Go beyond managing disruptions and overhaul the whole sector

As students of government-owned higher institutions continue to bear the brunt of the industrial action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) of Nigeria, no end seems to be in sight to the perennial labour conflict problem whose cost in both human and material terms is better imagined than listed.

However, rather tellingly, all the moves by stakeholders, including religious and traditional rulers, seem to be targeted at breaking the impasse and getting the university lecturers back to the classroom, rather than finding a permanent and workable solution to this perennial problem.

Additionally, it is unfortunate that the two sides to this imbroglio have different, if not contradictory, ideas as to how best to solve this problem. It is a case of “my way or no way”. Both sides also claim to be patriotic in their stance. How long this problem will last – going back and forth – is anyone’s guess.

Fundamental issues

There are two fundamental issues in higher education as a working system which stakeholders in Nigeria and many African nations fail to understand. First is the recognition of higher education as an independent area of study, research and professional practice, just like medicine, engineering and others.

This implies that there is gap in understanding the problems and challenges which require people with higher education training and expertise to provide solutions to the problems and challenges.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in Nigeria, which does not have any policy for promoting higher education research as a field of study. There is no existing body established by the government to provide research-based evidence to guide higher education policy enactments and implementation. At best, ad hoc committee recommendations serve these purposes.

Secondly, Nigeria has continued to mistake research skills for leadership skills. In higher education, being an excellent researcher is entirely different from being a good academic leader. Therefore, the country has to understand the imperative of taking into account the importance of higher education leadership training.

Higher education leadership is of strategic importance for the growth and overall development of nations. It is an essential safeguard against the many challenges that confront societies.

Without the necessary standards for higher education leaders, there will be a continuous mismatch of roles, preventing the growth and development of the higher education system in Nigeria. Admittedly, the ASUU crisis today is centred on aspects of governance and employee relations.

The present situation in the university system is reason enough for the country to have an extensive institutionalisation of higher education leadership training, guided by skilled experts capable of motivating others to pursue their institutional and national goals at large.

Whatever the case, it is a known fact that the graduates being churned out by our ivory towers are mostly unable to meet the demands of both public and private employers. It is, therefore, high time a permanent solution is found to the ASUU problem.

Countries Nigerians look up to as role models

There are several examples around the world with regard to how the higher education system operates. The Malaysian higher education system is among the most respected in developing countries. Significantly, they keep tweaking the system for it to remain competitive, despite the significant achievements it recorded in the past.

Through the Malaysia Education Development Plan 2015-25, the country is seeking to make more gains globally on key issues such as research publications, patents and institutional quality, as well as becoming a top destination for international students.

Interestingly, bear in mind that Nigeria and Malaysia started their higher education systems more or less at the same time. In Nigeria, the University College Ibadan was established in 1948. The University of Malaya was established by the British in 1949 with campuses in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Undoubtedly, Malaysia is one of the countries that Nigerians look up to in terms of ways to learn, adapt and adopt higher education.

This is evidenced in the thousands of scholars and academics sent by the Nigerian government to pursue their masters and PhDs in various fields of study in Malaysia, as well as the number of memorandums of understanding and engagement between Malaysian and Nigerian universities.

Who may contribute to the Nigerian system?

Despite staying abroad and unsuccessfully calling on Nigerian stakeholders to establish a National Higher Education Research Institute, I ended up seeing how I could contribute back home in my individual capacity.

In order to give back to the community and promote essential higher education research in Nigeria for national and regional development, I founded the Nigerian Society for Higher Education Research and Development (NSHERD) and the Nigerian (Apex) Institute for Higher Education Research and Development (NIHERD).

I have also continuously called for the establishment of a higher education leadership framework. This was because of the absolute necessity to have Nigerian higher institutional and academic leaders who understand the need for leadership within their institutions, in particular during difficult times such as the ongoing strike.

This is, however, not an established practice or type of structure in many developing countries. However, no single framework has been put in place by the agencies and organisations responsible for implementing and overseeing the governance of higher education as a benchmark for appointing higher institutions and academic leaders.

I consequently established the Higher Education Leadership and Development Academy Nigeria (HELDAN). All three organisations were duly approved and licensed by the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Federal Ministry of Education, the Federal Ministry of Justice, as well as the Corporate Affairs Commission.

I also founded the 10 Higher Education Research Clusters in Nigeria, which will become operational in the near future. Jointly, these will form the first platform of its kind to bring various scholars of interest together to research higher education in Nigeria.

As part of my work to elevate the study and discourse about higher education, I also founded The Nigerian Higher Education Magazine, the first educationally focused newspaper in the country, and the Nigerian Journal of Higher Education Research and Development.

Although I work in Malaysia, I am hoping that I will be able to continue to actively contribute individually – as a scholar – to the well-being of the higher education system in my home country, Nigeria.

But, for now, Nigerian stakeholders in the university sector have to go beyond managing disruptions on its academic calendar in the short term, as represented by the ongoing strike by ASUU and industrial actions by other stakeholders, and holistically overhaul the education sector in the interest of nation-building and for the benefit of generations yet unborn.

Muhammad Muftahu holds both a masters and PhD in educational leadership and management with training and expertise in higher education. He is presently the Acting director and coordinator of the Global Higher Education Network (GHEN) at the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). He can be contacted on

This blog was updated on 17 October 2022.