Why do politicians want to create more universities?

Despite the huge shortfall in budgetary allocation and in actual funding for education at both state and federal levels in Nigeria, the proliferation of public universities has continued and has been identified as a setback for the development of the tertiary education sector.

Nigeria has 49 federal universities (including defence and police academies), 57 state-run universities and 111 private universities. According to estimates, over 90% of the country’s students are in the public system.

But, due to the years of neglect and the failure of the federal government to honour its agreement with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the universities remained poorly funded.

The situation is evidenced in dilapidated infrastructure, poorly equipped laboratories, non-payment of lecturers’ earned allowances and a lack of funds for research and essential services, and the union has been on strike since 14 February 2022.

Sadly, between 1999, when Nigeria reverted to democracy, and June 2022, the universities have been shut for 1,404 days owing to the strike following the union’s demand for improved funding.

Despite this shortage, however, the government has continued to create universities, spurred on by federal lawmakers and certain parties in government who want public universities in their constituencies.

Universities as constituency projects

In recent years, senators and members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives have sponsored bills to seek the establishment of public universities in their respective communities which, according to educationalists, is merely a ploy to endear them to their constituents.

For example, on Wednesday 20 July 2022, the senator representing Abia North Senatorial District at the Senate, Orji Uzor Kalu, presented a bill before the national assembly seeking the establishment of a federal university in his state, Abia. The state currently has six universities.

The bill, titled ‘A bill for an act to provide for the establishment of Federal University of Medical Sciences and Biomedical Technology, Umunna, Abia State’, was adopted for first reading.

Among several other examples, a three-term deputy president of the senate and serving senator, Ike Ekweremadu, presented a bill before the senate for the establishment of a university of agriculture in his community of Mpu in Enugu state. In February 2022, the senate passed the bill, even though the state currently has six universities.

In total, 63 new universities are envisaged.

The former president of ASUU, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, warned against this trend as far back as 2017. At the time, he said in an interview that: “A state governor that cannot fund one university is establishing three. What happens is that the state government would find it difficult to fund the university.

“I will give you the example of Ondo state. It used to have one, but now it has three universities. In the three universities, staff’s salaries are in arrears. Governors have turned university education into a constituency project. It’s like a project you bring back to your constituency when you have gone to serve. So, it is political.”

Eighteen universities in five years

Meanwhile, no fewer than 18 universities have been established across the states within the past five years. In addition, between June 2019 and March 2022, 186 bills had been initiated for the creation of new universities, most of which are under consideration.

In 2021 alone, four federal universities and four state universities were established. While the federal government created the federal universities through an act of parliament, the states created the state universities through an act of their respective houses of assembly.

In 2020, two federal universities and two state universities were also established. In 2019, two state universities were established while, in 2018, three federal universities and one state university were established.

In March 2021, the national assembly proposed the establishment of 235 new universities. In response, Ogunyemi faulted the move, saying the government often cut funding of the universities after they had been established, leaving them to struggle for survival and academic relevance.

“It is ridiculous and unimaginable that our lawmakers could contemplate such a scandalous increase in the number of tertiary institutions in one fell swoop. It goes on to buttress what we have been saying that Nigerian politicians are proliferating tertiary institutions, not because they acknowledge education as a tool for national development, but because they see those institutions as projects to appease their constituents.”

Ogunyemi explained that a visit to the federal and state universities in Nigeria today would show that most of the capital projects, like lecture theatres, laboratories, libraries and administrative buildings, were either funded by the government’s Tertiary Education Trust Fund, or TETF, or revitalisation fund, both of which ASUU fought for through its endless strike actions.

With more universities, it means any funds budgeted for the education sector would be shared by more institutions.

Why the proliferation?

While the lawmakers who often propose the new universities argue that the creation of more universities would help to boost human capital development and increase access to education, existing universities in the country rarely meet the quota allocated to them.

Even though there is some support for the idea that Nigeria needed more universities, the student quotas allocated to them are hardly filled. In the 2020-21 academic year, for example, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) disclosed that 179,330 admission quotas or places were not filled by tertiary institutions.

JAMB revealed in its information that 601,775 admission quotas were allotted to universities, comprising 259,292 quotas for federal universities, 221,545 quotas for state universities, and 120,938 for private universities. At the end of the exercise, 179,330 quotas were not filled.

JAMB registrar Professor Ishaq Oloyede, said there were various reasons for the unfilled quotas or places, including the wrong O-level or school-leaving subjects combinations, low post-unified tertiary matriculation examination screening scores and problems related to the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, or UTME.

In Nigeria, for instance, the UTME is the single examination for entry into universities, polytechnics, monotechnics and colleges of education, and candidates are not allowed to choose more than two universities out of the four spaces available. But some candidates could take three or even four universities. If it’s more than two, it would be classified as a mismatch. This implies that the number of universities is not the problem with the unfilled places.

Meanwhile, despite the proliferation, most Nigerian universities do not compete among the best on the African continent and globally. For example, in the Best Global Universities ranking, only the University of Ibadan, established in 1948, made the list of first 40, whereas South Africa, which has only 26 public universities located across its nine provinces, has 14 of its universities among the best 40, including the first four on the list.

Also, Egypt, which has only 20 public universities, has three among the best 40 in Africa. Even though South Africa and Egypt are smaller in terms of population, Nigeria has the biggest economy on the continent and should have a better-funded education system.

In the 2022 Webometrics ranking of African universities, the first Nigerian university is the University of Ibadan, at number 21 (and number 1,207 in the world), followed by Covenant University, a private university, at number 25 (and number 1,353 in the world) while the third is Obafemi Awolowo University, at number 26 (and number 1,385 in the world).

Urgent need for funding

Education experts and the ASUU have argued that what the Nigerian educational system needs is increased funding and not more universities.

In the interview last year, also responding to plans to add 235 institutions, Ogunyemi said: “It is sad that the same legislators who cannot push for raising budgetary allocations to education in the last six years and were watching as what goes into the sector slid from 10% to about 6% in 2021 could contemplate flooding the country’s landscape with as many as 235 new tertiary institutions.”

Clearly, the education sector at both federal and state levels is poorly funded, a fact that is tied to the ASUU’s incessant strike action. And the poor funding has its roots in low budgetary allocation.

In the current financial year (2022), the federal government allocated a paltry NGN923.7 billion (US$2.2 billion) out of the NGN17.1 trillion total budget for education. As a characteristic of budgeting in Nigeria, most of the funds go into recurrent expenditure while a fraction goes into the capital expenditure needed to improve the sector.

In 2021, the federal government budgeted NGN742.5 billion for education out of the total budget of NGN13.6 trillion, which amounts to 5.4%. In 2021, the education allocation was 5.5%; in 2020, 4.2%; 8.4% in 2019, 7% in 2018 and, in 2017, 6.1% of the total budget.

Education experts have advised that, rather than establishing more universities and spending scarce resources on take-off grants, the government should invest in the existing universities.

The incumbent president of the ASUU, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, said earlier this year: “We do not have up to 100,000 lecturers in Nigerian universities, there is a brain drain. Lecturers are leaving because of unfair treatment, and they will continue to leave until the government does the right thing by making sure that adequate funds are released into the university system.”