New private universities – Set up to fail?

The recent licensing of eight new private universities has raised questions about the wisdom of expanding a sector already struggling to provide quality education geared towards the 21st century.

Details of the decision by the Federal Executive Council of Nigeria's central government to grant licenses to eight new private universities were made public at a press conference last month by Professor Anthony Anwuka, the minister of state for education.

The latest round of licensing brings the total number of private universities in the country to 68 – just 24 short of the total number of public universities. The private sector receives no subsidy from government.

Addressing journalists at the press conference, the minister said the new universities would come under the mentorship of older public universities. Such mentors would include the University of Lagos, the University of Calabar, the University of Agriculture Umudike, the University of Nigeria Nsukka, and the University of Ilorin.

Stakeholders have expressed concerns about a range of issues, including funding, staffing, the need for a remodelling of universities to meet 21st century exigencies, as well as the new idea of mentoring.

The new institutions have been welcomed with some reservations by President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi.

'Inadequate planning’

“ASUU is not opposed to the democratisation of university education. However, we are against the proliferation of universities without adequate planning. It is for this reason that we are quick to ask the following pertinent question: How prepared are these universities in terms of human and material resources to enable them to take off without hitches?

“We are asking this question because the existing private universities are busy poaching staff from the existing universities. They don’t have the required quantum of staff. Some old universities in the country are not adequately and sufficiently staffed. These are some of the factors affecting the quality of products from these private universities. The licensing authority must ensure that each approved university is sufficiently prepared for the task."

Ogunyemi warned that if the new universities were allowed to take off without adequate human resources, they would face multiple crises of the sort already being experienced in the sector.

“This is the bane of our tertiary institutions. Rather than expand and fund the existing universities, the government goes ahead to approve the establishment of new ones. And for lack of funds, the old ones degenerate. Sooner or later, like a vicious circle, the new ones degenerate and fall into the same trap. These are our observations over the years,” he said.

The ASUU head said the state should, as a matter of urgency, take the lead by funding, staffing and providing the necessary facilities in public universities.

He drew attention to the fact that Nigeria is a signatory to a UNESCO convention which stipulates that all signatories should set aside 26% of their annual budget for education and vocational training.

Mentorship under scrutiny

The ASUU president was also critical of the issue of mentorship, arguing that those universities appointed by government as mentors had their own problems and contradictions.

“If the mentors are deficient, there is obviously a limit to what they can offer the mentees… Their facilities are inadequate [and] their staff strength is weak.

“Perhaps the mentors can coach the mentees on how to window dress their deficiencies with a view to getting the traditional accreditation certificate they do not deserve. This is what has been happening, forcing us to go round in circles," he said.

Speaking on behalf of his union, Ogunyemi said university teachers were ready to cooperate with government to find a solution to the sector’s myriad problems, provided the government was genuinely ready to play its part.

According to Professor Friday Ndubuisi, vice-chancellor of Christopher University, a private institution, the expansion of the private sector was a welcome development, as long as standards were not compromised.

Shared responsibility

He said government at both the local and federal levels cannot shoulder alone the responsibility of providing tertiary education to Nigeria’s large population.

“The licensing of new universities may check the influx of our youths to our neighbouring countries and the Western world in search of university education. It is also an opportunity for the private sector to contribute to the technological and educational advancement of the country,” he said.

Ndubuisi said many private universities were struggling financially.

“Most private universities cannot fill the [student] quota allocated to them by the National Universities Commission because of the issue of fees, coupled with the economic hardship occasioned by current recession. The government does not give the private universities any assistance or subvention … Without what are referred to as high fees, it would be impossible to sustain these institutions.”

Ndubuisi said government assistance to private universities through the mechanism of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, an intervention agency responsible for managing, disbursing and monitoring education tax to public tertiary institutions in Nigeria, would reduce the incidence of high fees in private universities and increase student enrolments.

Unlike his public system counterpart, Ndubuisi said he was in support of mentoring of new universities by older institutions.

“It is a good and innovative idea… It enhances standards and checks the rise of mediocrity. Mentoring takes care of areas such as carrying capacity, staff development and quality assurance. It is a good development and should be extended to the exchange of staff,” he said.

Curricula overhaul

Other stakeholders point to the imperative to remodel the university curricula at both private and public institutions rather than argue about private versus public institutions.

Senior lecturer in computer science at Lagos State University Dr Oluwatoyin Enikuomehin said he supports the creation of new private universities. However it was necessary to remodel all university curricula to assist Nigeria to resolve some fundamental problems and contribute to meaningful development, he said.

Among these problems, he said, were mass illiteracy and a shortage of artisans.

“We must participate in all efforts aimed at ensuring that the 54 million Nigerians who are illiterate become literate. A nation of literates can accelerate development,” he said, citing South Korea as an example of how improved literacy rates also meant improved economic growth.

He said current curricula should accommodate vocational education.

Vocational centres

“In South Korea, Germany and Switzerland, the creation of vocational training centres on university campuses has added value to formal university training. Each student before graduating has a vocational skill, thereby ensuring that the brain and the hands are compatible. The 19th century model of university education is no longer relevant,” he said.

The idea of vocational training centres on campuses was endorsed by Dr Adewale Suenu of the Department of History and International Studies, Lagos State University.

He argued that the current successes registered in the areas of Nigerian music, hip-hop and Nollywood could be traced to the presence of university graduates who did not train as musicologists and cinematographers.

“Virtually all the graduates involved in hip-hop and video films are graduates from diverse academic disciplines. If vocational training centres are created on the campuses, Nigeria would churn out graduates who are also artisans. Young artisans are urgently needed to replace the old ones who are not computer literate. All the gadgets meant for artisans are now computer-based.

“Producing jobless graduates would be a thing of the past if the Nigerian state agreed to fund a remodelled and repackaged university education with a view to meeting the demands of the 21st century,” he said.