‘Marketising’ Higher Education: The UniOsun Example

The controversial range of tuition fees announced by the newly established Osun State University for incoming students, however insignificant it may appear, represent the first time a public university, financed by the tax payers’ money and which enjoyed budgetary allocation will announce compulsory tuition at such exorbitant rate. Such tuition regimes are only seen in private universities. For public higher education watchers, it provides a test case for proponents and antagonists who have always argued on the desirability of tuition fees in public higher educational institutions. The raging questions for higher education technocrats’ have always been, who currently pays for higher education institutions? Who currently benefits from higher education? Who should pay for higher education in the future? Recent questions will now have to address the ripple effect the UNIOSUN example will have on other higher educational institutions in Nigeria?

During the dying days of the last administration and in the heat of the reform being carried out in the educational sector by the then Minister of Education Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili, an important milestone was reached in the quest to address the need to explore viable alternatives to the issue of tertiary education financing in Nigeria vis-à-vis the issue of tuition. A National Workshop organized by the Federal Ministry of Education, National Universities Commission and hosted by University of Lagos was held to among other things evolve a funding model and other viable options for higher education financing in Nigeria. This, according to the workshop objectives, was necessary in the face of competing and increased budgetary needs and rising cost of education.

I had been invited to present a position paper for my organisation from the NGO perspective on tertiary education financing at the workshop which had in attendance vice chancellors of private, federal and state universities, civil society organizations working in education, development partners, donor agencies and stakeholders in the educational sector. One of the fallouts of the workshop chaired by the then Minister was the question of tuition fees in Nigerian higher education system. The Pro-Chancellor of University of Lagos and the legal luminary, Chief Afe Babalola, had favoured and canvassed the need for students to pay increased tuition since according to him they and their parents benefit from the education they received eventually.

There were others too, led by the respected Professor Okonjo, the Emeritus Professor and the father of Nigeria’s former Finance Minister Dr Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, who believed that students in Nigerian universities and other institutions of higher learning should enjoy free tuition. Their argument was based on the premise that government has enough resources to ensure a tuition free education in our higher education institutions. They further opined that education is a social service and that if government would be sincere to implement the UNESCO recommendation of 26 percent of budgetary allocation on education, then the question of tuition would be history in tertiary education in Nigeria. The workshop was a very interesting one indeed as papers delivered by the different stakeholders explored other means to finance tertiary education in Nigeria. But curiously the issue of tuition appeared to be a vexed topic and I must say the desirability was not fully explored.

It is against this backdrop of the sensitivity of the issue that the tuition fees announced by the newly founded Osun State University was received by the general public and condemned. I suspect this condemnation was because the cut throat fees were being announced in a public university that was supposed to enjoy government resources in form of a take-off grant and budgetary allocation. The management of the new university had announced a range of fees for new intakes ranging from N222, 000 for Health Science indigenes students of the state and N232, 500 for non- indigenes. The Science and Engineering students will cough out N182, 500 and N192, 500 for indigenes and non-indigenes respectively. For the parents of incoming Non-Science students, they will have to find a way of paying the N152, 500 for indigenes students and N162, 000 for non-indigenes.

These new tuitions fees have predictably attracted widespread critiques from the Nigeria public and deservedly so. The questions that have immediately confronted me when I read this tuition regime announced by the Chairman of Implementation Committee of the newly established university Professor Peter Okebukola was the question of which set of parents were expected to pay the exorbitant tuition fees. Osun state is largely a civil service state where majority are also farmers. Where are they expected to find this kind of money to pay for their wards? What is the minimum wage of civil servant in the state? Which non-indigene will leave his state to pay such huge tuition fees when he can pay less in his state considering that all states in Nigeria can now boast of a university? And to think that the university is still new with limited infrastructures leaves one to wonder the intention of this move. I have also found out that accommodation cost is not included in the tuition breakdown.

According to the UNIOSUN 5-year Strategic Plan, income from tuition fees will be invested to ensure that the University emerges among the top three in its academic programmes in the Nigerian University System. After this Plan period, the University will keep on a track of being a centre of excellence in most of its programme offerings. In 25 years, it aims to produce a Nobel Prize-winning scholar. The attainment of these goals requires huge investment of funds by all stakeholders including payment of well-assessed tuition. These are tall dreams for the new university but should the students be made to bear the brunt of this ambition? I shall come to that shortly.

