By Prof Attahiru M. Jega, OFR
Given the significant role of universities globally, in terms of knowledge production and reproduction, training, research, innovation and, indeed, overall national development, it is crucial to ensure that they have efficient and effective administrative structures and processes, and good responsible leadership to drive these. A poorly administered university is a wasted national asset/investment in all fundamental respects. Conversely, a well administered and democratically run university, in terms of transparency, accountability and participatory decision-making processes, I argue, is a tremendous national asset and investment, regardless of whether it is publicly or privately funded.
Regardless of a country’s regime type (democratic, authoritarian or a hybrid), university administration ought to be rational, efficient and effective in bringing about the actualization of the core objectives of universities, namely, the pursuit and utilization of knowledge in teaching, research, innovation and community service. The more rational, efficient and effective university administration is, the better the chances of meeting the vision and mission of a university and actualization of its core objectives.
Of course, it is to be expected that university administrators would have greater scope to act rationally, efficiently and effectively under a democratic dispensation than under authoritarian rule. The attributes of a truly democratic system include freedom of choice, expression and association; inclusiveness; transparency and accountability; and good governance. In the university system, these are illustrated by a bottom-up approach to institutional management, decentralization of authority, consultative and inclusive governance, through the committee system, and academic freedom, among others.
Given the nature of modern universities, as universal communities of scholars, students and administrators, preoccupied with knowledge production and its application to solve human needs and aspirations, authoritarian values and systems impose constraints which are obstructive of the realization of their core objectives. These include suppression of contrary views and opinions, lack of inclusiveness in the decision-making processes, top-down approach in management, despotism and arbitrariness in human resources management and relations.
There are two main ways in which undemocratic, authoritarian rule impacts on universities: undemocratic disposition of university administrators and/or undemocratic and authoritarian national contexts. For example, if the national context is undemocratic and authoritarian, it constrains or obstructs democratization of university administration. On the other hand, even if a country can be said to be under democratic rule, a streak of undemocratic and authoritarian disposition by university administrators would be unwholesome and obstructive of realization of the vision and mission of a university.
In what follows, I first attempt a brief conceptualization of ‘university administration’ for clarity; second, I discuss the Nigerian context of the evolution and development of university administration in what I refer to as a ‘contextual/situational analysis’. Third I identify what I see as the major issues and challenges currently affecting and constraining democratization of university administration, which need to be urgently addressed in the context of national democratization and democratic development; and Fourth, I conclude with a discussion of what I see as the way forward.
Conceptualizing ‘University Administration’
It is important at the outset to distinguish between what is conventionally globally referred to as “academic administration” in a university and “university administration”. The former is much narrower and specific while the latter is broader, involving all facets of the management of universities. In this presentation, university administration is conceptualized broadly to mean how a university is administered, managed and piloted towards actualization of its core objectives and its articulated mission and vision statements. It is not just about the routine work by non-academic staff ‘administrators,’ for example, looking after students and staff records, human resources management, long-term planning, fundraising and providing students services. It is more generally about the combined work of the ‘managers’ of the institution (or ‘university management’ consisting of VC, DVCs, Registrar, Bursar and Librarian) and the other decentralized authorities in the system, such as Deans, Directors and Heads of Departments and Units. In a complex organization such as a university, administration is a complex interplay of relations and interactions across both academic and non-academic arenas in the university environment.
In the evolution of the Nigerian university system, university administration has gone through at least three distinct phases. As the first generation universities emerged under colonial rule (University College, Ibadan 1948; and University of Nigeria, Nsukka 1955) and the immediate post-colonial period (University of Lagos 1962; University of Ife, now OAU 1962 ; and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria 1962), their administrative frameworks and structures were patterned after universities in the United Kingdom at that time, hence in many fundamental respects they were democratic in nature, with essentially democratic administrative frameworks. Each university is established by law; with the functions of key organs of the university and its leaders (university management), and their relations to each other, carefully delineated. The essential elements the democratic nature of university administrations include: operating with the establishment laws, respect for, and compliance with, due process; academic freedom in pursued of knowledge, and decentralized and collegiate decision-making processes through the committee system.
From 1966, under successive military authoritarian rule until 1999, authoritarian values and dispositions encroached upon and pervaded university administration. As military rulers tampered with appointment of Vice-Chancellors and many of those so appointed pandered to the interests of the appointing authorities in their relationship with staff and students, due process was essentially trampled upon, academic freedom came under attack, the committee system was truncated, and decision making became exclusive and arbitrary, rather than inclusive, participatory and democratic. Routine administrative processes increasingly lost rational content and increasingly became inefficient and ineffective in facilitating the core objectives of the university system. The negative impact of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), from the middle of the 1980s, combined with authoritarian dispositions of university administrators, nurtured under military rule, to undermine healthy growth and development of the Nigerian university system in many fundamental respects. For example, universities witnessed staff exodus, drastically affecting teaching, research and innovation, and the nation’s socioeconomic development processes suffered from the phenomenon of brain-drain. Poor conditions of service and of work pushed more and more academic out of the universities. And, university infrastructure and facilities deteriorated because of under-funding and bad governance. By the 1990s, the Nigerian university system had become among the worst in the world, also characterized by incessant and persistent students protests and stake strikes.
