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How to fix Nigeria’s public universities

An overcrowded classroom at a Nigeran public university
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Founded 75 years ago as University College Ibadan, one of many colleges within the University of London, the University of Ibadan is Nigeria’s first public university. It became an independent university in 1962 and is the oldest degree-awarding institution in Nigeria.

Since then the Federal Government of Nigeria has established 50 other public, federal universities. State governors across the federation have founded 60 universities. These are some of Nigeria’s public tertiary educational institutions, 110 universities, according to a list obtained from the National Universities Commission’s (NUC) website as of April 2023. The focus here is on public universities.

A public university is an institution of higher learning that receives the majority of its funding from the federal or state governments. Federal and state institutions are what most Nigerians refer to as public universities.

In Nigeria, pursuing university education has almost become a need if one wants to land or advance in a given type of work. Also, the rise in the number of federal and state universities in Nigeria is a direct result of the value placed on education and the function it plays in a nation.

However, the problem is that all of the curriculum being taught in Nigerian schools today are mainly out-of-date and out-of-touch with industry and market demands. Despite numerous attempts at curriculum reform at all levels, none of them have been successful in improving the nation’s educational fortunes. This is changing though with the National Universities Commission’s (NUC) Core Curriculum Minimum Academic Standards (CCMAS), released late 2022.

Some legal provisions

Section 4 of the Education (National Minimum Standards) and Establishment of Institutions Act of 1985 provides that the responsibility for the establishment and maintenance of minimum standards in secondary schools and higher institutions in the federation shall be vested in the minister.

By Section 10 of the same act, the power to lay down minimum standards for all universities and other institutions of higher learning in the federation and the accreditation of their degrees and other academic awards is vested in the National Universities Commission, the former in consultation with the university for that purpose after obtaining prior approval through the minister from the President.

These are the minimal requirements for what educational institutions must teach their students. The law makes no mention of a review time or considerations for a review. As a result, the curriculum in Nigeria is controlled by the government and has been for many years. A shift to a market-driven curriculum is the first step toward fixing public universities.

Shift from government to market driven curriculum

In a market-driven society, a government-driven curriculum is ineffective, especially at the postsecondary level of education. Allowing professions to build a curriculum that will help them stay relevant in the market is essential for them to remain competitive and effective. The market must be given the freedom to determine how to create a curriculum that will allow them to remain useful in the marketplace.

Ninety-three year old, Aare Afe Babalola, a Nigerian lawyer and founder of Afe Babalola University,  Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti state, argued this in an article titled ‘The effect of government driven curriculum in universities (3)’ on the Vanguard.

Stated in other words, since Nigeria is a market-driven society, the marketplace, which is subject to the laws of demand and supply needs to determine what schools teach. This can be achieved through various professions that organise associations, and get together on a regular basis to discuss how to advance their fields.

In order for its members to remain competitive, they will also need to decide what core competencies and soft skills are necessary depending on market realities. For instance, a doctor may need skills in the fine arts, yet a lawyer may benefit from marketing and managerial abilities.

Focus on what is working, shut down what is not

While this general shift from a government to a market driven curriculum applies to both public and private universities, the area peculiar to public universities is reorganisation of the institutions and their management to become more agile and responsive to demands of the market and innovate.

Uchenna Uzo, faculty director and a professor of marketing at the Lagos Business School said the first thing is that the federal and state governments need to realise that less is more.

“The sheer size of many of the public universities does not work in their favour because there are too many courses, too many students and too many initiatives running at the same time with limited resources,” Prof Uzo told Edugist in an exclusive interview.

Uzo highlighted how this principle of less being more has been applied to the Lagos Business School’s (LBS) growth over the past 15 years.  Proof that this works is that the Financial Times has ranked LBS as one of the top global business schools in its Executive Education 2022 ranking. This is the 15th consecutive year that LBS features on this exclusive ranking table. Since its inception, it has provided the highest quality of management education to participants and been ranked 41 in the world and number one in Africa.

