In terms of self-awareness, very few in Nigeria would regard as controversial any claim that the University of Ibadan, (UI) is far ahead of all others, yesterday and today. This story is, therefore, worth retelling here even as it has been told a few times before. It is about what happened at UI in the mid 70s between Professor Billy Dudley and a potential First Class Honours student but who ended up not getting it. Professor Dudley was intervening to block the story from filling the campus in terms of a Northerner being denied a First Class Honours grading at a university located in the Southern part of the country. He called the student to alert him to take any such representation of the situation with a pinch of the salt. Dudley’s argument at the time is that the university was not in the position to give anyone a First Class Honours in Political Science. First Class Honours is neither a local thing nor just about scoring 75% or a strictly Cumulative Grade Point Average, (CGPA) issue. It is a universal category. If you were able to obtain a First Class in Ibadan, it should be such that what you wrote should give you a First Class Honours in any other university anywhere else in the world. For that to be the case, the student must have access to reading materials that enables him or her to bring all angles to a question. Where were the books, journals and other references in UI of the time that would enable any student bring all angles to the questions in such a manner that the script will be graded ‘A’ material anywhere else in the world, asked Dudley. The matter died there.
Professor Dudley can certainly be taken up on his universalist scale for a First Class Honours but the point here is not whether Dudley got it right or wrong. The point is, if Nigeria’s best at the time and even now was nowhere near having enough reading materials to enable its students bring all angles to any issue in question, then it means the tension between the university system and public good in Nigeria has a longer history than was recognized at the interesting workshop on that topic last Thursday at the National Universities Commission, (NUC), Abuja. It was not an NUC function. NUC was just the venue for stake holders to listen to preliminary findings from a research on the university system and the public good across four African countries – Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. But Prof Abubakar Rasheed, the NUC Executive Secretary, (ES) was gracious enough to find the time to share his thoughts with the stakeholders before dashing out to another engagement and his enriched the discussions that followed.
As the discussions wore on, the first problem was why the research was titled “The University, Inequality and the Public Good” instead of, say, “Inequality and the University as Public Good”. The latter seemed to be what is at issue: how various forms of inequality, (global/hemispheric, civilisational, class, regional, gender, generational) have made university education inaccessible or worthless in terms of content even for those who managed to acquire it in much of Nigeria. That was what the ES spoke to and what every other person at the workshop also spoke to as well as what the story which opened this piece also spoke to. The heightened version of the crisis is what the study is confronting but it has always been there as revealed by Dudley’s argument. Dudley who studied in the UK must have been rating the UI in those terms and the situation has not changed today. There are many concepts, theories or arguments which are already going out of fashion in Western academia but which are still strange in Nigeria, for instance. The crisis is an issue now in that institutions such as the World Bank, key national media institutions, older academics and even the government have all agreed that graduates from Nigerian universities are just not employable.
It is interesting that many university administrators do not agree with that claim. At the workshop, Prof Rasheed contested the notion, arguing that it is a generalisation and, like all generalisations, vulnerable to effacing hidden pockets of excellence. In August 2018, Professor Michael Adikwu, the Vice – Chancellor of the University of Abuja posed the same argument, saying that, for all we know, the graduate of today is probably more educated than his or her parents. These counter-narratives might have been unproblematic if someone such as Prof. Anthony Onwuka, the Minister of State for Education, did not say in May 2018 that “The universities are producing products that are not matching the needs of the industries”. Prof Ayo Banjo, the Chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors agreed with the Minister when he said at the same meeting that “the quality of Nigerian universities product failed due to poor quality research” but that a graduate who cannot think properly is unworthy of the certification.
As correct as the ES in attacking generalization, the verdict would favour the view that university education as a public good is in crisis in Nigeria. But, what is a public good anyway. This question continued to come up, from both those who implied it or posed it directly. It would be a fair summary to write that everyone accepted the concept to refer to something that must be provided for everyone irrespective of the cost. Defence or security is the classical example of the public good. To the extent that nothing else is possible if people do not feel secure or free from fear of an attack or danger, the provision of defence/security is taken as raison d’être of the state and no class or group is excluded from enjoying security on account that they have not paid for it. That’s the theory. The second problem is the public good status of university education in Nigeria. Has university education the same status as defence in terms of how much is allocated to it?
