By NBF News
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The charge to Nigerians desirous of university education to embrace the open and distance learning (ODL) system to surmount the challenge of shortage of spaces in the nation's university system is timely.

Dr. Suleiman Ramon-Yusuf, Deputy Director, Open and Distance Learning Division of the National Open University, Abuja, told participants at a recent advocacy seminar organised by the Distance Learning Institute of the University of Lagos, that inadequate space in the nations 104 universities makes ODL a viable alternative.

Over a million candidates annually sit for the Universities Matriculation Examination (UME) to compete for only 225,000 places in the universities. The advice from Ramon-Yusuf is, therefore, in order. It is not exactly new, as such views have been expressed by the universities regulatory organisation, National Universities Commission (NUC) and many Vice Chancellors.

The shortage of university places is responsible for the setting up of satellite campuses of some tertiary institutions, and the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN).

However, as attractive as the ODL sounds, the Open University system is facing a lot of challenges in Nigeria. The system, to a large extent, depends on television, radio, and the Internet, which are electronic media that are subject to the vagaries of our epileptic electricity supply system. Running of open universities also requires adequate academic and administrative staff, and good infrastructure. Academic and other support staff for long distance learning are grossly insufficient in Nigeria, where conventional universities are also understaffed.

Universities with inadequate academic staff on their main campuses sometimes run satellite institutions with poor academic staff complement in disparate locations, thereby attempting to solve the problem of shortage of university places with the creation of another problem. To ensure that ODL institutions do not compromise standards in the Nigerian university system, the NUC must insist on basic minimum standards for their operations.

We welcome the advice to candidates to consider the ODL option but the system must be properly regulated to ensure that the quality of products from the system are at par with those from conventional universities.

As things stand today, the general view is that Nigerian university graduates cannot compete in the global economy. The quality of degrees from Nigerian universities is now suspect, as many foreign universities subject graduates of our universities to one year of further studies before admitting then into Masters degree programmes, which should not be the case if our degrees are at par with those from other parts of the world.

Graduates of ODL institutions should not be allowed to compound the disdain for our university products. Quality must be made to take precedence over quantity in the production of university graduates. Undergraduates in all institutions need to be properly grounded in their chosen courses to put them on equal footing with graduates from any of the best universities in the world.

Nigeria also needs to support middle level education. The craze for university degrees is at the root of the rush for university education. Our country values paper qualifications above vocational skills and this should not be so. Paper qualification is not all that a person needs to succeed in life. When we enthrone respect for skillful and competent work, the rush for paper qualifications will reduce and more recognition will be given to vocational skills. The growing demand for university spaces will also reduce, as candidates realise that they can lead fruitful and fulfilled lives when they hone their skills in their chosen vocations and develop the competence required to excel in them.

Nigeria should not rush to produce university graduates for the sake of it. We need to produce graduates that can stand their ground in international academic circles. Admission should not be based on the number of applicants for university places, but on the infrastructure and complement of staff available to produce quality graduates.

The ODL option is a viable alternative to conventional university education, but there must be no compromise of the quality of products turned out. The university regulatory authorities in Nigeria must ensure that the quality of graduates of both systems of education must be able to stand, shoulder to shoulder, with those of the best universities in the world.