Prof Abdalla Uba Adamu is the Vice-Chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). In this interview with Christiana Nwaogu and Henry Tyoemba, he speaks on the stiff resistance that greeted his move to reform the institution, strides and challenges.
You were appointed to coordinate the largest Open Distance Learning (ODL) centre in Africa in 2016, how has the journey been so far?
First of all National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) is not new to me. When the university was resurrected by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Professor Olugbemiro Jegede was appointed as the coordinator of the university at that time and he invited some professors to assemble in Lokoja, in order to come up with the blueprint of the university and also to come up with study materials.
I was part of that team in 2003 where I developed two course materials and after the course material development was finished, I was offered the Faculty of Education as the Dean because I was a professor of Science Education that time. But I declined because I hate any position of power. I preferred to just simply be a lecturer but not an administrator.
I was announced as the Vice-Chancellor, to my surprise, on 12th February 2016, but only received the appointment letter on February 27th 2016. I formally took over on 1st March 2016. The biggest challenge I faced was the fact that a new campus was created and completed for the university in Jabi, Abuja. The first biggest challenge was therefore moving the University from its temporary headquarters in Lagos to the permanent site in Abuja. I, however, understood the feelings of the staff, since I found it disturbing to also move from Kano to Lagos!. But it was a national duty and I had to do it.
So on the day of taking over in Lagos on the 1st of March, 2016, I informed the university community that we are moving to Abuja on the 25th of March and to be very fair to the university community, nobody complained to my hearing, may be they complained among themselves, but nobody came to me and confronted me that we are not going. And so by 4th April we had finished the total transfer of the administration of the University from Lagos to Abuja. All the Faculties, however, remained in Lagos, until August 2016 when we moved four faculties – Arts, Health Sciences, Science and Social Sciences. The remaining three, Law, Education and Management Sciences will move in the first quarter of 2019 when a new Faculty Building currently being constructed and sponsored by TETFUND is completed. The NOUN Lagos office became Lagos Liaison Office and supervised by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academics). There was another challenge whenever you ask people to move and we faced this one also. But again as before, they moved without protest because they know it is the right thing to do.. So overall, my biggest challenge at the beginning was moving the university from to its permanent site in Abuja where it belongs because these structures as you see it, were created in just the first eight months of President Muhammad Buhari being the President in 2015, with the commissioning of the campus performed in January 2016.
What administrative changes have you introduced into the system since taking over?
The university was initially created in 1983 by the administration of Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari. However, it was suspended in April 1984. Ironically enough, it was suspended by the then General Muhammadu Buhari because of too much negativity about the university created by a lot of misconceptions about what the university is going to be; so the then Military Government decided that the university was not really ready to take off. It must be pointed out that the university was never closed down, just suspended.
It was resurrected in 2002. In the interim period, Nigerian workers became thirsty for flexible education which will enable them to study while still being engaged in their workplaces. When the Open University, as it was then known, was suspended, many conventional universities saw a gap and started creating what they call ‘Satellite’ campuses of their own universities in many Nigerian cities. These campuses attracted the attention of thousands of students who saw an opportunity of earning degrees from well-known universities in Nigeria, but without the cumbersomness of being in residence on the campus. . These satellite campuses were operated without any effective mechanism of Quality Assurance or control. They became miracle centres where somebody staying in Sokoto for instance will get a degree from a university in the south without any quality assurance. In fact NUC had repeatedly asked the universities to shut them down, but they refused. It only in 2001 that NUC obtained the necessary legal powers to order the total closure of all these Satellite campuses. NUC then suggested the resurrection of the National Open University of Nigeria as a substitute with greater Quality Assurance mechanism.
Ideally undergraduate education is for younger persons between 18-22 years. but when someone is at 30 and employed, they finds it very difficult to abandon the job and go and study, so that is why the satellite campuses were very popular. But when NUC sent a memo to the President Olusegun Obaanjo advising him to resurrect NOUN, he accepted. In fact, when he accepted it, he enrolled as one of the pioneer students of the institution! Professor Jegede, a Nigerian and world-known expert in Open and Distant Education was recruited from Open University of Hong Kong to come and initiate the university all over again and eventually became its second substantive Vice-Chancellor. The first was the founding Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Afolabi Ojo whose tenure ended on 25th April 1984 when the University was suspended and he went back to the then University of Ife to continue his academic career from where he was initially recruited by President Shehu Shagari.
So that was how the whole thing started and the issue around that period was acceptability of the university. People are used to a didactic process of being taught. You go into classroom, you sit down in front of someone and that person teaches you for two, three or four hours and at the end of 13 weeks (a semester), that person gives you examination and you pass or you fail. So when you are asked to go and learn on your own, the only thing to guide you are study material and facilitator, people turn a little bit worried because they needed someone to guide their learning
So they never believed that Open University is something that is acceptable and we are now also trying to change the narrative from offering ‘education’ to ‘enabling learning’. Because when you talk of education you are referring to a situation where somebody is didactically teaching you something. But NOUN like other ODL institutions is not about education, they are about learning. They empower people to learn on their own.
