Why Nigerian varsities underperform, by VC

Nigerian University Analysis

It is a great privilege and honour to have been invited to address this distinguished audience.  For this, permit me to place on record my gratitude to the Vice Chancellor, Prof Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, the University of Lagos Alumni Association, Lagos branch and the University of Lagos community. When the vice chancellor mentioned the idea of delivering the 2018 Prof Adetokunbo Babatunde Sofoluwe memorial lecture to me, I immediately expressed my excitement at the prospect.  Then, he saddled me with the responsibility of picking my own topic.  That was where I had my challenge: what topic will be of wider interest, befitting of the memory of this pre-eminent scholar of distinction, and has not been sufficiently discussed.

Deep within me, my resolve was inspired by the following premise: First, it is without question that Professor Sofoluwe, in whose honour this institution has befittingly established this annual lecture, was a humane and compassionate gentleman. Second, he was committed to the service of the people. Therefore, the topic of my address must naturally align with his imprint and enduring desire, notably to ensure that Nigeria’s higher education system becomes a catalyst for Nigeria’s competitiveness in the global market.

The concept of commodification of education is a response to a market-infused approach to education. In such context, knowledge is treated as a commodity whose value is measured by comparing the cost of acquiring a degree with the financial earnings that the degree ultimately attracts. It is a process whereof education and its acquisition take on the metaphor of buying and selling of goods and services for commercial interchange.  One of the lead stories of the Sunday PUNCH newspaper of April 29, 2018 read, “Public varsities’ fee hike threatens dreams of indigent students”. It is common knowledge that academic activities have been disrupted at different times in many universities on account of increase in school fees to meet shortfall in government funding.

What then is the relevance of The PUNCH lead story to the issue of commodification of education? If the higher education system is to achieve its goals of contributing to national development, universities have to be adequately funded.  Regrettably, as at today, the opposite is true. To put it bluntly, even if mildly, our universities are underperforming in their contribution to national development for reason of inadequate funding among others. There is a crisis of underfunding that seriously threatens the provision of quality education in Nigeria.  This is an issue that affects people’s lives with so much urgency. In order to mitigate the challenge, universities are resorting to increasing students’ fees.  Antagonists of increase in student fees have christened this as “Education for sale” while the protagonists stridently argue that increases in tuition fees are a direct result of the fact that subsidy allocation to universities has been in decline with serious consequence on long-term optimal operation.  Not many will argue that higher education is currently at a cross-road in Nigeria.

If we recognise universities as the nerve centre of a country’s national development (especially in the areas of knowledge production and innovation, human capacity development and indirect generation of employment), then, the fundamental question is what should be the division of responsibilities for the funding of university education between society as a whole (as represented by tax payers), and the individual students who enroll and their sponsors as may be applicable? In this regard, it is important to recognise that tertiary education has over the years been progressively commodified. The three broad sources of funding for public universities have for long been government grant or subsidy; student/parent contribution (tuition fees or allied non-instructional fees); and income derived by the institution from commercial or quasi-commercial ventures or services, investments, donations and endowments. Ideally, there should be four broad sources, the missing one here is internal and external research funds. This form of funding is hardly a factor in Nigerian universities for reasons that warrant another platform and another day.

What the above immediately brings to the fore is that it begs the question to argue that increasing fees will curb carefree attitude of students if they are involved in purchasing a stake in their education.  They are already involved.  The percentage of cost-sharing therefore is what is at issue.  How are we to resolve this if we are to guarantee access for all (rich and poor) to quality education? What chance does Nigeria have of being a critical participant in the emerging global knowledge economy via the instrumentality of its tertiary educational resources?

State of our universities: The balance sheet

At the 1992 Convocation lecture of this great University titled: “The crisis in the temple”the erudite, and highly-respected, rare-breed scholar, Dr. Pius Okigbo, lamented the desecration and destruction of university values. The university as a ‘temple or hallowed space’ as rightly noted by him is supposed to be a venerated institution akin to a monastery, seminary or madrassah; hallowed spaces commissioned to produce the beacons of hope, sound leadership and development but whose value and importance, have increasingly eroded due to years of both military and civilian misrule of the Nigerian state.

