By Henry Akubuiro
Prof Hyacinth Ementa Ichoku is the vice chancellor of Veritas University, the Catholic-owned university based in Abuja. A trained economist from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and a reverend father, the highflying scholar granted Sunday Sun an interview at the Bwari main campus of the university and spoke on a myriad of issues militating against the tertiary education system in Nigeria and the need for a conducive learning environment in the country.
It has become a trend for Nigerian churches to own universities. What led to the formation of Veritas University?
The basic motivation and concept behind Veritas University was a university that impacts academic excellence and also offers values to its graduates. Character formation is very critical when you are thinking of Veritas University. The Catholic bishops were motivated by the need to add value orientation and character, so that, when a student is graduating, you can say, duly, it is in character and in learning. That is very important. So it is not another UNN, ABU, University of Ilorin, University of Abuja, or any other university.
Obehie, Abia State, was supposed to be a temporary site. We started off where they could find land immediately. In fact, it was in adherence to the directive of the Pope for Nigeria to have a Catholic university when he visited the country in 1998. But it had to take sometime for it to start in 2008 before we moved to Bwari in 2014. This site is quite huge. It’s about 220 hectares of land. You can see rocks, mountains and streams on the landscape here. These are exactly what give this university its unique physical feature. Many of the architects who come here are very excited about the site, because they say you can actually build a magnificent campus. It’s a spectacular ambience, as you can see.
Right now, we have six faculties: Humanities, Management Sciences, Natural Sciences, Education, Social Sciences and now Law. We have a modest number of 2500 students. Excluding some postgraduate programmes.
A key highlight of our system is that it is fully residential. So we admit only the number of students we can accommodate. That’s a key feature of our university, because there is a key emphasis on discipline. At the undergraduate level, you have to live here. But, at the postgraduate level, you can reside outside and visit the university for your programmes. We have a structure in the university to ensure discipline whereby you have, at lower levels, hall administrators that man the hostels. They live with the students. Above them, we have the hostel masters (these are the senior staff of the university). The idea is to ensure mentoring of the students. Then, we have the overall disciplinary committees – students disciplinary committee and the students affairs disciplinary committee – just as we have staff disciplinary committees. All these structures are to ensure discipline and order in the school and academic excellence we focus to achieve.
What have been the contributions of Veritas University to the production of manpower in Nigeria?
We pride ourselves for producing quality human resources. They are not just people who are intellectually deep but people who are sound in character. We have just had our ninth graduation this January. But you can also ask us how did you manage to do that? (Laughs). The Executive Secretary of TETFUND was the convocation lecturer. It was a grand ceremony, though we didn’t intend it to be – we wanted it to be low-keyed because of COVID-19. Veritas is making progress. We are also trying to improve our visibility. By the time I came in, the first year we had about 300-plus students. It increased to 600 the next year. This year, we are having over 1000 new students. But one of our challenges is hostel accommodation. That’s why we are getting investors to build new hostels. By September, two hostels will be commissioned.
ASUU has consistently argued that private universities have become home for retired academics from public universities. Do you agree?
To some extent yes, but truth is that there are some retired academics from public universities who still have their experience to share; they still have their skills. The fact that they are retired doesn’t mean they are useless. When you go to big universities abroad, academics don’t actually retire; you will see academics in their 70s and 80s still active. You know this has to do with intellect – it’s not a physical thing. If they are sound, they are still useful. These are people you really revere. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Science last November was 98 years. So you can understand. That’s just one aspect of the story. There are also young dynamic scholars, very smart, who can’t find space in a public university looking for universities where they can teach. These are first-class materials. Some of them are motivated to find a stable environment to be productive. We don’t take anything away from public universities, but there are also people who don’t find it conducive to teach there, with the instability, strikes and others. As an academic, if you really have passion for what you do, you can’t cope with instability. But, in private universities, we have uninterrupted academic flow of academics; there are no unnecessary strikes.
One of the criticisms against private universities is that they are cash-and-carry. At Veritas University, we make life affordable for the students, both the rich and the poor. We have one of the lowest fees among the private universities nationwide. Some of the universities in Abuja charge between N2.5 to 4.5 million per session. But here, the highest student pays N700,000. Usually, the school fees range between N600,000 and N700,000 depending on which department you are in, and this includes their health insurance, accommodation and other contributions.
ASUU has also queried the alarming number of first class students being churned out yearly by private universities. Do they merit it, because, in some public universities, sometimes you don’t find one first class from a graduating set?
