Vice-chancellors unite to strengthen higher education

There is growing collaboration between the vice-chancellors of 143 Nigerian federal, state and private universities, as well as with African and international associations, as leaders unite to develop and internationalise their institutions, says Professor Michael Faborode, secretary general of the Association of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities.

Faborode – a professor of agricultural engineering and former vice-chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University – told University World News of growing collaboration between university leaders across Africa, especially through the Association of African Universities.

Nigerian vice-chancellors are also working with the International Association of Universities, and increasingly with the Association of Commonwealth Universities to advance programmes such as joint training for academic and non-academic staff.

And the country is a dominant force in the Association of West African Universities or AWAU, which was created in 2010 with the purpose of building collaboration between universities in the region. Headquartered in Nigeria and with a current president from Ghana, the West African group “is getting stronger”.

AWAU aims to support improvements in higher education quality and graduate employability across the region and, said Faborode, is helping to achieve a goal of the Association of African Universities to develop effective regional university associations and collaboration.

Nigerian V-Cs working together

Faborode is in charge of both a committee and an association – the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities and the Association of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, an umbrella organisation for the leaders of federal, state and private universities.

The committee started in 1962 as a meeting point for vice-chancellors of federal universities – there were five public institutions at the time, owned by the federal government. State universities came on board from the early 1980s, and private universities from the 1990s.

Over the years, state universities set up their own committee of vice-chancellors, and private universities did the same. But it became increasingly clear that university leaders needed to forge a united front in tackling higher education’s enormous challenges.

These include chronic underfunding of a tertiary sector with some 1.7 million students, academic staff shortages, inadequate infrastructure and regular disruption of the academic programme by staff and student strikes.

“It was felt that we needed to accommodate all universities, public and private,” Faborode said. “So we decided OK, let’s have an Association of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities. Now we are all working together.”

With the addition of two new universities in April, the number of members of the association rose to 143 – 61 private and the rest either federal or state universities.

“There has been a lot of interest in the success and impact of the association. Before I came on board, private universities didn’t really see themselves as part of the group. And state and federal universities, when they met, discussed only issues related to the federal government.

“We now ensure that the association represents the interests of all universities.”

Role of private universities

While vice-chancellors have managed to rise above their university types, Faborode said that within academia there remains a conservative view of the private university system.

“We don’t see them as mobilising private capital to assist the government in its functions, but as investment by the private sector to recoup profits. However, that is not the reality.” It is not possible to recover investment in a private university for a decade or more, he added.

Private universities have expanded assets in the university system. “We see it in that context – a service that private investors are doing for society and so they should be embraced.”

Nigeria was selected to host 10 out of 22 African Centres of Excellence in West Africa. The centres – aimed at strengthening research, postgraduate training and collaboration – were initiated under a World Bank project in 2014.

Two are at private universities and, said Faborode, “to date they are the two most successful of the centres”. The Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, at Redeemer’s University in Ede, and the Pan African Materials Institute at the African University of Science and Technology in the capital Abuja, are publishing in top international journals.

“This is an indication that all universities are crucial in national development. When it comes to staff training and research funding, all universities are assets.”

Currently, private institutions are not allowed to benefit directly from Nigeria’s Tertiary Education Trust Fund, which is drawn from taxes collected from industries – they may only benefit indirectly through collaboration with public universities.

“That is wrong,” said Faborode. “If private universities had not been given the opportunity to compete for the World Bank centres, they would not have been able to make this contribution to national development. We would not have got these wonderful centres.”

While some private universities are not known for high quality, others are very good indeed. Certainly, Faborode said, “they are changing the face of higher education. I believe that in the next 10 years the private sector will set the pace for change.”

Bird’s eye view

Faborode was vice-chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University from 2006 to 2011, learning about university leadership on the ground. Now, as leader of the leaders, he has a bird’s eye view of the sector and finds the differences between the university systems interesting.

“The state-owned universities are the most problematic, because the state governors don’t commit a lot of resources to their universities. Some of them are establishing more than one – but the governors are not funding very well the ones they have already so it is a fracas.”

Sometimes, political decisions influence the education system. “But by and large, Nigerian universities are settling down, trying to address the problem of relevance in solving national problems. I think that is the focus of most of the universities now.

“Funding challenges are still there and impede rapid progress. But everybody is trying to be innovative and ensure that there is something they can identify with in terms of relevance to society.”

Faborode said the vice-chancellors’ association was leading “with strong advocacy”. It engages with the Governor’s Forum, a body that convenes the governors of Nigerian states, “to sensitise them about the need to develop universities as key assets.

“With the federal government, we engage directly and try to ensure that, when they do something that is not right, we are independent enough to speak out forcefully for the university system.” Funding from membership contributions and not the federal government provides the independence to make pronouncements on issues.

One example was in February this year, when Education Minister Mallam Adamu Adamu sacked the vice-chancellors of 13 universities, as well as their councils – the latter decision was later revoked.

Faborode issued a highly critical statement, accusing government of damaging the university system and abusing rules governing the appointment of university leaders. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari later apologised, but did not reinstate the vice-chancellors, most of whose tenure was close to expiring.

“We believe due process should have been followed. Nothing must be done to disrupt the good order of universities,” said Faborode, adding that the higher education system was “not a toy that you can just play with”.

“It was a bad decision that we hope will never be repeated.” Faborode believes a repeat is unlikely because the incident inflicted damage on Buhari’s new government. “Apart from us, civil society and students came out strongly and voiced their concerns.”

But university leaders are still angry. Some of the vice-chancellors who were fired were from the diaspora, and three were former vice-chancellors who had been recalled to nurture new universities when they were created. After serving for five years, they were rudely ordered to go.

“It was very bad. It can demotivate people who are working very hard,” said Faborode. The vice-chancellors operated under tough conditions with little funding, but were nevertheless able to establish the new universities successfully.

“They should have been appreciated. We are still insisting that they must write formally to the vice-chancellors so that at least in the records it is appreciated what they have done.”

Relations with academics

The sackings soured relations with government, but fortunately relations with academics are currently good. In the past, when academics rallied against senior university administrators, it was detrimental to the system.

Nigeria has strong unions in higher education, including the Academic Staff Union of Universities or ASUU, that can – and often do – exert considerable power over higher education through protests and strikes, bringing the system to its knees.

Faborode said vice-chancellors try to work with, rather than against, academic groups. Unions were involved in a national dialogue on higher education in 2014, and have been working with vice-chancellors on an upcoming higher education summit.

“We believe academics are very important in education decisions. There should be no polarisation between vice-chancellors and academic unions, we must work hand in hand or we will be sailing at half-mast.”

However, working together has to be done in a way that government does not feel there is collusion. “We have to walk a tightrope.”