NEWS that a committee has been put together by the Federal Government to review Nigeria’s university system should attract intense attention. The ivory tower is in crisis, wracked by under-funding, poor quality, inadequate staffing, gang violence and the nagging issue of autonomy versus political interference. For a sector that, everywhere else, drives innovation and research, supplying the skilled manpower and brains of society, a review is indeed urgent. A world-class higher education system is essential for growth and competitiveness in a global knowledge economy.
According to its Executive Secretary, Abubakar Rasheed, the National Universities Commission has raised “a high-powered committee of very credible senior academics,” including former vice-chancellors and university administrators. Headed by a former Executive Secretary of the NUC, Peter Okebukola, it includes Attahiru Jega, a former VC of Bayero University, Kano and well regarded one-time chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. No Nigerian university made it to the first 600 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018. None made the top 800 in the Shanghai Ranking of World Universities. Even in Africa, our once vaunted universities could not produce one in the top 10 of the continent.
Regular strikes that have perpetually upturned the September to June academic calendar in most public universities; unpaid salaries, dilapidated and overcrowded facilities, poor funding, sex, admission, examination and financial scandals, as well as gang violence, are the ills that frequently grab the headlines. But the real tragedy is the inability of the system to deliver on its core mandates.
Universities, through teaching, research and partnership with governments and the private sector, provide skilled manpower to drive development. UNESCO identifies higher education as crucial to the attainment of economic wellbeing, innovation and knowledge-driven growth. A paper published by the Harvard University, said “higher education generates broader economic growth as well as individual success,” just as “knowledge is replacing other resources as the main driver of economic growth.” British universities contributed £60 billion to that economy in 2007.
In Nigeria, where standards were once high enough to attract faculty and students from around the world, the schools are now overcrowded; the best graduates seek employment in the private sector or abroad, leaving the ivory tower with average or mediocre scholars, while universities are mushrooming amid the dire problems of underfunding, teaching staff and standards. According to the organised private sector, most Nigerian university graduates are not fit for employment. Ironically, from only six universities in 1970, the NUC lists 160 today – 40 owned by the Federal Government, 46 by state governments and 74 that are privately-owned – with eight distance learning centres and 55 affiliated colleges. Some 200 fresh applications for new universities are reported to have been filed.
Though Rasheed did not elaborate on the committee’s six-point agenda, he cited the issue of postgraduate training – the period required to obtain a Ph.D and the necessity of recruiting more doctorate holders. A report on 12 new federal universities found, for instance, that only about 32 per cent of the teaching staff hold Ph.Ds, raising afresh for the committee, the question of who should teach. An earlier NUC finding had said about 20,000 doctorate holders were needed system-wide.
The two most critical issues, some experts say, however, are autonomy and funding and both are linked. A third is standards. The NUC should, in collaboration with the public sector, OPS, professional bodies and global affiliated bodies continue to set minimum admission standards. The committee’s major task, however, should be how to concretise the autonomy of publicly-owned universities as set out by law and in various agreements with the Academic Staff Union of Universities. According to the Sinaia International Conference on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy held in Sinaia, Romania, from May 5 – 7, 1992, history has shown that violations of academic freedom and institutional autonomy have high costs in intellectual regression, social alienation and economic stagnation. In the light of profound social changes and new demands placed on universities, there is a need for a new understanding between universities and society. A reaffirmation and revitalisation of the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy are imperative.
To join the league of countries with high flier universities, Nigerian universities must be granted autonomy. Autonomy means that governmental bodies should have no direct role either in determining the courses offered by universities or directing the research undertaken by individual academics. Academic and support staff should be employed by individual institutions and not by the state. Indeed, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board should be made voluntary. In many countries, any university, either public or private, is free to join the university admission system and select fresh students based on its set marks. No longer should the Minister of Education be allowed to confer with the President and appoint VCs for federal universities as he did in 2015. The United Kingdom’s higher education system, like America’s, is underpinned by academic freedom and autonomy. Only the university council can appoint or fire a VC and other top managers. Many universities in the UK and the US elect their VCs or presidents. Indeed, the entire foundation of modern university, as expressed at the University of Bologna, the world’s oldest, founded in 1088, is anchored on academic freedom.
The committee should come up with practical recommendations on funding. Neither the federal nor the state governments can continue to solely fund their 86 universities; some states established two or more, despite their weak financial base. Modern universities are run by endowments, fees, earnings from patents and grants/subventions from government and charities/foundations. Autonomy, mixed with universally-agreed minimum standards, should free higher institutions to raise their own funds. The funding gap, apart from starving institutions of facilities, is at the heart of four decades of incessant strikes and shut-downs as members of staff clamour for emoluments that the governments cannot pay.
Universities are not mere degree mills; neither do they exist only to pay salaries. They should undertake research and drive innovation. In the UK, higher education sector contributes at least £59 billion to the economy and generates about 2.3 per cent of the GDP. The panel should link better funding with the imperative of making ample research funds available. Autonomy to raise funds has enabled the US and the UK universities to become the global destinations of choice for students and scholars globally.