I am puzzled by the latest decision of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) to approve the establishment of eight new private universities. I am mystified because the existing public and private universities are barely offering quality education to students. Adding new private universities to the potpourri of tertiary education institutions in Nigeria has devalued, rather than enhanced, the quality of university education. The unsystematic approval of eight new private universities has exposed government’s haphazard, hit-and-run style of higher education policymaking.
Here is the absurdity of the situation we are faced with: in early 2015, the Federal Government announced the approval of nine private universities. Five years earlier, the Federal Government approved six public universities. When you tally the number of universities created in the past five years, you will see the government has approved, to the dismay of many citizens, a total of 23 universities. That is a lot by anyone’s estimation.
When the Minister of State for Education, Professor Anthony Anwuka, announced on Wednesday, November 2, 2016, the decision of the FEC to increase by eight the number of private universities, he said additional universities would provide more opportunities to the swarm of students seeking admission into existing universities. The manner in which the announcement was made suggested the minister expected the public to hail the FEC and the Federal Government for that decision. The FEC had performed a miracle, it would seem, by creatively finding a solution to a lasting problem. I would argue that is far from solving any problem.
There seems to be the twisted view that the higher the number of universities, the fewer the number of students looking for admission into universities. That might be a temporary solution to an enduring problem of admission into universities. What is overlooked in this weird logic is that a reduction in the number of students seeking admission into universities does not guarantee higher quality of education. It does not assure the students there would be jobs available to them when they graduate. Shoving thousands of students into ill-equipped and poorly funded universities without proper planning for quality teaching and research or for jobs that will engage them when they graduate is a disaster in waiting. Increasing the number of universities is an ambulance chaser’s preferred higher education policy response to a persisting problem in an environment without a policy.
One consistent argument that has trailed every increase in number of universities is the view that more universities will offer potential students opportunities to gain admission into universities. Establishing more universities, we are often informed, would ease the headache that existing universities experience in trying to fit hundreds of thousands of students into fewer places available in universities. I am not persuaded by this close-minded way of thinking.
In November 2010, when the Federal Government approved six federal universities, the then Education Minister, Ruqayyatu Rufa’i, said the decision was intended to contain the surging pressure on limited undergraduate places in universities. She said more than 84 per cent of qualified candidates could not be admitted because the universities had surpassed their capacity.
It is not enough for the Federal Government to approve establishment of private and public universities. It must keep in mind that universities do not operate in a vacuum. If the universities cannot access qualified teaching staff, if they have no research, technical, and administrative staff, the universities would remain paper tigers and puns for many years.
Accreditation of degree programmes in universities is often based on a number of criteria such as the number of qualified academic and research staff, availability of basic facilities that support teaching and research, availability of well-equipped science laboratories, libraries that are equipped with relevant and current texts, journals, periodicals, databases, as well as video and audio-visual equipment.
The kind of private and public universities being granted licences on the run by government can never compete in terms of high standards of teaching and research with better equipped and better funded universities at home and overseas. While existing public universities have continued to struggle with limited infrastructure, limited funding, restricted office space, a dearth of qualified academic staff, poor libraries, and ill-equipped science laboratories, all of which continue to impact negatively on the quality of their graduates, no one should expect newly established private universities to overcome these challenges overnight in the current climate of financial and economic difficulties. This is why many citizens have turned the recent decision by the FEC and the government to approve eight new private universities into the butt of public criticism.
There is a more profound reason why everyone must view the approval of new private universities with a great deal of cynicism. On Wednesday, January 7, 2015, Ashafa Ladan, a deputy director at the National Universities Commission (NUC), revealed at a public lecture in Ilorin, Kwara State, that fewer than 50 per cent of university lecturers in Nigeria have the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Ladan said shortage of qualified academic staff in universities had adversely impacted on accreditation of many of the degree, diploma and certificate programmes offered by many of the universities.
To the shock of his audience, Ladan said: “Most of the teaching staff in private universities are either employed on sabbatical, visiting or adjunct basis due essentially to difficulty in attracting quality staff at this level… The quality of teaching staff (senior lecturers and above) poses a greater challenge with regard to mentoring, research and research leadership, effective linkages, journal publication and the general evaluation system of standing of the university.”
Ladan also looked at the direct impact of underachieving private university staff on efficient management of academic programmes. He concluded there was a negative effect on general administration as well. The deputy director said ineffective management was one of the key challenges confronting private universities in Nigeria and this must be attributed to a lack of qualified staff.
Against this background of scarcity of qualified teaching staff and shortage of competent administrative personnel in private universities, it must come as a surprise that the FEC and the Federal Government ignored the dreadful situation and proceeded to approve the establishment of eight new private universities.
A number of discerning questions must be asked at this point. Did the FEC have access to the critical statistics on the pitiable number of qualified teaching staff in private universities and the largely untrained and inexperienced administrative staff before the decision was made to approve eight new private universities? Was the decision based on the need for political gains (for example, to win over some constituencies) rather than the need to enhance the quality of university education? To what extent did the Education Minister consult with the NUC and other stakeholders in higher education prior to the meeting of the FEC that approved eight new private universities?
I would argue the decision to approve eight new private universities is irrational, unsound, and inconsistent with the facts on the ground. More significant, the decision is at odds with the numerous challenges that overwhelm existing universities, least of which are lack of sufficient funding, absence of qualified teaching and administrative staff and lack of state-of-the-art technology to enhance research performance. Let me make this point clear: the quality of teaching and research in Nigerian universities will not be enhanced by dramatic increases in the number of private universities. Quality university education should never be evaluated by counting the number of universities. It will be sheer madness to do so.
It does not make sense for government to insist the aim of approving eight new private universities was to shrink the long queue of students waiting to gain admission into universities. Government needs to come up with a more convincing and unassailable reason. Eight new private universities will not eliminate instantaneously and mechanically the exasperations potential students experience as they seek admission into universities.
The focus should not be on enabling more students to be admitted into universities. In a competitive university environment, merit should determine students who are admitted into degree programmes. The federal government should focus on enhancing the quality of university education by providing adequate funds to universities, and by equipping the universities with basic facilities to help them to engage in ground-breaking teaching activities and pioneering research. Government must accord higher priority to improving the quality of teaching and research in universities.
It is time the federal government halted the growing commercialisation of university education that has seen indiscriminate and unsystematic approval of applications for establishment of private universities. While universities in other cultures are leading the way in ground-breaking research, publications, and innovative teaching, we are preoccupied in Nigeria with creating avenues for profit making by higher education proprietors who have no clear plans for improving quality education.
The upsurge in the number of private universities in Nigeria is taking place in an unregulated environment in which licences are issued randomly to the highest bidders. This has exposed the country’s existing slapdash policy on university education.