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MY AGENDA FOR CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY - PROF. KER, V.C

By NBF News
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The Veritas (Catholic) University, Obehie in Ukwa West, Abia State campus is bad news to any student whose main desire is to party not study. It is a bad news for the block head whose parents send to study but prefers to engage in the defeatist and visionless pass of cultism while the young girl who wants to use her educational center as a contact address for prostitution will need to look elsewhere.

The university is a bad news to them because the environment is so academically friendly to an extend that sending a student whose main youthful desire is anything out side study will be equivalent to sending a rich man to jail. There is no room for bad friends or bad influence, the space is wide to contain National Stadium Abuja, but not wide enough to contain the latest automobile of 'sugar daddies'.

This university was founded by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria through a resolution taken at its meeting in March 2002 in Abuja. The initiative came from the Bishop's quest for a University that would provide high quality tertiary education according to the noble tradition of the Catholic Church.

Moreover, Veritas University is a digital based institution in terms of administration, teaching and learning. All the students have their personal laptops while staff officers are equipped with modern desktops. All members of staff and students have access to the internet 24 hours and have e-mail accounts. The University Library has access to several online services.

Professor David Iyornongu Ker a die hard Arsenal fan and an easy going man who is the new VC of the University was the former Vice-Chancellor of Benue State University, Makurdi. Ker joined the NUC in November 2005 as Visiting Professor on Sabbatical leave. While serving as Vice-Chancellor he was awarded a prize as the Best Performing Vice-Chancellor of Nigerian State Universities. Professor Ker is also a recipient of the National honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger(OON).

A Professor of English, Ker, has been a Fulbright Scholar, a Common wealth Scholar and a Rockefeller Foundation Scholar. He taught English at the University of Ibadan and Ahmadu Bello University before joining the newly established Benue State University in 1992. Among his numerous publications are The African Novel and the Modernist Tradition. (New York: Peter Lang, 1997, 1998, 2000). Literature and Society in Africa: Selected Critical Essays of Kolwaole Ogungbesan. (Ibadan: Spectrum Books, 2004).

Ker earned his PH.D in English Literature at the University of Stirling in Scotland, after graduating with a Masters degree in African Studies at the University of Sussex in England. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by Grand View College Des Monies, lowa,USA. Ker also served as Commissioner of Education, Benue State and has worked on several inter ministerial committees at the State and National levels. At NUC he coordinated the Linkage with Experts and Academics in the Diaspora (LEAD) programme.

He is married to Beatrice Ker, a Professor of Counseling Psychology and they have four children, three boys and a girl. Professor David Ker,OON assumed duties as the Second Vice-Chancellor of VERITAS University on Monday, December 6, 2010. In this interaction he speaks about the university system and related issues. Excerpts:

Let's get straight to the Nigerian University system. There are a lot of complaints about the quality of graduates coming out of the Nigerian Universities. This has led to suggestions in some circles that students should obtain the first degree before qualifying to read medicine or law, and other professional course with your long experience in the academic field, what do you suggest?

Let us separate the issues, when the profession insisted that they want first degree holders to read medicine or law, I don't think its because there is a deficiency in the undergraduate programme, I think that for the professions, they require more mature candidates. For instance, if you get a first degree at the age of 20, you are just ripe to enter into a doctorate programme, so that by the time you finish your five years or your six years, you will just be the kind of doctor they want. So, I don't think it's because there is deficiency in the undergraduate programme that the professions are insisting on the first degree before you can read them. That is a different issue. The first major issue I have raised is the one I have been happy to address.

This is of the complaints of the quality of our graduates. I personally think our graduates are doing as well as possible within the circumstances that we find ourselves. And that the fact, there is a lot of infiltration of the graduating process by quacks. If you do a good survey, you find a lot of people who are serving as Youth Corpers in Nigeria; who are not graduates. A lot of people posing as graduates in this system. They are not graduates. I don't know what has happened, but there are people who are making it possible for Nigerians to carry documents that make you look as if you have graduated from Nigerian Universities. And somehow, they get away with it. They even go and serve.

