Ahead of the 4th convocation ceremony of Alex-Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu- Alike, Ikwo (AE- FUNAI) in Ebonyi State, the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Chinedum Uzoma Nwajiuba has taken a look down the history of what the young university was when he assumed duties in 2016 with few programmes and what it is now. He told The Education Report in his office that AE FUNAI which is one of the nine universities established by former President Goodluck Jonathan has moved from the era of students writing exams on the floor to that of assuming the position of the most serious university in Nigeria. Excerpts:
You have been on the saddle as VC since 2016. What has been your experience and challenges?
I resumed in February 2016. In many ways, I like to believe I have been a student of human psychology, and public administration in Nigeria. It has been challenging and I derive a sense of happiness when I look back to what I met in 2016, and what the university is today. I have every reason to thank God for his kindness in blessing the works of our hands. I have been blessed with passionate staff and colleagues and together we can say that our university is simply the most serious public university in Nigeria today. I believe that we are perhaps one university totally focused on teaching, researching, and community service. Our main challenges are getting people to believe there is a future, and not live for today, accepting that sweet from sweat endure and are to be pursued and reviving a sense of working and living for the common good.
TETfund has become more active in AE-FUNAI since you came in. What is the magic?
I am not sure what the parameters for your conclusion are, but I state my angle to that. One, AE-FUNAI has not received anything special from TETfund. All we have gotten are the same normal allocations to universities. For staff training and development, we have simply opted for France and Germany for the foreign training element because staff training in these two destinations cost about one-third what it costs in, say, the United Kingdom or the United States. You know, we have a partnership with the Government of France in this regard. In addition to the low-cost advantage, the partnership helps us to monitor the scholars better and their rate of return after studies is higher. The fund budgeting process is more realistic and more transparent. So, we have, in France alone, 41 of our staff across disciplines. The same principles of cost-efficiency and programme effectiveness apply to sponsorships for conferences, ICT, entrepreneurship, and library.
Regarding improvement in infrastructure, not all are funded by TETfund, as some are capital votes, funded by IGR, and some donors. Many persons notice new buildings springing up, and the speed of completion of these buildings, sometimes within three months. The buildings feature obviously better quality and better finishing. The secret is that we saw our very challenging situation with the paucity of lecture rooms, staff offices, laboratories, etc. and, being committed to growing the university, we found a way to achieve these buildings at costs that may not commonly be obtainable in the public sector. You asked what the magic is. There’s no magic. It comes down to what I just explained. An all-hands-on-deck commitment to deliver with efficiency and effectiveness. The cost of building a house in AE-FUNAI may not deliver the same building elsewhere.
You initiated the Parents’ Forum. Why?
A few months into my administration, Pro Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors were invited by the Minister of Education and we were told that government cannot do everything, and we should find ways to help the situation we were in. Being a young university, which graduated her first set in 2016, with no alumni association, we had no choice but to invite the parents and share with them the situation confronting us. The situation in 2016 was desperate. Classrooms had very few chairs and one was pained to find students sitting on the floor to take lectures, and even to write examinations; some would carry blocks or pieces of wood to sit on. Parents saw the situation and decided to help us. Since then we have had the Parents’ Forum assist in the development of the university.
Also, insecurity was a potential challenge at the time. The university environment was porous in the sense that it was almost impossible to effectively limit access into or out of the premises. Herdsmen were moving cattle around the campus, presenting a risk of misunderstanding and conflict. The parents’ forum also assisted in this regard in addition to the use of IGR and capital allocation. Today the university is at least 80 per cent fenced, unlike some older universities. Another area in which AE-FUNAI parents forum intervened is as regards having some staff and their families reside on campus. Virtually no staff resided in the campus at the time, with most residing in Abakaliki town that is almost 30km away. Hence, at the close of work, the students were left all alone through the nights and weekends. We felt that was too risky, especially for our young daughters. Parents forum agreed with us and chose to proactively intervene. Today, some staff reside on campus, providing reassuring company through nights and weekends to the students. Gradually, a community of staff families is emerging.
Tell us your vision behind the campus in a garden initiative?
Our forebears, who did not possess university degrees, no PhDs, and were not professors, knew that the village square where the children played or passed through should have Udara and other trees and that the roads to the village square, streams and rivers should be lined with trees. They knew that the trees would be sources of micronutrients and minerals for the children, and so ensure that children would be healthy, and that healthy child meant healthy communities and a healthy future. When the missionaries brought western education to our land, they also ensured that all school compounds had fruit trees such as mangoes, cashew, almonds, etc. However, since we took over the management of schools, we have been cutting trees and not replanting; but we are professors of all fields. It is akin to Nigeria Christianity in which many memorise Bible passages but cannot find themselves living it.
