NIGERIA: Polytechnics and colleges to award degrees

Selected polytechnics and colleges of education will soon be upgraded to award university degrees, Nigerian Minister of State for Education Hajiya Aishatu Dukku has announced. Dukku said adequate funds would be made available to employ university-level teachers and upgrade infrastructure at the institutions. One of the main objectives of the reform is to create additional avenues for would-be students in a country where hundreds of thousands of qualified school-leavers are unable to clinch university places each year.

The National Board for Technical Education, in charge of polytechnic and monotechnic colleges, and the National Board for Colleges of Education have been mandated to restructure curricula at the selected institutions with a view to introducing new programmes aimed at producing university graduates. The higher education diplomas awarded by polytechnic and monotechnic colleges will be phased out and replaced with bachelor of technology degrees.

"The essence is to strengthen polytechnic education and make these institutions concentrate on their primary mandate while increasing access to tertiary education," Dukku affirmed. "Colleges of education will be upgraded gradually to award Bachelor of Education degrees in addition to the Nigeria Certificate in Education."

The reform has met with positive response from many secondary school-leavers who have failed to obtain places in Nigeria's 93 public and private universities. Some 300,000 qualified candidates could not gain admission for the upcoming session starting in October (see [url= style=bluelink]University World News[url], 20 July 2008).

The announcement had an immediate effect. Many unsuccessful would-be students still eager to obtain degrees took advantage of the recent entrance examinations for monotechnics, polytechnics and colleges of education. More than 320,000 candidates sat the exams nationwide.

"Most of the candidates are aware of the government's plan to further develop technical education," said Dukku.

To give teeth to the reform, the government has merged both the salary and career prospects of holders of university degrees and graduates of polytechnics and colleges of education. Hitherto, university graduates had an edge, earning higher salaries than their counterparts from colleges, and there was a ceiling beyond which college graduates could not rise. That is gone for good - higher education products are now equal.

Reaction to this was mixed. Mosun Igando, an industrial relations specialist, declared: "We must be careful in our assessment of this reform. Until now, those who were offered admission to universities, after very tough and keenly contested entrance examinations, were regarded as excellent future civil servants, potential researchers and scholars needed in the private and public sectors. To motivate them they were, rightly, paid higher salaries and placed on higher career prospects compared to products of colleges."

But another industrial relations expert, Ahmed Jega, supported the removal of the differentials which he described as "outdated and discriminatory barriers". First, he argued, students admitted to universities were not always much brighter than those who chose to go to college - they were products of the same secondary school environment.

Second, the knowledge and skills learned in the different types of institutions were comparable if they were taught by equally competent teachers.

"Lastly, we have observed, at least in the private sector, that those from polytechnics have better practical experience than graduates from universities in certain fields of engineering, finance, marketing, public relations and management technology. Therefore disparities in career prospects should be removed. It is the right step in the right direction," Jega said.

Employers in both the private and public sectors welcomed the reform, especially in the area of information and communication technology, where polytechnic graduates with their practical education are preferred over those from universities with more theoretical grounding. Also, polytechnics encourage industrial training for their students and, with the removal of barriers, polytechnic ICT graduates might earn more than university graduates.

The conversion of some polytechnics and colleges into degree-awarding institutions might also create opportunities for some of their brilliant graduates to undertake postgraduate studies, although this will need to be done in collaboration with university academics.

Some experts have pointed out dangers in the reform if polytechnics and colleges abandon their mission to produce much-needed middle-level professionals with specific technical skills that help to drive the country's industrialisation process.

In its contribution to the debate, The Guardian in Lagos wrote that polytechnics and colleges had already largely abandoned their intended roles: "The need for technical skills has not disappeared, what has failed is the implementation of the original objective," the paper declared.

"The extent of this failure is further evident in the manner in which the polytechnics and monotechnics have moved away from their original mandate by offering virtually every course under the sun."

The solution to this failure, highlighted by The Guardian, might be found in existing lower-level education institutions. Ndubisi Okoh, a consultant in education psychology, argued that technical and teacher colleges could be revived and properly funded to produce middle-level manpower and artisans, allowing polytechnics and other colleges to pursue new objectives.

When will polytechnics start awarding BTech degrees?

Oke Kehhinde