Prof Lawal Alhassan Bichi is the Director of Academic Standards, National Universities Commission (NUC). He is also the acting Vice Chancellor, Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Warri. In this interview with Juliet Alohan, he speaks about the challenges of managing university education in Nigeria.
Since you were appointed director, what has been your role in affecting the policies of the NUC?
Definitely, I will say there is no doubt that, since 2007 to date, a lot of changes have taken place in the university education sector, to the extent I can boldly say that improvement has been recorded. Now, let me put it this way; by 2007, the number of universities offering programmes that had no approval and not known to producing graduates - that did not necessarily warrant to be called graduates - was excessive, and we did a system-wide survey, and close to 400 programmes in Nigerian universities’ system were being run without NUC approval. The programmes had students and graduates and the NUC was not aware. When we found out that, that was the situation, we decided to set up panels. As we do not have a reservoir of experts in the NUC, we draw the experts from the universities themselves. So we ask experts from the various disciplines to go round to do the assessments, and resource certification in those universities, to see whether the programmes being run by the universities had enough human resources for them to continue; and if they won’t, what are we going to do with the students that enrolled into these programmes? Now, remember that the students are Nigerians who were desperate to get education found themselves illegal universities and in programmes they themselves did not know were not approved.
In those universities where the human and material resources were not sufficient for the programmes to be run, we told them categorically that they should shutdown the programmes, distribute the students to other programmes that were approved.
Another action we took was on the issue of affiliation. We found out that the number of universities have affiliation with colleges of education and other tertiary institutions, and were awarding degrees. Now, these affiliations did to take into consideration the fact that this institutions’ manpower, nor did they have the facilities to run degree programmes. So we put together again another system-wide survey, and all the university affiliations will now be looked to see those that have the human and materials resources. We told the universities that were involved in the affiliation that, from now on, they will be responsible; one, they are to determine the number of students, and what kind of students that will be taken to the universities; two, ensuring that they ensure full supervision of the kind of lectures they are given; three, ensuring that their examinations are moderated by the university, because they want to get the university’s degree.
So you find out that, for example, University of Ibadan has an affiliated college within the country - that person is coming out with the degree of the University of Ibadan without ever having gone into the University of Ibadan. Obviously, it is not in the interest of the University of Ibadan that somebody will present the certificate of the University of Ibadan which is of less quality than that of the person who actually attended the University of Ibadan. And that applies to other universities.With that we control the application issue, and ensure that anybody who has gone to a tertiary institution should be affiliated to any university would have come out with a degree that is properly supervised by those universities. There are other situations we found out going on in the university education system, and we took action; some of them are not necessarily the fault of the universities. It was government policy to guide the system, and you are aware that government pulled out from building campuses, hotels, and it was transferred to private partnership on build, operate and tranfer (BOT). Student were now made to live in the town, and it was meant to provide the kind of atmosphere conducive for proper academic activities that are not exactly acceptable to nature. At the end of the day, you find cultism and vices existing in the society imparted to the student.
We have the campus security committee which the NUC Executive Secretary, Prof. Julius Okogie is looking and advising those in government on the issue, because it is very important we create the right environment for students to be able to learn. A number of issues were taken care of by the NUC to ensure that there is a return to sanity.
The same thing with curricular development, the curricular which existed required the minimum that will produce a graduate. We leave room for the university so that it can stamp its own character. For example, if we prescribe a curriculum for geography, we expect that the geography that will be taught in the University of Maiduguri will take into consideration the kind of environment a university is. If you take agriculture, we expect that the agriculture taught in Maiduguri is slightly different from that in Port Harcourt where the environment is different. The course offered should take into consideration the community of its environment, the kind of facilities available.
On the issue of entrepreneurship, a number of graduates will finish and come out, but they don’t know what to do with the degree - a pharmacist will come out and don’t know how to open a pharmacy shop, how to get a loan to open it, and how to manage it, etc.
We introduced entrepreneurship which is to give the student sound economic knowledge across the board; every graduate has to learn entrepreneurship, and that does not mean to learn skill acquisition, because there is a difference between skill acquisition and entrepreneurship. If a university student is taught how to rear a chicken, make pure water, bread and others, it is referred to as skill acquisition, but entrepreneurship is when you graduate as a sociologist and you are not able to get a job from both the public and private sectors, you should be able to make use of your sociology - look at the role you can play in the society, how to get the funds, employ people. If you are an engineer, geologist or geophysicist, you don’t need to be employed by anybody; you should be able to establish yourself and be an employer of labour, instead of waiting for somebody to employ you.
In our case we have tried as much as possible, and we have done our best, but it is also left to the students to pay appropriate attention, and to learn to make the life they are going to live after they have left the university a fruitful one.
Unfortunately, even the students, there are many factors that influence their abilities. By the time they have finished their studies there are number of things that are outside the control of the university. It is a social thing.
Progress in Nigeria universities is being slowed by insufficient funding and all effort by the universities to generate funds in that direction are being rejected in the system.
