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While the licensing of private universities has brought about an explosion in the number of universities, this has not been able to solve the problem of access. But Professor Ebong Thomas Eshett, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, academics, Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), says increasing the number of universities will not solve the problem.

He told Education Review in this interview conducted in Abuja that until facilities in existing universities are expanded the problem of access will remain. Eshett, who will be completing his second term as DVC this month also assessed the first 50 years of post-independence tertiary education in the country and insists that quality education holds the key to Nigeria's economic emancipation, including the attainment of the Vision 2020-20 initiative. Above all, he talked about what can be done to end the frequent ASUU strikes, including the current one that has paralysed academic activities in universities in the South East. Excerpts:

Can you look at the education sector these past 50 years?

Well, we've made tremendous progress politically, socially, economically and otherwise. I can say we have every reason to thank God for keeping us an entity in spite of so many obstacles, so many shortcomings. We have managed to exist as one united nation, and we are still forging ahead. Nigeria has well over 100 universities. Many of the states are struggling to establish their own universities, apart from the federal universities, and many philanthropic and well-to-do Nigerians are also establishing private universities. All these, I believe, are part of the effort to give Nigerians education. The teeming youths are all clamouring to get university education, and it's a good thing for a country to be able to train its citizens. The best that any country can do is to be able to give education to its citizens because education is the hallmark of development. It is the channel for this country to attain the much-desired status of being one of the largest economies of the world by 2020. I think we are moving in that direction, we have large number of educated workforce. But I want to say that proliferation of universities may not be the answer to our problems because many of these universities lack facilities and also lack manpower.

What I can suggest is that we expand the existing universities and also try to equip them to world standard to enable the universities to deliver. We should stop at the number we have attained; I think we have more than enough. What we need is to be able to develop the existing ones, to expand them and give them the capacity to absorb the large number of Nigerian youths that are eagerly waiting for university education.

But we still have a problem of access to university education

It does not help us to establish so many universities. What will help us is to expand existing ones, increase the number of programmes and improve the environment for teaching, learning and research. That way, each university will be able to admit many more students than they are doing right now. The reason for our not being able to admit many students is the fact that the facilities are limited. In most universities, the laboratories are nothing more than mere secondary school laboratories. But if government, both state and federal, as well as private proprietors of the universities address the problem of expansion; build more hostels, laboratories and classrooms, then many more students can be admitted. For example, in my own university, Federal University of Technology, Owerri, we have not admitted more than 3,500 per session in the last two years, which is a very sad episode. We have well over 27,000 candidates that take our aptitude test and government said, don't admit more than 3,500 students because of the carrying capacity and the fact that the facilities are not enough to cope with the number of students that would ordinarily have been admitted. So if we expand our facilities, if we expand the resources for teaching and learning and research, then we will be in a better position to absorb; we can absorb up to 7,000 students per session if we expand the existing facilities; the same thing with other universities.

But most of the new universities are being funded with private resources, so if you say don't license more universities, and the money is in private hands, how are you sure it will benefit education?

Our major problem in this country is that Nigerians are not good at pumping money into major ventures like education. But they will pump money into politics where they know they can easily reap. But elsewhere, private entrepreneurs, philanthropists pump a lot of money into education, and they don't expect any dividend to come into their pockets. They simply want the money to go into the development of human capital; that is very encouraging. We need to educate our own well-to-do Nigerians to begin to emulate their counterparts in the developed world.

The Rockefeller Foundation and a host of others pump a lot of money into education, their own personal resources to develop the world, to develop human capital without looking for something in return. That's what we have to do in this country, and we have lots and lots of Nigerians who have more than enough money to pump into university education without necessarily looking for profit in terms of naira and kobo returning to their pockets. So many Nigerians appear richer than the nation. Where is that money kept? It's kept in foreign banks, and it is of no use to this nation. If we are able to educate well-to-do Nigerians on the need to plow their resources into education, it will help this nation in the long run, and I don't encourage these private people to continue to build private universities because their own school fees and other charges are extremely high beyond the reach of ordinary Nigerians. They can plough that money into existing federal and state universities.

Should we not be worried that no Nigerian university is ranked among the first 100 in Africa?