It feels good to know that most of the over 30,000 trees and plants planted under this initiative in the past three years are donations by colleagues and students who have responded to our appeal for people to donate trees. We need to recreate a culture of the common good and giving; and not only a culture of taking and begging. I have brought trees from my village to transplant here, including Avocadoes from a stock my late mother planted several decades ago. Colleagues have responded to my plea for people not to give me any gifts but give for the university campus development.
Yours is an academic setting. Why force staff to wear traditional attires on Mondays?
No one is forced. No record kept. No frown and no reprimand. In fact on those Mondays, you find a lot of laughter and bright faces. What we are doing is showing an example of how we ought to live as people. If I were the Governor of Abia State, I would wear and promote Akwaete clothing. We in AE-FUNAI have a centre devoted to developing and teaching the production of indigenous textiles. We cannot be consuming imported products and be crying about unemployment, poverty, and crimes. You cannot be importing fabrics from Dubai and a tailor in Aba makes the clothes and you call that Igbo cloth. Igbo cloth has to revolve around the Akwaete of Abia, the Akwaocha of Anioma, and those found around other parts of Igboland. The serious world has a lot of examples for us.
What is your relationship with the staff?
Like every other human community. Like every other human relationship. I wish someone could carry out a survey to let us know what proportion fall into at least three categories I know are commonly the case: Those who are happy, those who are not happy and those who are indifferent. Any other? I expect that there will be in flux over time. If you did such a survey when there is an unmet expectation, the category not happy will be up. Do that when you are asking that results be submitted within a month after examination, the category not happy will be even higher among teaching staff. Do that after a long-expected allowance is paid, then the category happy will jump up. Do that among those offered appointments as Heads of Department, directors, or others, or sponsorship to attend an event, category happy will be even higher. What I know is that in three years, we have moved from three faculties (engineering was just staring when I resumed) to eight. We have started a College of Medicine, a Postgraduate School; finding a way to get the students back to school within days after reopening unlike what is commonly found today among Nigeria universities; introduction of a Language Enhancement Programme (LEP) to address the common issue about products of Nigeria universities unable to communicate and are unemployable; three convocation ceremonies in three sets of graduands; prompt release of results for NYSC with no delay; collecting degree certificates the same day of convocation; stable academic calendar; a strong quality assurance office engaged in monitoring of lectures, workshops and practical, to achieve 99 percent presence in lectures by lecturers and technologists; monitoring the quality of examination questions and marking schemes, and actual scores awarded; laboratory practicals for sciences, social sciences, not alternative to practical; students results are available and know while they are still on holiday prior to reopening for a new session; moved from no engineering workshops to three workshops; presented 34 programmes in accreditation and achieving all – from a situation I met in 2016 in which only two programmes had accreditation; solar power plant; from students sitting on the floor and blocks to excess seats; people coming to work as approved by government and not at 10 am or not at all; a radio station; new medical centre; staff quarters; over 40 staff on foreign training; the first set of tarred roads; faculty buildings; regular promotions of all categories of staff; active engagements in hosting academic events; from lecturers sitting in their cars and under trees to await lecture times, to having their own offices; etc. We’ve really come a long way!
Would you say you are satisfied with the level of funding of public universities? If no, how should the problem be tackled?
The answer to this is well known and said all over Nigeria and outside. We can be better, but we should also manage better.
What is the relationship between you and the host communities including the state government?
I have recently been receiving letters from host communities appreciating what we have been doing. Yes, I have been well received and encouraged by the host communities. His Royal Highness, Eze Alo earlier gave me a Cow. His Excellency, Ambassador Nwuruku donated a trailer load of cement. The two members for Ikwo in the State House of Assembly last year supported us, so has the current member in the House of Representatives. We have also impacted the community positively. Last year, Ikwo Local Government, by JAMB records, was the Local Government with the highest number of persons admitted in the Nigeria University System. To keep the bond strong, we have a policy of non-antagonism. We choose cooperation over confrontation in all circumstances.
At the state level, I am fortunate to be in a state that has an excellent governor. I am happy that Ebonyi people realise the asset they have in him. I often joke that we need a governor exchange programme or governors sabbatical programme and we shall ask His Excellency, Governor Dave Umahi to go to one state in the Southeast, and you know the one. Of course, each time I say that people will chorus NO! That tells the story.
How far have you gone with the accreditation of courses?
We had visited for Agriculture and Education in October 2019. We are waiting for the results. We have also applied for new programmes including Law, Architecture, and Geography, as well as more Postgraduate programmes. We are also waiting for the outcome.
What legacy do you want to leave at the end of your tenure?
I stated on assumption of office that I have come to work, make friends, and when I leave for God to answer my prayer that it be said that a child of God was here. That is all.