By Muiz Banire SAN

When, a few weeks ago, on December 2, 2021, I wrote on the state of our tertiary institutions, “Tertiary education and the future of Nigeria: Another perspective (https://www.sunnewsonline.com/tertiary-education-and-the-future-of-nigeria-another-perspective)”, particularly the universities, pursuant to the convocation lecture delivered by learned silk, Mallam Yusuf Alli, SAN, little did I know that I would shortly be visiting and interrogating the subject again. This time around, the major difference is specifically my appeal to the National Universities Commission (the Commission), the body responsible for the licensing of the Nigerian universities and, presumably, setting the right standard for the operations and outputs of the universities, to save our nation.

This invitation is further compelled by the discourse on the same subject in another convocation lecture delivered a few days ago, January 17, 2022, by the Rt. Honourable Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, at the 52nd convocation of the University of Lagos. The lecture, titled “Building Back Better: Creating a New Framework for Tertiary Education in Nigeria in the 21st Century,” presupposes gaps in our tertiary education and tends to suggest the need for a restoration agenda. This much the Speaker aptly captured when he opined, ‘The summary of it all is simple: where we are is not where we ought to be. Moving from here requires a concerted and collaborative effort between government, our tertiary institutions, and stakeholders from the worlds of business and philanthropy to pursue new approaches.”

This conclusion of his was reached after an x-ray of the challenges and the outputs from the institutions in Nigeria. I cannot but agree in toto with that summary.

My mission is not to conduct any autopsy on the paper, either in form or content, but basically to provide complimentary routes to accomplishing the set goal in the submission. I must, however, not fail in registering my commendation for the thought-provoking nature of the paper and the scintillating manner of presentation. Further justification for this conversation stems from the news item I stumbled upon in the Punch newspaper of Monday, January 17, 2022, wherein it was revealed that 20 additional universities were approved by the NUC in 2021. A discourse on our tertiary institutions will remain unending for some time to come, in view of the continuous deterioration of the institutions, both physically and content-wise.

This brings me to the succinct conclusion of Yusuf Alli, SAN, in his presentation at the University of Ilorin’s convocation lecture, reviewed in my column referred to earlier. He said, and I quote, “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.”

True, no one has monopoly of wisdom in this regard. The latest presentation of Hon. Gbajabiamila is an attestation to this fact and justifies my revisit of the subject. While in my earlier thoughts and on the presentation of Yusuf Alli, SAN, we had analysed factors imperiling the quality of our graduates and the way forward, this time around, I am progressing beyond that boundary into the relevance of our graduates and the curricula in contemporary times.

As rightly observed by the House of Representatives Speaker, “Unfortunately, it is still the case that the foundations of our educational system are rooted in a different age and designed to meet the social, economic and labour demands of different social and economic model. As the world has changed, we have not done enough in government, academia, and society to adjust our education and skills acquisition system to meet these new realities.”

The lamentation simply implies that our tertiary education is failing to address and meet the needs of our society and, by extension, the nation. Are we producing graduates in conformity with the demands of our economy? Do the graduates fit the gaps in the nation’s skills desire? ME THINK NOT! In the first instance, what manner of graduates are our tertiary institutions producing? Are they those that can globally compete and be internally productive?

The answer lies in the submission of Alli, SAN, when he opined, “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.”

Alli further contended that, even in Africa, only the University of Lagos and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, are able to fall within the first 50 universities in Africa. This is a clear testimony to the quality of products from our universities. It shows clearly that we are largely ‘manufacturing’ substandard products. Should this not be a source of worry to all those concerned? Apart from the funding and infrastructural challenges associated with this development, several other afflictions plague our universities to the extent that one is disturbed as to the qualities of the products coming out of our ivory towers, with respect to utilities in terms of solving societal challenges.

I read in the said newspaper above that the Commission is striving to review the curricula and introduce some contemporary courses. To my mind, this is not hitting the mark. The issue basically is setting the right threshold, monitoring compliance and adherence to those standards. It is certainly doubtful, from the pervasive glaring evidence around us, that this obtains. The consequence is that our universities continue to unleash dangers on the society and the nation. For the purpose of our discourse here, my concern is the continuous generation of non-functional graduates in the country. This borders on the continuous multiplication of undesirable and unemployable graduates, assuming without conceding that they even qualify as graduates in those fields.

It is the mismatch between the production and the needs of our society that largely accounts for the soaring state of unemployment in the country, which, as at my last check, hovers around 44 per cent. This is the value addition of the Commission to the rise in unemployment in the country. The factors responsible for this are not far-fetched and have been a subject of my comments elsewhere. However, as natural of our people, they play deaf and dumb over such crucial issues. Hence, the crucial need to engage in constant drumming of it, with the hope that a connection will be established at a point.

