Are our public universities going the way of our public primary and secondary schools?

Chinedum Nwajiuba, the Vice-Chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State

By Chinedum Nwajiuba


Please keep aside the office I currently occupy as you read, and hopefully think about this. I am a Nigerian citizen reflecting on my country. My primary and secondary schooling were entirely in Nigeria, For the university, the Bachelors and Masters were in Nigeria, and then the Doctoral was in Germany.
In addressing the question used as title, I wish to bore you with some stories, somewhat trivial. Please, just patiently bear this. It also might help, you never know.

Primary school

At the end of the civil war in 1970, we returned to our village primary schools, taken over by the state government from the missions. Mine was the St. Matthews Church school, which the East-Central State Government had taken over, and which later became Umuehie Primary school. We had no classroom seats. We sat on the floor, under the Mango tree. Our teacher (just one per class) rested the blackboard on the Mango tree. We cleaned our blackboard with charcoal or with the leaves of Siam Weed, also called “Awolowo” or “Elizabeth” but the botanical name is Chromolaena odorata, long referred to as Eupatorium odoratum).

We learnt the alphabets. We learnt arithmetic. Our teachers came to school before 8 am every day. We lined for morning assembly. We were taught, we played, we had class assignments which we did on our slates, made of flat wood. Our teachers drew lines of white, blue and red on the blackboard to teach us how to write upper case and lower-case alphabets, how to start sentences, and how to end. Our teachers did not hold university degrees. They mostly passed through Teacher Training Colleges.

Our Teacher marked our assignments in class, we went home proudly with a long Good Mark in red colour, but some got a huge X Bad Mark. If you had the GOOD MARK, you carried it home proudly.

One day on our way home from school, proudly carrying my slate home to show my parents, my cousin Ebere, who was older, took my slate and flung it into a densely forested place. We couldn’t find it. I got home and told my mother, who was a teacher and had been teaching me at home during the war, and she said I shouldn’t bother with that and that henceforth I will go to school with pencil and exercise books to write, and not slate anymore. I had been learning with pencil and paper at home. From the next day, I became the only person in Primary One writing with pencil and paper.

At the end of the term, results were announced publicly at an assembly of all pupils. Those who came in the top Ten were announced. The last Ten were also announced. People sat up. People worked hard to retain their positions or do better. We had incentives to excel. We felt a sense of achievement or shame as the case may be.

After the first term, the Headmaster, Mr. Onuoha decided I should not be in Primary One, but should move to Primary Two. I was about the youngest in Primary One, so you imagine me in Primary Two. I got home with the good news, but my mother would not have any of that. She was in school the next day and insisted that I must continue in Primary One. I guess the Headmaster did not like that, and I suspect that was why, one day, I was late to school, he flogged me more than other late comers.

Eventually I left for Lagos. I reported at the Mainland Nursery and Primary School, this time a private school in Surulere. I was tested and immediately sent to Primary Two. That means my village school at the end of the war was not inferior to my private school in Lagos. But my aunty Comfort, insisted I should be in Primary One. Among my teachers at Mainland was Mrs. Ekaete, a white Briton, who I believed owned/headed the school, Mr. Ojo, a Ghanaian, and then a Togolese who taught French, a few of those I can remember.

