Challenges confronting universities – Now and in future

Oladapo Afolabi, professor of applied chemistry and former head of service for the Nigerian government, presented a futuristic and thought-provoking paper on transforming universities for this century and beyond, at the Annual Conference of the Association of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities held from 29 May to 2 June at the University of Jos.

The 55-page paper, titled “Governance and Change Management Imperatives for the Transformation of Nigerian Universities from Early 21st Century to 22nd Century and beyond, Universities”, was sent to some senior academics in various disciplines in different universities for their evaluation of Afolabi’s solutions to the problems confronting universities.

Verdict: just like the paper itself, their reactions were illuminating and pedagogical.

The paper

Afolabi’s paper is fundamentally anchored on two concepts – governance and change management. He drew on World Bank definitions of these two concepts.

“The World Bank defines governance as the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development,” he wrote.

Still on the World Bank definition, there are two broad, diametrically opposed dimensions of governance – good governance and bad governance. The characteristics of good governance are transparency and integrity in the management of resources, while bad governance is “the failure to make a clear separation between what is public and what is private, hence a tendency to divert public resources for private gain”.

Afolabi argues that the involvement of academics in governance is necessary in an increasingly globalised, knowledge-driven world. However, societies differ in the extent to which they welcome, use or abuse the contribution of academics to governance.

Again relying on World Bank philosophy, he defines change management as a process, with tools and techniques to manage the people-side of change to achieve the required business outcome.

Change management incorporates organisational tools that can be used to help individuals make successful personal transitions, resulting in the adoption and realisation of change. In simpler terms, change management is centred around changing the work orientations of people for greater efficiency and better output.

The umbilical cord between governance and change is that “governance deals with the general administrative management of an organisation, change is to improve the organisation in project management”. This entails developing specific plans and actions to achieve transformation over time, in order to use resources effectively.

Equipped with the twin concepts of governance and change, and attaching them to a crystal ball, Afolabi speculates on potential challenges that could face Nigerian universities in part of the 21st and 22nd centuries and beyond.

He grounds his projection on existing challenges facing Nigerian universities – poor governance, lack of a clear-cut philosophy of transformational change, poor funding and absence of full autonomy among other problems.

Afolabi argues that if these problems are not resolved, Nigerian universities will not be able to compete successfully in a future shaped by the knowledge economy and digital revolution. He draws on two models – Australian and German – to project transformational change.

In order to prepare Nigerian universities to confront the challenges ahead, he concluded: “Please permit me to end the way I started, by being rhetorical. Is it now time to declare a state of education emergency? Delay is dangerous.”

The views of senior Nigerian academics follow.

Professor Mohammed Kuna

Mohammed Kuna, professor of political science at Usman Dan Fodio University in Sokoto, affirmed that knowledge and its production are social activities that must be embedded within the broader political economy of Nigeria in a global world.

The challenges facing Nigerian universities – academic, administrative, financial and ethical – can be better understood as integral to the broader social context in which they are embedded.

The crisis universities face today is a microcosm of a broader social crisis, and there can be no justification for a discussion of change management and governance without a discussion of the nature and character of governance and change management in broader society.

Thus, the essay fails to correctly contextualise knowledge and its production, long noted by students of the sociology of knowledge, within broader social processes outside the academy.

A second problem is the paper's failure to distinguish the main social forces influencing knowledge and its production in universities of the metropolis and those of the periphery. Immersed in the vertical relations of power between the global North and South, the drivers of change will differentially affect universities depending on their social location.

Thus when metropolitan universities speak of the democratisation of knowledge, the use of digital technologies or the global mobility of faculty and students, we must analyse these firmly within the verticality of power in the global division of labour that places universities in the South at the bottom of the hierarchy of knowledge production, firmly within specific historical and social contexts.

Finally, despite the very rich information provided in the paper, there is very little sustained theoretical analysis that links the information to the issue of governance and change management in Nigerian universities.

While there is absolutely no doubt that our universities must be as global as possible, it would be sad to fail to focus attention on the specific existential problems that confront us as a people. The resolution of our existential problems by creatively deploying our resources should be our contribution to humanity. This needed to be thoroughly addressed by the paper.

Professor Eunice Omonzejie

Eunice Omonzejie, a professor of modern languages at Ambrose Ali University in Ekpoma, argued that it is too early in the 21st century for Nigeria to be worrying about predictions for the 22nd century and beyond.

Our nation is faced with fundamental challenges of leadership, which Afolabi considers as the most important ingredient of governance. This, he accepts, is impeding education and learning.

