NIGERIA: Power tussle over entrance examinations

Nigeria's Committee of Vice-chancellors and the Joint Matriculation Examination Board, JAMB - an examination board for all tertiary institutions - are at each other's throats once again over the holding of separate university entrance exams. The national assembly wants one of the two entrance exam systems cancelled and neither group wants it to be theirs.

Both organisations have presented strong arguments defending their examinations and discrediting those of the other. For now, the government recognises the validity of both but the battle is far from over.

Soon after the last Unified Tertiary Examination was held the results were published on the examination board's website. It was the first time the results of the exam sat by some 1.3 million candidates had been released within seven days.

The public and candidates' parents congratulated the JAMB via the media, describing it as a landmark in the organisation's history. The achievement was attributed to Registrar Professor Dibu Ojerinde, a specialist in test measurements, who deployed new information and communication technologies to improve the exam's conduct.

Despite the early release of results, criticisms of JAMB surfaced - an annual tradition. And recently criticisms by vice-chancellors increased as well.

In 2005, the Committee of Vice-chancellors, or CVC, convinced the government to allow each university to set up a parallel entrance examination.

These are called Post-UME screening tests and are organised by each university for school leavers who score above cut-off points fixed yearly by JAMB's policy committee. This comprises leaders of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education.

The CVC decided institutions should use JAMB's cut-off points as a benchmark when inviting would-be students to sit Post-UME entrance tests. This would retain the relevance of JAMB in selecting students into universities.

To justify setting up the Post-UME, Professor Olufemi Bamiro, Vice-chancellor of the leading University of Ibadan, argued that a "significant number" of students admitted to universities based entirely on JAMB scores had to withdraw at the end of the first year.

"There was the pathetic case of 23 students being asked to withdraw from among 30 students admitted for civil engineering in the faculty of technology," Bamiro said. "Most of the students asked to withdraw scored above 250 [a good mark] in JAMB."

Stakeholders in Nigeria's university system believe the parallel entrance examination should be retained, and even strengthened.

Professor Oyewale Tomori, Vice-chancellor of the private Redeemer University, said the Post-UME exams had "brought relative peace and stability to the university system because of the opportunity it provides to have physical contact with prospective students".

"It has eliminated the problem of offering admission to touts," Tomori said.

But JAMB Registrar Ojerinde stirred a hornets' nest when he argued the Post-UME system was not backed by law. Legally, JAMB is the only body entitled to conduct admission exams.

Those wanting to continue with the Post-UME system should have it legalised through the national assembly, Ojerinde said.

He also criticised what he called the exploitative nature of the university-run entrance exams, which he claimed were being used to generate funds.

"Universities are not properly funded. And vice-chancellors have seen it as a way of making money," he declared.

CVC Chairman Professor Don Baridam rejected Ojerinde's claims and argued that Post-UME had emerged as a result of a loss of credibility of JAMB's exams. Baridam said universities conducting their tests requested candidates to pay some of the exam's administrative costs, which were not exploitative.

Lawmakers have joined the fray. Recently the House of Representative passed a resolution calling for the Post-UME to be cancelled. It was described as illegal and exploitative.

President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie, warned lawmakers not to usurp a function of senates, whose legal responsibility it was to determine how students were admitted to universities.

While the power tussle rages on, parents have complained about the expense of the two exams, especially during trying times. Both exams involve extra financial commitments by parents in paying for pre-test lessons, as well as accommodation and transport for children selected by universities in far-away places, and they have appealed to the government to intervene to reduce the exorbitant costs.

Minister of Education Professor Ruqayyatu Ahmed-Rufai, a curriculum specialist, supports the Post-UME but admitted it faced challenges.

"We are actually planning to look at its uniformity, standardising it to ensure that a candidate who sits for Post-UME in any university can use it in another university," Ahmed-Rufai said. "But that arrangement has not been concluded yet."