you can afford it you are entitled to higher education because there is no reason you are qualified and have the means and cannot go to school, but that is the predicament in this country.

Every year, on the larger scale, you find that over 1.5million sit for the UTME annually, but the carrying capacity of the entire universities is not more than 300, 000 and when you add it to the polytechnics and colleges of education, they are not more than 600,000.

Every given year, you are leaving out more than half a million candidates, majority of which are qualified to enter a polytechnic or college of education, if not a university.  They will be laying waste and waiting for more number, if not more than, to join in the following year and yet to be subjected to the carrying capacity issue. You are now raising a very hopeless army of youths that cannot even get access to higher education or alternative means of employment and this is happening every year. It will keep increasing and may get to 2million in the next three years and the capacity is not increasing because there is no clear deliberate effort on ground to increase carrying capacity.

The ABU also has the highest solicitation of people that want to come because we have the highest number of alumni and all our alumni want their children to come to where they got their education.

The ABU is the most national in character in the country; our formula of admission cut across the entire country. According to a particular formula, there is no state in Nigeria that does not have a representation in the ABU. We have to provide that and also across strata, from the best of the best to, somehow, those you think are less qualified – but may end up graduating if they get the opportunity because most of our children from the rural areas even when they are brilliant, they have no means to get good education.

For this reasons, we have done a number of things to create openings beyond our carrying capacity. First, we have increased affiliation. Today we have about 14 colleges of education across northern Nigeria that are affiliated to the ABU; they admit students to acquire B. Ed, which is managed and certified by the ABU and the number is clearly getting to about 6,000.

Again, in the last three years, we created Distance Learning Centre, (DLC). The NUC has given us license for the DLC.

Through the DL, in the first year, we started with the post-graduate course in MBA and we got over 13,000 students that enrolled.

We have just secured approval for four additional programmes:  B. Sc in Economics, Public Administration and post-graduate diploma in education. These are going to start running on distance learning and it has no limit in terms of capacity, the more we get the more we can take. So through this, we are able to increase the carrying capacity to the official one given to us.

What is your current carrying capacity in terms of most sought after courses, like Medicine? 

We are about to enter the admission season and if there is anything that makes us lose sleep, it is the request for Medicine. Two things happen; practically all parents want their children to become medical doctors at first instance whether or not they are qualified or capable.

Then, the students have the feeling that they can be medical doctors, because of that when they apply, you find out that majority of them will apply medicine first choice. For example, last year we had 15, 000 applications for faculty of medicine; 9000 were for MBBS; 470 had 270 JAMB scores and above and the carrying capacity is 120.

I am not going to give the 120 to the best; that is not national policy on education. I must give 40 per cent purely on merit; get another 40 per cent on the catchment areas of the ABU; then another 20 per cent on those states that are educationally less advantaged.

We have to share 120 and you find out that some states like Kogi and Benue alone, will have almost 50 students with 300 scores – and that is the maximum score.

So you find out that those who applied for MBBS are sure of themselves as really performing well and the remaining 20 per cent are those taking chances, just in case. So we are finding it extremely difficult to select 120 even from 450 that have the maximum scores.

What it means is that you will find out that even states that you never heard of before will have candidates, so we can select one or two considering also gender and local government, but we make sure that there are no two people from same local government.

What we have done also is to continue to put pressure on Medical Council of Nigeria, because they are the once giving us problems in terms of accreditation, in allowing the numbers and training situation.

We have now secured approval to run three more medical courses: Bachelors of Dental Surgery, Medical Lab Science and Radiography. Now these ones at the end of their degrees, they are also called doctors, so this has helped us to relieve some of these numbers because there are other courses like B. Sc Nursing, Anatomy and Human physiology that are important but candidates don’t choose them.

Some of the students if they fail to get MBBS, we spread them into these other courses which are not normally their first choice. There are also cases where people who applied for medicine end up getting Archeology. For me it’s better to get a degree than to walk out with nothing.

How can we improve the number of the carrying capacity?

There is something we are avoiding and we are deceiving ourselves, the university education in Nigeria is so-called free because the candidates that are doing MBBS, the money they pay into the university for every given year is not more than N30, 000.

Whenever we have the opportunity we challenge people that are sending their wards abroad to study; if you send your children to study in London, you will pay maybe 70,000 Pounds and that is a lot of money in Nigerian currency and you want the same product with N30,000.

The reality is that we don’t have enough funds to expand infrastructure, recruit the personnel that will be teaching there and you find out that lecturer-students ratio cannot deliver quality learning.

Gone are the days where you find out that every medical student has cadaver but now you see 30 students around one and while one is doing it, others are observing and taking notes.