That is one thing.
The other matter is when you say that the quality is falling, in many respects it's the generalization. If you go to specifics, there are a lot of our graduates, who are doing extremely well, wherever they are. Are they not Nigerian graduates? I trained some graduates and some my students from Benue State University for, instance, the best one in my class in Physics went to do a Masters Degree in a University in England. He topped the class there from a laboratory in Makurdi, nobody put him through any bench work, nobody put him through anything to qualify him to do that masters programme.

He went straight from the class room in BSU and was the best. He is doing a PH.D in Nuclear Physics in the U.S. so we have to be very careful. You know, in this business, we literally… as the white man says we don't throw away the baby with the bath water. We are so eager to condemn everything; we have that something… we don't know that we have very bright young men and women we are getting from our universities. It is really unfair to them to use the example of some of them who are not doing well to say that the quality has fallen. People even say things like people graduating from the universities and they can't write their names they are not graduates. If you graduate from the Nigerian University and you cannot write your name, they should investigate you.

You understand? I have investigated it. I was privileged to chair a panel set up by the Federal Government to investigate the recruitment of fake graduates into NYSC. In one university alone, we found more than two hundred. So, there is something wrong. And let not these people spoil us. You and I know what is happening in the system. If I can put a deposit of N 10 billion into an account, I can get an illiterate engaged in a bank. You understand? That illiterate will pass on as a graduate, because whoever brought him has a good standing with the bank.

Those kinds of things are the thing that is making it to look as if we have graduate who don't know anything. It's not true I am a teacher. I teach English, I know that my students can compare favourably, I used to teach also in the US. For God's sake, it's good to say look, in my time, it was not like that. But in my time it is almost forty years ago.

So, I am not one of those who are lamenting about the fall of the quality of our graduates. I am not. As a university teacher, and two- time vice chancellor, I am proud of Nigerian graduates.

What are the major challenges facing the privately-run universities like yours?

Well, the major one is funding. But, fortunately it is a common factor, even in the public sector; they are facing the same thing. We like to approach the issue of funding courageously. Since we are private, we will like to enter into partnership with people who have interest in education. We are going to do that, but at the moment, it is not that easy yet to get sponsors to come forth and say look, we want to build hostel, we want to build classroom blocks, we want to build laboratories for you. So, I can say that the major issue is funding.

Funding seems to be the key issue, even in the state and federal government run institutions?

Yes. So it's better for us to sit together and work out a formula to solve this issue of funding, because once we can address the issue of funding, we can also address the issue of infrastructure. If we address the issue of infrastructure, we can address the issue of quality of teaching and so on. Because if you don't have the money, you can't also employ the right kind of people you want to teach these programmes.

A lot of people have been blaming the Federal government for the poor standard of our educational system.

Do you think there are no ways the parents have contributed to this?

These days, the familiar word is stakeholders; we are all stakeholders in this enterprise. It's obvious that the government has blame. We as parents, we have blame. The institutions themselves have blame. As I said, I am not a pessimist. I don't agree with people who mourn and wail about how things have fallen. But, I am not saying that the system does not need so much improvement. There is a lot that can be improved upon. One of the ways, parents can help is in upbringing.

Obviously, the young people that come to us these days need a lot of lessons in discipline, and orderliness. Something which was taken for granted when we were going to school.

Even though some of us went to school from 'primitive homes', home of people who were not even educated, it was very easy to discipline us. Funny enough these days when children come from homes of very educated parents, it is becoming very difficult for us to discipline them, because they seem to come to us not really amenable to rules. It seems they are used to breaking of rules from where they come. But our parents, funny enough even though they didn't go to school, they were not allowing us to do what we wanted to do.

You remember in those days if your father was a farmer, whether you liked it or not, you would be a farmer. If he was a tailor, you will be a tailor. You don't have to delay do any work he sends you to do. He wants to make his eyes are on you. So if we are not good in sewing, he will teach you something you will do with your hands. These days unfortunately, parents are busy. The father is an engineer somewhere else. The mother is a doctor somewhere, they hardly come home and so they are not able to look after these children, the way our parents used to look after us. And consequently, it has raised issues of discipline. Those issues of discipline are making life difficult for us as teachers. We now have to be full time parents for them as well as their teacher. And it is not an easy job.