It has been 26 years, since the Dr. Okigbo declaration, but, has the story changed? Not much in my view. Our educational sector, particularly the tertiary layer is now more prominent for the wrong reasons, rather than for its contribution to national development. Rather than being the bastion of hope in a maddening state of chaos, it is rapidly shedding its ideals and with alarming readiness imbibing the obnoxious aspects of our rules of social engagement.  I mean, rather than offer a model of decency, as a “learned commune” our universities are increasingly becoming mirrors, even transmitters of all that is socially and morally reprehensible in our society. Rather than be a buffer, our universities are serving as magnets for unwholesome social tendencies.

The nexus in the above paradox with the issue of commodification of education is not far-fetched. In a 2017 report of the National Universities Commission (NUC) titled: “The state of university education in Nigeria”, it was reported that the Nigerian university system had a relatively impressive outing in the core mandates of teaching, research and community service. Better performance would however have been recorded if a number of obstacles did not impede progress. The top three challenges reported by all universities when data were pooled are: funding (89 per cent), infrastructural deficit (81 per cent), staff shortage (71 per cent) and poor reading culture (71 per cent).

As things currently stand, our tertiary institutions are not likely to midwife, the socio-political, economic and technological transformation so badly required after over five decades of independence and self-governance, unless the sector is appropriately funded.  Neither the knowledge-driven transformations of East and Southeast Asia, nor the historic development of states like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong among others not excluding Latin American Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) such as Brazil and Argentina are not imminent upon us. This is so despite the exponential growth in the number of tertiary institutions (161 universities) established by the federal and state governments as well as by missionary and other private entities.

Despite the unfair nature of the global matrix for measuring innovation in relation to Africa, by any measure, Nigerian universities are not associated with the generation of even marginal degree of intellectual property asserts such as patents and or high value copyright and other reckonable intellectual capitals. This dismal record speaks to the quality of our tertiary institutions and accounts for their permanent occupancy of the basement level of global high rise of ratings of universities.

As a system and service provider, our tertiary education is often not aligned to meet our domestic challenges or imperatives, including the needs of industry, labour and the private sector. Foreign experts are still imported to provide consultancies on subjects our institutions have several decades old departments and faculties. This is an indication of not just the problem of a misaligned curricula but it is symptomatic of more fundamental dislocations.

I will argue that the rot in our tertiary education is largely a result of the failure to recognise education as a national priority, as a tool of socio-economic development and as a veritable weapon for social engineering. Education is a mega sector with cross-cutting and trans-sectoral utility. Tertiary education must not only be allowed to flourish unfettered and unhindered, it must also be provided with the resources, infrastructure and facilities it urgently requires to fulfil its mandate in the 21st century. It is a social investment that is measured by timeless, open-ended and incalculable externalities.

In a 2000 – 2015 report of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) titled: ‘Dakar Framework of Action’, it was proposed that national governments should commit between 15 to 20 per cent of their annual budget to the education sector in order to accelerate progress towards the Education for All (EFA) goals. However, successive administrations have consistently fallen far short of this benchmark. In a World Bank study of budgetary allocation to the education sector of 20 countries, Nigeria had the lowest allocation for the year 2012. Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Uganda, Morocco, South Africa and Swaziland, constituted the top six in respective terms; while Kenya placed eighth behind Mexico. None of the E9 (Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan) or D8 countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey) other than Nigeria, allocates less than 20 per cent of its annual budget to education.

The gross underfunding is the organic catalyst of the state of our education sector and it is what has given rise to the different coping strategies that universities are adopting, including the commodification with all its challenges.

Commodification of education: Challenges and prospects

The fundamental challenges of funding confronting institutions of higher education is a global problem.  The two key drivers are the pressure for increased enrollments (particularly in countries like Nigeria where high birth rates are coupled with rapidly increasing proportions of youth finishing secondary or high school with legitimate aspirations for tertiary education), and the high and increasing per capita (single student), cost of higher education. At our current rate of growth, it is anticipated by the United Nations that Nigeria will become the third largest country in the world by 2050 with 399 million people.

