The perceived virtual collapse of the university system in Nigeria was the subject of a 7-hour contentious conversation among key stakeholders in Abuja today. The assemblage happened to capture the very best of global representative elements of the tertiary education sub-sector in Nigeria. There were two professors, who obtained First Class in their Bachelors Degree at a time Nigerian universities were world class and are thus in a position to know where the disconnect between the universities and the public good might be located. One came from the University of Ibadan and the other from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. There were also no less than two immediate past Vice-Chancellors, one of a private university and another of a federal and later a state owned university.
Three non-Nigerian scholars were there, made up of a Sociologist from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa and two from the Institute of Education of the University College London, (UCL), a member of the global top ten whose academics can speak competently on what makes a university thick nowadays, even if from the context of the Western world. Activists, especially of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) were there, two of whom spoke their minds, responding to both fair and unfair criticisms of the union’s strike strategy of struggle. The discussant who replaced one of the Vice-Chancellor discussants who could not make it was, for many years, an academic and a member of the ASUU negotiating team in 1993 before quitting the university system. The Nigerian researcher for the project was himself a founding ASUU leader at ABU, Zaria before he ‘turned coat’, to use his own words. There were students, feminists and sundry academics, especially well heeled researchers from think tanks.
Lastly, there was the National Universities Commission, (NUC) whose Executive Secretary, Prof Abubakar Rasheed, played host and gave a good, detailed and hope raising insight into the crisis of the university system in Nigeria while welcoming the researchers who are looking into The University System, Inequality and the Public Good in Nigeria. The occasion was primarily for Professor Jibrin Ibrahim, the Nigerian researcher of a funded investigation into the subject matter in four African countries – Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa to present emerging findings. The UK Economic and Social Science Research Council, (ESRC); the Newton Fund and the National Research Foundation in South Africa are funding the investigation in the context of what is obtainable in the Europe and North America.
Prof Abubakar Rasheed kicked off the conversation when he contested the popular notion that the standard of university education has collapsed irretrievably, insisting that like all generalisations, that too was dangerous. While admitting a crisis of quality, the NUC Executive Secretary said there were pockets and even mass of excellence across Nigerian universities in terms of facilities, academics and other features. Pushing further, he frowned at the attitude of isolating collapse in the university system and blowing it up differently from that of other sectors in the Nigerian society. He argues that what has happened is that, with the exchange rate in recent years; the salary structure, the instability of calendar and overall insecurity, Nigerian universities are no more in a position to attract foreign academics or students, for example.
The NUC, he said, is looking at the totality of the situation and is in the process of completing a blueprint for revitalising the university system in Nigeria. It is a document in which about 500 professors, all Vice-Chancellors and Pro-Chancellors, student bodies, academics, employers of labour and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, (NESG), in particular have participated. According to him, there has been consensus across the board that there are problems of inadequacy of facilities, of academic staff, of funding and a crisis of access. 45% of the academics do not have PhD and, apart from the University of Ibadan, most PhDs have expired by the time they were granted. He meant that the world has moved on beyond the problem most PhD researches target. Beyond that, he noted the quality of the learning environment in which most PhDs were obtained.
Pointing at Dr Kole Shettima, the Africa Director of MacArthur Foundation, the NUC Executive Secretary disclosed how helpful the Foundation had been to the point that without its intervention, the idea of research might have died in some departments in some Nigerian universities, saying there is such a disconnect between the establishment in Nigeria and the culture of research in terms of the kind of support that flows from the larger society towards research in other societies. He returned to praising MacArthur Foundation again in the course of his presentation for its gender intervention which helped training of female students in engineering, no less than three of whom are now senior academics.
Summing it all as a crisis of university governance deficit, Prof Rasheed disclosed how the private universities are admitting just about 6% of the total admission in Nigeria, leaving the public universities to absorb 94% of the two million students that currently make the studentry in the university system in Nigeria. That two million represents 1% of the Nigerian population, now estimated at 200 million and projected to be about 500 million by 2050, making it the third most populous country in the world, after China and India. To confront the systemic crisis, the NUC is embarking on relaxing its regulation of the universities especially in terms of course content; focusing on academic corruption; gender balance; interfacing universities with industry, among other initiatives in a comprehensive reform programme
Prof Rasheed’s welcome address provided the points of entry as well as points of departure for the subsequent critics, discussants and observers. Generally, he manifested a strong grasp of the regulator’s brief comparable to the grip of some of his predecessors such as Prof Jubril Aminu or Idris Abdulkadir, even as ideologically problematic as Aminu, for instance, was, especially for academics. The sessions that followed Prof Rasheed’s address, took critical notes of some of the pronouncements he made, with some agreeing with some elements of it while some others are up in arms. Hot details of that segment of the conversation will form the second and concluding part of this report shortly.