University quota system – Pushing fairness or mediocrity?

Is the current quota system in the Nigerian public university system undermining the public sector higher education in favour of private universities which are not required to adhere to it?

This is an increasingly topical debate in federal Nigeria, where the quota system – in operation since its inclusion in the constitution in 1979 – affects all public institutions across the country, including public universities, governing not only student admissions, but staff recruitment, appointments and promotions.

The debate was re-opened in December last year when Nigerian Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo was reported to have emphasised the importance of merit. At the conferment of the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award on two professors – environmental scientist Omowunmi Sadiq and poet Tanure Ojaide – he reportedly said the nation had placed quota before merit which “we know does not work”.

While originally intended to address differences in socio-economic and educational development among its 36 states, the Nigerian quota system is today accused by some of promoting educational mediocrity and even curtailing development.

With respect to universities, the quota system employs three criteria for admission, recruitment, promotion and appointment. These include merit, catchment area and degree of educational disadvantage at state level.

Merit is weighted at 45%, catchment area at 35%, while 20% goes to educationally less developed states which are mostly situated in the northern part of the country. They include Jigawa, Zamfara, Adamawa, Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau, Sokoto, Taraba and Yobe states and a few in the south, including Bayelsa, Ebonyi, Cross River and Rivers states.

The effect of the system can be harsh. For example, candidates who qualify for university entry on the basis of merit but are not from the state in which the university they applied for is located, and are also not from an educationally less developed region, may be denied admission.

'Breeding inequality’

Olumide Ojo, a student from Lagos state who has been denied admission more than three times to a university of his choice suggested the quota system be scrapped. “Everyone should be judged based on intellect. The quota system they think will bring equality is breeding inequality and corruption. Some of us have been denied admission several times due to this quota system.”

Dr Olufunmiso Olajuyigbe, a senior lecturer of microbiology in one of Nigeria’s foremost private institutions, Babcock University, which is not affected by the quota system, told University World News the system was a great “disadvantage” for public tertiary education in Nigeria, and had done “more evil than good” for the system as a whole.

He said the quota system as it applied to promotion, recruitment and appointment of staff was facilitating the appointment of “square pegs in round holes” and vice-versa, reducing the quality of teaching and its outcomes.

“It sacrifices merit and competence in order to accommodate the various ethnic, religious, majority-minority, advantaged-disadvantaged colourations,” he said.

“The problems are so essential that it [the quota system] requires re-visiting,” he said.

Olajuyigbe said if an inferior candidate for a position was picked over a more qualified candidate because the government wanted to create a balance, then excellence was thrown out the window. Similarly, tying career progression to the quota system is ludicrous, he said.

University rankings

“Excellence is not an issue in the quota system; it is more about where you come from and who you know. It breeds mediocrity and is a grave injustice to the intellectuals in the country. No wonder we keep moving down… in world university ratings”.

Professor Musbau Akanji, the vice-chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Minna in central Nigeria, said that he strongly believes the quota system should be reviewed, but not scrapped.

“As a vice-chancellor, I am of the view that we still need a form of affirmative action to ensure each state is given an opportunity. The states are not even in terms of educational opportunity. However, I think a modification of the present quota is overdue,” he said.

Akanji said the quota system still has its advantages, which include spreading education to disadvantaged states, but said more emphasis should be placed on excellence by increasing the weighting given to merit.

His suggested allocation was as follows: 60% merit, 30% catchment area, 10% educationally disadvantaged and 10% discretion instead of the present 45: 35: 20: 0.

However, for academics such as Olajuyigbe the quota system has not succeeded in addressing the inequality it sought to address.

“It enhances and promotes marginalisation in appointments, recruitments and promotions based on who is in power of leadership in Nigeria… It causes tribalism and ethnicity,” he told University World News.

Olajuyigbe called for a total overhaul of the Nigerian university system and the establishment of a new structure by the National Universities Commission, or NUC.

Private universities

“The NUC should also seek out intellectuals from the diaspora. We need help in our education system. If we continue with this trend, we should forget about Nigerian universities ranking among the best in Africa or the world.

“We are happy that private universities are now coming. Hopefully, the private universities will redeem the Nigerian university system in years to come,” he said.

According to recent local news reports, the number of universities in Nigeria is 152 and the number of private universities is 68, for a population of over 180 million people.

Last month it was reported that Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission Abubakar Rasheed had said the number of universities in Nigeria was too small given its population and called for the establishment of more private universities to meet demand.