Secondary School

I passed the Lagos State Common Entrance examination and was set for Igbobi College. I also passed the East-Central State common Entrance examination, and had my name in the Renaissance Newspaper, and was posted to a certain Obube Secondary School, which my parents did not know where it was. One day my father announced that I will return to the East-Central state for secondary school, and it would be Obube. I wept. And I wept for four years, as my school mates often tease me about. Obube secondary school on the outskirts of Owerri, located long the Owerri-Aba old road (the current road was done about 1978), was built by the Roman Catholic Church, but was also taken over by the East-Central state government after the civil war. It has been returned not too long ago to the church. I arrived Obube late after my class mates had settled in. I did not know anyone I met in Obube prior to arriving there. No student and no teacher. I was the youngest in class. I recall at least one of my classmates Ambrose Ekeh, would punish me, asking me to kneel down or raise my hands. He was much bigger. I wept because all the boys I knew in Lagos or elsewhere, family friends who were in the East were elsewhere. In Form Two my mother tried changing me to a school were my father’s friend (Mr. Udumaga) was Principal. The day I was set to leave for school, my father returned and took me back to Obube. By then my father had been transferred to Enugu. He did agree in Form Three to move me to CIC Enugu. I had everything set including school uniforms, but one morning, he changed his mind and took me back to Obube. In Form Four I tried to convince him by showing him that the WASCE result for Obube was not very good, he wouldn’t agree and I returned to Obube. By the end of that year, I was made Library prefect, so I suppose I couldn’t try changing in Form Five (the final year). Form Five would be the year I truly accepted and enjoyed my years in Obube. In effect every year for four years I wanted to be changed to another school but my father insisted otherwise. One of those schools I so much wanted, had the school certificate result for the year I sat the final WASCE cancelled. Sometimes you can’t help but believe that fathers are seers.

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At Obube we had a stern Principal Mr Davidson Emeruwa. He loved us, and was so passionate about our studies and the need for us to excel. He had zero tolerance for examination malpractice. He was a disciplinarian. He could flog the entire class and more any morning/day he found reason to. We had teachers like Mr. Briton (White British man). We had class mates from all over East-Central state, Rivers state (now Rivers and Bayelsa) and Southeast state (now Akwa-Ibom and Cross River), and more. One term, a certain Mohammed, from one of the Northern states, appeared in our class. We learnt his father was a recently posted soldier (or so) to Owerri. That term, Mohammed came first. Mohammed was very brilliant in nearly all subjects especially mathematics. We were friends, but he left after that term. I suppose we were too young to have thought of staying in contact.

Obube had certain traditions, some of which pre-dated Mr. Emeruwa’s coming in my Form Two in 1976, and most of which he generally kept. One of such was who would be prefects especially Senior Prefect or Deputy (typically class prefects all along with obvious leadership qualities especially ability to obey rules and get his peers obey). Very predictable were Health/Sanitation prefects (Neatest boy in his clothing and appearance and his beddings), Sports Prefect (best footballer/team captain), Religion Prefect (You knew him when you saw/met him), and the Library Prefect, nearly always would be the person who tops this class, except where he had attributes which recommend him for Senior Prefect or Health or Religion. So the Library Perfect had a burden to perform excellently in the WASCE. I recall the day prefects were announced late in Form Four as the Form Fives were rounding-up the WASCE. The junior classes seemed more excited as the Principal called out the names. From their reaction, it seemed they expected Chinedum Nwajiuba to be Library prefect. About a year and three months after, when my set’s WASCE results were announced, Chinedum did not disappoint.

One hypothesis I have about the crises of leadership in our country, and the concomitant poor governance across board, is a defective leadership recruitment process, and a disoriented reward system. We should be interested in a study of the backgrounds of all those in leadership/governance in the three arms (Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary) since 1999. We should know how many of them were class monitors/prefects, or has the political/governance space been taken over by the weakest of the generations, intellectually and in character. How many of them were identified early as possessing leadership potentials, prepared for leadership, and obtained in the least, a sense of duty/responsibility, and passion for service and the common good? Are we being ruled by mostly those who were known for “eating” their school fees, often on suspension/expulsion for sundry vices and offences? Can that explain the state of the country?

Nsukka, here I come!

