Reforming Higher Education: Path to the Future (Part II)

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

In the first article on education reforms in Nigeria, I dealt extensively with the necessary reforms that should be undertaken at the basic education level. In simple terms, suggestions in that piece included establishing school districts that should coincide with the 360 or so federal constituencies of the federation with elected/nominated non-salaried school boards that should maintain budgetary and staffing controls of primary and junior secondary schools as well as undertake the duty of overseeing curriculum development. In the near-term, introduction of intervention funding sources as well as comprehensive welfarist approach including but not limited to school feeding and busing systems were also suggested at this level. However, since writing that piece I have had the opportunity to have behind the scene discussions with academics as well stakeholders and must say that there is indeed a persistent desire by all to see that our children gets the best, but the missing ingredient has been the political will to tackle reform at the 6-3 level.

Since writing, feedbacks from readers have convinced me that the next reforms after the Basic Education should be the Higher Education system i.e. the tertiary level. This is not to say the intermediate system i.e. Senior Secondary Schools are of less importance: to the contrary they are probably the most germane to national development. But the rot at this level is actually relatively less poignant at this moment relative to the tertiary level; they (tertiary level) are the ones begging for attention and resources. The focus of this article shall be on universities – especially federally owned ones.

At this point it will be redundant to delve into the problems of our tertiary institutions, as they are well known: lack of infrastructures /maintenance, little or no research funds, dearth of useable library or IT infrastructure, low general funding for the university system, lack of planned development, inconsistent policy application, abysmally low financial incentives for professors, ensuing corruption of mind, body and soul as a result of desperation on both the part of the professors and students are few amongst the well known ills that we need not delve into. Indeed, what Nigerian Universities refer to as research could best be called literature review and that is being at the least charitable to the sincere efforts of both the students and professors to salvage an extremely disgraceful situation. But all hope is not lost- there are ways to reverse the declining fortunes of the system- quite a few universities like the University of Ibadan have begun to experiment with various strategies and I must say they are yielding good fruits.

First, there must be logic to the reasons why we create and want universities. Universities are not made for everyone and that should be clear from the onset. Hence a development of viable alternatives to the university at the intermediate level is extremely important in the scheme of things especially as it relates to the viability of the current arrangement i.e. if our universities will be returned to their past glory. Indeed, as it currently obtains, the education system of our country lacks a goal. It is a well known goal of most European universities to become reservoir of knowledge and engine room of intellectualism- hence the research bias of European education until recently. On the other hand, the American system is known to churn out pragmatists who are trained to become workers or as some people will put uncharitably as “slaves of the capitalist”- and it has served the world’s biggest economy very well – oiling her consumer based economy to the hilt.

But if I may ask, what is the goal of Nigeria’s higher education and the education system at large? Does this goal correlate to our national needs? Do our universities serve a useful purpose that fits our larger national agenda for development and growth? The answers to these questions are an apparent no. For the most part, attending college in Nigeria is more or less a status symbol- quite a number of veterinary doctors are cashier desk officers at the mega banks and financial institutions that crisscross the land. Of course, a desire to extricate oneself from poverty still dominates the labor market of Nigeria and rightly so. Hence, it is the duty of policy makers to design policy thrusts that suit this mentality and not just expect the mentality to change. Obviously, economic poverty is an attendant consequence of a less than zero growth job market with skyrocketing unemployment rate and even a greater rate of underemployment.

Hence, the goal (which is definable) which will meet the development needs of our country at this point is to create universities that churn out entrepreneurs not job seekers. This theme has to be dominant from the Basic to the tertiary level and in this direction a fourth of the curriculum on the tertiary level in ALL courses of studies must be devoted to owning and running different kinds of businesses: sole ownership, joint venture or public corporation inclusive. Hence, a fourth paper to the MB (Bachelor of Medicine) exams for doctors is even suggested: after they take Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry they must be required to take Entrepreneurship and Business Development provided they want to graduate from an accredited Nigerian University. If the medical students are required to meet this standard, it should be assumed that ALL students – engineers, agriculturalists, teachers etc. must be indoctrinated in the same gospel of job creation not job seeking (otherwise known as “I beg to apply”).

After the problem of focus is addressed, there is a need to address the funding problems that continues to dodge the university system. It is apparent that no government is completely capable of funding higher education in Nigeria: the demand is huge courtesy of ballooning population and the “university for all” mentality that dominates the population. To this end, university funding need be liberalized. It doesn’t make any sense why the children of the rich and well to do will be enjoying mind boggling education subsidies in our universities while other government programs suffer. Hence, universities MUST be allowed to charge liberally for their services. To aid indigent students a financial aid structure must be instituted.

The financial aid regime should be a three tier structure that will provide scholarships (free money) for the most outstanding, research/campus work scholarships for the able indigent students and loans for the remaining population of indigent students. This strategy as it evolves will bring merit into the allocation of scarce resources, reduce the payroll of the universities on non-academic work functions across campuses, increase the research work and their applications that come out of these colleges; and credit activities and records can begin earlier which will increase economic activities in the system and perhaps force a self-employment mentality since most students accessing such loans will be required to pay up in a ten year frame in order to claim 100% possession of their academic certificates. Zero tuition is an enviable goal but is not affordable; at least at the current unmitigated population growth pace.

