The legislative process of creating nine new tertiary institutions has reached an advanced stage with the conclusion of public hearing on bills seeking to establish them at the House of Representatives last week. The move is predicated on the jaded and blinkered argument that access to university and higher college education should be expanded to meet the quest for admission by teeming applicants, without a whiff of thought on quality or standards.
But from the views of the lawmakers, it was obvious the drive is ill-advised and self-serving; and therefore, should be jettisoned. Three federal universities of Agriculture, Technology and a broad-based one are to be established in Jalingo, Taraba State; Kaduna; and in Birnin-Kebbi, Kebbi State, if the promoters should have their way. Others are three polytechnics, two colleges of education and a National Institute for Educational Planning and Administration.
The President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Biodun Ogunyemi, who attended the hearing, dismissively responded. “My heart is heavy that we want to establish new universities when nothing is being done about the existing ones,” he told the lawmakers. A lawmaker, Uzoma Nkem-Abonta, who wanted one of the schools sited in his state, provincially argued that, with the federal character principle, all states were entitled to have one, including those where, with two marks out of 200, pupils are admitted to federal unity colleges. He stated: “Let us establish them first, after which the issue of funding would be addressed.” He’s wrong.
To put the cart before the horse is an apparent red herring in the legislative process as the financial imperative of any bill is always attached to it, to guide the legislators in their debate, before the bill reaches the public hearing stage. This campaign for more higher institutions, just five months to the February 2019 elections, is an attempt by the sponsors to have something to flaunt as “trophy” at the soapbox. It is a whirlwind of absurdity and abuse of power that should be cut short.
In 2011, the Goodluck Jonathan administration had absurdly created nine out of the 12 it argued were necessary, for each state to have a federal university. Each of them was given N1.5 billion as take-off grant, totalling N13.5 billion, which some stakeholders cynically said was not even enough for the take-off of one university. The present administration has also approved some universities for the Army, the Police and other organisations, in spite of reversing the upgrade of three colleges of education and a polytechnic to universities.
The critical issue is funding. Nigeria has 91 public universities, 43 federal and 47 states-owned, that are grossly underfunded, just as the 75 privately-owned ones also face financial crisis. This is in addition to 83 accredited colleges of education and many polytechnics. Many of the former are affiliates of universities for degree programmes to absorb the increasing number of candidates seeking admissions annually.
It is, therefore, sickening to hear the oft-repeated mantra that the country needs to ramp up access to university education without thinking of how to remedy the shortfall in teaching personnel and facilities to guarantee quality. The 2012 NEEDS Assessment Report of Nigerian public universities exposed the ills of the system, especially the dearth of 34,000 PhD holders to bridge the gap in teaching staff; lack of basic facilities like water, electricity, bathrooms, having hostels infested with rodents and common rooms turned into living rooms by students.
These deficiencies are still there; in fact, they are worsening as more universities are set up. Nothing exemplifies this better than how our first generation universities have lost accreditation of some courses such as law, pharmacy, botany and theatre arts, which they had offered for decades. In fact, in 2016, the axe of the National Universities Commission fell on 150 courses mounted illegally in 37 universities. Some of the affected disciplines are mechanical, chemical, petroleum, electrical and electronic engineering.
Incongruities in the system periodically trigger ASUU strikes, which, unfortunately, achieve nothing but government’s dubious renewal of its old promises. A five-week old strike of the union was suspended in September last year, against a background of government’s failure to implement the 2009 agreement it entered into. The pact contains a raft of measures on improving funding of public universities and enhancing the welfare of lecturers. Implementing the pact should be Buhari government’s focus to make our universities truly ivory towers.
Advocates of more universities should make sense out of a recent alarm by the Registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, Ishaq Oloyede, that many unqualified candidates applied and sat for the Unified Tertiary and Matriculation Examination. Therefore, he has vowed to introduce stiffer measures to sideline them next year.
Many specialised institutions lack students to admit; this has compelled them to introduce courses outside their core mandates. This is clearly an abuse the government addressed in 2017 when it ordered 13 universities of Agriculture and Technology to stop offering degrees in Law and Accounting, for instance. Against this backdrop, it is an assault on reason to continue to crave for these categories of institutions to be set up merely to satiate the political appetite of lawmakers.
A university is a citadel for teaching, learning and research; not a constituency project. Nigeria has not fared well in nurturing universities for them to optimally discharge their responsibilities to the society. This failure could be gleaned from the 2018 Webo-metric ranking of universities, which placed the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s best ranked, at 1,076, globally. In Africa, it is outside the best 10. This is instructive. It should nudge the various governments – owners of public universities – to fund them adequately for knowledge production that enhances society’s well-being.