Tertiary education in Nigeria: Another perspective 

Some few weeks ago, precisely on the 22nd day of October, 2021, I had the opportunity of witnessing and listening to the presentation by one of the great legal minds of our time, Yusuf Alli, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, at the 36th Convocation Lecture of the University of Ilorin, in Nigeria featuring, ‘Tertiary Education and the Future of Nigeria’. It was a very rich paper, well researched with sufficient statistics, expected of a lawyer, to back up his assertions and conclusions. The presentation was scintillating and well-articulated, often spiced and interjected with humour.

The paper, which was introduced with the purpose of tertiary education in Nigeria and the ranking of the Nigerian universities which he used interchangeably with tertiary institutions, both locally and internationally, was a great delight. In the paper, he emphasized the complimentary roles of the universities in terms of the provision of technology, particularly information technology, promotion of social development, economic prosperity, agricultural innovation, medical and health innovation in society. After a seemingly exhaustive evaluation of the contributions of the universities, he concluded by lamenting the poor outing of the Nigerian universities both globally and regionally.

According to him, “It is really disheartening to note that the latest World University Rankings for 2021, by all ranking bodies like Times Higher Education, USN News, OS World University Rankings, Shanghai Rankings and CWUE, has no Nigerian University in the top 500 positions.

This can only be interpreted to mean that, according to the latest World University Rankings, Nigeria is “incompetent” to provide globally accepted degrees that can be presented and used anywhere in the world”. Continuing, he asserted that in Africa, only the University of Lagos and the University of Nigeria, Nzukka are able to fall within the first 50 Universities in Africa. In articulating the factors responsible for this abysmal failure of the Nigerian universities, he identified funding, collapsed infrastructure, political interference, poor motivation, unionism, incompetent management, cultism and anti-social behaviour, obsolete curricular, leakages and waste in the management of resources, lack of interaction between the society and the academia, wrongful composition of councils, corruption, externalization of internal affairs, multiple regulators.

Of course, he didn’t close the conversation without propounding solutions to the myriads of challenges identified in the management of our university system. As expected, more funding, infrastructural upgrade, private endowments, reduction of political interference, beefing up internally generated revenue, deregulation of wages, application of “no work, no pay” principle as captured in section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act etc. 

Notwithstanding the strenuous attempt by the presenter to cover the field of discussion, he still, out of objectivity, concluded that the paper was meant to be thought-provoking and, therefore, not exhaustive in any manner. In his words,

“What we have done in this presentation is essentially to raise issues for further debates on the issue of standardization of tertiary education in our country. The points raised are to whet our appetite for more robust discussions in future. No one possesses the solutions to all the problems discussed in this paper”. It is in this connection that that we intend to interrogate some of the issues raised and others omitted. Let me start by commending the industry of the presenter and the pragmatic manner in which he addressed the issues militating against the competitive status of Nigerian universities.  Having listened to the presentation, I must concede that he substantially covered the areas except for some areas that I intend to interrogate further and others that I intend to fill the noticeable gaps by me.

In this regard, I commence with the issue of the application of Section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act which the speaker reiterated several times for application to striking university workers. In as much as I quite agree with the rationale behind the provision and the objective, I am not too convinced that the application is targeted at circumstances as that of the academics. This is so because the issues around those strike actions most times, go beyond the traditional boundary of improved welfare; it often bothers on lack of working tools essential to the performance of their jobs.  Where those tools are lacking as recognized by even the speaker, how do you command performance?

I am sure the university lecturers are not miracle workers. Hence, you cannot compel them to work where there is no tool. Additionally, I notice that the speaker did not address the main issue of conditions of service of the workers and by extension, their welfare which, indisputably, is appalling. Their take home pay certainly cannot take them home. As much I would have been sold into the argument on the deregulation of determination of emoluments by the Councils, I believe that regardless of the wisdom in the reasoning, there is still compelling need to have a minimum standard upon which improvements, in terms of peculiarities, can be built.

I recall my days in the academia that there used to be discriminatory housing allowances for university workers in States like Rivers, Lagos and even Abuja. I am not current with what obtains presently but just an illustration of the way it can work. Hence, I am of the strong opinion that without comfortable wages to take the workers home and imbue them with necessary stamina to perform their tasks, it would be foolhardy and callous to penalize them for inability to work arising from systemic failures. University workers need to survive first before they can work. They need the stamina to teach and research as captured in the Yoruba proverb that , “okun inu ni a fi n gbe ti’ta” which literally means “it is the internal strength that sustains the external efforts”. Hence, in advocating the implementation of the provision against the university lecturers in particular, we need to guarantee minimum comfort of survival first and ensure that the teaching and research infrastructures are available.

In the absence of these basics, the problem of distortion of academic programmes cannot be arrested, the implication of which is that the standard will continue to fall. A good narrative is that commonly experienced with the secondary and primary school teachers who spend more times in merchandising than teaching the pupils. At the university level now, you find lecturers more engaged in external presentation of papers for pecuniary gains and involvement in other activities, crucial to their survival, than dedicating their lives and times to the research and teaching that ought to be their primary occupation. Let me remind us that except we are deluding ourselves, I make bold to say that we are in huge deficit of qualified and competent teaching personnel in the country.

A sizeable number of those in the University system today has no business being there, barring lack of alternative and dearth of qualified ones. This is reflected in the products that we all continue to be astounded with. The university continues to unleash dangers on the society through substandard products. Stemming from the above, the country can, therefore, not afford to intimidate the few competent personnel that are available. Rather than doing this, let the relevant authorities address the basic needs of the university first.  Another area of deficiency in the paper is the failure to address the implication for the future of the country from the scenario or the picture painted by the speaker.
To be continued tomorrow
Dr. Banire is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).

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