NIGERIA: Nearly 300,000 denied university places

More than a million Nigerian youngsters wrote qualifying tests conducted by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, hoping to clinch a university place. But universities can accept only 153,000 out of 448,000 successful candidates, meaning that 295,000 qualified would-be students will be denied admission to higher education when the 2008-09 academic year begins in October.

Three accredited agencies formulate policies regarding admission to Nigeria's 93 public and private universities. They are the National Universities Commission (NUC), the Committee of Vice-Chancellors in Ni gerian Universities (CVCNU) and the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB).

According to JAMB Registrar, Professor Adedibu Ojerinde, last year's qualifying minimum score - 160 points out of the maximum 400 - has been raised to 170. Ojerinde said examination candidates had "demonstrated a great deal of improvement" - but to no avail for most in terms of accessing university. Of the more than 1 million people who sat the qualifying tests, only 153,000 will be admitted to university.

Under the current admission criteria, universities must admit students using the following formula: 45% of slots are awarded on merit alone, 35% are allocated to students in the university's catchment area, and 20% to what is known as "educationally disadvantaged states".

Despite "positive discrimination" in the admission policy, some states in the Nigerian Federation cannot fill their quota. "Even if we bring the cut-off point to 150, some states cannot fill their quota because the candidates are just not there," Ojerinde lamented.

He believes that "educationally disadvantaged states" should do more to promote higher education among their citizens. "We need to encourage the states that are behind to find a way of catching up, and I don't think it is all about poverty. It is more of a carefree attitude, poor appreciation of the value of education and also parents' attitude to education," he said.

The Nigerian public and higher education policy makers are worried that only a third of youngsters who scored marks above the cut-off point of 170 points will gain admission to university.

"Not even 50% of qualified candidates can enter the four walls of the university this coming academic session. This is unacceptable," declared Margaret Effiong, a primary school teacher in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.

Professor Osilesi Odutola, Vice-chancellor of Olabisi Adebanjo University in Ago-Iwoye in south-west Nigeria, is of the opinion that drastic steps should be taken to reverse the trend of qualified candidates being denied admission for lack of space.

"More private universities should be given operational licences, while existing universities should be strengthened to admit more students," he suggested.

The same view was recently expressed by Professor Adebayo Odebiyi, Vice-chancellor of Achievers' University in Owo, also in south-west Nigeria: "Government alone cannot solve the country's education problems therefore it is essential that private institutions and individuals should be allowed to establish more universities in line with NUC guidelines," he said.

Immediate past Executive Secretary of the NUC, Professor Peter Okebukola, proffered the following solution: the Higher School Certificate should be the minimum entry qualification into universities; selected polytechnics and colleges should be given degree-awarding status; and the Open University of Nigeria should be strengthened to accommodate more undergraduates.

Meanwhile, many young Nigerians armed with ordinary and higher school certificates are travelling to other West African countries in search of admission into a university. They can easily undertake such trips because of the free movement of people, goods and services enshrined in the treaty of the Economic Community of West African States.

These Nigerian youths can be categorised into two groups: the first is made up of those who want to obtain higher education in English-speaking countries such as Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia - with Ghana the most popular destination.

"We prefer going to Ghana seeking admission because the country has one of the best university systems in West Africa," declared Patience Uka, 17. "Sierra Leone and Liberia have just come out of a bloody civil war. Thus some of their universities are yet to recover. And Gambia is very far from Nigeria."

Uka plans to travel by road from Lagos to Accra with a group of friends, seeking admission to a university in Ghana.

The second group consists of would-be students who want to obtain a degree in French. They have sent applications to universities in Francophone countries in West Africa.

More and more secondary school leavers will obtain the minimum qualification to enter universities - and the inability of existing universities to absorb them will continue to be a nightmare for the Nigerian Government.