NIGERIA: Shift toward private universities

The eight-week trade union strike in Nigeria's public universities has compromised the early conduct of entrance examinations for the next academic session, which starts in a few weeks. Private universities, which do not allow trade unionism, have experienced a dramatic increase in the number of candidates applying for admission. But only students from middle and upper class families who can afford the high fees are applying - including the children of staff in strike-crippled public universities.

Private higher education in Nigeria has grown rapidly. There are 33 private universities, and 61 public universities financed by federal and regional governments.

For the forthcoming academic session, the National Universities Commission has allowed public universities to admit around 138,000 new students and private universities to admit 32,000 students - numbers based on the carrying capacity of institutions, including their infrastructure and staff strength.

Despite the limited carrying capacity of private universities, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of would-be students applying for places in them.

A major reason is the ongoing strike at public universities, which has discouraged parents from sending their children to these institutions. Parents have voiced fears that industrial action and occasional student unrest has affected teaching and research, and made the public university calendar unstable and unpredictable.

Hajia Riskatu Ibrahim, an accountant with a telecommunication company, said his first son had spent six years obtaining a chemistry degree in a public university. He decided to send his daughter to a private university where she read law, a four-year course.

"She went to Law School for a year and completed her one-year compulsory National Youth Service Corps assignment. My daughter started working at same time my son finished his university degree. This is not good for national development," he lamented

Also, the integration of IT professional certifications and entrepreneurial skills into the curriculum of private universities has attracted parents who can afford the fees. These skills are now key requirements for job-seekers in both the public and private sectors of Nigeria's economy, but are not readily available in public universities.

Even where they are available, the culture of 'free education' has encouraged students to resist the introduction of these skills in public universities, as they are made available by companies in partnership with university authorities.

In private universities, however, students have willingly accepted being taught such skills because of the professional advantages. They are registered and taught for online international certification examinations in ORACLE, CISCO and MICROSOFT.

This century is IT knowledge-driven, said Toyin Enikuomehin, a software engineer at the ICT Centre at Lagos State University: "Any graduate without IT training cannot get a good job." It is largely because of the need for an IT education that teachers in public universities are rushing to send their children to private universities.

If these trends continue, employers might prefer to recruit graduates from private universities where hard work, discipline and academic rigour are inculcated into students.

Recently in Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, consultancy firms recruiting graduates for petroleum, banking and telecommunication companies conducted a series of interviews in which graduates from foreign and private universities performed very well but those from public universities performed poorly. Successful foreign and private university graduates were placed in managerial jobs, and those from public universities in less senior jobs.

There was despondency and frustration among public university graduates. "Nigeria is gradually moving in the direction of India, where graduates with identical degrees are offered jobs either in managerial or middle cadre positions on the strength of their performance at the interview," said Esther Ebele, the manager of a recruitment firm.

Meanwhile The Guardian, one of Nigeria's leading newspapers, investigated the views of parents regarding private and public universities.

A mere 20% said they wanted to send their children to public universities - partly because only these institutions offer professional courses in medicine, pharmacy and to some extent engineering, which are capital-intensive and demand highly skilled and scarce personnel.

According to the newspaper, the great majority of parents - around 70% - said that if cost were not an issue, they would want their children to obtain degrees from private universities. And 10% of parents would like their children to study abroad.

Given our continued democratic imbalance, no wonder public universities remain centres of chaos, but i remain hopeful.

John Egbeazien Oshodi,
Broward College