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Nigeria’s first private online open university points to possibilities

Nigeria’s first online open private unversity has cracked open a new way to acquire a university degree in Nigeria without physically showing up for classes or lectures. What this means is that a new frontier has emerged and the possibilities are endless. It has only just begun.
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Source: Learn Power
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Last Monday, the Federal Executive Council approved the establishment of 36 private universities bringing the number of private universities to 147. One of them was Nigeria’s first online open private university.

Since 1999, the National Universities Commission (NUC) has licensed 111 private universities according to the information on its website as of May 21, 2023. There are 50 state-owned universities and 50 federal government universities. Based on these bits of information, it is evident that there are more private universities in Nigeria than government-owned ones.

A number of drivers are responsible for this, but it is largely due to the exploding population at 2.60 per cent per year and a youth bulge of about 120 million. There is also a growing student population demanding education in general and university education in particular.

This is putting increasing pressure on the shrinking carrying capacity of government-owned universities, opening a gap that private universities are filling up. An innovative approach to dealing with these carrying capacity problems is Nigeria’s first online open university.

As always, we could use a little context. In the last 10 years, an average of 1.60 million candidates registered for the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations (UTME), yearly.

However, carrying capacity remains one of the major challenges to accessing university education in Nigeria. The universities need to be expanded according to the demand to avoid overpopulation and facilities being overstretched.

Carrying capacity means that students are admitted based on the facilities available. These facilities include but are not limited to, adequate lecture rooms, well-stocked libraries, good staff/student ratio, and accommodation. But this is far from reality in many public universities – state or federal. With a fully online university, schools will not have to worry about these overhead costs.

In 2020, Victor Obule Ebuara, Anefiok Oswald and Ovat Egbe Okpa of the Department of Educational Management, University of Calabar, in ‘Managing School Carrying Capacity for Effective Teaching and Learning in Public Universities in Nigeria’ published in the European Journal of Social Sciences stated that over one million candidates scramble for about 200,000 spaces available annually for admission into public universities.

According to the trio, in 2019 the number of candidates who sat for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) into public and private universities was about 1.99 million while available slots for admission were 750, 000. About 1.24 million were denied admission for lack of spaces. Some of these will eventually be absorbed into private universities. All the private universities in Nigeria are on-site, physical campus-based universities.

Read also: NUC grants Miva Open University licence to operate

Covid-19 and the Era of digital education

Following global practice, Nigeria announced a nationwide lockdown on March 30, 2020, to control the spread of Covid-19. In terms of how long the lockdown lasted it included 31 days for the pre-lockdown (28 February – March 29, 2020), 35 days for the total lockdown (March 30 – May 3, 2020), and 73 days for the gradual easing up of lockdown (May 5 – July 15, 2020).

Even when the coronavirus lockdown was loosened, schools and religious institutions remained closed due to the ongoing restriction on large public gatherings and the evident risk that pupils could become vectors for the virus.

COVID-19 was (and probably remains) an existential threat to most businesses in Nigeria but digitisation came to the rescue. A survey by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that businesses in Nigeria, which were able to quickly transition to digital fared better and in some cases, experienced growth, in contrast to those who were unable to do so.

This applied to schools as well. With a new school term approaching during the first wave of total lockdown and like many other schools around the world, school owners in Nigeria faced the risk of making no income despite mounting overheads, including rent and salaries.

Many schools swung into action. A rapid-action team was hired to digitise the whole term’s curriculum for all topics across the grade levels, turning the lessons into videos that students could view online. In other words, this required conversion of all of the scheduled classes for the term into thousands of 20-minute video sessions within a month.

While COVID-19 has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on businesses in Nigeria and indeed globally, the acceleration of digital transformation in Nigeria since the pandemic, has been a silver lining in an otherwise dark pandemic cloud.

Significance of Nigeria’s first online open university

Indeed Covid-19 has made online or digital learning widely accepted in Nigeria and planting an online open university at this time extends the gains of digital transformation in education.

Interestingly, uLessons, an edtech company and the parent company of Miva Open University, Nigeria’s first open online university, gained ascendence during the Covid-19 pandemic. That is, Sim Shagaya founded the company in 2019 and it came into the market when the pandemic hit 2020.

As the fundamental notion of a university changes, uLessons’ debut into the tertiary market occurs at a time when the need for high-quality, reasonably priced tertiary education is greater than ever. The Miva Open University will push the limits of innovation, affordability, effectiveness, and convenience. This is significant because it rides on some robust fundamentals such as the wide use of mobile phones and tablets. And an emerging digital native generation.

Regardless of their location or background, the institution is obliged to offer undergraduates an accessible and affordable education. The online open university is indeed ambitious. It does not require the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) for admission. But of course, candidates must obtain the necessary credit passes in the West African Examination Council and National Examination Council terminal exams.

Here is the difference between a traditional university and an open one. The regular degrees require the students to be present on campus and attend classes and lectures regularly. However, for the open degree, it is not required to attend classes regularly, and there is no need to be present at the same time and place. In the case of Miva Open University, it is not only an open university but wholly online. This makes it unique in Nigeria.

An open online university is a form of distance learning however, the technology powering it is different. Modern distance learning has about 100 years of history. But rather than learning by correspondence, which goes through post-offices, internet-powered distance learning such as what open online universities offer is instantaneous and feedbacks are immediate.

Open online universities offer cost-effective systems of instruction independent of time, location, pace and space. This will ease the pressure on the carrying capacity of existing universities and democratise knowledge.

Uhuru at last?

While the open online university moves the needle of digital education significantly in Nigeria, a number of factors have yet to be resolved to support this digitalisation of education.

One global estimate, which takes into account the capital costs of ensuring universal electricity, internet connectivity and affordable data usage, and the recurrent costs of digital learning over a 10-year period, found that USD 1.40 trillion would be needed, with each of the four components accounting for some one-quarter of the total cost (UNICEF, 2021).

Take one of the four components, electricity. Nigeria suffers from chronic power outages. Nigeria is endowed with large oil, gas, hydro and solar resources, and it has the potential to generate 12,522 megawatts (MW) of electric power from existing plants. On most days, however, it is only able to dispatch around 4,000 MW, which is insufficient for a country of about 200 million people.

Based on international standards of 1,000MW to one million people, Nigeria is expected to at least generate 200,000MW to give the population better access to electricity.

Nevertheless, the road to private, fully online open universities has been cleared in Nigeria and in the coming years, more digital education solutions will piggyback on this remarkable pathfinding.

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