Along the line, the development pattern of the university has been trying to reposition itself as the best ODL in Africa and because of the government support, we succeeded. Since President Olusegun Obasanjo, now Dr. Olusegun Obasnajo since he graduated with PhD in Christian Theology in January 2018 from the University, being the first PhD product of the university, resurrected the university all the successful governments have extremely supported the university, with the strongest support coming this the government of President Muhammad Buhari.
Have you been able to change the status quo in line with operational level of the university?
Don’t forget that when the university was created, it was created basically with civil servants in mind to provide them with an opportunity to upgrade their skills and qualification while they are on their jobs. And then, the Joint Admission And Matriculation Board (JAMB) came along. When JAMB came along, it came with post UTME after some time. Annually about 1.5 million students apply for admission to conventional universities through JAMB, and out of this figure, less than four hundred thousand actually get admitted.
And even if the students pass JAMB, they need to pass post UTME and they keep failing. It was after about three or four years they realize that there is Open university, that was the university everybody was looking down on, then they realise NOUN offers the same courses as conventional universities, the advantage is that it is cheap, flexible and affordable because whatever we charge in this university is exactly the same charge in any university in terms of registration fees.
We don’t charge school fees because education in Nigeria is free but students pay for the things that government will not pay like Identity Card and so on. So we try to make sure that the university is affordable and that is why the student who could not get into the conventional universities started rushing in and we were taken by surprise, we were shocked because when you produce study materials for maybe 100 students, then the study center will tell you we have 2000 students. In Lagos we have about 27,000 students and in Abuja here we have about 41,000 students.
So what we did was to establish study centers in every state. We also created what we called Community Study Centers. The community study centers are centers established by a particular community and our rule is that you secured the building yourself, buy computers and everything. The most recent was Masari, Kafu LG in Katsina which is so far the best community student center, since it is brand new and has met all the requirements of a study center. We often tell people to go to Masari and see how a community study center is created with dedication and commitment. Built by the Governor of Katsina State, Alhaji Bello Masari, on his personal land, he even surrendered the Certificate of Occupancy of the land to us – whereas many other community centers are fighting us over the land claiming it belong to their ancestors.
What we do is to provide you with minimum of five staff in the community centers and pay for their services. We also have specialized study centers. For instance, we have the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). They decided to have a study center of their own where their staff will be educated and they provided a building right here in Abuja. We also have Specialized Prison Study Centers with a full policy on prisoners where we are giving them free education up to PhD level totally free of charge. So with these outreach and outspread of NOUN, we are able to capture a lot of students.
However, there is inbalance. The total number of students we have in this university, North-East, North-West or North-Central states are not up to the total number of students we have in South-West because the university at that time was located in Lagos so people in the South West were more aware of it so the centers were already there. We were struggling to get states government in north to give us a place to set up study centers. For many of them, we have not been given a facility by the State government, we have to rent and pay for such facilities – and yet we are educating their people!
What are your short term and long term plans for the institution?
My short term plan is to continue to strengthen the university as a leading ODL institution, and we have done that in a series of ways. First, , when I first came I discovered that the university uses what they call the School system. Thus they had School of Education, School of Arts and Social Sciences, and so on. I thought that school and university are not deeply related in the minds of our students, they will say things like the school is like a secondary school or something like that. And that issue contributed to the lower image of the university that they don’t even have faculties but schools. A school is a congregation of faculties because if you have a school like school of medicine then you have a faculty of Nursing, Dentistry, and so on. .
So we changed the nomenclature of our structures from School to more conventional and easily identifiable Faculties. Another short term achievement was election. Before I came Deans were appointed by the Vice-Chancellor but I am an ASUU member and a very strong one, I believe in democratization and therefore, I insisted that there has to be democratization. People should be allowed to elect those that they want. If you are good you will be elected if you are bad you will not be elected. Then another thing we did was to synchronize our programs with NUC. In effect, we took all our programs to NUC for validation and they are able to delete 39 as being run without their knowledge or resource verification. We trashed all these courses, allowing the students already enrolled to migrate to other courses.
But the biggest struggle was getting our students to be admitted into law school and to be allowed into NYSC. Because of the misconceptions the public have about all these, we were told that we are a correspondent, part time and so on and that NYSC and the Council of Legal Education responsible for admission into the Law School for Law graduates do not allow correspondent and part time students to enroll. So the first thing we did was to set up a process to amend the Act establishing the university and clarify that we are an Open and Distant Learning (ODL) institution providing full-time mode of education, not ‘correspondence’ or ‘part-time’. which we remove any reference to correspondence or part time. It has gone through all the legal processes in the National Assembly and we are hopeful it will be sent to Mr. President for assention. Once that is done the Law School and NYSC will now be informed that we are no longer part time and we will await their response.
I can also understand the worry that NYSC has because in 2018 we graduated 14,600 students so maybe not all of them are under 30. Let us assume that it is only about 7000 so you could imagine 7000 students jumping into NYSC so NYSC said that they will be happy to accept NOUN students especially if budget appropriation has been made in order to absorb the large number of students. We are also have our own thoughts on this. . For instance, instead of having worries about deploying these students, why didn’t they serve their NYSC where they are so that they don’t have to keep moving from one State to another. So we are working and hoping that the new year will bring good news.
