Commission looks at 270 private university applications

A potential jump in the number of universities in Nigeria has been applauded by several academics, but they cautioned that standards must not be compromised as the National Universities Commission (NUC) considers licence applications from 270 new privately owned higher education institutions.

Scholars are also positive that foreign universities such as the London Academy Business School and the University of Sunderland, both based in the United Kingdom, which are planning to have campuses in Nigeria, can promote healthy competition and boost the quality of education and research output.

Each year, the number of candidates applying for higher education in Nigeria is higher than the available capacity. Out of 1.8 million candidates who applied in 2022, about 600,000 (representing 33.3%) were admitted, according to the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board that conducts tertiary entrance exams.

The majority of the candidates prefer relatively affordable government-run tertiary institutions, but many, who could not secure admission, eventually settle for private institutions.

Transnational education

At present, Nigeria has 270 universities, out of which 148, or 54.8%, are private. Although some experts have argued that private institutions are expanding access to the education system, demands for higher education still outweigh the available spaces.

At a British Council workshop in Abuja on 12 October, NUC Executive Secretary Dr Chris Maiyaki said that 270 private universities have applied for licences and that the commission is set to institutionalise transnational education in Nigeria.

He said the NUC recently drafted guidelines on transnational education “under which foreign universities are now at liberty to come and contribute and be active players in providing and expanding access to university education”.

“In spite of having 270 universities in the country and [while we are] still working on expanding universities, the commission has [received] over 270 applications for new private universities,” Maiyaki said.

Chikodi Onyemerela, the director of programmes at the British Council, pointed out that transnational education has become a crucial component of higher education. This is as a result of globalisation and digital technologies that have made it simpler for institutions to operate across borders.

“In a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected, the concept of education transcending borders is of paramount importance. Transnational education partnerships are a powerful tool in bridging geographical, cultural and educational divides,” he added.

Why Nigeria needs more universities

Professor Yakubu Ochefu, the secretary general of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, told University World News university enrolment in Nigeria is remarkably low. It sits at about 8%, below the African average of 13% and the global average of 33%.

“The way to look at the number of universities is by looking at the higher education participation index which is the number of students eligible to go for higher education vis-à-vis the number of institutions available. When you look at the number of people who sit for entrance examinations and are qualified to go to universities, how many of them can the available spaces absorb?

“Even though Nigeria has the highest number of universities in Africa, it is not enough as far as the population index is concerned. Most of the first-generation universities cannot expand; they don’t have enough carrying capacity,” Ochefu said in response to the proposed 270 new private universities, but adding that more than half of them may end up not meeting the requirements.

He explained that privately run schools have raised the bar of excellence, with some of them displacing first-generation universities run by the federal government in the global ranking.

For instance, privately owned Covenant University in Ogun State, Nigeria’s south-west, ranks first nationally and in the 801-1000 band globally alongside the University of Ibadan (Nigeria’s premier university) in the 2024 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

“Private universities are niche educational providers and they are meant for those who can afford it. When you look at the ranking of universities globally, you will realise that some private universities are ranked among the top 10 universities in Nigeria even though they are less than 25 years old. That tells you the quality of education they provide,” noted Ochefu.

“As for the foreign universities, if we can have them here, it will help reduce the high number of Nigerians who are travelling abroad to study,” he added.

Professor Stanley Aibieyi, the head of the public administration department at the University of Benin in Edo State, agreed that proliferation of private universities cannot hurt the system, provided there is the wherewithal to run them.

“If we have many private universities, there will be competition and the school fees will go down in the long run. However, universities should not be approved for private individuals or bodies that are not capable [of delivering quality education],” he told University World News.

Aibieyi, however, expressed worry that the government is not doing enough to sustain its existing tertiary institutions in terms of funding, while it keeps licensing private universities.

Charity Onye Aremu, a professor of agriculture and immediate past vice-chancellor of Landmark University in Kwara State, said many private universities are well-equipped and well-structured, thanks to proper funding, unlike government-run schools.

Enabling informed choices

Aremu believes that the more universities are established, including foreign ones, the better for applicants to make informed choices on schools that can offer the kind of quality education they desire.

“If we want our Nigerian students to be able to withstand the competitive demand, especially when it comes to internationalisation, transnational higher education is a welcome development.

“Do our federal universities have all it takes to be placed globally? But when we have those [foreign] universities here, they will be able to teach us how to match up with the global expectations in terms of producing high-quality graduates and research,” she said.

But Aibieyi is unsure about whether foreign universities will add any significant value to the country’s higher educational system.

“I don’t think they will add much value because they will likely use the local manpower to run the universities. Some of us will be recruited part-time to teach in those universities. But if they are bringing their staff, it will breathe freshness into the system and add value,” he said.