Greater university autonomy, credible appointments to governing councils, integrity tests for prospective vice-chancellors, and a holistic overhaul to stem systemic decay topped the list of recommendations contained in a strongly-worded statement released at the close of the recent third biennial conference of the Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities.
The meeting, held in Abuja, aimed to deliberate on the current difficulties confronting the universities and their role in a 21st century driven by knowledge and digitalised economies. Participants included students, university staff and higher education experts.
“Full university autonomy, in all its ramifications, is yet to be attained and remains a challenge for the Nigerian university system. As in other parts of the world where universities are performing , flourishing, and excelling, full autonomy is fundamental to the well-being of the university system, and its realisation would only be possible if the Federal and State Government removed all the restrictions,” said the statement.
The communiqué constitutes one of the most radical statements made on the issue of autonomy in recent times.
Institutional autonomy is not unknown to the Nigerian university system which enjoyed full autonomy in the 1960s. Two of the colonial legacies inherited from the University of London – to which Nigeria’s oldest university, the University of Ibadan, was affiliated after being founded in 1948 – were autonomous funding and the fixing of salaries for university staff. In the 1960s, the vice-chancellor’s salary was higher than that of Nigeria’s prime minister.
However, the January 1966 coup d’état shattered the autonomy of universities. The military junta of General Yakubu Gowon reduced salaries of university teachers and upgraded those of military officers. All were at the level of civil servants in Nigeria’s bureaucracy. In March 1974 Gowon responded harshly to industrial action by teachers demanding an improvement in their working and living conditions, by ordering them to vacate their houses.
“This singular act brought about a sudden reawakening on the part of the teachers to the fact that they were living in a fool’s paradise … A life that does not guarantee safety for themselves and their relatives. This hammer inflicted upon the teachers led to a mass movement of senior and junior teachers into politics and other profitable professions,” Ukachukwu Awuzie, a landscape professor and former vice-chancellor of Imo State University, told the conference.
Participants called on the government to appoint university governing council members who have track records of integrity and professional excellence. They should assist in transforming the universities into citadels of learning in accordance with international standards, they said.
The appointment of vice-chancellors also came under scrutiny. Participants argued that potential candidates should be subjected to integrity tests. They should also have a mastery of financial management and basic accounting in order to address perceived emerging levels of corruption in the ivory tower.
The conference advocated a fundamental revitalisation of universities’ programmes in order to meet the needs of an evolving Nigerian society and to address graduate unemployment. University syllabi required urgent review to correct defects, such as lack of entrepreneurship training, and to ensure that programmes are in tune with market requirements, participants said.
Lending his support to the idea, Professor Gabriel Emeziele from Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State, called for a “review of the educational system with a focus on Nigeria’s developmental vision, coupled with skills acquisition with a view to providing employment and space for individual… self-actualisation”.
In Nigeria, the relevance of such reforms is currently visible in two areas: Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, and the African hip-hop music industry. These two private sector-driven industries employ thousands of Nigerian graduates who are not necessarily graduates in musicology or drama. However, many students at universities also enrol as private students in private institutes of music and theatre production.
Arguing that students should be able to choose vocational skills of their choice in addition to pursuing formal degrees, Dr Toyin Enikuomehin, senior lecturer in computer science at Lagos State University, said: “If the curricula are reviewed and vocational centres are created on the campuses, students would obtain both formal education and skills of their choice. Skill acquisitions must not be tied to the curricula, to avoid distortion and certificate racketeering.
"Students should be allowed to choose vocational skills of their choice and these skills acquisition programmes must not determine and influence their degree programmes. The advantage of this reform is that students are given the opportunity to acquire formal education and a skill. Thus the brain and the hands can work hand in hand. This is the source of the success story in South Korea," he said.
On the issue of funding, participants agreed that the government should ensure sustainable funding of universities and other tertiary institutions “in as far as funding is critical to improving infrastructure and creating the enabling environment that would make Nigerian universities relevant, globally competitive and properly positioned to spearhead Nigeria’s sustainable development".
The communiqué also stated: “To account and provide for poor and indigent students, government is encouraged to set up or re-establish an education bank to provide loans and access to finance as well as increase the levels of scholarships, bursaries and other aids for students desirous of pursuing tertiary and postgraduate education.”
A vast majority of students and university teachers who are opposed to an increase in tuition fees, supported the creation of an education bank as a way of assisting students.
The conference called for “a holistic overhaul” of the national education sector “to rescue it from the decay reflected in the weak foundation from primary to tertiary levels”.
Brink of collapse
The release of the communiqué coincided with a call by the National Executive Council of the Academic Staff Union of Universities for an urgent intervention by the government to rescue the strategic education sector from decay and the brink of total collapse.
A former vice-chancellor who requested anonymity argued that the Nigerian government has at its disposal immense financial resources that should be devoted to education and vocational training.
“An increase in tuition fees would translate into converting education into a commodity for the highest bidder. If the government could reorder its priorities, it would have sufficient financial resources to fund university education. What is the government doing with the millions of dollars it claimed it has recovered from politicians who stole public funds? Why should Nigerian parliamentarians earn at least US$5 million every month each, even during the current recession?
“If this ruling party claims that it came to power in order to improve the working and living conditions of Nigerians, why can’t it implement the UNESCO Convention which states that 26% of the annual budget of member states should be devoted to education and vocational training?” he asked.
The point was echoed by Rebecca Jagun, a Lagos-based education consultant, who said: “If the Nigerian government had the political will and courage it could invest a huge sum of the human and capital resources at its disposal to solve the numerous crises bedevilling our education.”
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters