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This is the best time for business and management education in Nigeria – Uzo

From prime moments in his childhood to becoming a professor of marketing at Africa’s premier business school, Uchenna Uzo, Ph.D, faculty director at the Lagos Business School, explains the secrets of Pan-Atlantic University’s success story, how to afford courses at LBS and what public universities can do to increase funding, become more efficient, help captains of industry solve problems and contribute to national development. Uzo spoke with Ikechukwu Onyekwelu, managing editor, Edugist. Excerpts:
Professor Uchenna Uzo, faculty director and professor of marketing at the Lagos Business School; Photo credit: LBS
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From prime moments in his childhood to becoming a professor of marketing at Africa’s premier business school, Uchenna Uzo, Ph.D, faculty director at the Lagos Business School, explains the secrets of Pan-Atlantic University’s success story, how to afford courses at LBS and what public universities can do to increase funding, become more efficient, help captains of industry solve problems and contribute to national development. Uzo spoke with Ikechukwu Onyekwelu, managing editor, Edugist. Excerpts:

Tell us about some of the events and persons that have affected the course of your life?

I cannot talk about my career journey or story of growth without thinking of my family, my parents in particular. They were keen about education from the beginning. My father was the only graduate from his family. So, he was keen to ensure that his six children were well educated.

When I was in primary school and started being truant or not taking my books seriously, I recall that my mum stepped in and gave me the right discipline to ensure that I took my studies seriously. In fact, I had to change my handwriting at some point. I would say parental, family support was very critical.

I was also lucky to be involved with Helmbridge Study Centre. It is a centre for secondary school students where they focus on a guided study programme from the age of 13 – 14 years, they teach you self-discipline, planning your study yourself and learning all the speed reading techniques. This propelled me to study without supervision which was something I learnt really early.

If I fast-forward to my days in school, mentorship played a key role and I remember very well Professor Juan Elegido, who was the former vice-chancellor of Pan-Atlantic University, our university here. His role in particular was instrumental in helping me discover that I could have a life in academia because having studied in a university and seen how poorly treated lecturers were, I never wanted to be a lecturer myself.

But he encouraged me to do an internship at the Lagos Business School and from the internship and seeing the possibilities with the support and mentorship, I was able to discover that this is an opportunity to make a great contribution to society and I think that I have really been blessed to have such people around and they are the ones that have made me who I am.

Prof. Uzo
Interview set; Prof. Uzo speaking to Edugist’s Ikechukwu. Credit: Edugist Studio

A conversation one finds in public is around the return on investment of business and management education from prestigious business schools?

The management education landscape in Nigeria has been evolving. There is no doubt that Covid-19 and the opportunities for digital transformation in education has opened the borders. And brought Nigeria head-on with more completion. Global business and management schools access the Nigerian market with help of digital technologies. A good example is Nexford and its inroads into the market.

What the data shows is that the appetite for management education is growing globally, even in Nigeria. Secondly, the reason why there is that talk about not seeing the immediate returns on investment is because few schools, even among the big schools, are diligent enough to track the impact of the education they have offered on individual and society.

Many of the big schools are not doing good enough job with impact assessment. But if you go by anecdotal evidence and informal research, you will see what business school graduates are doing in terms of the number of startups they have founded and the number of lives they have empowered with the knowledge they have or the number of projects and networks that they have built. The experience shows that there is a lot of good and a decent return on investment.

You also have to go programme by programme. Obviously, certain programmes have a larger return on investment than others. If you looked overall, in Nigeria, there is actually no better time for business and management education. Why?

Elvis Boniface, founder of Edugist was just telling us about how he came back to Nigeria, after his studies at the University College London, last year. Compare that with all those, including my family members, who have in the last year left. We are in touch with industry and are seeing a huge talent gap. Many businesses now want people to stay and are looking for ways to bring up faster the younger ones.

So, you have people at the top level, that is, the board level, who may be because of age and other reasons are not willing to move. You have the entry level people who are not able to move because it is quite expensive to do so. But you have many middle-level people that have left. How do you accelerate the development of the lower people to get to middle level? That is where the action is now. There is much interest in support and education.

Whatever you do with people in this situation, there will be immediate and real impact because what they are looking to do is business survival, profitability, and adding value to the customer. So, I will say that that view is contextual but if we look at it across board, this is the best time for business and management education in Nigeria.

