NIGERIA: Students protest against exorbitant exam fees

Candidates seeking admission into the current 2008-09 academic session in Nigeria are unhappy with high entrance examination fees charged separately by universities and the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, or JAMB. One newspaper analysis calculated that the amount spent by students sitting both sets of examinations was a whopping US$119 million.

Every year the board conducts a national entrance test called the University Matriculation Examination (UME). Candidates who score the minimum mark of between 180 and 200 points are invited by the admissions units of universities to which they have applied to write another examination called Post-UME. Spaces available in universities are severely limited.

Candidates and their parents have rejected the exorbitant fees charged by the board and the universities. University administrators, meanwhile, are opposed to calls by board officials for outright cancellation of the Post-UME as a solution to multiple examination fees.

Two Nigerian tabloids carried out detailed cost analyses of this year's entrance exams organised by the board and by Nigeria's 93 public and private universities. Publication of the cost analyses generated heated debate about the rationale for conducting two sets of exams.

According to Communications Week, the board sold about 1.4 million scratch cards for this year's UME to candidates mandated to register on-line for the examination. It made a profit of about US$34 million.

In its higher education page Punch, a daily Nigerian newspaper, published another survey on the same issue. Segun Olugbile calculated that by the time Nigerian universities complete admission processes for 2008-09, candidates could have spent more than US$85 million in addition to the purchase of UME scratch cards. In other words, a grand total of US$119 million would have been paid by candidates for both UME and Post-UME.

These amounts exclude money spent by would-be students on related costs such as transport to examination centres, passport photographs and payments made to operators of cyber-cafés for on-line registration. Successful candidates who sat for the UME in Cameroon, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Benin and Ghana also incurred additional costs - they have to travel to Nigeria to write Post-UME exams.

The Post-UME is a child of circumstances. Born in 2006, it was set up by the Nigerian Ministry of Education, the National University Commission and the Committee of Vice-chancellors. The main objective was to further filter academically suitable university candidates.

Then Minister of Education, Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili, now a Director in the World Bank, insisted universities should not charge more than the moderate fee of US$18 per candidate for the Post-UME. But this is no longer the case: sources close to the commission and board disclosed that many universities charged candidates fees ranging from US$30 to US$50. Private universities charge the highest fees.

Many parents and candidates have angrily condemned the fees, describing them as exorbitant and exploitative. One candidate, Dele Adeoba, was upset because his family could not afford to pay for him and his sister to write the Post-UME:

"My sister and myself sat for JAMB and we both passed. For Post-UME we were to go to the University of Maiduguri in the north-eastern part of Nigeria. This is about 1,000 kilometres from Lagos. My father paid for my Post-UME fees, including the transport fare to Maiduguri. My sister could not go for the same examination because my father's meagre resources could not afford it."

Board registrar Professor Dibu Ojerinde acknowledged the high cost incurred by candidates. Ojerinde called for cancellation of the Post-UME and accused most universities of using the exercise "to shore up their internally generated revenue".

But former vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos, Professor Oye Ibidapo Obe, sees Post-UME as relevant. He was one of the architects of the exercise. "Post-UME should not be scrapped. What is needed is the design of uniform and consistent methodology for the screening exercise. Post-UME was introduced to correct lapses from the UME, especially that of impersonation," Obe declared.

Some vice-chancellors are advocating a middle-of-the-road solution. In recommendations to the Minister of Education, they have argued that a percentage of fees collected by the board should go to the universities for organising the Post-UME, that is, there should be no additional fees paid by candidates.