Higher education faces problem throughout the world. Universities are underfunded, raising worries about quality. Student support is inadequate and financing of universities in many country is regressive. No longer is it a consumption enjoyed by the elite, tertiary education is an important element in national economic performance and a major determinant of a person life chances. Thus, the expansion that is taking place at the Federal and State level is both necessary and desirable. But higher education is costly, and faces competing imperatives in public spending. Its financing is therefore important and immensely sensitive politically. Despite the problems, widespread agreement exists on two core objectives; strengthening quality and diversity, both for their own sake and for reasons of national economic performance; and improving access, again for both efficiency and equity reasons. It is for the reasons above that the establishment of the State University should be commended. However, if it is not possible to rely wholly on public funding it is necessary to bring private finance-but in ways that do not deter students from poor backgrounds. The obvious argument against fees is that they deter students from poor backgrounds. The question of tuition fees in public higher education was fully addressed at The World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE).

One focus of the conference was a 12-page draft document, “Declaration on Higher Education for the 21st Century: Vision and Action.” Much interest centered on the thorny issue of tuition and the question of whom – as among taxpayers, parents, students, businesses, and /or philanthropists – should bear what portion of the cost of higher education. As desperately as tuition might be needed (in light of the inadequacy of public revenues in most countries), and as inequitable as “free” higher education might be (partaken of mainly by the children of the wealthy and paid for by the average taxpayer), the notion of tuition – students and their parents paying a share of the costs—is terribly threatening in many countries. The final draft of the Conference document stepped carefully around the issue of tuition, acknowledging that people should enjoy “the right to higher education based on individual merit, “but providing no direction on how this higher education might—or even should—be paid for.

However the increasing demand for higher education requires considerable resources. It is for this reason that State Governments should thread cautiously in rushing to establish universities. With few exceptions most resources accrued to universities in Nigeria are provided through public funding. It has become evident however, that the expansion of higher education cannot be matched by proportional rises in public spending. No government can assure the growth of higher education at the rate required by economic and social needs, based on public funds alone. The reality is the danger which the disengagement of governments from their responsibility towards higher education entails. This has been seen demonstrated in the way our public primary and secondary schools have been left to suffer leaving parents at the mercy of private school owners who charge exorbitant school fees. Fees per term in private primary and secondary schools are now better imagined!

The point must be made that what is currently happening in Osun State calls for great caution. The question is, does the prevailing socio-economic situation in the state supports the tuition fees being charged by the newly established university? Who are the target candidates and parents? Is it the elites? If so, then the purpose of establishing the university is defeated? It is a public university and not a private one. I foresee a situation where Osun indigenes will flock to other universities in the other state of the federation. My concern also has to do with the ripple effect of the tuition being charged in Osun State University on other public universities in Nigeria, especially the state owned institutions who will also be tempted to hike their fees. Gradually, education is being priced out of the reach of the common people of this country.

The role of the market in matters of higher education is also evolving rapidly. We are about to witness a fast growing commercialization drive in higher education, leading to a ‘higher education market’ which tend to assume global dimensions. This has already sadly taken root our primary and secondary education levels.

An additional point must be made unequivocally: increasing institutional flexibility in the determination of tuition fees cannot be taken as an invitation to government to reduce public funding for our universities. Such a result would be intolerable: unfair to our students, inconsistent with our public nature and responsibilities, and a denial of our full potential. The purpose of tuition fee flexibility is not to reduce public investment in higher education. It is to permit innovation, differentiation and higher quality and to equip each university with the flexibility it needs to best serve its students and communities. If tuition fee increases were simply to permit a substitution of student funds for public funds, our fundamental goal – serving our students and our nation better – would be frustrated and a palpable unfairness would be imposed on our students: paying more but gaining no benefit while seeing the country shirk its reasonable responsibilities to its citizens.

Nigerians must categorically reject any such development. Rather we should stand for a strong foundation of public funding supplemented by tuition fee revenue making possible better programmess, better learning experiences and greater innovation. This is the strategy adopted by the leading public universities of the world and it is the strategy we must embrace. Only through a combination of solid public funding and tuition fee flexibility will we be able to prevail. Secondly, I strongly believe we must broaden the range of policy instruments available to assist students and their families in meeting the costs of higher education. As governments ask individuals to assume greater personal financial responsibility for higher education, it is incumbent on the state and federal governments to be creative in providing appropriate tax incentives and relief to assist individuals and families in planning for and meeting their responsibilities.

Permitting universities to determine their own fees above the formula fee set by the state also contributes to overcoming one of our central problems: inadequate total resources from public and private sources to compete with the finest post-secondary educational experiences in the world. Only flexibility in fees can ensure that the quality of student experience remains the dominant focus of policy, freed from the vagaries of Federal and State financial crises and competing public funding priorities. Only flexibility in fees will ensure that the people of Nigeria and Osun State will have access to a full range of choices in higher education including options competitive with the best in the world.

One thought on “‘Marketising’ Higher Education: The UniOsun Example

  • The article is incisive and down to earth.I raises the issue of the issue of the fate of the ordinary osun state indigene who will be denied by this high fee. KUDOS!

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