Higher education stakeholders to forge a 'social contract'
The biannual Nigerian Higher Education Summit will involve the federal and state governments, parliamentarians, regulatory bodies, institutions, higher education unions, student leaders, the business sector and civil society organisations, participants agreed.
“The aim should be to forge a social contract between all stakeholders in the sector,” said the communiqué produced by the dialogue, and to restore a culture of consultation, collaboration between management and staff in institutions, “review progress made, proffer solutions to emerging challenges and enthrone sustainable knowledge-driven development”.
The two-day “Consultative Policy Dialogue on the Future and Relevance of Nigerian Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions: Towards higher education transformation” was held in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, last November.
It was jointly organised by the Committee of Vice-chancellors of Nigerian Universities and TrustAfrica, a foundation that promotes institutional collaboration across Africa, and was attended by around 50 officials, vice-chancellors, senior university administrators, unions, and private sector and civil society groups.
“It is part of TrustAfrica’s ongoing dialogue series aimed at transforming the higher education sector in Africa,” Dr Omano Edigheji told University World News. He is the organisation's consultant on African Higher Education Dialogues and manages the programme.
Three dialogues were held last year, the others in Tanzania and Uganda – also jointly with vice-chancellors’ committees – and there will be more this year, starting in Ghana. They are “intended to influence public policy on higher education”, Edigheji explained.
The Nigerian communiqué identified numerous, serious challenges facing higher education in the populace West African country.
“Although the number of higher education institutions in Nigeria has increased from seven in 1962 to 323 in 2012 – and the number of universities from five to 124 – this rapid growth has not necessarily led to a realisation of the objectives for which the institutions were set up.
“The global ranking of Nigerian universities has nose-dived, and there has been growing concern over the quality of graduates from our universities,” said the communiqué. Employers found graduates unemployable and lacking in key practical and critical thinking skills.
“There have also been questions on the relevance of institutions to national development, given the paucity of research and development efforts", as well as concerns that universities were no longer promoting democratisation or citizenship.
“Loss of faith in Nigerian universities is shown by the rush for foreign institutions even in other African countries. Nigerians reportedly spend an average of US$500 million annually in European and American universities, which is about 70% of the total allocation in 2008 to all federal universities.”
Further, said the communiqué, there had been “constant restiveness including violent confrontations” in relationships between students and universities, leading to unrest and disruptions to the academic calendar; poor governance; “constant bickering’ between unions, universities and government; and tensions and ethnic bias in the appointment of leaders.
“The origin of these tendencies are to be found in the monumental onslaught on the university system by the military when they reigned on the nation, and this has contributed in no small measure to the collapse of academic cultures, and the reversal of the progress made by Nigerian universities and other tertiary institutions until the early 1980s.”
Aside from launching a biannual summit to forge a social compact, participants agreed on measures to improve governance, funding, relevance, and quality and accreditation.
The nature and dimension of problems confronting institutions in Nigeria required a new approach to governance, which called for the democratisation of governance institutions and processes to make them more accountable, transparent, efficient and inclusive, agreed participants.
There was a need to consider a separate ministry for higher education, to give much-needed attention to challenges facing the sector.
The dialogue called for vice-chancellor appointments based on academic excellence, capability, transparency and accountability, and an end to ethnically based appointments in federal state universities “to stem the tide of emerging sectional agitations and clamour for indigenes and other parochial interests”.
There should be leadership and management training for the next generation of leaders, and gender equity in senior university appointments. One measure could be to introduce early sabbatical for women academics, to enable a focus on research and publications.
Further, the communiqué said, there were challenges in programme accreditation in universities, which was riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions and duplication through the involvement of too many professional bodies, “making it very expensive and tedious”.
The process should be strengthened, with the National Universities Commission empowered to co-opt other professional bodies in its accreditation. A new process of institutional accreditation should be perfected and internationalised with assessors from reputable universities outside Nigeria. Minimum academic standards “should be vigorously applied”.
The dialogue called for research into an appropriate governance model, perhaps including the feasibility of establishing a judicial arm in every institution to deal with disciplinary matters.
The government, said the communiqué, must provide adequate resources for universities to achieve their goals. But education was not only its responsibility, and other stakeholders – especially the private sector – should commit to investing in higher education, including sponsoring research chairs.
Based on the Asian Tiger model of technological development, the dialogue proposed an Education, Research, Innovation and Development Council to coordinate synergy between knowledge, innovation and development in all sectors of the economy, and to manage a research and development fund.
All existing funding agencies should be coordinated and mandated to contribute a percentage of their earnings for the exclusive funding of research in higher education. “The council should be headed by the president to give it the necessary weight.”
To fully harness the creative energy of Nigeria’s youth and create a vortex of innovation, entrepreneurship and growth “to replace the present regime of hopelessness and joblessness”, Nigeria’s entire science and innovation complex needed reorganisation. For example, strong links should be forged between specialised universities and relevant government ministries.
To improve their relevance, according to the communiqué, institutions needed to intensify research engagement to tackle endemic societal problems and provide evidence-based solutions. Efforts should also be made to institutionalise inter-university research projects, “to improve research quality and expand the horizon of staff and students”.
Universities should have intellectual property structures to enable them to commercialise and profit from research findings, and there should be a unified database of capacities, comparative advantages, outputs and niches. Structures should be designed to formally link universities and research institutes with industry.
Quality, accreditation and productivity
There was an urgent need, the communiqué said, “to restore the integrity of higher education institutions in terms of work ethics and morality, transparency, productivity, democratisation and total commitment to the ideals of the ivory tower”.
Universities should give primacy to developing a vision and strategic plan, and should have structures for self-monitoring, internal efficiency and quality assurance.
“The dialogue agreed on the need for some pragmatic reforms in curriculum and teaching methods to engender more practical, conscious and critical learning and studentship.” It warned against the “hasty rush to ‘force-teach' entrepreneurship” and said a practical approach was needed to develop graduate entrepreneurs in all fields.
According to the communiqué, the government needed to be more cautious in establishing or approving new universities without “commensurate increase in the number of teachers, as this has the potential to spread available human resources in the higher education sector too thin and erode standards”.
“Indeed, Nigeria needs to holistically plan the growth of its higher education system in terms of mix, typology and functionality in relation to relevance, niches, matching labour market and developmental needs, and the desire to nurture globally competitive institutions.”