How do you assess the impact of interaction between LBS and industry?

We are continuously interacting with the industry in multiple ways. But let me give you some of the indices of impact and our footprints in industry.

Many of the captains of industry that we know, passed through LBS or have people at the senior and executive levels pass through LBS. Examples will be the Interswitch, GTBank, and in the telecoms. There has been much corporation in terms of case writing and getting them to document and share what it is about them that others can learn from, both positive and negative. It is not about showcasing only what works. It is also about some the mistakes they made and how they got out of them.

Placements also, we are recruiting and building talent that we send into industry. In the last few years, our masters of business administration (MBA) graduates upon graduation, which is usually in December, over 90 per cent of them are already placed in the industry. They are placed in key position where they can make important impact.

Another area that we are really getting serious about is sustainability and responsible management. LBS has been able to move many companies from seeing corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability practices as something you do to tick the box to something that part of the DNA of the company. This is because at different levels of management education we have been able to preach that message. We embed ethics and sustainability across the curriculum.

In the education landscape itself of Nigeria, gradually we are also making inroads there. Working with the National Universities Commission (NUC) in the direction of allowing for more flexibility in curriculum development has yielded some fruits. This has led the new academic standards for Nigerian universities which the NUC released – the Core Curriculum Academic Standards (CCMAS). Before now, no university had the latitude to innovate around their curricular. The curriculum we had was approved in 1991 or so.

Imagine how LBS has had to navigate its way around sticking to what NUC says but fusing more innovative things which sometimes led to some tensions because at that time they found it difficult to understand why we were adding some news things. But we always made sure we had what they wanted and more.

The news is that thanks to those ongoing engagements NUC has opened up curriculum development to the point where each university can innovate up to 30 per cent of its content. Seventy per cent are the standard modules as the commission has prescribed. It is thanks to these interactions there has been this openness to innovation in curriculum development. These are some the things that we are doing to make a wider impact.

We started a retail academy last year, which at this point is working on a retail policy framework for education in retail, and industry practitioners. It is not just for Nigeria but for Africa. LBS has set up a retail policy team and in November of this year (2023), hopefully, the retail policy framework will be out. We are hoping it is something the government can approve. This will create an enabling environment for people playing in the retail sector in Nigeria and Africa.

Professor Uzo LBS
Professor Uzo, in a classroom at LBS; Photo credit: LBS

Talking about retail and marketing, how would you describe the average Nigerian consumer?

From what we see, there a couple of things about the Nigerian consumer. The first one is that the average Nigerian consumer wants to feel that they are premium. They are quality and standards conscious but at same time, they willingness to pay the high price on that is not there. This is a case of getting the highest quality at the lowest possible price. It is always a not so easy balance. They are price and quality conscious.

The other interesting thing is that in Nigeria, we are a heterogeneous market. We are not one consumer market. It is conglomeration of markets with different regional peculiarities in consumer behaviour.

Another thing is that the average Nigerian consumer is aspirational in their consumption choices. We have done some studies where we have seen how a cross-section of Nigerians earning no more than 30 thousand naira a month, this is about the minimum wage, who are aspiring in the next five years to for example to live in Banana Island. These are people who do not currently live in homes of their own. You also see people who do not have cars yet aspiring to own a Bugatti in the next five to seven years.

So, hope sells, aspiration sells. There is this view that against all odds things are going to be well. This feeds into the kinds of brands that people aspire to have. But income levels have shrank over time too. This a lot more discretionary or judicious spending. There is less spending on luxury items. These are some of the things that one sees about the Nigerian consumer.

What are some of the milestones that LBS has achieved, accreditations and global ranking?

In last 15 years, LBS has been ranked among the top business schools by the Financial Times in their executive education ranking. But last year (2022), we were ranked among the top 50, the only business school in Africa on that ranking for open enrolment education. We were number one in Africa for custom executive education.

We have the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). Only 5 per cent of business schools in the world are accredited by this institution. We are also accredited by the AMBA – Association for MBA, only 2 per cent of business schools in the world have this accreditation. We are currently about to be accredited as well by the African Association of Business Schools (AABS). These are some of the milestones. Of course there are other things and other rankings. These some of the immediate ones that come to mind.

