By NBF News

Owners of private universities in the country, according to reports, are making efforts to utilise funds from the Education Trust Fund (ETF). Indications are that they are approaching the National Assembly to amend the ETF Act to allow them access the interventionist fund.

Incidentally, the National Assembly was reported to have, a few days ago, in the twilight of its legislative four-year term, approved the ETF amendment bill to make it cater exclusively for the interest of tertiary education. Before then, the ETF law was too all-embracing, providing grants to primary, secondary and tertiary education. The lean resource sourced from the profits of companies in the private sector was stretched thin so much that the funds disbursed made very little impact on education improvement.

With the lawmakers' amendment of the ETF law, only federal and state owned universities and perhaps polytechnics would now be the sole beneficiaries of ETF largesse. So, the request by private universities to get the National Assembly to provide them to be included among the beneficiaries of the Fund may have come a bit late and might have to be handled by the incoming national lawmakers.

But going by the huge fees charged by private universities, including the ones owned by religious organisations who used the contributions of worshipers to build the universities, the request by private universities may excite mixed feelings. Some of the religious universities run as strict profit-making organisations, surviving only on exorbitant fees paid by students. Some charge about N1.4 million per year (tuition and boarding) and some charge about N350,000 per year. Even some state universities charge up to N300,000 per year. However, some federal public universities charge about N10,000 tuition fee per year.

What this disparity means is that the citizens are paying extreme differential fees to acquire tertiary education, which will empower them to serve their country well and provide solutions to make the country better for living. The private varsities came in large numbers because Federal Government failed woefully to provide corresponding admission places to accommodate the growing number of youths yearning for higher education.

Instead of building more classrooms and hiring and training more manpower to rectify the gross inadequacy in admission places, government resorted to a retrogressive form of rationalization. The Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB) employed all manner of restrictive policies to cope with a situation of 1.2 million candidates chasing 150,000 admission places every year. The result of over 20 years neglect in expanding admission places even in existing universities by the government led to chaos and the emergence of private universities to the rescue.

Today, about 45 private universities are in one form of operation or the other. Many have been running courses for more than five years without the prerequisite accreditation of courses, thereby putting the career of innocent students on the line. The laxity of the National Universities Commission (NUC) in failing to make sure that private and even public universities satisfy basic requirements for awarding degree certificates is largely responsible for the low quality programmes being run in universities.

Sadly, even many state government-owned universities are equally guilty of inadequate facilities and manpower.

In the United Kingdom, there is government provision for subsidy to offset the heavier bill the private universities charge in order to provide education for all, which the government alone was unable to provide. In this case, the UK government sees the proprietors of private universities as partners in progress in providing more admission places for candidates that could perhaps be roaming the streets, waiting to be recruited by mischief makers, as is the case in Nigeria.

In effect, since the ETF intervention fund is sourced from a Federal Government levy on the profits of the private companies operating in Nigeria, all students in both public and private universities should be entitled to a share if they are not to be unjustly denied of the commonwealth. The relevant laws should be amended to accommodate private universities. But the criteria of accessing the Fund should be clearly spelled out and strictly enforced to discourage a fresh run by profit-motivated proprietors.

The good thing is that ETF assistance is tied to specific projects. The NUC should monitor and enforce strict compliance with quality rules, while Federal Government should concentrate more in expanding admission places in existing universities.