Since 1999, with return of the country to civil democratic rule, university administration could be characterized as a sort of a hybrid system, circumscribed by democratic cum authoritarian values. Arguably, university administration has been, relatively, better off than they were in the middle of the 1980s, but nonetheless far less than they were in the post-independence, pre-military rule era. This is essentially because:
- the negative effects of the neglect of the 1980s and 1990s, are yet to be solved, and
- in particular, the legacy of military authoritarian values has been so deeply entrenched that it is remarkably constraining, if not obstructing, national democratic development in general, and democratization of university administration in particular.
A relatively brief ‘transition to democracy’ by the General Abdulsalam Abubakar military regime (compared to General Babangida’s ‘transition without end’), ushered in the Fourth Republic on May 29, 1999, with ‘democratically’ elected civilian administrations at the federal and states levels. Since then, scholars of transition to democracy have been arguing about the nature and character of the Nigerian situation. Some say it has been merely a transition to rule by civilians from rule by the military while others say Nigeria has been placed on the trajectory of democratic development, only that attainment of democratic consolidation has been very slow in coming, as elections seem to be mere rituals and the country has been characterized by bad governance, which has dampened popular needs and aspirations by the denial of ‘dividends of democracy’. In any case, electoral politics and its outcome has essentially been dominated by ‘militicians’, or politicians with either military mindsets or even military backgrounds and disposition. This has made progress in democratic development and good governance very slow, if at all, and infused with vandalization of state resources and all manners of corrupt practices. This situation, of civil rule with little if any democratic content, has negatively impacted all other institutions in the country, such as universities.
Issues and Challenges
Presently, serious issues and challenges bedevil university administration in Nigeria and they need to be squarely and decisively addressed if Nigerian universities are to be appropriately repositioned to meet their core objectives. These include:
- Composition of Governing Councils: Over the years, from the military era to the current civil/democratic dispensation, appointment of external members of university governing councils has been obsessively guided by cliental and partisan considerations. Competence, merit and professionalism are sacrificed. The quality of policy and decision-making has been negatively affected by this. For many chairmen and external members therefore, being on university governing councils is seen as an opportunity to collect allowances regularly and get and/or influence contract awards for self-enrichment; rather than an opportunity to contribute to the growth and development of the university.
- Tenure of Governing Councils: Although the laws establishing Nigerian universities specify the tenure of councils, often, the appointing authorities truncate the tenure and dissolve councils arbitrarily and abruptly. This does not auger well for the stable and smooth running of the universities according to the legal framework.
- Faulty leadership recruitment Process: This is especially with respect to the appointment of Vice-Chancellors and other top management staff. In this regard, too, often, competence and merit are sacrificed to political or primordial expediency. As a result, insecure, incompetent and/parochial individuals assume leadership positions, and proceed to divide rather than unify the university community; rely on arbitrariness rather than due process; run a closed rather than an inclusive administration; and, generally infuse autocratic and undemocratic rather than democratic tendencies in university administration.
- Lack of Transparency and Accountability: There is a disturbing deficit of transparency and accountability in university administration, which increased democratization would help to resolve. In most universities, both financial and administrative audits leave much to be desired. Corruption, especially corrupt enrichment from bribery and theft of public resources, is endemic, although relatively inconsequential compared to many public sectors of the Nigerian political economy. Matters are made worse by the back that some VCs are unaccountable to anybody, and the university communities have failed to hold them accountable.
- Unhealthy/unwholesome relationship between Academic and non-academic staff: Struggles by university unions to improve the salaries and conditions of service of their members have, since the 1990s, unwittingly introduced frictions and unhealthy rivalries between academic and non-academic staff, to the detriment of the smooth running of the universities.
- Non-inclusivity of students into university administration: Students are the largest constituency of stakeholders in any university system, yet in the Nigerian case, they have virtually no significant recognition and role in the ways universities are managed. As youth, and future leaders, they need have opportunities to learn how to lead and participate actively in decision-making processes, which concern their education and their future prospects. In many countries, there is increasing recognition of this, and students are offered positions in key university decision-making committees, including the Senate. In Nigeria, this is virtually non-existent, and the current situation need to be remedied.
The Way Forward
As we cannot successfully deepen democracy in Nigeria without democrats, so also, we cannot successfully have desirably democratized university administrations in Nigerian universities without democrats in leadership positions. Democratic values and disposition are key to desirable growth and development of our universities, and they need to be nurtured and entrenched. We need people in leadership positions who are transparent, accountable, selfless and patriotic; who are decent and run universities decently; and who are unifiers rather than parochial and divisive spoilers.
In addition, key stakeholders in university communities need to eschew destructive rivalries, forge a united front and join hands to work together to improve the democratic content of university administration. In this regard, academic and non-academic staff need to work hard to rationally improve relations and work together for growth and development of their universities. The current, undesirable, hybrid system, of mixed authoritarian and democratic values and orientation, which pervades our universities (and indeed our nation), need to be replaced with fully democratized administrative system. This may appear to be a difficult task, but it is not an impossible task. If there is the will, and resolve, and concerted action, it would sooner than later come to pass.
Prof Jega, of the Department of Political Science, Bayero University, Kano gave this Keynote Address to the Association of Registrars of Nigerian Universities’ 15th Annual Conference and 68th Business Meeting, October 29th, 2020, at the Events Centre, Chida International Hotel, Abuja