Prof Jibrin Ibrahim (aka Jibo) who is the Nigerian researcher suggested in his presentation that colonialism decreed education as a public good. He must have in mind the representation of education as that commodity everyone must acquire and, with it, the mental and professional capabilities with which to build the postcolonial state into a modern society. So, models of how to create access occupied the attention of post-independence political leaders. They responded to the problem by creating commodity boards, tasking the boards to sell the commodities and invest in providing free education. So, those commodity boards amounted to the operationalisation of the idea of state interventionism – the state as investor/producer and merchants in the absence of indegenous capitalists in emergent states or societies in Africa/’Third World’. In the West African sub-region, the commodity boards were directed to sink their profits into specific areas of social services as in Chief Awolowo’s Free Education in the Western Nigeria in the First Republic or with Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and so on. As such, both the regional and federal universities in Nigeria were much, much stronger even if they still didn’t have the literature to support a First Class. So, what happened to the universities that they are what the Minister of State says they are now?
Jibo’s submission is that Structural Adjustment Programme, (SAP) and the culture of cycles of strike actions have created a university system that potential students, parents, academics and researchers are keener to run away from rather than embrace it. Most parents who can afford it send their children to West Europe, USA, Australia, Malaysia, the Middle East and, recently, China. Others go to Ghana in such a large number to the point of creating a special attraction for Nigerians in that country to the detriment of the locals who pay comparatively very little fees, this being what a Ghanaian academic told Prof Jibo. So, he agrees or his research tells him there is a crisis in the system – the universities no longer have the features that make a university world class. In the literature in the Nigerian case, these features included the academic content or quality, the learning environment and international composition and competitiveness.
For Jibo, the problem is specifically traceable to the question the government under General Gowon posed in the aftermath of the Biafran challenge in terms of what could be done so that no section of the country goes to war against it again. Gowon found the answer in education in terms of socializing all Nigerians in favour of national unity. In the end, massification arose. By massification, Jibo meant the population explosion that resulted with opening of access to education towards the achievement of socializing everyone as a condition of possibility for societal health. The crisis of an incoherent university system in Nigeria today is, for him, the outcome of the meeting between massification and Structural Adjustment Programme in the mid 1980s after which the universities cranked up, became incapable of or are perceived to be deficient as far as providing recipients the sort of education that liberates the individual and who, individually and collectively, can reproduce the society.
The problem, in his view, has been compounded by what he sees as the historic but now counterproductive struggle of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU). After 40 or so years of employing the strike option, it is time for ASUU to explore other options, he says. Like his concept of massification, this was also challenged by a University of Abuja attendee whose question was what the alternative strategies to the strike option might be. But Jibo’s narrative of ASUU remains interesting on two particular grounds. The first is his disclosure of how the ASUU everyone knows today as a paragon of internal democracy, harvest of union leaders that cannot be compromised and about the only union capable of holding out against an unserious African state is, after all, the creation of a man generally regarded as an autocrat – General Olusegun Obasanjo. He did it when the regime under him reorganized unions in 1978 for a central labour union to emerge and in the process of which the National Association of University Teachers, (NAUT) gave way to ASUU. Since Jibo was a pioneer branch actor of the emergent ASUU at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in those days and since nobody challenged his narrative, it is taken as correct representation of what happened. The second is the basis of his notion that ASUU ought to rethink its strategy because its strategy is based on ideological critique but with implication for public finance. In other words and at the risk of misinterpreting him, he is saying that ASUU politics is based on a postcolonial critique of state and society in Nigeria. That is the ideological sentiment that absolutises (university) education as a public good and made its enforcement the responsibility of organic intellectuals, compelling the state to fulfil the social contract that informed the class alliance against colonialism. He earned interesting replies from some of his listeners which is a matter for the last segment of this series. But Jibo has an interesting sense of the issue in question. It is that there is a debate that has not been explored. That debate, for him, is what sort of university system can be said to be most relevant to Nigeria? The French model of ceaselessly expanding access or the British system of elite/research universities or the American model of research universities along with non-elite universities?
How did other stakeholders respond to Prof Jibo’s summary of the literature? What other ideas did they bring to the table? These are some of the questions that will be answered in part three of this series. Prof Mike Kwanashie, the immediate past Vice-Chancellor of Veritas University, Abuja; Prof Adigun Agbaje of the University of Ibadan; Prof Nuhu Yaqub of Nile University, Abuja, Mallam Yunusa Y’au of the Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD), Colleen Howell, Siphelo Ngcwangu and Tristan McCowan made contributions at the workshop that shouldn’t be reserved for the concluding part of this series.