James Ojo Adakole
President Muhammadu Buhari appears to have stirred the hornet’s nest recently when he announced that catchment area policy should be discarded forthwith in the admission process of federal universities across the country, starting from year 2020.
The president had while speaking at the 45th Convocation Ceremony of the University of Benin (UNIBEN), Edo State on November 26, expressed concern that the policy was discouraging the country’s diversity in students and staff demographics of federal universities across the country.
“If you look at the demographics of the various Nigerian universities, it reveals a preponderance of over localisation and over indigenization with only a few universities including those owned by the Federal Government having a semblance of national institutions in terms of the national spread of their staff and students population. Universities should be more broad-minded, less parochial and eschew over indigenization,” Buhari, who was represented at the event by Deputy Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission (NUC), Suleiman Yusuf, had noted.
A vote for abolition
The catchment area policy was introduced in Nigeria in 1970. By its original design, the policy was introduced to ensure easy admission of students domiciled in host communities or surrounding states of a particular university.
Years after it was introduced, however, the policy has been dogged by several setbacks and become a subject of heated controversies among educational experts and development advocates.
Opponents of the policy contend that it places nepotism above meritocracy, noting that such is inimical to the educational and overall growth of the country’s development.
Speaking on this, a don, Mr Zhiya Solomon, argued that the catchment area policy has done more harm to the country’s educational system than good.
“The idea of catchment area policy is, for me, a selfish one. This is because there are so many who are qualified to gain admission or gain employment in a certain sector, but because of this policy of catchment area, they will not be able to access those areas.
“So, when you place someone who is not qualified in a position, or to take up a responsibility in a system, that system will die. The system will not see the light of the day because qualified hands are not manning this position. So, to me, I vehemently oppose the catchment area policy. Why can’t we do things based on qualification and merit? If someone merits to be in a place, let it be given to him irrespective of where he comes from if truly we see the country as one.
“Why do you have to give a position an Igbo man is qualified for to someone from Hausa ethnic group because the person is not ‘a member of the area’ and vice versa. So, if we are to promote expertise at the expense of that catchment area, the country will move forward.”
Also speaking, a lecturer at University of Abuja, Mr Adeola Kehinde, stated that the catchment area policy, before its recent abolition by President Buhari, has brought the country’s educational system backward.
“It (catchment area policy) has brought our educational system backward. In a situation where the policy says everybody from each state must be allocated a quota in the admission process at the expense of merit is detrimental to academic because there is no way someone who scored higher mark can be denied admission and those who get lesser marks get the same position.
“You don’t actually get the best from the system because of that. Anyone that does not want to go to school should not be forced. Merit should not be sacrificed on the altar of catchment area policy.”
Reviewed not abolished
Mr Nehemiah Wokji Gotip, another don, however, took a contrary stance, nothing that the Federal Government ought not to have abolished the catchment area policy.
Gotip stated that it was unfortunate the policy has been misconstrued to only mean lowering of standard in the educational system.
According to him, the policy, by its original arrangement, promotes diversity, meritocracy and ensures fairness in the demographics across the country when properly adopted.
He advised that rather than abolishing the policy, the Federal Government should review it with a view to addressing noticeable loopholes in it.
He said: “I strongly believe that the admission policy on catchment area for universities in the country should be reviewed, but not scrapped to create room for the best and successful candidates in the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) and Post Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (PUTME).
“Until now, admission into federal universities is based on three main criteria. There is the merit criterion, in which 45 per cent of applicants are taken in, catchment area for 35 per cent of admission seekers and 20 per cent for Educationally Less Developed States (ELDS).
“The 20 per cent allocated to the ELDS should be reduced to five per cent to give room for candidates outside the ELDS that qualified to be admitted. I suggest allocation as follows: 70 per cent merit, 25 per cent catchment area and five per cent ELDS.
“Admission policy on catchment area for universities still has its advantages, which include spreading education to ELDS, but more emphasis should be placed on excellence by increasing the weight given to merit.
“Some states are educationally less developed hence if students from those states are not supported they will be structurally marginalized. This will lead to unequal development among states because some states will hardly produce university graduates.Again, the catchment area criteria aid the actualization of a multi-ethnic educational environment of learning.
“Nigeria needs a system that greatly favours merits and a system that is just to students in ELDS. Hence, we need to create a balance (to equalize the value of merit and fairness).
“Therefore, we need a system that retains high level meritocracy and apropos fairness to ELDS, in a way that is productive. The government should not jeopardize merit or fair consideration.”
FG merely playing the ostrich game
To some experts, the recent abolition of catchment area policy holds no significance.
Speaking on this, respected policy analyst, Mr Ambrose Igboke, stated singling out catchment area for abolition in federal universities would not address other deeply-rooted issues in the Nigerian system.
According to him, there are several other policies akin to catchment area in the Nigerian system, which relegates merit and extols nepotism.
Igboke, who is also a public relations expert, stated any concerted move towards addressing issues of ethnicity and nepotism in Nigeria should have been holistic and not done in isolation.
He said: “Catchment area is everywhere in Nigeria. Catchment area is about nepotism and we have nepotism in every facet of our polity. The Yoruba man will first of all look at the Yoruba’s interest, same thing with Hausa, Igbo, Urhobo and others.
“So, first of all, if you want to proscribe catchment area, I think we should start from the national level in terms abolishing all provisions for what is called state of origins. We should not be talking about state or local government of origin and all those things enforced. It is enough to say I am a Nigerian citizen and where you live should be state of residence.
“But because we are parochial and we practice nepotism, these things still remain issues. Why did we establish the National Character Commission? Is it supposed to ensure that people from all parts of the country are not cheated? Why did the constitution stipulate that at least one minister must be appointed from each state?
“It is because we are practicing nepotism, that is also catchment area. So, if there is catchment area in the appointment of ministers, if there is catchment areas in what they call zoning arrangement, because all the political arrangements known as zoning arrangements are catchment areas; what is the point of banning catchment area when in Unity Schools when exam is conducted, a candidate that scored 10 or nine over 300 in Zamfara State gets admission into Queens College, Lagos and a child from Anambra State who scored 150 cannot get the same admission? Is that not a catchment area?
“So, all these talks about catchment areas are all sycophancies. We are playing the ostrich game. The best thing to do is to elevate the concept of meritocracy to a national ideology. That is the only way we can survive and succeed as a nation. Having catchment area in place is like someone who is having a sour and the busy is busying chasing flies as a solution.”
Also commenting on this, a lecturer at the department of Mass Communication, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Enugu State, Dr Edith Ohaja observed that the recent directive cannot succeed in isolation if other needed reforms are not undertaken in the educational system.
“How about the policy of favouring educationally less developed states (ELDS)? Which is worse – giving a few more slots to those from around a school, for whom it’s more convenient to enrol there, or lowering standards for candidates from ELDS while denying admission to countless others who are more than qualified?” she queried.