NIGERIA: Universities hit by accreditation crisis

The withdrawal by Nigeria's National Universities Commission of the accreditation status of some academic departments in several universities, effectively closing many courses with immediate effect, is set to affect hundreds of students. The move has prompted universities to contemplate measures that would save them from further sanctions from the government regulatory agency.

The National Universities Commission, or NUC, recently published a notice in Nigeria's influential daily tabloid The Guardian titled "Programmes with denied accreditation status in the Nigerian university system". In all, 24 universities were affected at various levels.

Accreditation, according to the laws creating the NUC, is a process whereby academic programmes are evaluated every five years. The assessment criteria include the number of academics with PhDs and the infrastructure to accommodate undergraduate and postgraduates courses. The NUC's accreditation team also establishes the number of students that may be admitted per programme.

Each programme that complies is entitled to full five-year accreditation, with those that fall just short of compliance being awarded partial accreditation of three years only.

But programmes that fail to meet half of the criteria, especially in the area of qualified staff, are severely sanctioned.

In the latest development the harshest sanction was applied to two programmes. The Master of Business Administration at the University of Abuja, Nigeria's federal capital, and the degree in architecture at the Catholic university, Caritas, at Amorji-Nike in Enugu in Eastern Nigeria, were closed down.

The affected programmes are not permitted to admit students from the 2011-12 academic year and must rectify the defects highlighted by the accreditation team before being allowed to reopen.

The latest accreditation exercise means that more candidates will now be competing for a reduced number of courses. At the same time universities are desperately seeking strategies to avoid further sanctions.

While staff, students and the public have reacted to the sanctions, academics were not surprised by the withdrawal of accreditation from some programmes.

According to Yekini Lai, a law graduate from the University of Benin and a human rights activist, the military government in the 1980s and 1990s deliberately underfunded academic programmes in universities. He pointed out that brilliant students were not interested in pursuing postgraduate programmes because of poor conditions of service for teaching staff.

In the absence of a deliberate initiative focused on producing sufficient academic staff with doctoral degrees, it was not possible to cater for the expansion of programmes in older universities and new courses in newly created universities.

In similar vein Helen Oriaku, a lecturer in community medicine at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, pointed out that academics who could sustain academic programmes went abroad to greener pastures.

She said Nigeria currently had 103 universities and about 12,500 academic staff. Half of them do not have PhDs, many among the other half are on the verge of retirement, and the number of existing qualified staff is too low to cater for the needs of academic programmes.

The next round of accreditation exercises is in six months' time. "If NUC continues to apply these same criteria, many more programmes will be denied accreditation," Oriaku declared.

State governments have reacted to the wave of sanctions, with both the legislative and executive arms worried about the prospect of more courses being closed. This being an election year, there is the possibility of student and staff unions embarking on protests against political parties that are not willing to spend more money on higher education.

One way of finding solutions to the defects of programmes is rapid implementation by state universities of an agreement between the Nigerian government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities. The agreement stipulates better conditions of service for academics and higher funding of university research activities.

Universities owned by the federal government are already implementing this agreement, and some of the programmes in these universities may be re-accredited if more money is released on the basis of the agreement.

Many regional universities have yet to follow the federal universities. However, regional governments are under pressure from local communities to increase university budgets.

Increasingly, Nigerian academics abroad are considering coming home to pick up teaching appointments in universities, especially those that are implementing the new salary scale.

According to an NUC spokesperson the organisation has received requests with regard to the new salary scale from Nigerians teaching abroad.

"Federal and some state universities may soon recruit Nigerian university teachers in the Diaspora who are interested in coming home because the new salary scheme is attractive. This is one of the ways of averting further closures of academic programmes," he said.