What is the way out?

What we in public universities are saying to government is that they (the government) determine everything, and we are asking them to determine the cost of training a particular student in the university. What does it take to train a History student to graduation? Come with a figure; if you say this education is free, how much are you giving us per student head and; if you are not giving us all you have to ask the parents to complete the balance.

If you don’t do that, it means you are getting substandard products, but if you put in what is required to train a student in a particular course and government single handedly or jointly with the parents foot the cost, then you expect a good quality product. That is why people pay heavily when they go abroad.

For government, we understand they have come a long way to understand that the education at that level is free now to tell the parents that it is no longer free can be politically challenging, but it is our country and our children, time will come when we must begin to face reality, which is: the cost must count.

We have a society where the philanthropists are not contributing. There are parents that can afford to pay the equivalent of 10,000 Pounds in private universities, but they don’t want to pay that amount in public universities because government said it is a free one. If Nigerians are sincere those that can afford can pay and those who cannot afford, there must be somewhere to fall back on like scholarships, philanthropists that can pay for the children of the poor, but everybody is relying on the same pot that is holding to so-called free education.

On the issue of poor quality of graduates that you mentioned, apart from cost, what other reasons could be responsible?

Just like any other aspect of life, we are always contented with whatever deformity we have, nobody is interested on radically changing things. Our generation took a different type of education that we are proud of, but now the structure of the education, I don’t think has served us right.

Before we have the 6-3-3-4, but now you find a situation where students come out of school and find their way directly into the university environment, because some of them have gone to very good schools. By the time they enter the university, some of them are not matured in mind to figure out where they are, so before they get to figure that out, many factors will come to play. Some are leaving home for the first time and are not going to a very comfortable environment. Instead, they go where you have dozens in a room and cannot control or find themselves in town to struggle.

You come to class and you find that a class built for 30 students, has 200 students without expansion. So, when you subject a young person into such environment, not many are able to absorb the shock and that is why sometimes you see even the brilliant ones, at first examination, they will start showing signs of weakness and you begin to doubt if they have papers that are not theirs.

We are beginning to realize that the shock that is affecting some of them comes from the training in the university, which is not the same as that of secondary school where you are taught, but in university you are lectured. The quality of the students themselves is not as we expect.

Secondly, the age and maturity and the environmental shock they go through are also not working well for them and the course credit system where if you fail the first semester you are likely not to recover again because everything is cumulative.

The system where a student fails a course in 100 level and carries that course until 400 level and he wants to graduate, what kind of knowledge is that? Whereas in the past, you will never go to the next class if to don’t past the preceding year, but in my school the medical students are out of this system.

These are fundamentals that are not within our control and the system we have started implementing long ago, nobody has sat down to assess to what extent we have been benefiting or otherwise, to begin to change or modify it to suit our purposes.

Thirdly, is the societal effect because the university cannot be detached from the society; which one will influence which one is a debate, but certainly society is influencing us, children of today want quick hit; they only want certificate and not learning.

They aspire to pass exam without learning for a career and the curriculum nature we use does not assess what we have learnt and the number of students is not going well for us too and because of the quest for quick gain, the students find a way to cheat.

Also, because of the societal influence from drug abuse, social media students no longer desire to go to class.

In summary it is our Nigerian peculiarity in our challenges that is actually affecting us in our education and we are not evaluating over time to see how much damage is done and how we can recover.

What is your take on proposed additional year of schooling for graduates to make them employable?

We don’t have the plan from the minister to see how feasible it is going to be. I know the concern of the minister and everybody: it is the employability of the graduates. But it is a controversial issue because the education system is such that prepares our students with general knowledge and it is impossible for us to know a graduate who will work in certain place to now teach him how to do that.

The basic is that if the students are learning, the university education is meant to prepare you for any possible future so that wherever you find yourself, it is a matter of short training, you will be able to do the basic tasks as a graduate.

I don’t think our education system, as it is on paper, is that bad.

With the admission of 11,000 students annually, do you have enough lecturers to take them? 

We are about a little less than 3000 and we have the largest academic staff in the Nigerian university system. We have close to 55,000 students on ground and by our plan, we are scaling down undergraduate; we are going towards post-graduate, which in the ABU is over 15,000 in any given time and there are more programmes in post-graduate. We have over 550 programmes from PGD, M. Sc, to PhDs, but our undergraduate programmes are just about 100.

You find out that lecturers certainly are always inadequate, but that is not what is disturbing us. It is the fact that within this inadequacy of lecturers, government now creates new universities and they do not create lecturers just like that.