Our take is that focus should be on how to mobilise stakeholders to radically transform governance in Nigeria – to move from what Afolabi calls ‘counterfeit leadership’ to real leadership, which will establish synergy between current university research findings and the manufacturing sector in Nigeria.

This will ensure a relevant and better university education system and bring about sustainable development.

Professor Francis Egbokhare

According to Francis Egbokhare, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Ibadan, three operational words and phrases dominate Afolabi’s presentation – governance, change management and transformation. Nevertheless, most of the narrative projects directions of global changes in human culture, experience and education.

While the author asks a multiplicity of questions that foreground his futurological narration, there is little direct relevance in such projections to the local context of governance, change management and transformation.

Afolabi defines the problems exquisitely, explains the needs and what should be done, and establishes the parameters for transformation. But he falls short in operationalising these parameters, localising them in contemporary realities as well as identifying intervention clusters in a transformational model that would suggest a well thought out trajectory.

Dr Ngozi O Iloh

Dr Ngozi O Iloh, associate professor of French (Comparative Literature) at the University of Benin, described Afolabi’s paper as a masterpiece.

Starting from the concluding question on declaring a state of emergency in Nigerian education, one wonders how long Nigeria will continue to trail behind even the so-called developing powers? For me, Nigeria is a century behind major breakthroughs. This is as a result of bad governance and ‘counterfeit leadership’.

Universities obviously have ethical challenges. The government should be blamed because it has relinquished its responsibility to thwart corruption and ethnic and religious bigotry.

Indeed, governance of universities has been abused by our government, which uses appointments of politicians to university governing councils as an avenue to share money. The position of vice-chancellor has also been highly politicised, and this applies to other appointments as well. This is an endless problem as it is linked to administrative challenges.

Dr Dele Seteolu

According to Dr Dele Seteolu of the department of political science at Lagos State University, the concept of governance as discussed in the article did not reflect the peripheral status of Nigeria's political economy.

The decision-making process is amenable to the inputs of foreign bodies, dressed up as expert financial and development advice. The advice of the IMF and World Bank to eliminate the subsidy on education in Nigeria depicted the externalisation of governance processes in a peripheral economy.

The article over-emphasised foreign models, with too little consideration of the historical specificity of the Nigerian state and economy. While the global dimension is imperative, it should not ignore local dynamics and realities.

The article should historicise the philosophical and ideological premises of education, especially higher education in Nigeria, with a view to identifying the purpose and character of learning.

Also, futuristic models were over-emphasised. The article should reduce the analyses of futuristic models and expatiate on the nature, dynamics, forms and challenges of university education in Nigeria. Finally, the conclusions did not concretely situate Nigerian universities in the 22nd century in terms of the country’s political economy.

Professor Femi Shaka

Femi Shaka, professor of film studies at the University of Port Harcourt, suggested that every serious academic in Nigeria should read the article, especially those worried about the deplorable state of university education.

The strength of the paper lies in Afolabi’s analysis of the causes of the rot in any institution, which he traces to bad governance and bad leadership. He compares them with their positive counterparts – good governance and good leadership.

For instance, he explains that bad governance is marked by failure to make a clear distinction between what is public and what is private. This is the root cause of corruption in social institutions in Nigeria.

Bad governance is also marked by failure to put in place principles for the rule of law and government behaviour, which results in arbitrariness in the application of law. Bad governance is marked by over-regulation, which discourages competition, thus supporting monopolistic tendencies. The system encourages misallocation of resources.

For good governance he quotes a UNESCO definition, with eight major characteristics – participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, effective, efficient, equitable, inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimised, the views of minorities are considered, and the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision making.

Afolabi refers to bad leadership as ‘counterfeit leadership’, which he qualifies as leadership that is preoccupied with authority, dominance and prominence; puts false sets of tasks before the people; and is concerned with orthodoxies and an unwillingness to get out of its comfort zone.

In contrast, he defines good leadership – or ‘real leadership’ – as orchestrating solutions to problems by giving power back to the people; democratising social institutions, and mobilising individuals and sections of society to make adjustments to new value systems being established by the leadership.

According to Afolabi, good leadership is visionary and encourages popular participation in the decision-making process for the benefit of the generality of the people.

The weakest point of the paper covers 16 pages devoted to futurism, which was intended to prepare the ground for reforms suitable for 21st and 22nd century university system. Futurism is important – it is just that too many pages are devoted to it. It almost made the paper to look like a work undertaken to review the literatures of futurism.

Every professor in Nigeria’s university system needs to pay special attention to the funding reforms recommended by Afolabi, including the issue of global language for the global university. Also very important is his recommendation of a student-centred competency model of pedagogy. These will propel the Nigerian universities to become global players.

This paper is a must-read for all professors teaching in Nigerian universities.