Since most of the students come to you being un-amenable, don't you think the key is going back to our nursery, primary and secondary school and laying good foundation, before our children will proceed to the universities?

Even if we do that, they come from homes. I said that they are not amenable to discipline, since discipline is lacking in the house. So even if we go right back to the nursery, primary and secondary, it depends on where they are coming from. Let's look at the economic issue again. When I was going to school, I came from a poor family. So the school was the one that offered balanced diet, offered everything. And so the school was something to look forward to. Do you understand? Now, school is not quite the same, because the young man coming to school now has better opportunities right there in the home. So they come to the school as if they are doing the school a favour.

Whereas in the past, it was the school doing the child a favour by giving you a balanced diet when you were in a boarding school, that was when you first heard of having three meals and there had to be milk, carbohydrate, protein and all that. So, it's a problem we have now, because they are coming in to us with preconceived notion of who they are.

So even if you go back, you will still have to go back to the house. What is the educated parents now doing to ensure that the children, he or she is brining up are disciplined like he/she was when they were growing up.

Let's come to your institution. As a new V.C what will be your main areas of concentration?

Well, we are a very young university. We have two colleges; Natural and Applied Sciences and Management, Social Sciences and Art and Theology, we are just three years old. We are into our third year now. So our major focus is to ensure that our programmes are tailored in such a way that the first visit we get from N.U.C on accreditation, we will scale through. We want to be able to get full accreditation in the few programmes we have started the university with. So for now, that is the major area of emphasis. We must meet the minimum requirements. But we are not going to say just minimum requirements. We want to do well enough to have full accreditation in other programmes.

The world is advancing and they call it global community.

Based on that, what is the level of CT compliance that you have in place in this great institution of higher leaving?

Oh! I can almost say it's excellent. This is one area, even though we are just three years old, we have gone far. Our ICT here is very advanced. Almost all of our students and staff here have e-mail addresses we can link up with them on the internet. We have 24hours electricity on this campus.

(Cuts in) What is the magic?
Well, in addition, to the generators and NEPA, we also have our solar system. So, there is always a back-up here to enable us run our system. So we are very digitally compliant.

Apart from your staff being digitally compliant, do you use it as a means of teaching?

Yes! Yes! As a matter of fact, every student has access to one computer

How do you think you can transform our educational system, since it remains the key towards the total transformation of the larger society?

It's not a one-man or one-woman thing…to answer a question like that… There are so many things that are involved in transforming the educational system. Nigeria is a very complex nation. Apart from the fact that we are so many-about 140 million if not more and the multiplicity of the problems are such that one head cannot really be expected to solve all the problems in a year or two or sometimes less. What I think should happen is that for anybody to get it right it is by calling the stakeholders to brainstorm and come out with solutions.

The problem is implementation, because there is too much turnover of even these ministers: I joined the NUC in 2005. Between that time and now, there have been about six ministers. That's an average of one every year. So that's the problem, so no matter how brilliant my ideas are, if I don't have security of tenure, it is very difficult to push the ideas through, and I tell you sometimes the ideas they have are wonderful, but are we going to be able to implement it to the letter, so that it doesn't really matter who is there. The system is what should be protected, not he individual. The thing is too much individualized. If I were minister, there is more to education than just being a minister. There are a lot of parameters that we ought to use and forget the individuals. Let's save the system if we say we are going to do something for, at least, least five years and see how it goes.

And learn from our mistakes?
Precisely that's why I started by disagreeing with you over the issue 6 -3 3- 4 system. We could as well have the system. I don't think anything is wrong with it. It's not because we stopped doing 6-5-4 that things went wrong. We are looking for the wrong reason for our failures. The one we are doing now is a good system it's the system Americans use. It's the system several other countries use. There is nothing wrong with it.

They say that the key to every success is the foundation. What was the first major step you took when you came here ?

I already mentioned the issue of accreditation. As soon as I came, I said what is our level of preparedness for the visit of the NUC team. So, I have been talking to departments. I have inspected all the facilities on the ground. I want to see where the deficiencies are. By the grace of God I got the chance to work for more 4 years with the NUC, before I came in here. So I have a good idea of what the requirements are. So, I am trying to address, specifically, these areas of needs. And that enables me to talk from time to time to the departments. I go there to see the problems for myself. If I understand there is a problem in a unit, I go there and find out myself and see what we can do to solve the problem.

