University admission reform – Pushing private education?

Two civil society organisations have said they will jointly mount a legal challenge to recent changes to university admissions criteria that require all candidates to list at least one private university in their applications for admission.

The Joint Admission Matriculation Board or JAMB’s ruling has come under fire from those who accuse the federal and private university owners of trying to force students into more expensive institutions which are struggling to attract sufficient students in a time of recession.

The JAMB is responsible for conducting a common entrance examination into tertiary institutions. Introduced by new JAMB registrar, Professor Ishaq Oloyede, the new admission rules mean that if a student selects a public university as his or her first choice of institution, he or she will be unable to choose another public university as an alternative.

Previously, students had free rein to choose a maximum of three universities from among any of the country’s public or private institutions, and including polytechnics and monotechnics. In order to raise their chances of gaining admission into a particular institution, some candidates would even list the same institution three times. Students are now unable to apply to study in more than one public university, whether federal or state.

Possible court challenge

Plans by non-governmental organisation the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project and socio-economic and political think tank the New Independence Group to challenge the new regulations in court have since emerged, with critics arguing that they were made without input from the committees of vice-chancellors and pro-chancellors.

If the matter goes to court and an injunction is obtained restraining JAMB from implementing the new rule, the admission process for the forthcoming academic session may be delayed.

A public university admission officer, who requested anonymity, summed up some of these concerns when he told University World News: “I feel very dejected that all these reforms are being carried out without the input of some major stakeholders.

"Their input would have saved JAMB from impeding crisis. Some JAMB bureaucrats sat around the new registrar and imposed fresh admissions regulations on all the universities. These criteria won’t work. Mark my words. I envisage a situation where some aggrieved parties may head for the court challenging the entire admission process. If that happens the admission into this tertiary institution may be delayed.”

Defending the new policy, JAMB spokesperson Dr Benjamin Fabian said: “Candidates’ first choice can be a college, university, innovative enterprises institution [IEI] or polytechnic/monotechnic. However, if a candidate makes a public university his first choice, he will not have any public university to choose for the second, third and fourth choice. He will have only the remaining three choices: a college, a polytechnic, a private university or an IEI.”

Expanding opportunities

Explaining the rationale, he said: “The board hinged the restructuring on the need to expand the opportunities available to candidates as almost all the public universities do not consider candidates on the second choice because they hardly exhaust their first choice.”

Public reaction to the move has seen the New Independence Group, or NIG, an advocacy group within Nigeria’s education sector, raise doubts about who benefits from it.

In an opinion piece headed “JAMB exploitative alliance with private universities”, NIG coordinator Professor Akinyemi Onigbinde argued that the main beneficiaries of this new regulation would be proprietors of private universities.

“The NIG considers as dangerous, defeatist and deceitful the decision by JAMB to shrink the space for the hundreds of thousands of admission seekers by reducing the number of public universities that can be chosen to just one. This measure will not only fail to address the problem as identified by JAMB, but also deepen it.

“We wish to emphasise that this decision is not only a product of lateral thinking on the part of the examination body, but also a deceitful ploy to deprive Nigerian children the opportunity to public education. At the heart of the current decision is a sinister plot to mask the interest of a few at the expense of the public. The NIG believes, and very strongly too, that this decision by JAMB is solely to the benefit of private universities,” Onigbinde said.

Bias towards private universities

According to Onigbinde the carrying capacity allotted yearly by JAMB to private universities is 30,000. Despite the lingering economic recession, government continues to give licences to more private universities, he said.

He said a few years ago, several candidates who did not apply to private universities received unsolicited admissions via letters and SMSs from many of these private universities.

He said in 2015, only about 2% of applicants chose private universities.

“What the recent policy of JAMB is likely to achieve … is to shore up patronage for the private universities as opportunities get reduced for those who would have loved to apply to public schools,” he wrote.

Since the publication of the opinion piece by Onigbinde there has been no reaction from JAMB.

However, public debate and comment has been lively. In an editorial published on 6 April, the Tribune, one of Nigeria’s influential daily tabloids, wrote: “It is indeed shocking that JAMB would seek to compel candidates to make private universities their second choice, while most Nigerian parents cannot afford to send their children to these universities."

‘Insensitivity and illegitimacy’

“It would be naïve to assume that candidates opt to study in the public universities because they are unaware of the opportunities awaiting them in the private universities. While the poor student population in the private universities is a matter for urgent concern, there are arguably a number of options open to them to reverse the situation, including mergers and tailoring their charges to the socioeconomic realities in the country. JAMB’s new admission policy smacks of insensitivity and illegitimacy and should be abandoned forthwith," said the Tribune editorial.

Niyi Akinnaso, a Nigerian professor of anthropology at Temple State University, Philadelphia, who is also a regular PUNCH columnist, wrote in a recent blog titled “Resolving the controversy over JAMB” that JAMB's recent reforms proposed by the agency were untenable and unsustainable.

“It is clear … that none of the reforms undertaken so far by JAMB has produced satisfactory results, partly because the scope of its assignment is beyond its capacity and partly because the board truly cannot reform itself. The reform that is needed should not be limited to how business is conducted by JAMB. It should start with what business is conducted by JAMB.”

Drawing inspiration from the US Scholastic Achievement Test or SAT, an equivalent of Nigeria’s JAMB, Akinnaso said JAMB should limit its role to conducting the annual entrance examination. JAMB had no business issuing admission letters, he said.

Akinnaso said the results of the common entrance examination should be sent to all Nigerian tertiary institutions with the latter being left to decide, without any external pressure, their admission criteria. Candidates should be allowed to apply to as many universities as possible, he said. No candidate should be compelled to choose any tertiary institution.

“A candidate should be admitted to as many universities as possible … Readers will recall the recent cases of various Nigerian teenagers, each of whom was admitted to eight and more top American universities. Among them was the spectacular case of Serena Omo-Lamai of Dowen College in Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria, who was admitted to 13 universities in the United States and Canada”, he said.