What is the most difficult decision you have to take since you resumed service as VC?
When I took over, I discovered that the data management of university infrastructure was sourced to a particular company and then, the question I asked was that do we have a department of computer science? They said yes, do we have lecturers in computer science? They said yes. So why are we sourcing data management if we have a department of computer science? So the most difficult decision for me was to shut down the agreement with the previous company and come up with our own and that caused a lot of problems, both internally and externally. Externally, the company decided to launch a campaign against me, they sponsored a hashtag‘#buharisaveNOUN’ claiming that somebody from Kano who doesn’t know anything about technology has come in and was trying to disrupt the good things that has been going on. The university was stable before he came and now it has become unstable, etc. Yet all I was saying is that the university should be self-sufficient in its own data management for efficiency and security. No university with a Department of Computer Science should outsource its basic portal and examination administration to outsiders. Further, I did not bring in any external company to take over – I said NOUN owns the data, and therefore NOUN must manage the data itself.
Internally, we had a lot of people who were benefiting from the previous company so they were also slowing down on things so that was a big challenge. We have to come up with a big stick. We have to say, look if you want to work with NOUN work with NOUN, if you don’t want to work with NOUN get out. But with my effort, now we own the data. If a student said there is any missing result we can quickly look at the records and determine where the problems are from but in the past we have to write to the company in Lagos and ask them to please look into the case and this company is not only dealing with us, they were dealing with other organizations so by the time they get back to us, the students had given up.
How were you able to cope with that and have you been able to address the issue of missing results?
It is very simple, because they have gone behind my back and God knows that I was doing it to save the university money. We pay millions every year to these vendors and by recovering that money we were able to provide other services to the students. For instance, we have established a Directorate of Learning Content Management System (DCLMS), the first of its kind in any ODL in Nigeria, to provide virtual learning and teaching to students. We are also converting all our printed study materials into Audio books so that students can download them and listen, in the absence of time to read to the physical material.
So I don’t have any problem because I know I made a decision with a clear conscience, not because I wanted to punish anybody or I wanted to deny somebody anything because I believed that the university should be set on a straight path of its own diligent and dependency and because we now own the data, missing results have become things of the past. Most of missing results issues we are now getting was from before 2016 when the data was with the vendors. Now we are able to negotiate an agreement with them where they have to give us back our data.
We have to pay for it but they are able to give us back our data and compiled that data back to our network so now we have very few cases of missing results. When we came and discovered that these results are with the vendors and the vendors are not academicians, they have no idea what the whole thing is about. What they want is money. So when we shut them down and created our own data it becomes very easy for students.
We have also created a system where by students can write directly to the Vice Chancellor because I don’t create barriers. We also engage over 2000 facilitators across all the States of the federation. They must have a minimum of PhD from an NUC or FME recognized university or be professors. These facilitators are the ones who supervise the students, so some of them don’t return the results as quickly as they should have. We have now created a new system where we have a website just for facilitators so if a student, for instance knows his facilitator, he will call him and ask him what about my results? Based on that we have now reduced by over 90 percent the issues of missing results. That is why this year 2018 we were able to graduate 14,600 students.
Conventional universities award honorary degrees to individuals. Is NOUN also considering that?
We don’t focus on honorary degrees because to us learning is not a ceremony. To us, a university is a serious academic place for research and teaching. We want to provide better quality to our students. Honorary degrees are very good because the Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities have come up with guidelines which indicate the kind of honorary degrees you should give. But at the Management level of the university we decided that honorary degrees are not our front burner now. Our focus is first of all to create credibility through advocacy because people don’t like NOUN, they don’t believe NOUN is a place to come to. My target is to get students, when I came in, the total number of student we have that were registered was 420,000 but now we have 515,000 and currently we are doing examinations and that is the beauty of NOUN, no strikes.
Strike does not affect us because the nature of our university does not lend itself to unions the law is created in such a way that it does not provide opportunities for us to have unions. Unions are basically focused on what you can call land universities, but we have students that are spread all over the world and because they don’t come to classes, we don’t have facilities where we go and teach, we don’t even see the students until during examination, so this does not apply to us but I as the VC I am a strong member of ASUU, serving as a Welfare Officer in my Faculty in Bayero University at one stage, and I believe in ASUU philosophy, I believe in ASUU’s logic and reasoning and so on and so forth. But at the moment NOUN does not operate any Union because of the law establishing us.
How do you hope to sustain your achievements?
What I hope to do is to continue providing excellent facilities to NOUN so that people will no longer look down on us and instead, look up to us as they do now when it comes to innovations in ODL in African distance learning mechanisms During my brief tenure, we have provided massive logistic support to the Open University of Zimbabwe, Open University of The Sudan, Open University of Tanzania, Open University of Mozambique, and a few universities in Nigeria. We are leading because we are simply the best. All gratitude to God for making us so.
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