Private universities campaign for public funding

Private universities in Nigeria have stepped up efforts to secure financial support from both the federal and regional governments. The private institutions argue that they are fulfilling responsibilities similar to those of public universities that have access to government funds.

But advocates of more state funding for public universities are strongly opposed to private institutions benefiting from public money.

They are of the view that public universities were created, with limited state resources, to provide higher education opportunities for children of the less privileged. Rather than seeking state funds, private institutions should initiate creative programmes to generate income from Nigeria’s dynamic private sector.

Meanwhile, some social commentators have controversially questioned the value of funding either public or private universities, given that they allegedly both churn out unemployable graduates.

The arguments

Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper recently published an article by Professor Sola Fajana, vice-chancellor of Joseph Ayo Babalola University in Ikeji-Arakeji in southwest Nigeria, in which he articulated reasons for his funding campaign. They included that:
  • • More than 50 private universities have provided opportunities for young people with the ambition to obtain university degrees and diplomas.
  • • Private universities are responding to the unemployability of Nigerian graduates at all levels, through entrepreneurship education.
  • • Private universities have raised the moral standards of students. Parents and candidates now have choice, and ill discipline and cultism have been significantly curtailed because the proprietors of private institutions are mostly faith-oriented.
  • • Education as a business project has a long gestation period. There is virtually no profit for most private universities in the first 15 to 20 years. Without state assistance, the proprietor is forced to continue to give subsidies and grants. The capacity of the proprietor to do this determines whether the private institution is sustainable or not.
Fajana’s robust submission was supported by Professor Andrew Onokerhoraye, pro-chancellor of Western Delta University in Ogbara, Delta state. According to him, private universities are helping to meet Nigeria’s manpower needs. He advanced the following reasons in support of Fajana’s postulations:
  • • During the colonial period, the state gave ‘grants-in-aid’ to private primary and secondary schools – including his private secondary school. “It gave my school the opportunity to compete favourably with public schools in the production of good candidates for public universities. There was no private university at that time. The same process should be resuscitated,” he declared.
  • • Public universities are funded by federal and state governments with taxpayers’ money. Private universities generate their own funds with little or no aid, but must play by the same rules in terms of infrastructure, admissions, teaching and research as prescribed by the National Universities Commission and Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board.
  • • Only public universities have access to the Tertiary Education Trust Fund – but private universities deserve a share. “We need to understand the fact that whether federal, state or private universities, our goals are the same – that is, to produce an educated workforce that will meet Nigeria’s needs in the 21st century,” he wrote.

On the other end of the spectrum, many lecturers in public universities are completely opposed to the idea of government funds going to private universities.

Babatunde Odunlami, of the department of history and diplomatic studies at Olabisi Onabanjo University in Ogun state, argued that private universities did not need the state funds to operate. He pointed out that the owners of private institutions were rich business people with local and international sources of funding.

He cited information from a recent Reuters article revealing that five Pentecostal pastors were among the richest Nigerians. “The point here is that private universities, especially all the faith-based organisations, don’t require state funds. They have enough money to drive their universities.

“Therefore this debate on the need for the state to fund private universities is not necessary. This is pure diversion. No religious organisations pay tax to the state. They don’t deserve funds from the state to run their universities,” Odunlami said.

Dr Tajudeen Akanji of the faculty of education at the University of Ibadan, is not opposed in principle to state funds being used to assist private universities.

However, they must subject themselves to conditions existing for public universities – such as financial transparency, open criteria in student admissions, and allowing academics to operate trade unions as in public universities.

Dr Peter Olapegba, of the psychology department at the University of Lagos, declared the idea of giving state funds to private universities laughable.

“These private universities are run like capitalist economic ventures. They are charging exorbitant tuition fees without any interference from the state. The proprietors should dip their hands into their immense treasuries to sustain their universities. This debate has no substance.”

Despite the stiff opposition from some quarters, supporters of using state funds to assist private universities are determined to pursue their campaign.