All  these new universities will come and beg our lecturers to go and do teaching on part time, what this has culminated into is that they will now go and service one to three universities and they will not do their own work well in their university.

Government knowing we are not able to meet our staff to student ratio, is creating more universities, knowing certainly that these lecturers are going to come from these system.

This is contributing to the collapse in standard of education and that is why we begin to push into postgraduate, to produce more manpower that will service these universities that are coming up.

The ABU is the only university that has nuclear reactor and mini refinery, what is the benefit to the larger society?

Since about 2004, the university has been hosting what we call the miniature nuclear reactors that are used for research and analysis. Normally, from there you can go into bigger reactors that can be used for peaceful means and energy generation before going to nuclear weapons and so on. So far in Africa, it’s in Zaria, Ghana, Algeria and so on.

They are subjected to very strict surveillance by the National Atomic Energy Commission. Presently, there is a programme of conversion going on because the fuel they use is in highly enriched Uranium. So the Americans are looking at wherever these centres are, especially at places that are prone to security challenges; they are watching.

If you go to the centre and see the parameter fence and the trench surrounding it, you will know that it is being monitored. The whole thing is about 2 kilogram and made by the Chinese.

Now they want to replace it, we have been going to Ghana for over a year and a half, preparing; they have to chatter an aircraft to take it to China. They have to pay China huge amount of money to license it to transport to the airport of Beijing to where they are taking it. They have to invite the Russians, who are used to handling it to design the container. They have to come and do a new road from the gate (of the university) to where it is, because they are going to bring a big crane from Lagos to lift it. The protocol is too much, but they are doing all this because of safety.

Now they are replacing it with low enriched Uranium, which will only give you fuel to do what we want to do and is not subjected to any risk of somebody stealing very high grade Uranium.

If Nigeria today decides to use nuclear energy to develop electricity, we are developing the manpower here because all the nuclear scientists are resided in the ABU. We are working very hard. They are being trained and retrained all the time to handle it. If you can do it this way you can also work in a larger setting.

Is there any incident that triggered this change?

No there is no incident. It is just by accident that when this was done 10-20 years back, the countries that were interested were Iran, Pakistan, Ghana, Algeria, and Nigeria and so on. Unfortunately, when we went to China they said that it is only Nigeria that has not lifted itself from this one to the real thing.

Pakistan is nuclear country, Iran is also nuclear country; this is how they started. But when insurgency started particularly in the Middle East, and it is now spreading, they are now careful that this kind of areas can be prone.

On mini refinery, yes, it is actually supported by Raw Materials Research and Development Council. We actually did it to be low key but the founders wanted to make it very high profile. It is going to be like one barrel per day.

What we realized is that we have petrochemical engineers that will work in refineries, but there is no refining facility to train them. We designed the mini refinery to actually show the engineers, in a mini form, to do real thing before going to the industry.

You can see that Aliko Dangote is constructing a 650,000 barrel per day refinery in Lagos, but all the engineers are Indians. Aliko Dangote is interested (in the mini refinery), the NNPC is also interested. But the NNPC wants us to scale it up to 1000 barrel so that they can use it as a modular refinery. It is really for research and not for commercial purpose.

The ABU has the oldest school of engineering in this country, that is where engineering started in the university system of Nigeria and it has evolved to reach a level where there are so many programmes because of the demand in the industry.

Electrical Engineering used to be the only one, but there is now Electronic Engineering, Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Machatronics, Automobile Engineering, and Materials Engineering.

Civil Engineering came to light recently and that is what brought us to Abuja. The Chinese company, CCECC, is building our railway infrastructure in Nigeria, but there are no Nigerian railway engineers because Nigerian railway has collapsed in the last 50 years.

Out of their own thinking, they contacted the Ministry of Works and Transportation and advised that it is good for Nigeria to start to grow its own railway engineers and transport engineers.

What they have done is that they looked around and selected the ABU to be the flagship of this training and they went to China and found an excellent university called the Central South University in Shanghai in China. It is a railway college; that is where the railway technology of China was invented. If you go there, you will see in the museum, steel engine, diesel locomotive, electric train and that of levitation technology. So, they linked us with them to do a joint degree, called 3+2 degree.

The CCECC has given scholarship to 30 students for these two years; at least it is going to run for 5 years.

Out of the understanding we have with the university, they added 15 scholarships. Now, we are sending 45 students to China to do two years to earn railway engineering, transport engineering, traffic and transportation engineering degrees.

They also gave us 13 scholarships for our faculty members to go and get PhDs in same university. So the 45 students were selected and they cut across Nigeria and we have to seek the consent of their parents to agree to go there and they are all performing at a good level. – Culled from Daily Trust.

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