Critical advantages come with commodification of education; where it is effectively focused. It will improve responsiveness to students, support improvement of infrastructure and services, support entrepreneurship and employment generation while, overall, entrench accountability in the allocation of resources.  All of these are premised on the market principle of ‘efficiency’ which mandates that there must be a return on investment.  The cultivation of the concept of commodification, however, comes with a number of unintended consequences.

One major danger of commodification of education is its focus on pecuniary oriented disciplines which forces a shift from edification and learning in higher arts and humanities and indeed in higher ideals that catalyze society’s transformations and the optimisations of humanity’s limitless creativity.

But of related albeit direct concern to me at present is that commodification overlooks the value of intellectual challenge and exploration by reducing knowledge to quantifiable, job-oriented results. Permit me to explain this a bit further: if students are consumers and their education is a product designed to maximize their comparative ranking in the global market, then, they may deliberately, or desperately be ‘made up’ or ‘packaged’ as optimally ‘successful’ social and educational products.  In this respect, it is of concern that some of the private institutions that are struggling to attract students by lowering the entry point cut-off and possessing the least number of professors and other teaching staff end up having the highest percentage of first class graduates.  As relevant to this issue, Tables 3, 4, 5 and 6 from the NUC’s report on the State of University Education in Nigeria Report provides an analysis of related demographics of Nigeria’s university system in 2017.

 In one of the private universities, 30 students out of a total of 250 graduating students had a first-class honours degree.  While it may be the case that the low number of students enabled much higher student/teacher interaction and enhanced the performance of the students, it could also be that traditional institutional culture and standard pedagogical practices of assessment are being compromised for impression and performance. No matter how inchoate or ephemeral students’ desires are, studies have shown that a consumer-centred education is likely to pander to such desires in a manner equating to value-for-money phenomenon.

This position becomes more compelling in the face of regular adverts that are now being placed by a number of institutions to meet the challenge of low enrollment.  The argument here is not that every time business principles and academic principles clash, the latter is always subordinated to the former. Rather, it is the case that we must be wary of grand simplicities that are reflected in articulations which push for increase in school fees to fund delivery of quality educational services.

A third problem is that commodification of education can reinforce societal inequality by denying access to low income and other vulnerable groups. A focus on tuition fees, tell a very incomplete story about affordability of university education. Other costs to students, pursuing university education are housing and food, books and supplies, transportation and other basic living costs.  To be clear, the real costs of living poses a significant hurdle to many students and their families.  When this is considered alongside income levels for the majority of families and individuals, making sense of the options available becomes a lot more complex.

A fourth challenge for commodification is that in the face of the high-level of public corruption and profligacy that are common to our society and first nature to our political elites, it will be difficult, if not impossible to convince the public, especially, the poor majority that a low regime of student/parent contribution is neither affordable by the state nor sustainable. This further reinforces the views of those who are of Marxist persuasion, and the overall historic root of resistance to tuition which catalyzes student union activism on the ground that education is a public good and a tool for justice, equity and egalitarianism.

The drive for tertiary education funding

The government has responded to the crises of funding in tertiary education through several instruments and ways. The first one is the agreement it signed with academic staff unions in tertiary institutions, namely Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) and Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU), which is meant to be reviewed or renegotiated periodically. However, such funding increases for a number of universities are largely spent to defray or address issues relating to staff emolument and arrears on various allowances, and not on the issues of improving facilities, infrastructure, teaching and research. This partly explains why staff unions often make repeated clamour for respect of agreement or violation of their demands or non-implementation of agreements reached with the federal government.

A second approach of the Federal Government is its intervention through the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) which it established in 2011. TETFUND was meant to be an intervention agency to arrest the crises in physical infrastructure, facilities, research, publications and foreign networking by tertiary institution staff, among others. The truth, however, is that most tertiary institutions literally now look up to TETFUND annually not to supplement, but, as main source of funds for these critical areas.

