Rebooting Nigerian universities

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

University lecturers say the Nigerian government owes them at least N128 billion in unpaid allowances. They wonder why a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed in 2013 promising to fund a revitalization programme for Nigerian universities with a sum of N1.3 trillion in 2013-18 has not been implemented. In protest, they embarked on a labour action in August. Their penultimate one almost four years ago lasted for 6 months. The authorities agree they have been remiss. Short of promises, there is probably not much they can do, however. The government’s finances are strained. Of course, it has asked the lecturers’ union to account for the little that was remitted in the past, before giving more. Say the government is able to fulfill its obligations under the 2013 MoU, would that be enough to prevent another disagreement in the future, though? This is doubtful. With the outlook on crude oil prices bearish, it is increasingly unlikely the government would be able to sustain even the level of funding it has managed to provide thus far. Parents are not waiting to find out. Most gave up a long time ago, sending their wards abroad, as far as the United States and United Kingdom. And for those not as endowed, neighbouring Ghana and Benin have become attractive destinations. This is ironic. Nigeria is supposedly the regional giant. So it is a shame really that its citizens have begun to see the education facilities in its poorer neighbours as more robust. Incidentally, this practice has continued despite the establishment of relatively better private universities in the country. The costs to the economy are enormous. It is estimated Nigerians spend at least US$2 billion annually on education abroad. Also, private universities have not been short of students despite their steep fees. This is evidence a significant portion of the population can afford to pay for a high quality education.

Quality costs money and more
The authorities’ concern has always been that university education, in public institutions at least, should not be priced in a way that excludes the poor. Unfortunately, it has not met this desire with action. Quality has suffered consequently. Were the government to make education a priority, it would apportion more to education in the budget than it currently does. It does not even come close to the recommended UNESCO standard of 26 percent. Historically, the education ministry’s budget is below 10 percent of the total; more than 70 percent of which is usually slated for recurrent expenditure. There are ways, though, that the poor could still afford higher education in tandem with universities charging commercially viable fees. In South Africa, for instance, universities use price discrimination. Foreigners get charged almost twice the fees for locals, for instance. Had the quality of their degrees been less than ideal, however, they would not be able to attract foreign students. The government also manages a fund that provides loans to students at decent rates. There are also scholarship funds that target certain types of students. The private sector also does good but mutually beneficial business in the sector; students get loans and the firms not only make money but get positive branding benefits. It begs the question then: can Nigeria not be similarly creative? At this point, it is important to point out that charging higher fees (or increasing funding) is not a guarantee of better quality education. A good case in this regard is the United Kingdom where despite high fees, some universities have nonetheless performed below par, a point made in a recent feature by The Economist. What is the point? Even when the funding problems of Nigerian universities are resolved, standards may still improve little. What is required then is a robust approach that ensures that Nigeria’s public universities are not only self-sustaining but also able to measure up to their supposed peers in other climes.

Raise the bar
Rankings are supposed to motivate universities to do better. In the UK, US and elsewhere, a university’s ranking is a major determinant of the quality of students it attracts. It is not unlikely that having a centralized university admission board is perhaps a major part of the problem. Recently, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) lowered the bar for passing its entry exams for Nigerian universities to a score of 120 (from 180 hitherto) out of a potential total of 400, an embarassingly paltry 30 percent. Surely, there is no jurisdiction anywhere in the world where a score below 50 percent is considered decent. To go even lower is simply scandalous. The matriculation board says this is only a guide and that universities are free to set entry criteria above the benchmark. The difference this time, though, is that universities are now required to publish and submit their criteria aforehand to enable JAMB audit their actual admissions. Despite this argument, many wonder why the score should be set so low at a time when there is an urgent need to raise standards. There are other initiatives begging for action. Some of the requirements set by the authorities for admission into Nigerian universities are not fit for purpose. Someone looking to study for a law degree should not be made to labour with mathematics, for instance. Thus, there are myriad reasons why parents send their wards abroad. Many a 3-year undergraduate degree programme in the UK are officially five years in Nigeria, with students sometimes spending seven years or more, owing to strike actions and so on. In that period, their contemporaries abroad would have, if they chose to, completed their advance degrees.

An additional year of compulsory national service before joining the workforce is increasingly seeming like a gross waste of time as well. Frustratingly, afterwards, jobs are scarce. Employers assert jobs are available for those who are qualified. They are often disappointed by the quality of graduates from Nigerian universities, however. Inevitably, they are forced to retrain their entry-level hires at great expense just so their fit for the job is not in doubt. A potential fix for the Nigerian education system would thus require starting from the employers themselves. Their inputs are not currently sought as much as they should in the design of curricula at the moment. Yes, firms take in undergraduate students on compulsory internships. These tend to be perfunctory, however, with students learning little. Even so, should employers be assured that the university system would train potential employees to the standard they require, they might not be averse to spending more of their training budgets on Nigerian universities. Some already do this as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives, though, albeit relatively meagre. Should the education system be given the attention it deserves, there is much that can be done to make it better.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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