How do you think the universities’ can get out of this quagmire, especially now that government have decided to increase the number of universities under it?
Well, I always look at the money that comes to the education sector, and which you look at the financial input that comes from the government budgetary allocation, it is not the only fund that goes into education in Nigeria, but that is what we are talking about Federal Universities. You also have intervention funds that comes from the TERTFUND (formerly Education Trust Fund (ETF). They pump a lot of money into the university system every year. The issue is how are the funds being utilised?
The Petroleum Development Trust Fund (PDTF) also pumps in money to the universities; endowments are pumped into the universities; there is a foreign aid which is up to $180billion, which we are not able to exhaust, and the number of other facilities are also available. So the truth of the matter is if we will sit down and do a proper analysis of the funding of the university system; it is not underfunded, but I will say, how are the funds utilised, and how are they applied, and how quickly are they made available also to the universities to utilise? Like I said, this is talking about the federal universities, we have three categories of universities - the state universities, that is where you find difficulties except in some few states. The state universities funding pattern is different, but again here, TERTFUND and PDTF also come in and endorsements also come in, but then the primary owners of this universities is another issue.
Looking at it holistically, we have three different kinds of funding. People always look at the funding of those owned by the federal government. Let me tell you, frankly speaking, if you will take the total quantum of funds that goes into the system, in fact one of the universities averred that it will not need federal government funding from the next few years, because it generates revenue, and it is the University of Ilorin, and they are developing at a rapid rate. This statement was made by the vice chancellor when the Minister for Education, Prof. Ruqayatu Rufai Ahmed went for commissioning of some projects; and that is how universities in other parts of the world run their universities, and do not depend on the government for funds.
Talking about the proliferation of the private and state-owned universities, how can you convince Nigerians that NUC is totally in control? Since you approve the curriculum for them, and accredit all their courses, how can you ensure that they don’t produce substandard graduates?
By virtue and reason for their setting up, most of the private universities that exist in Nigeria can compete with any university in the world. All they need is time to grow.
The major problems we face with the state universities is political intervention or manipulation. As of now the management of the state universities is being administered by the NUC. We have to take over that the administration of the university.
So you have the power to do that?
Yes of course
Which one is that?
The Tai Solarin University of Education in Ijebu Ode, because the governor said he did not want it to be a university - that he cannot afford it, and therefore, is going to be merged with the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Agowoye. The students protested, and the State Assembly have come into it, so the NUC had to intervene.
Who will fund it?
It is funded by the state government, but then the state government said it does not want to run it anymore as a university, but as a college. We only took over the administration to ensure that we balance out what is happening, because at the end of the day it is the students that will suffer. We are not insisting that the university exist, but so long as earlier government came to NUC to seek recognition, and we have listed that university, and they have been admitting students through the appropriate channels (JAMB), we don’t mean that those students should suffer; so that is an essential part our job.
Two years ago, we had to take over Ladoke Akintola University Ogbomosho, because there was a position of the two owner-states, Oyo and Osun, and that became necessary we took over the university, because they want a divorce, and we said ‘until you find an orderly divorce’. The suddenly there was a change in government, then the two government want to go back to the earlier marriage, and in fact, a court judgement in a later date confirmed that this university is owned by two states and will be run by them. W e have cases where a new governor will close down the university and we had this in a number of states; it happened in Plateau State, where the governor closed down the state university in Bukkos, and NUC rose to intervene. It happened in Yobe state.
Initially, Bukar Ibrahim University was closed down, the students were distributed and when they wanted to come back, we have to come into ensure that the students’ is not jeopardised, and it has happed in many states. The issue is that politics has happened in many states. The issue is that politics cannot be put into education, and should not be put into education. In fact, let me say frankly that, for any politician that wants to leave a legacy, an educated community, which is the best legacy left behind, because if you leave an ignorant community behind, you are going to achieve nothing whatever you might have created. The major problem that we seem to be having is with the state universities. But we have also seen examples, we have seen state universities that have excelled where the governors are very serious. Like the Umaru Musa University in Katsina; it started on a very sound footing and will continue on a sound footing. The setting up of the second university which is a specialised university in Kano, the government concern is very serious but not only that we encourage and advise the setting up of the Kano Education Trust Fund (KETF) which will be an intervention Trust Fund for all schools from tertiary to primary schools, to ensure that whenever there is a shortfall of government funding of a school. The government of Kano State has created Education Trust Fund, not like the funds it had in the past. It is a model of the TERTFUND of the federal government, and it will be an intervention agency with a board of trustees, and it will be isolated from politics, and it will ensure that any institution in Kano State coming up and is having financial problems, it will make sure that those problems are overcome. It is to protect the state-owned university and other schools from the kinds of things happening. Some of the budget performances of state-owned universities is pathetic and one begins to wonder whether really those people ruling the state can go to sleep comfortably not knowing the damage they have done to the education and children of those states.
The issue of proliferation of the private and state-owned universities, frankly speaking, to me is a good thing, so long as the funding for the state universities is upheld and done sincerely.