As indicated in Table 7 below, TETFUND expended a whopping N44, 717,700,000.00 in five years; an average of N894, 354,000. Were this sum to be strictly supplementary to a 15-20 per cent of national budget subvention, the quality of our higher education would have improved substantially. 

I wish to now address the role of industrial unions, particularly the ASUU in the promotion of better funding for higher education in Nigeria.

At the peak of the crises in tertiary education under Gen. Sani Abacha in 1996, the Federal Government used funding of tertiary institutions as a weapon of control. When tertiary institution unions demanded academic freedom and autonomy, the Federal Government responded by stating that it cannot be funding, almost wholly, tertiary education; yet, staff of such institutions will be demanding freedom to do what they wish such as having autonomous governing councils, and autonomously selecting and appointing their principal officers; freedom to express their views and to freely associate, in line with the Lima and Kampala Declarations on Academic Freedom. The Federal Government objected to this, by asserting that, “he who pays the piper dictates the tune”.

Although largely due to misinformation and propaganda, and sometimes short-term personal interests; the public vilify staff unions for being too bellicose and embarking on industrial action at the slightest provocation. Several members of the public and the hegemonic media even argue that the object of industrial action in the higher education sector concern narrow material interests of greedy lecturers. However, this is not a proper reflection of the reality. To be sure, virtually all industrial actions by academic unions are often an option of the last resort. They are largely patriotic interventions to salvage the system.

These actions have forced retreat from inappropriate policies.  For instance, it is to the credit of these unions that recurrent expenditure of the Federal Government per university student rose from an all-time low of $360 in 1999 to about $1000 in 2003 (Saint 2003:8). The Education Trust Fund (ETF) which is an education tax of two per cent assessable profits was an outcome of ASUU negotiations with the Federal Government in 1991-92 where ASUU had proposed and urged the government to impose a tax of per cent on all companies in the country and set it aside for development of tertiary education.   The ETF was established at the instance of ASUU.  Contrary to ASUU’s recommendation that the fund be dedicated to higher education alone, the Federal Government placed all levels of education within the purview of the fund. It was from the ETF that TETFUND was established in 1992 to cater for higher education funding exclusively. The purpose of TETFUND will continue to be defeated for as long as the underfunding status quo of our university system is maintained. May I reiterate again that were government to increase its funding of education to a level between 15 to 20 per cent of budget benchmark, TETFUND intervention would have been nothing short of spectacular.

Sadly, while it can be said that through struggles, staff unions won some measure of academic freedom and university autonomy. Regrettably, both academic freedom and autonomy have been grossly abused and taken beyond legitimate boundaries. Autonomy emphasizes accountability while academic freedom emphasizes responsibility. It is regrettable that some administrators of tertiary institutions not only lack accountability, they also violate the rights of staff through arbitrariness and highhandedness.

In the same vein, some staff unions see the privilege accorded trade unions under the law as a veritable tool to entrench a selfish agenda and sometimes hijack the administration of institutions.  It is now the norm for local branches of unions to view the democratic conduct of union elections (as against selection) and rendering of financial account as somewhat of an anathema.

In their infantile sense of power, they seek to tele-guide every decision of management. The slightest opposition to their views even in the maintenance of discipline and international best practice, is not only seen as an affront but met with disruptive self-help. Members of staff facing allegation of misconduct, including sexual harassment, financial impropriety, cash-for-grade, racketeering, complicity in cultism and miscellaneous malfeasance bordering on integrity and ideals of the university as a “learned commune” easily find consortium instead of reprehension within our unions.  This is beginning to rub-off on the credibility of these unions built over the years. There is no doubt that the solidarity once enjoyed by these unions and the student body is increasingly being tested to say the least. It is high time unions renounced by words and deed this sordid state of affairs in the strongest of terms and begin a process of introspection and ethical rebirth in our universities.