I am of the opinion that our universities if well managed and funded ought to be the key that will unlock the entrepreneurial skill of our youths and only this key will solve unemployment problem in our society to jumpstart our economy and take us to unprecedented height. How do we achieve this Sir?

Your assumptions are correct. A university is a beacon. It is through proper higher education system that research can blossom and from there research and development comes. Because if research is worth it, it produces patent, all kinds of inventions that come about… So we have to place the universities, where they belong. Give incentives to the teachers and give the needed motivations to the students to want to work for the qualification that they would earn. I think there is no compromise about that. Any county that wants to develop higher education. I agree with you absolutely.

Based on that, do you agree with me that we urgently need higher funding for the educational system?

Yes! Higher funding. It's good that we have been talking about this funding of a thing. There are two issues it is proper and it is correct that funding should be stepped up, and at the same time, I don't think it is money that solves all our problems. The issue of commitment of staff, the issue of motivation of students are important. Let' start from the students. You already tried to answer it in a way. If the parents make it look to them that, well, we have achieved enough, after all when you get the degree, what are you going to do, is it not to get a job that will earn you just a peanut. If that is the way the child is being brought up, he/she is not likely to appreciate the value of education. So the teacher, who is trying to educate that kind of child, already has a problem. If you like bring N10 billion that will not solve that child's problem.

At the same time let's talk about the teacher. If he has grown up getting used to cheating, selling handouts, doing all kinds of other malpractices, how much money can you give him to stop it? So there is something in the reorientation that we need that tells us that teaching is a profession and it is a noble profession. It is a vocation as well. What do you really hope to get out of it? Is the joy out of producing quality people or is the joy out of being able build a big house and ride a fast car? We have to make up our minds about what we really call a vocation. If the orientation is not right, then if you like bring billions. They will be frittered away. So I am always a bit cautions about this issue of funding. It is true that all of us need money, but if you think that money will solve all our problems, we are in for a big trouble. It's like soccer. In England with the most populous soccer league.

There was a time billionaires, multibillionaires started to come up to buy Chelsea, Mancity, Manchester and so on. The wise men Arsenal said, well it works out this way there are twenty teams. Let's just hypothetically said that the 20 teams are owned by multibillionaires. If that is the case, there will still be number one and there will still number 20. So, the issue is money is not he only way. Money improves the facilities. Money buys good players and so on. But if the team doesn't have a tradition, what kind of soccer is it selling? Or is it known for? It will not work. So, it is the same thing even with the system we operate too. If we don't get it, if we don't have a tradition, if we pride in our vocation, even if you give people N50 billion a year they will fritter it. So we will to be careful when we say funding and non-funding. Funding, yes! Is the number one. But what do you do with it is the number two.

Are you into any MOU with any international university to enable you run exchange programme and expose your students into other related and modern facilities?

We are not yet, but you know ab initio, the Catholic Church is already a massive organization in its own right, and we have hundreds of catholic universities all over the world. So it's not rather a problem for networking. We are member of association associated with quality assurance in catholic universities and we are members…we attended conference in Finland and Ireland and so forth. So we are already into that kind of thing. But we haven't entered into any specific agreement with universities yet, but that is part of the networking we are working on.

It's in the pipeline?
Definitely
What is your opinion of the six new universities being established by the federal government, when they have not been able to effectively fund the existing ones?

Actually, I am one of those who really want more .

Universities?
Yes, I think they are nine and not six. After the six, they said, three more were added. Do you know why I keep on saying this? You must give people access to education. In spite of these additional nine, even when they are upgrade they are not giving you more than one million admissions yearly and I think up till now they can only boast of 16% of that one million. So it's not good enough. I know when people quarrel with this thing about you don't have funding without looking at the other one, otherwise that's why you open this. But remember history. In 1976, the federal government almost in a similar way took this decision to open new universities in Maiduguri, in Kano, in Sokoto, in Ilorin, in Port Harcourt and in Calabar. Look back now in these 34 or 35 years and see what difference these universities have made to quality development of manpower in this country. Let them remember history. The same people maybe who are even saying now that they are too many, in years when there universities…

When I go to university of Ilorin, for instance, I am really overwhelmed. It's well developed. It's massive. But I remember that in 1976, nobody wanted it. Even nearby Ibadan, which actually was asked to midwife Ilorin, a lot of he professors were not eager to go there. Who wanted a university of Ilorin a village like that?

