Waste in proliferation of specialised varsities – Punch

A University of Transportation has just been inaugurated in Daura, the home town of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.). It is one, out of many of such specialised institutions that have sprung up in recent times amidst the decadence of public universities, which has provoked perennial strikes on campuses.

The university is the brain child of the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, who, in anticipation of public criticism of his choice of the Daura location as an act of sycophancy, said he had no regret for his action. This university, which will be completed in one and a half years at the cost of N18 billion is indefensible and should be seen as yet another waste of public funds. Buhari, who was at the groundbreaking ceremony, said the university would help the country to domesticate railway engineering and transport. This is fallacious.

Railway transport thrived in the colonial era and the first two decades after independence as a critical segment of the economy, without a specialised university underpinning its operations. There are existing public universities, especially those of Science and Technology and 132 polytechnics across the federation with transport faculties that train transport engineers and other personnel who can deliver the services the Daura university is primed to do.

This move smacks of a wrong policy choice that is at the heart of the country’s stymied economic progress. Before now, all the armed services – Army, Air Force, Navy and Police – had either established or announced the desire to set up their own universities. The anomaly is worsened by the fact that some are being sited in the home states or towns of the service chiefs. For instance, the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, in 2018, located the Army University in Biu, his home town, in Borno State. The sum of N2 billion has been approved for its take-off.

Buratai’s Air Force counterpart, Sadique Abubakar, who hails from Bauchi, said in September that an Air Force University to be sited in his state was under way. The Nigeria Police established its university in Kano in 2013, while Admiralty (Navy) University exists in Ibusa, Delta State. The National Institute for Legislative Studies, a creation of the National Assembly, engages in postgraduate studies in Abuja.

In an apparent demonstration that these institutions are not in any way different, they put up advertisements in search of lecturers and students from the same pool that serves other public universities and run similar degree programmes. In the case of the Air Force, for instance, its new university is a duplication as the Air Force Institute of Technology in Kaduna already enjoys a university status with the National Universities Commission’s approval of its degree courses in aeronautics, avionics and aerospace engineering. These military universities are preceded by the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, which runs degree programmes.

Apart from the NDA, which offers professional training for cadets and the National Defence College for  postgraduate training for senior officers,  these other military universities are a waste of public resources, which ought to have been better channelled to equipping and modernising the military in the prosecution of the war against Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa. Since the fundamentalists have not been defeated, military equipment provided can’t be enough to achieve this objective, just as the challenges posed by internally displaced persons rehabilitation remains very Herculean, requiring huge financial resources.

It could be argued that there is West Point – the United States flagship military institution exists side by side with Valley Forge Military Academy and College and Norwich University – Senior Military College at Vermont, among others. Some of them are privately owned. And where others are funded by government, a regime like Buhari’s in Nigeria, currently seeking almost $30 billion in loans for survival, cannot imitate the US, with its global economic power, Gross Domestic Product of $20.49 trillion and defence budget of $686.1 billion in 2019. Nigeria’s GDP is $397.3 billion with defence budget of $1.9 billion in 2018.

What is obvious is that the latest specialised universities of this regime will sooner than later be mired in degenerate conditions like the older institutions. On July 29, this newspaper published a front page picture that showed the hostels at the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus, overgrown with weeds. At the Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto, students use pit latrines, while students’ bathrooms are an eyesore at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. In all the universities, hostels are overcrowded, resulting in their infestation with bed bugs. For a country where the older universities are beset by inadequacies, setting up more universities amounts to standing logic on its head.

There are 43 universities owned by the Federal Government, which has been at daggers-drawn with the Academic Staff Union of Universities over the non-implementation of funding the 2009 agreement, renegotiated in 2012. Under the pact, the Federal Government is to release N1.3 trillion over a period of five years for the universities to be revitalised. But only N200 billion was released in 2013, thus fostering a cocktail of periodic strikes by lecturers. In February, ASUU suspended its strike upon government’s release of N25 billion for the payment of its members’ Earned Academic Allowances. But the bigger issue of annual release of N200 billion for infrastructural renewal remains a mirage. Therefore, lack of basic facilities like water, electricity, sufficient lecture halls, students’ halls of residence, office accommodation and bookshops, outdated libraries, ill-equipped laboratories, which define university education here, are bound to worsen with these needless specialised universities.

Nigeria should stop trivialising tertiary education. A university is a global centre of excellence, devoted to teaching, research and innovation for the overall development of the society. Shortcomings in these attributes are why our universities are not highly reckoned with in Africa, let alone on the global level.

The location of the Transportation University in Daura – the General’s home town – exemplifies the regime’s moral weakness. It is an abuse of power and parochialism that First Republic premiers who established universities at Nsukka, Ife and Zaria did not exhibit. Nigeria’s present dire financial situation does not justify these universities’ existence.

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