Tokenism and IGR theology

The decline in government funding has made it inevitable for university administrators to fall back on IGR as a source of critical funding.  The expectation is that universities would seek efficient ways of developing their IGR initiatives.  Going by what operates in other climes, the bulk of IGR ordinarily should come from commercial ventures, research and consultancy services, manufacturing and processing, and alumni goodwill and endowments. Sadly, the incessant disruption of academic calendars and the low trust in our educational system has not given sufficient room for the kind of robust engagement that will develop most of these sources.

Consequently, IGR in our universities is generated more from teaching in form of different kinds of part-time and bridge programmes than from consultancies, research and development (R&D). Ironically, in a way, such bridge programmes in some cases, are founded on commodification philosophy. The result is often that the population of universities is over-bloated with part-time students; facilities and infrastructure are overstretched, and sometimes there is lowering of entry qualifications in order to make courses competitive and admission attractive; lowering of standards in teaching in order to allow majority to pass; and extended working hours and working time for academic staff.  With these pressures, some academic staff members teach in secondary institutions other than their primary employer institutions as adjunct staff. This affects the productivity of lecturers, especially the quality of their research output and supervision of their main students’ terminal essays and theses. For the perceptive observer, this state of affairs fuels stress-induced fatalities in our tertiary institutions at an alarmingly rate.

Hence, when tertiary institutions say they have IGR of 20-40 per cent, and this has made them rely less on government funding, the question is at what social (quality of education inclusive) and health cost to the managers, staff and students of the institutions was this achieved? We are gradually reaching a point at which the costs of the status quo would be so great as to make continuity unconscionable.

Nigeria’s higher education system compared with other systems

As noted earlier, the higher education tuition fee is a controversial issue globally. The situation is different from country to country.  It is instructive to observe, however, that most European governments, with far wealthier families and more employment opportunities for students, have continued to support either a no-tuition or low-tuition fee regime. Most countries provide various forms of financial support for students such as needs-based, merit-based grants or scholarships; transport, housing, medical subsidies; students loans (to be repaid after graduation when the graduate starts generating income) to take care of miscellaneous living costs. All of these are in addition to student-friendly tax system and proactive work study programs that enable students to be employed within the tertiary education system as research and administrative assistants while undergoing their studies.

To be fair, a number of these countries have continued to suggest that higher tuition fees are inevitable.  Nonetheless, they recognise the benefits of long-term investment in higher education and have continued to heavily finance it while encouraging a generous corporate culture of student employment through internships and externships as well as through student-friendly scholarships and research endowments.

Rethinking solutions: The duty of different stakeholders

The education paradox is hydra-headed. Firstly, whereas investment in education is grossly inadequate, society continues to emphasize certification as an index of socio-economic classification.  In our non-Weberian, non-material social classification, the uncertificated are held inferior; irrespective of their informal skills, proficiencies, levels of achievements as artisans or trade persons or entrepreneurs, they are regarded as “illiterates” and therefore socially inferior as a matter of status.  The direct consequence of this is a needless pursuit of higher education at the expense of quality technical competence that is quite crucial for a nation such as ours to be globally competitive as Prof Sofoluwe and others envisioned.   My point is that because of the way we have structured our society and its reward system, citizens who would have been talented artisans or trade persons and who could have served as the backbone of our elusive entrepreneurial innovation-driven economy are pressured to acquire tertiary education certifications and to seek formal credentials that make them irrelevant in the real labour market. This has untoward and unintended consequences for our sector. Compared with better developed societies, education beyond the basic level is attuned to innate skills and abilities and emphasis is for higher education to develop skills and potentials to match societal demands rather than an absolute determinism of acquiring higher education for certification and social acceptance. This is why in those civilisations, graduate unemployment does not approach the epidemic proportions we record. Rather than the current push for more universities, Nigeria should be expanding its trade and skills acquisition institutions just like China is currently doing.

The direct offshoot of our current approach is that the demand for tertiary education is beyond what the institutions can cope with, with what facilities there are and what investments government is prepared to make. Our admission system is also chaotic for a similar reason, but more importantly, the situation imposes a greater challenge on education delivery because of the quality we have to work with and as they say, ‘you cannot soar like an eagle, when you’re working with turkeys’.

