Licences of seven private universities suspended

Nigeria’s National Universities Commission has taken an unprecedented step by withdrawing the licences of seven private universities accused of non-compliance with the statutory provisions establishing them. But politicians have intervened to reverse the decision.

One of the draconian steps taken by the regulatory agency is the denial of new student intakes into the affected universities for the forthcoming academic session, which begins in a few weeks.

The measures have met with mixed reactions from parents, students and stakeholders.

In a terse statement, the director of press and public relations at the National Universities Commission (NUC), Mallam Ibrahim Yakassa, declared that the commission had temporarily suspended the licences of the seven universities, but he did not give explicit reasons.

However, according to a highly placed commission official who did not want to be named, the universities are aware of the reasons. They have failed to comply with regulations guiding their operations, as stipulated by law.

“The operators of the affected universities know their offences because we have in recent times informed them – several times – about their failings. And they are yet to take necessary steps to address the shortcomings.

“Anyway, it’s just a suspension order and will be lifted as soon as they do the correct things required of them,” the source said.

To give teeth to the suspension order, the NUC directed the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) not to approve lists of new students for the affected universities for the forthcoming academic session.

This directive unsettled the councils of the universities, and they took three actions.

First, they issued press statements expressing surprise at the suspension orders. They advised students and parents not to panic, and said the problems would be resolved before the next academic session. They also claimed ignorance of any offences.

Second, the university leaders headed for the NUC in Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria, and held meetings with officials with a view to finding amicable solutions. Third, university officials approached legislators in parliament, pleading with them to intervene.

At a plenary session to debate the findings of a parliamentary committee on public petitions, legislators unanimously agreed that the commission had regulatory authority over universities but was not authorised by law to suspend their licences.

They declared the NUC’s decision “null and void” and ordered it reversed.

Activist and lawyer Juliana Ahmed berated the behaviour of parliament. “Legislators cannot order, by fiat, an agency created by law to regulate quality standards in universities,” she said.

Parliament had not invited NUC officials to give reasons for their actions. Legislators should mediate a solution to the private universities’ problems or challenge the NUC action in court, Ahmed explained.

Chair of the Academic Staff Union of Universities branch at Lagos State University, Dr Jamiyu Oluwatoki, took a middle-of-the road approach to the non-enforceable decision of the legislators, saying that parliament had oversight powers concerning education but the issue was primarily a legal one.

“The NUC has the power to monitor universities to which they give licences. In this situation, there seems to be some form of heavy-handedness, and the universities have the right to ask questions if they feel that they are not being properly treated because we are in a democracy.”

However, two renowned professors commended the NUC action. Professor Ralph Akinfeleye, head of the mass communications department at the Federal University of Lagos, said the NUC action was to ensure quality control in private universities.

“It is disheartening that some universities were established without adequate facilities and enough lecturers,” he said. This was out of selfish interest in making money at the expense of students. Some public universities were also sub-standard. “They should also be called to order.”

Professor Toba Elegbeleye, head of the department of psychology at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, said the NUC was responsible for moderating the activities of universities, and if institutions were operating below standard “they should face the music”.

The federal government is under intense pressure from parents and students to find solutions to the real problems confronting the universities.

It would be difficult to get other universities to admit the students. In the last admission exercise undertaken by JAMB, more than 1.2 million candidates wrote admission exams, competing for 500,000 slots allocated to all of the country’s 120 public and private universities.

One short-term solution would be to allow new students admitted to the universities to commence class. Another would be to get the university owners to commit to urgent upgrading of infrastructure and building more classrooms. The long-term solution would be to oblige the universities to cut programmes that have serious teacher shortages.

The government has ordered the NUC to carry out forensic audits of the universities.

According to reliable sources, officials at the universities are willing to comply with short- and long-term roadmaps developed by the government.