There are two ways to look at it. One is that, potentially, it is possible that those students merit it, because, in a better environment to learn, where you have better facilities, if you have manageable number of students to teach, there will be more focus on the parts of the students. If you are able to give assignments and have a personal touch, it’s easier to perform at premium. That’s what we do here. Lecturers have more time with the students to mentor them, guide those who are slow learners and fast-track those who are fast learners. In this way, students are made to realise their potentials. That’s what we feel is the case. But there are some that is making it look like an aberration when you have more than half of the students in a set making first class. It means there is something wrong in the system. It is to know that moderation is about the middle – being able to offer students quality education, but not offering first classes for sale.
Should private universities like yours benefit from TETFUND? Cases have been made for their inclusion…
A lot of people are advocating for that. That’s very important. The argument you make is that, after all, these are also citizens of Nigeria, irrespective of the fact that they are studying in private universities, and they are going to work in the same economy; their parents also pay taxes to generate the fund that TETFUND is distributing to universities. But there is another side. My major concern is this: TETFUND giving public fund to private universities, there is a possibility it may be abused. That’s my own thinking. You know how Nigerians think now –“our own share.” They may use the fund for viable and unviable projects.
My worry is that, if government begins to give you subsidy in terms of TETFUND projects, it could mean government beginning to interfere in the management and running of the universities. We are currently under NUC regulations, and they dictate the standard, the basic benchmark, as a regulatory agency. That’s different when they begin to give you fund and, of course, you have to be accountable. That could mean that government may begin to interfere with the standards in the private universities; they may begin to dictate who gets the contracts and all manners of kickbacks, and. at the end of the day, you have only 40 percent to work with. That’s the kind of fear I have personally. But, here, we have value for honour in whatever we do. If you know you don’t have resources, you will manage it judiciously to be able to achieve what we have.
Can private universities compete favourably with public universities?
It’s just a matter of time like what’s happening in the secondary education level. You might begin to find a situation where the private universities will outperform the public universities. I am not in doubt. It’s just a matter of time. The private universities are growing, and many of them that are focused are really making impact. That’s where the private universities should focus on – ensuring that the students get quality education for national development.
We are worried with the global ranking of Nigerian universities. None is among the top 700 best universities in the world, what’s happening?
The ranking is done according to certain parameters. For example, the international mix in your university, teacher-students ratio and your presence in the world, among others. Why Nigeria is not performing is that the country is not at peace with itself. The insecurity in the country is an issue. Another is the poor funding of universities. Think, for example, the quality of research we are producing. The quality of your research and publication in international journal is a major parameter. So how many of our universities have quality lecturers that can produce world acclaimed research outputs? Even some students in Nigeria doing their PhD research in the sciences go to Ghana or other universities abroad. If the labs are not equipped, if there is a lot instability in the system, political interference and others, it is difficult to see how universities can really produce outputs that can be comparable to what obtains abroad.
I will use myself for example. I studied in the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is ranked among the first 150 universities in the world, and it is the number 1 in Africa. It doesn’t have any competitors. At Cape Town, you find that they don’t have only the required equipment; they also have international scholars. As at the time I was graduating from my PhD at Cape Town, in 2006, there were people from 99 countries – lecturers from different countries. They have the equipment and the resources that attract intellectuals. My department – Department of Economics –used to publish more than an entire university in Nigeria. Just one department alone! The rate of output is high. You had little or no interaction. It was work, work, and more work, from morning when you report to school till when you leave. But you can’t say the same thing in our country.
Also, all kinds of factors are coming into the university system. Take for instance, the appointment of the vice chancellor, which has become an issue. Every group wants localisation of management – the vice chancellor must be from our town or ethnic group. That’s not the idea of a university. It doesn’t make for productivity. Once you localise, the university begins to stagnate, because the culture is an impediment in the growth of the university. Also, because we have a lot of people without jobs who are finding their way into the university, they are not cut out to teach, but there is no alternative. So you find a situation where you have reluctant teachers, and, if you don’t have people who are cut out to teach, it’s a problem. Sometimes you find a situation where the students are far smarter than the lecturers, and it becomes a problem. Of course, we have all kinds of deviant behaviour going on in some areas and the society’s influence on universities as well as students getting grades they didn’t work for. That’s what we are trying to cut off here. At Veritas if you are caught giraffing. you are rusticated! Our exam halls are wired with CCTV, so you can’t cheat here.