This situation has had deleterious consequences as the management of tertiary institutions resorted to wholesale commodification of education; proliferation of ill-conceived and poorly taught professional curricula, which were made attractive to teach by enticing honoraria and minimal quality control; and establishment of satellite campuses which depopulated the pool of lecturers who had to play administrative roles in those campuses. Lecturers began to systematically abandon quality research and peer-reviewed scientific publications to teaching and developing modules of these professional programmes. The universities also profiteered by levying ridiculous and illogical charges such as charging heavily for admission forms, and prohibitive so-called ‘acceptance fees’, administrative cum registration fees and high tuitions. The result is that Nigeria progressively cascaded on the scientific research publication ladder and international ranking. According to World Bank figures, Nigeria has only 15 scientists and engineers engaged in research and development per million persons. This compares disproportionately with 168 in Brazil, 459 in China, 158 in India, and 4,103 in the United States of America. What do I see as a way forward? My recommendations are:

  1. The government at both federal and state levels must separate recurring expenditure of staff emolument from capital expenditure and ensure that they give weighted premium to both. Research and physical expansion of tertiary institutions need to be addressed in the light of our challenges as a developing country and the soaring student population which has made admission into tertiary institutions a nightmare for many prospective candidates.

The government should not make TETFUND take over government’s statutory obligation to fund tertiary institutions. The government should also give grant-in-aid to deserving institutions both federal and state, using set criteria including excellence or distinction in research and innovation, diversity, inclusiveness, scholarship, protection of rights of minorities and needs.

  1. Regulatory authorities such as NUC, NABTE and NCCE should be given every support that will enable them play their important roles of quality assurance and quality control in all principal respects and in ensuring financial accountability, standardisation of courses and constant scrutiny of teaching personnel.
  2. R&D and consultancies of federal and state government should first target tertiary institutions consultancy units. Multinational corporations and other blue chip companies should be encouraged to undertake their R&D in Nigeria. Through R&D alone, many tertiary institutions will be challenged to think innovatively.

In this regard, they have the potential to strengthen their internally generated revenue profile more than the current practice of focusing on part-time teaching that has become diversionary for both the academic staff and institutional commitment to research and innovation not to mention constituting a threat to standard and consequential cheapening of the certificates that our institutions award.

  1. Wealthy individuals and indigenous foundations should be encouraged to support endowments. This is one secret to the financial solvency of many IVY-League schools in the United States of America. For example, Harvard University is the wealthiest university in the world. By 2014, it had $36 billion in endowments alone with returns of 15.4 per cent on it. This amount is more than the combined GDP of six West African countries.
  2. Alumni of tertiary institutions must play a proactive role beyond annual dinners and token interventions. It is incumbent upon tertiary institutions to connect and communicate well with individual members of their alumni and encourage them to render better assistance, individually and collectively. We must do this by ensuring a respectful and service-oriented approach to our students from day one – seeing every student at the point of entry through graduation as an alumnus of repute and partner.
  3. There is need for the emergence of a research triangle in Nigeria, whereby government, industry and the academy will engage in partnership to support cutting-edge research.
  1. There is also the need to overhaul the internal mechanisms of tertiary institutions for enhanced performance that ensure accountability and administrative transparency, check waste and corruption, and to block leakages and vying of resources which have become common place.
  2. The National Industrial Court (NIC) should be galvanised to be able to play a more responsive role between staff unions, university management and proprietors of tertiary institutions. As an institution of social justice, it must be able to avail speedy resolution of disputes and give effective remedies.

I commend the University of Lagos and the University of Lagos Alumni Association, Lagos branch for their commitment to this annual lecture. I also congratulate the family of Prof Adetokunbo Sofoluwe. To say that you have a fine gentleman worthy of being celebrated is an understatement. His intellectual leadership and the great life he lived is the legacy that will continue to endure. I consider it a privilege to attest to that legacy in this enviable platform and I salute everyone who thought me worthy of that privilege.

Lagos State University Vice Chancellor Prof Olanrewaju A. Fagbohun

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