We should. It was not the case 30-40 years ago. University of Ibadan, for example, was a standard university that was reckoned with in the world, and we had many foreign nationals who were part of the academic staff. But over the years, the standard has fallen because the country has relegated education to the background. We have not given education the deserved prominence. You see that academic staff have been fighting; government has not been able to ensure that enough resources are pumped into the sector. For instance, UNESCO says at least 26 per cent of national budget should be allocated to education. In Nigeria we have not attained even up to 12 per cent. That is the reason for the constant ASUU strike. The strike is very altruistic, to ensure that government rises to its responsibility in funding education. Without that being done, we won't be able to move into the rank of the first 500 or 1000 in the world. We are working towards that; many of our universities are driving gradually towards that. The Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, University of Ibadan, University of Nigeria Nsukka, Federal University of Technology, Owerri, are all working towards attaining the status in the next five years.

We know the statistics used in these rankings, one of which is that we must be able to let people know our productivity. We have not been able to let the world know what we have been able to achieve in terms of research. Many of our professors don't bother to put their research findings in the internet, and those who do the ranking don't go to individual universities; they look at statistics from the internet. So we have realized this, and many of us are trying to see that our modest achievements are made known to the outside world.

Are you aware that Nigerians are pouring billions into the Ghanaian economy every year to get quality university education for their children?

Yes, and I want to say that we are to blame. Some years back, the streets of towns and villages of Nigeria were flooded by Ghanaians. The Ghanaian government sat down and took a hard look at their socio-economic situation and decided to reorder their priorities and give education its proper place. They have planned their economy, and they are very faithful, very committed, very sincere, and politics in Ghana has taken the right direction. They have minimized the incidence of corruption, and they have been able to improve university education. That is why I agree with you, many Nigerians send their children to Ghana to study in their universities, and that is a big irony. We have no other choice than to sit down and reorder our priorities. We have to go back to the drawing board and see whether we can reverse the trend whereby both our best brains are going to Ghana and South Africa to offer or get quality services. If we are able to sit down and reorder our priorities and re-plan our education system, I think it is not impossible for us to get back to the good old days when some of our universities were the hub of knowledge and the cynosure of other nations. Other nations came to benefit from our education. We have many nationals in the universities in this country. Nowadays, only few foreign nationals are in our universities. For example in FUTO, we have just a few of them. But in Ibadan, I was trained in Ibadan, in those days, we had many foreign nationals who were studying in the University of Ibadan because they saw that as a standard university. We have lost opportunity over the years because of military rule and because of undue emphasis being given to politics which we have not been able to fashion in a proper manner. We have to go back to the drawing table and refashion our system.

What is happening to the universities in the South-East? Everybody appears to be keeping quiet.

Well, I want to say that I am not very competent to talk on that because I have played my own role as an activist, as ASUU chairman for many years in my university. I am now on the other side, but that doesn't mean I have no sympathy for my colleagues. The fact is that an agreement had been reached, and this agreement is binding on the parties. But few state-owned universities, particularly in the South-East, have refused to accept the agreement, and have repudiated it. They say they will not be able to pay, but ASUU feels there are enough resources available to the governments of the states of South-East for them to pay. If they don't do so, the danger is that there could be a drift of academic staff from these universities to the federal institutions. And the agreement was that these state governments should do their best to implement the agreement, and a good number of them are implementing it. It is rather embarrassing and shameful that it is only our South-East governors that are finding it difficult to implement. We are pleading that it is in the best interest of education, being the largest industry of this particular part of the country.

It is in the best interest of the government to struggle and implement the same way as other state governments are doing, why can't they also do the same? They can also pay these lecturers so that they can remain on their jobs in those universities; otherwise those universities can be destroyed by massive exodus of lecturers. It is very possible for other universities to absorb those lecturers. So it is my plea as a former chairman of ASUU and as a deputy vice-chancellor, someone who is in the system that they should do their best to implement. Sometimes it is not that people are not able to implement, it is just that they feel that lecturers should not enjoy improved conditions of service. Sometimes it is out of a desire to look down on university teachers. But they forget that education is easily the most tasking, the most demanding profession. It is from education that senators and governors and members of the Houses of Assembly and permanent secretaries are produced. Once people know this, there will be no limits to which government could go to make teachers at all levels happy.