Commission takes hard line against ‘illegal’ institutions

Taking a hard line against 58 institutions – in Nigeria and neighbouring countries – that it considers 'illegal', the National Universities Commission (NUC) of Nigeria recently warned that any certificates obtained from such institutions will not be recognised for the purposes of national youth service, employment or further study.

According to an NUC bulletin released on 14 May, eight other universities are still under investigation with regard to some courses that are apparently not approved by the NUC.

“For the avoidance of doubt, anybody who patronises or obtains any certificates from these illegal institutions does so at his or her risk. Relevant security agencies have been informed to take necessary action,” says the NUC statement.

In an interview with national tabloid Premium Times, Ibrahim Yakasai, deputy director of information and public relations, warned that the crackdown on illegal universities would not stop.

“We shall continue publishing the list of illegal universities so they do not resurface elsewhere. If we stopped publishing their names, they could move to other parts of the country and start operating,” said Yakasai.

Persistent list entry

A persistent entry on the list of illegal universities is that of Houdegbe North American University in Benin (HNAUB), situated some 60 kilometres from the Nigerian border. Founded in 1997, HNAUB is a bilingual university recognised by the government of Benin. About 90% of enrolled students are Nigerians, according to reports.

Since 2015, there has been endless controversy between the two countries over the legal status of the university and the NUC has repeatedly warned Nigerians not to patronise the institution.
Yakasai has said the NUC cannot “vouch for its quality”.

“We have made persistent efforts to undertake fact-finding visits to the university. Our efforts were frustrated by HNAUB authorities. We have a right to say that it is not a recognised university [in terms of] the rules and regulations of NUC,” he said.

In a 2015 report in a local Nigerian newspaper, the Benin university authorities rejected all the NUC’s warnings to students seeking admission to the university.

“The issue of unethical practices as alleged by NUC was not different from the age-old conflict mentality and philosophical orientation between Anglophone and Francophone countries. The difference does not connote bad, or inferior and substandard.

“We are as mindful of quality assurance as the NUC might claim to be in its mission, but … we believe this is better realised through mutual respect and cooperation among supervisory regulators, instead of the aggressive, imperialist and grand-standing posture of the NUC which negates Nigeria’s leadership and responsibilities.”

There is a growing interest among Nigerians in university education which has become both a culture and an investment. Every year about 1.7 million young school leavers apply and sit for the Joint Admissions Matriculation Board examinations for entry into university. Less than 700,000 of candidates secure admission into approved private and public tertiary institutions.

Rejected students have two options: to resit the JAMB exams the next year or find admission into those so-called illegal universities in Nigeria or institutions along the coast of West Africa. There are very few who can afford to study beyond the continent.

Many of those who enrol in 'illegal' universities therefore have very little choice and are simply desperate for the benefits of a university education.

Calls to rethink the decision

On this basis, Dr Toyin Enikuomehin, a programmer in the department of computer science at Lagos State University, said the NUC should rethink its decision to shut down the 'illegal' universities and should instead invite them to a roundtable conference and suggest that they all agree to the establishment of vocational centres, with a view to giving students an opportunity to combine vocational skills and a normal university career.

“Another issue connected to the problem is the necessity to diversify the philosophy and vision of our tertiary education in compliance with the demands of the 21st century governed by knowledge economy. This applies to all African countries. We must acknowledge that we cannot continue to do the same thing and expect different results. Africa must invest in education and vocational training so that our youth have alternatives,” said Enikuomehin.

On the plight of the students in the illegal universities, former NUC executive secretary Peter A Okebukola said his view was that the students were “free to seek admissions” elsewhere in recognised universities and “may have to suffer the consequence of their choice of illegal universities for their undergraduate study”.

He said the names of all universities approved by the NUC were in the public domain to protect people from making mistakes.

Asked how the NUC could prevent the phenomenon of illegal universities, he said the NUC had implemented a very robust monitoring system to detect the existence of illegal universities, and was working with relevant law-enforcement authorities to ensure that unscrupulous persons do not “walk the ignominious path” of starting and running illegal universities.

He said the NUC was also embarking on an intense public enlightenment campaign on illegal universities and was drawing the attention of prospective candidates and their parents to the approved list of universities in Nigeria.

Staff views

Professor Abdukadir Abdul-Rahaman, a member of the education foundation department at Nasarawa State University, said it was not unexpected that Nigeria would have such a high number of illegal universities. “The fundamental questions are: Who are the owners of the universities? Have they produced graduates? Those in charge of the education system in Nigeria should be held responsible,” he said.

Professor Yemi Agundoko, a member of the economics department at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, said it was not the first time that the country was dealing with illegal university centres. “Nigeria has a complex, dysfunctional system and this is one of the manifestations of a backward social order.”

Professor Ogunyemi Adeleke, of the sociology department at University of Nigeria Nsukka, claimed that illegal universities were owned mainly by those who had acquired wealth illegally and were setting up institutions as a means of “investing their toxic money”.

“Which serious country would have this number of illegal universities? The National Universities Commission of Nigeria has failed,” he said.

Dr Akhaga Apoi, an academic in the political science department at the University of Uyo, blamed the situation on education policy conceptualised by the World Bank and accepted by the Nigerian state, which he said had partly encouraged the emergence of private universities. “The Nigerian state has no global and coherent plan for citizens. Thus, the education space is at the hands of profiteers who consider tertiary education as a commercial and profit-making venture,” Apoi said.