Lagos Business School, Campus; Photo Credit: Edugist Studio

Quality is not cheap, granted. However, did-level executives complain about the cost component as a barrier to get the high quality education that LBS offers. What do you say?

Good education is not cheap, you are right. High value attracts high quality resources. But what we see increasingly is that it depends on the mid-level executive segment, it depends on the type of programme and structure of it. Some people are willing and able to pay. Some think we are underpriced.

But there is another segment that is willing but are not able to pay. For those what are doing is revving up scholarship opportunities and loan schemes that at favourable rates. We are at advanced conversations with institutions that will allow us take on those loans and disburse them at lower rates to the students involved. This is for certain programmes and certain people who are clearly not able to pay.

Overall, we have also moved a bit in the direction of unbundling prices of certain programmes to make it easier for people to pay and having more flexible payment opportunities, so that they do not feel the burden. Remember also that LBS is also a premium business school, so there is also premium pricing for many of our programmes.

You mentioned the role your parents played in molding you. What are some of the initiatives you have at individual level to help the younger generation?

Yes, I have been involved in the launch of what is called Project Father 1.0. It will start on the April 15 at a place called Southcreek Centre in Lekki Phase 1. The focus is to promote successful fatherhood, getting fathers a lot more involved in the growth and development of their children.
What I have seen is that many of the troubles in families that eventually make children derail come from the fathers. Once the father loses focus and outsources his role to other caregivers, the children lose their balance.

With case studies and working with experienced fathers, we have built up a curriculum and it is going to be a certificate programme. We are working with the International Federation for Family Development, based in the United States of America. This is the first of the things we want to do because the family is the cell of the society.

Uchenna Uzo
Professor Uchenna Uzo, faculty director, Lagos Business School; Photo credit: LBS

How would the retail policy framework help people at the grassroots?

What we have seen is that while many people in Nigeria and across Africa – over 70 per cent of the economy – has a retail facing side to it. Agriculture has retail as its backbone. Retail is the channel for making money in Africa.

But what we find is that there is no policy framework to support people in this space. This policy framework will address talent and curriculum, the knowledge that can guide them, even at secondary school level. Retail is so pervasive in our environment that one wonders why we cannot teach retail in secondary schools. Many drop out of school at this level and go into retail.
Some people in industry are already doing that.

Last year, there is this igbaboy scheme that was launched by South African Breweries, if I am not mistaken, they did it with a certain school they call Onitsha business school or so. This was designed to coach young people in retail.

However, we need a national policy that democratises the knowledge so that many people even at the most basis will receive the education, tools, resources and policy framework that allow them operate without facing some of the problems that the bigger players face.

What can public universities learn from your successes?

The first thing is 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.

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.

There needs to be some rationalisation. Focus on what is working and close down what is not working. It is not so easy to do, because a lot of resources have gone into those and lives are tied to them as well. It won’t be so easy to close down.

Even if one cannot close 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.

The other thing is, the more our public universities can engage with industry for curriculum development, internship opportunities for the students, for blending theory and practice, the better. Many people in the industry are more keen 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.

Endowments that support research grants are critical, Harvard University in the United States of America does this so well. Covenant University at Ota, Ogun state is doing well also in this direction and the University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos state, lately.

The last thing is the culture of the school. At the Lagos Business School and now Pan-Atlantic University we have 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.

To succeed at this you need to 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 sustainability of these universities.
Is university education for everyone?

I don’t think the university is for everyone. The reason is that technology has changed how we live and work. Technology has democratised knowledge and alternative sources of learning abound. With these you do not need to go the university to have them.

But at the same time, let us remember that we are in a system where if you are not a graduate it closes doors. In corporate Nigeria, this view is pervasive. While saying going the university is not necessary, we have to look at all the levels of education before the tertiary one to see how to grow and develop them.

We need to identify what alternatives people have to get the education they need without going to the university. This is where I am also passionate about technical skills and vocational education. These offer a lot more transformational value than many of the undergraduate courses.
For instance, the Institute for Industrial Technology in Ikeja, Lagos is doing a great amount of work in the manufacturing sector.

The graduates are powering manufacturing in Nigeria. These are not university graduates but people who have put themselves through technical education. It will take deliberate and intentional strategy to de-emphasise the idea of a university but there have to be alternatives to work.

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