Some few weeks ago, precisely on the 22nd day of October, 2021, I had the opportunity of witnessing and listening to the presentation by one of the great legal minds of our time, Yusuf Alli, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, at the 36th Convocation Lecture of the University of Ilorin, in Nigeria featuring, ‘Tertiary Education and the Future of Nigeria’. It was a very rich paper, well researched with sufficient statistics, expected of a lawyer, to back up his assertions and conclusions. The presentation was scintillating and well-articulated, often spiced and interjected with humour.
The paper, which was introduced with the purpose of tertiary education in Nigeria and the ranking of the Nigerian universities which he used interchangeably with tertiary institutions, both locally and internationally, was a great delight. In the paper, he emphasized the complimentary roles of the universities in terms of the provision of technology, particularly information technology, promotion of social development, economic prosperity, agricultural innovation, medical and health innovation in society. After a seemingly exhaustive evaluation of the contributions of the universities, he concluded by lamenting the poor outing of the Nigerian universities both globally and regionally. According to him, “It is really disheartening to note that the latest World University Rankings for 2021, by all ranking bodies like Times Higher Education, USN News, OS World University Rankings, Shanghai Rankings and CWUE, has no Nigerian University in the top 500 positions.
This can only be interpreted to mean that, according to the latest World University Rankings, Nigeria is “incompetent” to provide globally accepted degrees that can be presented and used anywhere in the world”. Continuing, he asserted that in Africa, only the University of Lagos and the University of Nigeria, Nzukka are able to fall within the first 50 Universities in Africa. In articulating the factors responsible for this abysmal failure of the Nigerian universities, he identified funding, collapsed infrastructure, political interference, poor motivation, unionism, incompetent management, cultism and anti-social behaviour, obsolete curricular, leakages and waste in the management of resources, lack of interaction between the society and the academia, wrongful composition of councils, corruption, externalization of internal affairs, multiple regulators.
Of course, he didn’t close the conversation without propounding solutions to the myriads of challenges identified in the management of our university system. As expected, more funding, infrastructural upgrade, private endowments, reduction of political interference, beefing up internally generated revenue, deregulation of wages, application of “no work, no pay” principle as captured in section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act etc.
Notwithstanding the strenuous attempt by the presenter to cover the field of discussion, he still, out of objectivity, concluded that the paper was meant to be thought-provoking and, therefore, not exhaustive in any manner. In his words, “What we have done in this presentation is essentially to raise issues for further debates on the issue of standardization of tertiary education in our country. The points raised are to whet our appetite for more robust discussions in future. No one possesses the solutions to all the problems discussed in this paper”. It is in this connection that that we intend to interrogate some of the issues raised and others omitted. Let me start by commending the industry of the presenter and the pragmatic manner in which he addressed the issues militating against the competitive status of Nigerian universities. Having listened to the presentation, I must concede that he substantially covered the areas except for some arears that I intend to interrogate further and others that I intend to fill the noticeable gaps by me.
In this regard, I commence with the issue of the application of Section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act which the speaker reiterated several times for application to striking university workers. In as much as I quite agree with the rationale behind the provision and the objective, I am not too convinced that the application is targeted at circumstances as that of the academics. This is so because the issues around those strike actions most times, go beyond the traditional boundary of improved welfare; it often bothers on lack of working tools essential to the performance of their jobs. Where those tools are lacking as recognized by even the speaker, how do you command performance?
I am sure the university lecturers are not miracle workers. Hence, you cannot compel them to work where there is no tool. Additionally, I notice that the speaker did not address the main issue of conditions of service of the workers and by extension, their welfare which, indisputably, is appalling. Their take home pay certainly cannot take them home. As much I would have been sold into the argument on the deregulation of determination of emoluments by the Councils, I believe that regardless of the wisdom in the reasoning, there is still compelling need to have a minimum standard upon which improvements, in terms of peculiarities, can be built.
I recall my days in the academia that there used to be discriminatory housing allowances for university workers in States like Rivers, Lagos and even Abuja. I am not current with what obtains presently but just an illustration of the way it can work. Hence, I am of the strong opinion that without comfortable wages to take the workers home and imbue them with necessary stamina to perform their tasks, it would be foolhardy and callous to penalize them for inability to work arising from systemic failures. University workers need to survive first before they can work. They need the stamina to teach and research as captured in the Yoruba proverb that , “okun inu ni a fi n gbe ti’ta” which literally means “it is the internal strength that sustains the external efforts”. Hence, in advocating the implementation of the provision against the university lecturers in particular, we need to guarantee minimum comfort of survival first and ensure that the teaching and research infrastructures are available.