In this direction (liberalizing tuition/fees charged by universities), true and real autonomy need be granted to existing federal universities. In the spirit of true federalism, the states could continue to manage their university systems: as the federal universities evolve they will be forced to either comply or lose clientele all together. As autonomy in staffing, curriculum, funding and research are granted to the federal universities practical steps must be taken to achieve this end instead of the lip service that is currently being paid to the goal. The first step should be rationalizing the university administrative structure to allow for shared regency system where the current twenty plus federal universities are reorganized into four or more manageable university systems with a single board of regents sitting on top of each council charged with over-arching administration of each university system. University Systems will still be made up of distinct numbers of independent universities but will exist to share resources including but not limited to professors, research and administrative know how.

Actual university day to day operations should be left to each university under the system and the duplication of academic units shall be allowed. Hence assuming UI, ABU and UNN, UNIBEN are in a single system – called Premier System, for analogy- University VCs would continue to manage their universities as it currently obtains but professor and research pooling will allow the Chancellor of the Premier University System and its Regent Council to reallocate these resources amongst it member universities. Development plans will also be coordinated on the system level for example to make post-graduate education a bias in planning and forecasting for UI, while ABU would have a larger than usual College of Medicine funding, UNIBEN with an engineering curriculum bias and UNN will as an example be more Business education focused. Long-term, instead of a number of weak stand-alone universities stronger linked ones without a commensurate decrease in intake or capacity will emerge.

It is also necessary to mention at this point that there must be nationwide drive to refurbish existing university infrastructures for autonomy for these reforms to endure. Currently, the infrastructures are crumbling and there is no need to put new wine in an old bottle. Suggestions by Professor Wole Soyinka that the universities might need to be shut for a year to be refurbished is real- and it has in fact happened at the University of Ibadan (UI) and yielded good fruits i.e. a saner and more conducive environment for learning. While a nationwide shut down is impracticable and unnecessary, a phased ten year plan to systematically shut down and refurbish the schools must be implemented and this must be tied directly also into a phased autonomy and tuition liberalization. The populace should be allowed to feel the immediate emotional benefit of paying for a deserving university education while the cost of refurbishing can be spread over a number of years with money saved from the ongoing regular funding diverted to one time capital expenditures as more universities stop feeding off the national budget.

Also, after universities are refurbished, an industry council made up of corporate bodies levied specific amounts must be constituted amongst the blue chip and multinationals with business in Nigeria meeting certain revenue criteria to provide funds and actually participate in maintaining these facilities. This will not only provide a cheap and verifiable source of capital expenditure for schools, but will increase accountability, prevent the refurbished structures from reverting to their former self and foster the necessary industrial-academic fertilization of ideas. Businesses should participate in these industrial councils in lieu of paying the 2-3% education trust fund tax they are currently compelled to pay into an opaque and bureaucratically impeded ETF. Indeed, it is practically unforeseeable that universities will be immediately able to subsist on just tuition fees and industrial funding; hence a one time take off and endowment fund should be set up for each university as they assume autonomy status. The endowment fund portion should be invested as it is done all over the world in the capital market to capture investment growth; other steps including industrial and alumni contributions must be taken to guarantee a regular flow of expendable income from these funds after a number of years into their operations by professional money managers.

Last, but not the least – the criteria for admission into universities must be reexamined. Currently, this system is in chaos. It is common knowledge that JAMB (Joint Admissions Matriculation Board) is all but a moribund organization; JAMB results virtually mean nothing these days and the insistence of major universities to conduct their own entrance examination have created the same problems that necessitated the creation of the body. Instead of insisting on JAMB results as a compulsory requirement for entry, entry requirement should be liberalized and each university system should be free to set admission standards. Each of the university systems should also be encouraged to either set up their own examination bodies or pool resources to set one up or buy into JAMB when privatized. Interested stakeholders should be allowed to buy and run JAMB very much the same way the College Board or Educational Testing Services operate in the United States. Limited licenses (say three) should be made available of which one should be given to JAMB to encourage competition in the business of organizing examinations to the country’s tertiary institutions. This will implicitly require the competing examination bodies to make their examinations acceptable and meet the high standards the board of regents will be confident in.

While these sets of reform steps are offered by way of suggestions, they are only a starting point to an holistic turn around of the education sector of our great nation: for whereas the training and development of the future leaders and followers in our nation is neglected, dire consequences await us down the road and our path to appreciable development will become tortuous and unachievable. It is high time open minded, market based solutions are applied to the education system and the place to start is the Universities and the time to start is now. While some might frown at the call to “commercialize” higher education, the ugly truth is that the current system cannot cater for the needs of the nation- and it is commercialized education and its benefits that are drawing millions of students to foreign embassy queues in our country. True holistic reforms are required, not exaggerated policy proclamations or piecemeal solutions.

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