Sola Ojo, Kaduna
Professor Juan Elegido is Vice-Chancellor, Pan-Atlantic University (PAU), Lekki, Lagos. In this interview he spoke on the COVID-19 learning environment and other sundry issues. Excerpts:
The university has switched over to e-learning due to COVID-19. Did you envisage the pandemic would take this long?
It was clear that the virus was already in China, Spain, Britain and other places. We realised in good time that this was not going to be a matter of one or two months with the lockdown of countries. It was clear that the reopening of the university was going to take a long time a bit. For us here, from the very beginning, we have made sure that we become very good at teaching online because we know that even when we are here in the physical classrooms, we still complement with the online. So, we started this long time ago and we have been telling our lecturers that we have to keep improving the way we are doing this. We have to teach online and we have to teach face-to-face.
One is worried how those children who are in the low-income setting will be able to key into this new order, the e-learning?
This is very challenging all over. You have to understand that we are an expensive university from others. We have to ensure the students have laptops and unhindered access to the internet, live in places with internet access. By and large, it was not so difficult for us to manage the situation because we have prepared long ago.
Apart from the internet, radio and television, what other means can we look forward to ensure learning continues irrespective of the geographical or financial reach of the students?
The key issue to continue teaching in this period is internet connectivity. Without it, there is nothing much you can do especially students who live in rural areas or places where internet connectivity is lacking. I don’t see any serious solution for that. I mean, if people have access to Internet connectivity, different options are possible and without that, it will be very difficult. Talking about radio and television, these can be used for primary and secondary schools because they have the same syllabus. But universities have different programmes thereby not possible to use radio or television to teach except internet.
How are you handling tests, assignments and examinations especially those at the final year? Are they paying the regular school fees or certain percentage is removed since they are not present for face-to-face classes?
Students submit their assignment by email. We are hoping that by the end of June, the whole thing must have come down and students can come back to write their exams. There are also ways of doing examination by the internet. Obviously, it is good to participate in paperwork and it is also good to ensure nobody is helping the students. There are ways of doing that and even there services available. So, by the end of June, if it is not possible to write the exam face-to-face, we consider the online possibilities.
With regards to your question on tuition fees, we are not reducing tuition fees and it is important to understand this. In our own case, from the beginning when we started, we were committed to giving the same quality of learning both online and face-to-face. We are doing a lot of online teachings and interesting enough, the fee for some of the online programmes is the same with face-to-face programmes. Some are just on the basis of convenience. People have accepted long ago that you can have the same value with the online as you do with face-to-face option. We are strongly committed to our online teachings. In fact, the way we are doing it now, we encourage the same syllabuses just the way we do it when we are on campus.
If you are talking about the cost, we are spending more than in a normal situation. For us like many other universities, the main cost is staff arrears, the salary which is the same whether you are online or not. We have to spend a lot of power. The generator is running because of those that are on campus. We are having a special cost because of this situation to ensure that a lot of students, a lot of families don’t suffer the economic problem as it is. As a measure to check our financial obligations, our staff are now receiving 70 percent of their salary. That was not salary cut because we have promised that we will pay the arrears as soon as it is possible because of the problem of cash flow. We are not cutting the fees because of the coronavirus.
Are there hitches hindering running of your operation and how do you intend to address such?
We suffer a lot of problems. When we started, we were too ambitious. We were driving the students hard. But, students were finding it difficult to stand before a computer for hours doing one practical, assignment or the other. Then the students complained and we have to readjust our demand.
We have tried to use Zoom to teach online because it offers useful interactions – you can use audio, visuals, PowerPoint, and as a result, it consumes a lot of data. But we have been addressing this little by little. Another problem is that 15 percent of our students are running on scholarship. With these students on scholarship, we give them N1,500 data allowance per week, unlike some universities that would want to live out students in this category because they are using applications that consume a lot of data.
We make data available for them. Even some of the students who are not on scholarship are having problems. We have to sign an agreement with the internet service company and we have agreed that, by next Monday (11/05), we will be giving students 3GB of data per week so they can be online as much as possible. The good thing is that our online classes are recorded so, students can possibly revisit them especially for students who may have a problem with electricity or internet connection at that time.
Private universities are clamouring to benefit from TETFund grants, do you think they deserve it?
TETFund grant for universities is not about whether private or public universities. It is a question of helping the country. It is a question of helping the students.
Why must parents pick private universities ahead of public ones?
If I have to make a choice for a son of mine, I won’t be thinking of private or public university – whether UNILAG, UI, UNN or PAU. What will determine my choice will be in term of specific courses. For example, this can be the best place to study Law or Medicine. When you talk about Economics, other universities can be better at it. I think it depends on many things.
If you are talking about public universities, their tuition is basically free. It is not always because of money, it may be a type of admission, the course of study, the security and other factors as they are peculiar with different universities.
The high number of first class graduates being churned out by private universities is being questioned, what is your reaction?
Currently, about 25 percent of people in the UK are getting first class. In Nigeria, it is just around five percent and we are short-changing some of them because when they go abroad, they are part of the 20-25 percent that come out with First Class. But, the truth is that, when we think some of them don’t deserve it maybe during the interview when you see them working in any company, people will see the value in them. You have to work your mark you have to work your grade.
How can strikes in Nigerian universities be eradicated to ensure smooth academic calendar?
That was political and I want us to leave it at that. I don’t want to comment on that.
Do you subscribe to the call that government officials be banned from sending their wards abroad for schooling?
No not at all. That is just basic freedom.
Why are several private universities struggling to meet their carrying capacity during admission exercise?
The only way to attract people to your university even if you are charging higher than public universities is when you offer quality services is something special. A lot of private universities like ours have established a good reputation for themselves. They have more applications and spaces. Having said that, the carrying capacity is a number put in place by the National Universities Commission (NUC). In our own case, we don’t want to have a class with more than 60 students at admission and 50 in year two or three. We believe this is very important to teach people properly. We are not even interested in the admitting many as NUC will allow us to admit.