“What we have done is that we started small and focused on our core competence, growing organically rather than taking on so many things and not being able to sustain them. This has made it easier to sustain high quality and standards without diluting the key things,” Uzo said, recommending a roadmap to fix public universities in Nigeria.

It means there needs to be some rationalisation and reordering with focus on what is working. When what is working has been identified, it will be time to close down what is not working. This is not so easy to do, because a lot of resources may have gone into areas or projects that were not working. Another reason why it is a tough choice to make is that lives are tied to even the things that have not been working and that are loss leaders.

Even if one cannot close them immediately, one can have a phased plan to take some of these less profitable or less viable segments in the direction of growth failing which they can be gradually eased out.

Engage with industry

Some of the primary objectives of formal education include empowering the recipient with capacity for independent, critical and creative thinking, making him self-reliant, self-disciplined, courageous and innovative through deliberate inculcation of critically important values that define a person as educated.

Whether these objectives will be achieved or not depends largely on the curriculum which provides the content of the education imparted in the student. Therefore, a curriculum at the elementary level up to be a more complex, technical and specialist curriculum at the tertiary level.

The result of a well-planned curriculum that is effectively taught in any educational system is the good growth of society in all respects, a capable problem-solver, a wealth-maker (whether working for himself or others), and a constructive social engineer through the introduction of new ideas that will ensure the society’s sustainable development.

Creating such a curriculum means more public universities need to engage with industry for curriculum development, internship opportunities for the students, for blending theory and practice.

This is one area that many people in the industry are more keen on and willing to support the public universities even more than the private ones. But there is always the push back because some of the core academics are not keen on industry collaboration because it may also show that they are not up to date. But this is not working in their favour.

“The desire for change in the educational curriculum is not primarily a function of how old the curriculum has lasted, but how fast the society and its needs are changing especially in response to the matrix of internal and global competitiveness. In this information age the world is changing faster than ever before,” Babalola said.

The former Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos has argued that in Nigeria, academic discourses are seen as classroom discourses while the graduates are left on their own to figure out how best to make use of the information they have learnt in school.

Citing an an article published in one of the editions of Business Day Newspaper in which the author lamented so badly about how, on two different occasions, two professors consulted by his company as experts in their fields could not deliver on the jobs and returned several millions of Naira they had been paid after about six months of doing nothing, the 93-year-old reinforces the position that Nigeria public universities shy away from industry collaborations to avoid showing incompetence.

Endowments go a long way

Endowments that support research grants are critical in fixing Nigerian universities. Because the beneficiaries are aware that the money is there, an endowment offers stability. It will liberate public universities from the government’s shrinking purse.

Endowments make it easier for private wealth to be transferred to public institutions, such as Harvard, which has an endowment worth around $53 billion. With a $42 billion endowment, the University of Texas System has the greatest endowment of any public university. According to a yearly poll done by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the average US endowment returned 30.6% as of June 2021.

A certified financial education instructor, Kalu Aja said a Higher Education Endowment Fund and an Education Savings Plan establish a workable, long-lasting, but most crucially, permanent method of funding higher education in Nigeria.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) would collect N75 billion annually in perpetuity if it invested the N1, 518, 331, 545,304 it negotiated in 2009 into an endowment fund yielding even 5 per cent annually. Nigerian universities might contact their alumni to ask for gifts and donations to assist their endowment funds. When the endowments increase, the overall result of this long term is a natural autonomy.

A culture that promotes excellence

The last thing is the culture of public universities. A school to turn to for lessons is again the Lagos Business School which is under the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos.

“We have had this culture from the beginning which is based on our Christian identity of respecting the human person, seeing leadership as service, promoting work as something that has a transcendental value and respecting the freedom of people who work or school in the institution,” Uzo said.

To succeed, public universities will have to have a clearly articulated culture of excellence and identify people who align with the values of the institution and this is not easy.

In the end this is what the public universities need, a handful of people who have core values that are linked to the mission of these universities and are not ready to violate those. This cultural integrity is critical for the sustainability of these universities.

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