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Re-thinking Our University Education System

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The recent decision by the federal government to establish six more 'specialised' federal universities in each of the six geopolitical zones in the country, has made headlines. According to Kenneth Gbagi, minister of state for education, who made the announcement, full academic activities will commence in the new universities in September next year.   It was reported that the federal government would make available the sum of ten billion Naira for the start of the new universities.

  Julius Okojie, the executive secretary of the National Universities' Commission and chairman of the committee that worked on the modalities for establishing the new institutions , said the new universities would expand access to university education in the country, pointing out that out of over 1.3 million candidates that sit for university entrance examinations every year, only about 300,000 are eventually admitted. Nigeria currently has 27 federal-owned universities, 35 state government-owned universities and 41 private universities. The proposed new universities, said Okojie, would be sited within states that do no already have federal universities.  

  The proposal for the new universities raises fundamental issues about our university education system:

  One, it will seem that not much meticulous planning went into the conception and actualization of the new universities. From the report by Next newspaper of 17 November 2010, it would seem that it took less than a week between the time a committee was set up and mandated to 'work out modalities for establishing the new universities' and the time the committee submitted its recommendations, raising questions about how thorough it was in its assignment, or whether it was merely set up to rubber stamp a decision that had already been taken apriori.   We were also told the new universities would take off in September next year and that they would be built from scratch. This means in essence that it will have taken less than one year to conceive, construct, equip and recruit competent staff to run these universities. There is certainly a smell of undue haste in all these - which is of course not helped by the rather suspicious decision to site two of the new universities in the home states of the President and the Education minister respectively.

  Two, though one of the formal rationales for the establishment of the new universities - the need to expand access to students - makes sense, it is not at all clear that establishing new universities is the best way of doing this. Wouldn't the same objective be achieved if some of the existing universities were funded to expand their student intake? And if there must be additional universities, why must they be built from scratch when it will be cheaper for some polytechnics or colleges of education to be upgraded to degree awarding institutions and given a face-lift? More importantly, at a time when the quality of our university education is at its lowest ebb, what will be the interface between expanding access and further lowering the quality of students admitted into our universities? It would appear that by taking what seems to be a hasty decision to set up these universities, and with a take-off budget of only ten billion Naira, the government may have unwittingly exposed itself as part of the problems of our university education system.

  Three, the problems of our university education system are multifarious, of which access is only one of them. The declining quality of university education correlates with the sharp fall in the quality of the secondary education system that feeds into it. In this sense, the poor quality of our university education cannot be fixed independent of the quality of our secondary education system. Obviously the declining quality of our university education is worsened by incessant strikes, poorly motivated lecturers and corruption and sexual harassment within the academia. We cannot solve the problems of our university education system simply by an unbridled expansion of access. Competition for access to available spaces at universities is in fact one of the ways of ensuring that the quality of university education remains high. Democratising access such that any one who wants admission gets it as Mr Gbagi implied (as opposed to anyone who deserves admission) negates the role of relatively high entrance barrier in guaranteeing quality.     The challenge of course has always been how to provide access to as many students as deserve it without diluting the need to maintain high entrance barriers so that only those who can, and truly deserve it, get admitted

  Four, a fundamental aspect of the need to re-think our university education system is the urgency of interrogating the notion of our universities as 'Ivory Towers'. There is a need for a re-conceptualization of our universities away from 'Ivory Towers' to our universities as conscious agents of development. In the notion of universities as 'Ivory Towers', there is often a tendency for knowledge to be pursued, created, or distributed just for its   own sake rather than for such knowledge to be attuned to the immediate needs and developmental aspirations of the society. In our type of society, with its monumental development challenges, the notion of universities as 'Ivory Towers', is a luxury we cannot afford. Our universities need to go beyond their traditional roles and become 'developmental universities'. In a 'developmental university' for instance, teaching and research are organised in such a way as to consciously meet the developmental needs of the country. A 'developmental university' uses its enrolment procedures and its shared intellectual and cultural environments to consciously promote the goal of nation building, economic development and graduate employment.  

  Five, another area of our university education that cries out for urgent reform is the unnecessarily long number of years spent in pursuing some degree and diploma programmes. Why should it for instance take six years to produce a law graduate and five years to produce an engineering graduate in Nigeria when it takes only three years or less to produce similar graduates in most other countries? What is the sub-text here? That Nigerians are slow learners?  Unfortunately in an increasingly competitive international labour market where age is often a big issue, Nigerian graduates are being unnecessarily disadvantaged. There is also an urgent need for the introduction of conversion programmes as we have in many countries. In the UK for instance, a non-graduate in law who wants to become a lawyer can opt to do a one year conversion programme in law and will be deemed to have satisfied the academic stage of legal training if he successfully completes such a programme. In Nigeria such a graduate will be required to spend another four to five years.  

  In conclusion, the idea of establishing six more federal universities seems hastily conceived, and oozes of political agenda. In this sense, what will ordinarily have been a good idea risks compounding the problems of university education system.  

Jideofor Adibe