At a time when the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), and the Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) are on strike, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) last week shocked the nation when it announced that the government had approved the establishment of 12 new private universities. This decision came at the peak of instability in Nigeria’s university education system.
Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, who broke the news, said the 12 universities would be guided by the existing universities with reference to recruitment of key officials, including academic and professional staff. What a tall dream. Does a sick person treat other sick people? Existing universities have their own problems to deal with but the government that is full of dreams has burdened the universities that are struggling with additional tasks.
In a rehash of what has become the government’s standard template for justifying increases in the number of private universities, Mohammed said the country does not have many universities to contain the large number of students seeking admission every year. It was on this basis, Mohammed argued, that the government considered and approved the 12 new universities. This pathetic and groundless argument is analysed below.
There is always the weird view that increasing the number of private universities in Nigeria would significantly reduce the number of students looking to be admitted into universities in the country. How bizarre. For instance, when the former Minister of State for Education, Professor Anthony Anwuka, announced on Wednesday, November 2, 2016, the decision of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) to expand, by eight, the number of private universities, he argued the additional universities would help to provide more opportunities to the large number of students seeking admission into existing universities.
Again, in November 2010, when the Federal Government approved six federal universities, the then Education Minister, Ruqayyatu Rufa’i, said the decision was aimed to increase the number of undergraduate places in universities. She said more than 84 per cent of qualified candidates could not be admitted because the universities had exceeded their capacity.
Increasing the number of universities just to reduce the number of students seeking admission into universities does not make logical sense. It does not take into consideration the quality of programmes offered in those universities. It overlooks the paucity of infrastructure, library resources, and science equipment available in the new universities. It is mindboggling to hear education ministers argue that frequent increases in the number of private universities have clear objectives. What the ministers overlook is the extent to which mere number of universities is directly and logically connected to quality education in those universities.
Haphazard proliferations of private universities in Nigeria constitute band-aid solutions. They do not deal with the main causes of the problems. They complicate rather than solve the problems in the country’s higher education sector. The challenges facing universities in Nigeria are enduring and the solutions must be carefully thought through to ensure they will be long-term.
Pushing hundreds of thousands of students into ill-equipped and poorly funded private universities that are set up without proper planning is a disaster programmed to happen. It is an idle person’s weak policy response to a continuing problem in a disorganised university system.
There are many reasons why unsystematic approval of new universities in Nigeria should be considered a mindless decision. Contrary to the government’s view, establishment of more universities will not ease the pain that existing universities experience in trying to fit thousands of students into fewer places available in universities. I am not persuaded by that rigid, old-fashioned, and one-size-fits-all uninspiring way of thinking.
It is shocking that the government ignored the deplorable conditions in which universities are operating presently and went ahead to approve new universities. Some questions are pertinent. Does the number of universities in a country determine the quality of university education? Do existing universities have sufficient teaching and research staff to justify approval of new institutions? Whose agenda was served when the Federal Government approved the setting up of new universities that, most certainly, will struggle to deliver quality education?
Currently, the standard of teaching and research and learning in existing universities is poor. Infrastructure and other facilities that should support teaching and learning are either non-existent or have crumbled. Nigerian universities are deteriorating and so are the products of the universities.
On June 5, 2018, I wrote in this column that “The establishment of private universities in Nigeria has become something of a dog’s breakfast.” Nothing has changed from that viewpoint. There are basic facts the government must consider before approving or rejecting applications for establishment of private universities. Those conditions were either ignored or thrown into the bin before the government approved the new private universities. Top of that assessment must be the quality and performance of existing universities. The government should have considered how new universities with inadequate or unqualified teaching staff and poor facilities would assist students to achieve their learning objectives. To what extent would new universities enhance or jeopardise the quality of education they offer to students?
Granting approval for establishment of new universities without logical and fact-based arguments signifies a government that makes higher education policy on the run. There is no guarantee that the new institutions would compete favourably in terms of attracting quality students and qualified teachers, in terms of innovative teaching and research, and in terms of being furnished with state-of-the-art science and technology laboratories, or even in terms of being better funded.
Many existing universities are far from engaged in teaching and learning activities in the middle of ongoing strikes. Many of them have defaulted on what they promised to offer students. Many of them will struggle perpetually against limited funding, the constraints of restricted office space, a shortage of qualified teaching staff, poor libraries, ill-equipped science laboratories, and significant upgrade in teaching and research facilities.
All these deficiencies will impact negatively on the products of the new universities in terms of quality and ability to be competitive overseas or in other environments. There is no way the newly approved private universities would be able to conquer these challenges instantly in the current atmosphere of financial and economic strictures.
There is an overpowering and deeper reason why approval of new universities should be viewed with a great deal of sarcasm. Seven years ago, precisely on Wednesday, January 7, 2015, a deputy director at the National Universities Commission (NUC), Ashafa Ladan, revealed at a public lecture in Ilorin, Kwara State, that fewer than 50 per cent of university lecturers in Nigeria hold the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Up till today, there has not been any substantial improvement on that awful situation. Ladan said the dearth of qualified teaching staff in universities had negatively affected scholastic endorsement or accreditation of many degree, diploma, and certificate programmes offered in many of the universities.
Ladan told his audience: “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.”
According to Ladan, unproductive management was one of the key challenges facing private universities in Nigeria and this was attributable to lack of competent and skilled staff. The Federal Government’s erratic policy on university education has disrupted the dreams of secondary school students. The nation needs a clear policy framework intended to manage the challenges of university education.