But look at what has happened. And then it happened in Maidugri. Maiduguri is a massive university, Sokoto, BUK, Calabar universities that was how they get them off. For instance, Jos eventually came again out of UL and all that. But people, who want to condemn it now, should just take a look back to 35 years and ask themselves what has happened since llorin, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Maidugri, Kano and Sokoto and almost all of them are doing very well. So I am not in Disagreement at all. I will like even if they add on top of the nine.

Should the federal government merge the polytechnics or do we establish more polytechnics than universities?

Many Nigerians prefer university education. But we are not alone in that many years ago, Britain also had to collapse many Polytechnics into universities. They turned Polytechnics into universities. For instance, I studied and did my Masters Degree in England at Sussex. Opposite us was Bryton Polytechnic. When I went there 25 years later l saw University of Bryton. I was a bit confused. A polytechnic now became a university. And British had the same problem. Nobody really wanted to go to Polytechnics anymore. So they said, Okey, if you don't want Polytechnic, let's go to university. So they turned almost all the Polytechnics to universities I think that's what we are trying to do now, but we ought t do a little more planning than that. I have no problem with the old ones like Yaba, Kaduna and so on getting degree awarding institutional status. I have no problem with that. But a lot of mushrooming has gone on in the name of Polytechnic. We should try and develop those ones fast.

Even at that, why the issue of Polytechnic is topmost is because the system has not been able to absorb the manpower that the universities produce every year, and l think wee need more of vocational education system. That's why it looks like we need more of these Polytechnics than the universities?

But we can do vocations in universities too. What the new benchmark minimum is suggesting is that every graduate must have a skill so. We can do that…just like we introduced the General Studies programme many years ago that every graduate must do…But the argument you are trying to advance is also very important. We need to have technical manpower. The middle-level technical manpower is absolutely essential. Se we don't have to kill polytechnic before you can have more universities. I agree with you on that.

What is your guiding philosophy in life?
Dedication. Whatever you are convinced you are doing, do it with commitment. Do it with the fear of God, and I have been lucky over the years because of my commitment and my fear of God to see results. So I think once you commit yourself, dedicate yourself to what you know how to do well, don't be distracted. In a nation like this, there are so many distractions. People who want to make you rich, people want to bring you into politics, because you are competent as a marketable tool-politically. But if that is not your calling, why must you leave a good vocation like teaching and play politics. So I think everybody should assess themselves, find out what they are good at doing, dedicate themselves to it, shine that corner and everybody will be better off.

In Nigeria, there is only one profession - politics. You are a journalist, but I am sure some of your friends are saying to you. 'Come now' join politics. But I am sure you chose to be a journalist and you love doing it.

Why must you leave it? But a lot of your friends will tell you look at your colleague who is governor or something now. I don't think that one should worry us. We are not being allowed to love what we do. We are not being allowed to dedicate ourselves to what we love doing. And, consequently, we are neither here nor there as a result you are a rolling stone, you don't gather moss. A professor leaves this noble profession, goes into politics, you fail to win primaries, and you think you are so good as a professor. He sees the one that won this thing he is far better and you wonder why they didn't elect you. They should have known that he (the Prof.) is a great guy. But those are not the parameters in that field. (Laughs.)

So when he lost out, we have also lost out in this community, because the brilliant man who should be educating other Nigerians in his field has gone to play with these people. And that one two is like an injecting oil. It infests you, and then you won't like to come back. So it's no longer useful to us in the academic. It's happening every where. Soldiers do want to leave and do politics. Every body seems to that that's the only way to go. But I thank God; I am not in that category. I have always chosen this field and I love it and have done it for the past 37 years. I am not going anywhere again.