NIGERIA: Six new universities to meet student demand

The Nigerian government has announced the creation of six new federal universities, aimed at improving access to higher education for the hundreds of thousands of qualified school-leavers who miss out on opportunities each year because of the limited number of places in existing institutions.

The move has generated mixed reactions among members of the university community and the public - universities are worried about a chronic shortage of academic staff, while the public has welcomed improved access to higher education for young Nigerians.

Minister of Communication, Professor Dora Akunyili, announced recently that the Federal Executive Council led by President Goodluck Jonathan had approved the immediate creation of six new universities "to bridge the admission gap for Nigerian students".

According to the Joint Matriculation Admission Board, JAMB, which conducts the national tertiary education entrance examinations, 1.3 million candidates sat the exams for the current academic year, competing for just 200,000 places in all of the country's 103 universities.

"Many Nigerians should have access to university education. The Minister of Education actually proposed 44 universities. We would build these universities in phases beginning with six institutions," Akunyili declared.

Matching words with action, the President ordered the Minister of Finance to release US$980 million as start-up grants for the six new universities. "This money would be used to put in place basic infrastructure for the take-off of academic activities in September 2011," said Minister of Education Olorogun Kenneth Gbagi.

One of the immediate consequences of the creation of the new universities will be mass movement of academics and senior administrative staff from regional universities and some private universities. The governors of the 36 states of the Nigerian federation are worried that their regional universities may loose a lot of staff to the new federal institutions.

Most of the governors are the Visitors of regional universities and are yet to implement a new salary scale. Many regional universities have been on strike for the past three months as a result of non-implementation of a nationally-agreed remuneration package.

Many disaffected staff at these regional universities will be tempted to move to the new universities for improved salaries and benefits - all the federal universities have implemented the new pay and conditions of service.

"There is going to be massive poaching of staff from regional universities. If this takes place many courses will not be accredited in these universities and the academic departments will have to close down," lamented Rose Obioma, an academic at Ebonyin State University Abakaliki, in Eboyin state in eastern Nigeria.

One of the major challenges the entire university system will face is how to deal with a chronic shortage of academic staff. According to authoritative sources, there are only around 13,000 academics across the entire university system.

To resolve this crucial problem, the Nigerian government needs to make concerted efforts to fund postgraduate programmes in some of the older 'first generation' universities, to produce qualified staff for second and third generation universities. The six new universities will be third generation institutions.

The President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie, welcomed the initiative. But he warned that establishing new universities without commensurate funding would be counterproductive and argued that existing universities could have been expanded to achieve the same objective.

The Vice-chancellor of Oshun State University, Professor Sola Akinrinade, said six new universities would definitely expand access to higher education. "However, the dearth of qualified lecturers and other challenges facing university education ought to be have been resolved before the creation of new universities."

Despite these anticipated problems, Nigerians welcome the creation of the new institutions. They strongly believe this to be one of the ways to create opportunities for many more young Nigerians to access higher education, which is both a culture and a thriving industry in the country.

The creation of six new universities in Nigeria is really a good news. This will improve the education sector of the country, especially for the young ones who are already fustrated by admission problems. Really good news!

Mercy Mbanaso