That there is a disconnect between the graduates and the economy is indubitable. My expectation, therefore, is that the Commission would have conducted a proper research in this regard towards guiding the issuance of licenses to new promoters of universities. Licences ought to be issued for the establishment of universities only in those areas of need. As I said elsewhere, the continuous proliferation of tertiary institutions mirrors lack of foresight. Practically every day, the Commission continues to dish out licenses for the establishment of universities to the governments, federal and state, as well as private entities. As indicated above, this licensing is without regard to the needs of the nation. Little wonder that the number of unemployed ‘graduates’ continues to soar, as there is no linkage between the areas of need and the ‘graduates’ that are produced.

One would have expected that such licensing would have been tailored along the needs of the nation but alas!, this is not so.

Virtually all existing universities have funding challenges which impairs the capacity to deliver. Take the federal universities, for example, we are all living witnesses to the incessant strike actions punctuating the academic activities as a result of inadequate funding for both infrastructure and conditions of service.

Same thing applies to the various state governments who could not even afford payment of basic workers’ salaries but end up establishing universities, just like their counterpart, the federal government, for political reasons.

Most of the universities end up being glorified secondary schools, dishing out substandard degrees and endangering the society. Till date, the extant universities continue to degenerate and fade away. The private universities are not much better off except for some negligible few. Rather than tactically forcing investments into these extant ones, the Commission continues to license more and more. I am not oblivious of the soaring demand for admission to universities but whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well. It is disheartening to continue to issue licenses on political patronage basis. A situation where the legislators consider the establishment of universities in their constituencies as a democratic dividend regardless of the desirability is awful. As I remarked in my earlier column, 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.

This is reflected in the products that we continue to be astounded with. The university continues to unleash dangers on the society through substandard products. The legislators and other promoters of these new tertiary institutions often forget the dearth of quality academic personnel in the country. I make bold to say that most of the lecturers in the institutions are not only incompetent but mostly taking up the vocation due to unemployment. It is not sufficient to possess degrees in such specializations but have the passion and skill for delivery. As we continue to license more universities daily, we discount this aspect of competent personnel, particularly lecturers. I reiterate again that there are insufficient qualified personnel in the nation today to match the number of universities we are establishing. The resultant effect, therefore, is garbage in, garbage out.

We churn out half-baked graduates at best. Again, Femi Gbajabiamila, referring to a functional graduate, said, “When we think about education policy, when we consider laws and implement directives relating to education in our country, particularly tertiary education, our highest objective must be to deliver an education system capable of producing this archetype of an individual”. The statement underscores the urgent need for the overhaul of the university system. With this grievous lacuna in our University system, the challenge before us is how to fine-tune the system? This much Gbajabiamila captured as follows: ‘how do we move on from our present circumstances? Most national policy discussions of higher education focus on questions of structure and financing, understandably so because the problems in this regard are many and unresolved’.

What then is the way out? We must commence by stalling further licensing of universities thereby forcing new promoters to buy in to extant universities. We must be promoting specialized universities in tune with the desires of the country. Despite the fact that some of the universities from the onset are licensed as specialized institutions, they end up with distractions by veering into other areas of irrelevancies. A University of Agriculture or that of technology suddenly becomes a university with a Faculty of Law and Humanities. Ideally, such universities should have been restricted to such licensed specialization but no, lack of focus continues to haunt the system. More than ever before, what the country requires are specialized universities in our areas of need and not just university for the sake of one. A graphic illustration is the manner in which we are churning out law graduates.

An average of about six thousand lawyers are produced annually, out of which without fear of contradiction, maximum of five hundred only secures one form of employment or the other. The rest goes into the labour market that is already oversaturated. Yet we continue in the same way. No one continues to do the same thing, in the same way all the time and expects a different result. Taming unemployment or accelerating our developmental goals, therefore, cannot be realized in the circumstances except we change our ways. To my mind, therefore, it is not too late to revert the licensed specialized universities to what they were conceived to be. This will address the areas of our need and enhance growth in all ramifications. This is the way to develop a country and assure the future of a nation through the university system.

I, therefore, share the submission of the Speaker that ‘Tertiary institutions in Nigeria need to develop a new understanding of the changing nature of work and the future of employment and allow this new understanding to inform the nature of the instruction and the substance of the education they provide. Collaboration between our higher institutions and the organized private sector is vital in this regard so that we can jointly rise to the demands of the moment.” Let the Commission wake up now and arrest the drift by blocking the distance between beneficial education to the society and the proliferation of universities. I submit.

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