Mixed reaction to scrapping of university admission test

While some have welcomed it, many academics, business representatives and civil society groups in Nigeria have rejected Federal Minister of Education Mallam Adamu Adamu’s recent scrapping of the post-Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination admissions system.

Abolition of the test – the second stage of screening conducted by universities for the final selection of students – came in the wake of the minister’s unilateral sacking of 13 vice-chancellors, a move that is still fresh in the minds of academics.

In another surprise move, the minister announced that the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board or JAMB benchmark for 2016 admissions to universities, polytechnics and colleges of education would drop to 180.

The decisions to lower the bar on admission scores and scrap the post-Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, or post-UTME, were announced at a recent policy meeting on higher education admissions attended by the minister, top officials and JAMB.

During the televised event, the minister invited stakeholders present to indicate their support for cancelling the post-UTME – and received immediate endorsement. He then announced that the post-UTME was not only illegal but outlawed.

Vote of confidence

Adamu Adamu went on to pass a vote of confidence in the annual national higher education entry exams run by JAMB under the leadership of Professor Dibu Ojerinde, its executive director. Ojerinde has previously indicated his opposition to the post-UTME.

The minister said that since the federal government and stakeholders had confidence in the exams conducted by JAMB, there was no need for universities to hold other entrance tests.

The death sentence pronounced on the post-UTME was greeted with thunderous applause by the audience – but has been met with shock by some academics.

“If we don't collectively stop the education minister we may be heading for a complete collapse of our hard-won autonomy,” exclaimed an angry lecturer watching the announcement in a staff club.

But not everyone agrees.

Civil society group Stand Up Nigeria commended the minister, saying that cancelling the test was “a right step in a right direction”. Secretary Sunday Attah said it reflected the determination of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration “to sanitise the education sector and end years of corruption there”.

Professor Ibrahim Kolo, former vice-chancellor of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University in Lapai, also threw his weight behind JAMB, commending the “reliability, validity and usability” of its exams. He said JAMB had introduced important measures such as the use of external monitors, security agencies and now a computer-based test, or CBT.

“So revolutionary is the CBT that even universities are now making use of it not only for their post-UTME but also for internally conducted examinations,” Kolo said.

A ‘most calamitous mistake’

Among critics of the move is Afe Babalola who, as then chair of the Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Nigeria, led a powerful delegation to meet former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo about JAMB’s negative effects on universities.

He recalled that in 2003, his committee was able to convince Obasanjo to establish the post-UTME. “The cancellation of post-UTME is nothing but a most calamitous mistake which poses a danger to and an irreversible adverse effect on the quality of education in Nigeria.”

Babalola said many students admitted to universities through JAMB were intellectually deficient. “They could not justify the high marks they scored in JAMB examinations.”

“Cases abound whereby JAMB examination papers were openly compromised and sold to candidates at examination centres, mischievously dubbed ‘miracle centres’. These centres known to JAMB officials were designed to guarantee high marks for some candidates.”

Unsurprisingly, he said, most students with dubious marks were unable to cope with their studies once they were admitted to the universities of their choice.

Controversy over cut-off marks

Regarding dropping the cut-off mark for university admission Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, said the minister was eroding the hard-won autonomy of universities.

“The laws establishing universities empower the university senate to determine the criteria for admission and graduation of students. It is the duty of the senate to set cut-off marks for each of the programmes and set the guidelines to determine who is qualified for admission.

“JAMB needs more than a vote of confidence from the minister of education to improve its capacity to conduct credible examinations,” said Ogunyemi.

Adetunji Adegbesan, founder and CEO of the education technology company Gidi Mobile, said the 180 cut-off mark was an official endorsement of mediocrity.

“It is alarming that the minister dropped the bar so low. While we are faced with falling standards in our education system, policies should be designed to raise the standard, not lower it,” he said, adding that some states – especially in the north – had recorded 98% failure rates.

Darlington Agholor, a lecturer in the school of business administration at Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos, noted that out of a total of 400 marks, 180 is less than 50%. “This means that there is a general drop in the performance of the candidates. We should be worried.”

There is a strong feeling within the university community about the need to approach the courts to challenge perceived violations of university autonomy perpetrated by the minister.