A campaign to reinvent tertiary education in Nigeria has pitted two key stakeholder groups into a feisty controversy. Locked in a fierce battle in how to deploy the Tertiary Education Trust Fund are private universities and their counterparts, the public institutions. The private institution founders want their schools to benefit from the intervention fund, mainly for research. They argue that their products benefit the society as well, but it is an idea that the public institutions loathe.
The battleground is the National Assembly, where two bills to amend clauses 72 and 73a have already scaled second reading in the House of Representatives. If passed, it will cede 10 per cent of the fund to private universities. At a public hearing on it, the public schools, represented by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, the National Universities Commission and TETFund itself, emphatically rejected the proposal to amend the law.
Therefore, the campaign by the private universities faces daunting odds. In the reasoning of ASUU, NUC, CVC and TETFund, private schools are established for profit motive. For this, they should be disqualified. Conversely, public universities are set up primarily for the benefit of the society without the motive to make profit; they deserve all the support they can attract from all segments of society. Indeed, reputable private universities in the United States are listed as charitable trusts and, like charities, are eligible for federal and state government grants.
By law, TETFund pools its income from the education tax of profit levied on all registered companies in Nigeria. From its humble beginnings – first as the Education Tax Fund in 1993 – it has grown progressively, although the Act setting it up was amended in 2011. In 2012, it catered to 168 public tertiary institutions, comprising federal and state-owned universities (63), polytechnics (51) and colleges of education (54) at the ratio of 2:1:1. That year, it disbursed N1.25bn to those three tiers.
As of 2017, the number of schools had mushroomed to 200, consisting of 77 universities, 57 polytechnics and 66 COEs, says TETFund. The fund, targeted at augmenting the expenditures of the beneficiaries in infrastructure, research, staff training and library development, paid out N814m in 2015; N2.38bn in 2106 and N1.55bn last year.
TETFund was originally established to support public tertiary institutions. However, the number of these schools has grown over the years, necessitating the reduction in the quantum of intervention fund it is giving as grants to them. This is perhaps why the public schools remain resolute against accommodating the other side. As of now, there are 74 private universities, unevenly spread geographically around the country. By the time this figure is added to the 200 on the current TETFund list, the annual grant from it will be significantly reduced.
Despite this uncertainty, a second proposal to amend the law is under way. On their own part, federal tertiary health institutions and teaching hospitals are demanding 17.5 per cent of the fund, which the House of Representatives is considering. A fund that is inadequate to cater to the needs of tertiary public schools will become very irrelevant by the time it is further shared out to private universities and health institutions. Similarly, its extension to federal health organisations (about 43 altogether currently), will trigger the drive for state-owned health agencies to have their own slice. This becomes a vicious cycle, rendering the fund meaningless.
In truth, tertiary education is undergoing a cataclysmic period. The Federal Government is in a quandary. It has ridiculed itself by failing to implement a memorandum of understanding it signed with ASUU in 2009 to revitalise university education by N1.51tn. After a five-month-long strike in 2013, it paid N200 bn, but only agreed to release N20bn following another round of ASUU strike in 2017. Illogically, the Federal Government and its organs are establishing more universities. The result is an abysmal funding of federal universities.
For instance, why the University of Ibadan received a capital vote of N99.1m, the Federal University of Birnin Kebbi got N2.1bn recurrent vote in the 2018 budget. It is also why the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, received the highest allocation (recurrent and capital) of N17.3bn and the Federal University of Gashua got N1.90bn in the same year.
In contrast, countries that value quality education make significant investment in it. This is the case in the United Kingdom, in which the government, through its Higher Education Funding Council for England, gave a grant of £3.97bn to the universities there in the 2015-16 session, according to the UK Department of Education. In the 2016-17 session, it shelled out £3.67bn; £3.60bn is projected for the 2017-18 session. A similar situation occurs in the US, where its federal government spent about $76bn on higher education in 2013, while the state governments spent about $73bn on it that year, says a Pew Charitable Trusts report.
Therefore, for the TETFund intervention to be meaningful, it should be capable of providing tangible funds to support our troubled public tertiary institutions. For now, the amendment to accommodate private universities and federal health institutions is uncalled for; it will only jeopardise the noble objective behind its establishment.
The universities – public and private – should entrench other sources of boosting their income. Government at the federal and state levels should stop establishing more universities, and even look to reduce the number of existing ones through mergers of specialised universities. This way, it will have more funds to allocate to the system. To improve health services, the Federal Government should make adequate budgetary votes for the health sector.