In the absence of these basics, the problem of distortion of academic programs cannot be arrested, the implication of which is that the standard will continue to fall. A good narrative is that commonly experienced with the secondary and primary school teachers who spend more times in merchandising than teaching the pupils. At the university level now, you find lecturers more engaged in external presentation of papers for pecuniary gains and involvement in other activities, crucial to their survival, than dedicating their lives and times to the research and teaching that ought to be their primary occupation. Let me remind us that except we are deluding ourselves, I make bold to say that we are in huge deficit of qualified and competent teaching personnel in the country. A sizeable number of those in the University system today has no business being there, barring lack of alternative and dearth of qualified ones. This is reflected in the products that we all continue to be astounded with. The university continues to unleash dangers on the society through substandard products. Stemming from the above, the country can, therefore, not afford to intimidate the few competent personnel that are available. Rather than doing this, let the relevant authorities address the basic needs of the university first. Another area of deficiency in the paper is the failure to address the implication for the future of the country from the scenario or the picture painted by the speaker.
The gloomy picture in the presentation depicts hopelessness for the country. As contended by the speaker, the quality of our graduates is largely nothing to write home about globally and regionally. Just days ago, the federal government made the same observations that the skills acquired in our institutions render the graduates ‘unemployed or unemployable’, thereby advocating complimentary vocational and skills training. In the light of these revelations, my expectation is that the speaker will forecast the future of the country arising from the deteriorating state of the university system. In my view, if the deplorable conditions continue, there is absolutely no future for the country as no knowledge essential to the growth of the country will be available. These are the basic areas of my observations on the paper. However, beyond all that the speaker has analyzed in his paper, I believe that there are two more key areas deserving of our attention.
The first area is the continuous proliferation of universities. Practically every day, the National Universities Commission (NUC) continues to dish out licenses for the establishment of universities to the governments, federal and states as well as private entities. This licensing is without regard to the needs of the nation. Little wonder that the number of unemployed ‘graduates’ continues to soar as there is no linkage between the areas of need and the ‘graduates’ that are produced. One would have expected that such licensing would have been tailored along the needs of the nation but alas!, that is not so. Beyond this mismatch is the challenge of funding.
Most of these universities lack the required fund to sustain the institutions. Take the federal universities, for example, we are all living witnesses to the incessant strike actions punctuating academic activities as a result of inadequate funding for both infrastructure and conditions of service. Same thing applies to the various state governments who could not even afford payment of basic workers’ salaries but end up establishing universities, just like their counterpart, the federal government, for political reasons. Most of these universities end up being glorified secondary schools, dishing out substandard degrees and endangering the society.
Till date, the extant universities continue to degenerate and fade away. Obsolete libraries, lack of quality personnel, non-conducive classrooms, no teaching facilities, inadequate research grants etc. characterize our universities. The private universities are not much better off except for some few ones. Notwithstanding, the National Universities Commission continues to license more and more. I am not oblivious of the demand for admission to universities but whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.
There are other ways to skin a cat, one of which is the forced merger of these institutions through regulations. We must encourage this by stalling further licensing which will force new promoters to invest in the existing ones and promote the expansion and upgrade the existing ones. The sad aspect again is the non-promotion of specialized universities.
Despite the fact that some of the universities from the onset are licensed as specialist institutions, they end up with distractions and veering into other areas of irrelevancies. A university of Agriculture or that of technology suddenly becomes a university with a Law Faculty and Faculty of Humanities. Ideally, such universities should have been restricted to such specialization but no, lack of focus continues to haunt the system. More than ever before, what the country requires are specialized universities in our areas of need and not just university for the sake of one.
To my mind, it is not even late to revert the specialized universities to what they were conceived to be. It will aid the system and boost the quality of our graduates. This is the way to develop the country and assure a future for the nation through the university system. The other aspect that I alluded to earlier is the dearth of qualified lecturers. As we continue to license more universities daily, we discount the aspect of competent personnel, particularly lecturers. I reiterate again that there are insufficient qualified personnel in the nation today to match the number of universities we are establishing. It is not enough to have a post-graduate degree but to possess the research and teaching capability.
A sizeable number of those claiming to be lecturers today are unable to deliver anything in terms of impacting knowledge. They are in the institutions for lack of what to do, survival most times. Another critical point is the challenge of brain drain as our competent ones have all practically left the country in search of greener pastures in foreign lands. They excel in those countries and become the shining stars of the foreign academia leaving our own in intellectual devastation. In the circumstance, it is garbage in, garbage out. We continue to suffer degradation in output. Consequently, we need to pay attention to this aspect in licensing more universities and even pruning down the existing ones. With the current state of the facilities, both hard and software in the universities today, nothing much credible can emerge from the institutions.
Consequently, apart from not measuring up to the global and regional standards, the future of the country is imperiled. As rightly called for by Mallam Yusuf Alli, SAN, the conversations continue with the hope that we will quickly arrest the drift in university education in Nigeria.