I recall writing this on my question paper after the English language part of the JAMB in 1981. In those days we took the first three papers, took a break, and came in for English. Nsukka was a tough place with a tough reputation. It was a serious era. I was in for a five-year programme. We had stability from Year One till a few weeks to our final examination. Universities shut down I believe, the year before we came in, and never for once closed all through my stay, but for the very end. We returned after some weeks, and that was it. We had a date for our final examinations, and our degree papers (then we had five examination papers, one a day, Monday through Friday, each lasting three hours, that were 50% of your entire stay at the university). That was decisive. People moved from examination halls to the medical centre. Someone would look at the ceiling in the examination hall, and throw his pen up, shouting, “See Methane”, “See Butane”. Nsukka in that period had what a good school should have; A school should make you kinetize your potentials, make you discover yourself. From my class alone has emerged at least seven professors (Eze CC of FUTO, Jude Mbanasor of MOUAU, Okey Alimba of EBSU, Ini Akpabio of UNIUYO, Andrew Iheanacho of UNIMAID/UAM, Peter Onoh of FUTO). The number of stars I see across Nigeria, who were in Nsukka fully or partly between 1980 and 1987 is significant. And across disciplines, too.

We had teachers from across the globe. Not limited to the white women our brothers married, who returned with them, and were lecturing in Nsukka then. I recall that my lecturer for the ecology course was a white French man. We had Kahn, Singh and Ghatpande, who were Asians. From 100 Level Mathematics and Biology, right up to final year finance classes we had non-Nigerians. There was the universe in our university education. There were American peace corps people. The First and Masters degrees in Nsukka were serious matters. A week after the first-degree examination we had the project examination with the external examiners (I believe Prof. Mijindadi came from ABU Zaria to examine our first degree project). Results were known the week after. Department, Faculty and Senate met within a week and our names were pasted at the Central Potters Lodge the day after. There were no handouts. If you got into any students’ hostel room, you would find a book shelf with books relevant to his/her discipline displayed. When the session/term (we did not have semesters then) commenced we returned to school promptly. We were not forced back to school nor forced to buy books. We were proud and happy to buy, read and show-off our books. Students, especially female students never spoke pidgin. Never would you find a lecturer speaking pidgin. All our lecturers spoke good English. Our lectures were not book sellers. Results were pasted publicly after examinations in June. By August you would know if you have passed or failed any course and if you were to come for “September conference. Results were available before resumption early in October. I don’t know how our lecturers did that, but our generation of lectures cannot. We did not go from lecturer to lecturer to see results.

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The Students Union was serious and articulate. In my third year I was elected into the Students Representative Council (Our House of Representatives), as member for my Awolowo Hall constituency. We did not have permanent NANS members. NANS membership ended upon graduation, not what we see today with NANS members who should have graduated over a decade ago. NANS had publicly known and respected positions on national issues. Students Associations organized seminars and symposia, inviting accomplished men and women to speak to us. In the student’s parliament we never paid ourselves sitting allowances, unlike what students do today. We even find students who today serve as Personal Assistants (PAs) to students’ union presidents, helping to carry their phones.

Primary, Secondary teachers and University Lecturers then and now

They had dignity. In our villages the Headmaster was an important person and by protocol would rank either number one but certainly not lower than number three, in the community. They were respected. Today our primary school teachers are products of NTI, and indeed some have university degrees but many may not be asked by the villages to be secretary at the village meeting, as no one trust the ability of the teacher to write correctly what has been discussed.

In many cases teachers have been shown to be unable to pass primary school level tests. Governor Oshiomoles’ video with a teacher unable to read an affidavit/oath she swore to, and submitted is a case in point. Another is a state that issued tests to primary school teachers of whom only 15% made at least 50% in primary four examination questions for the term. As we saw in Kaduna state not too long ago, the NUT insists that teachers who cannot read nor write should be retained. To do what?

While that is happening, even in rural areas, teachers no longer want their children to school in the schools in which they teach. That was different in the past, when a teacher would walk to school every morning with his own child/children. Today our public schools have teachers with NCE and university degrees, but would send their own children to private schools with untrained teachers, many of them with just secondary school certificates. How do you explain that?

The case of our secondary schools is sad. Very little relationship between the school certificate grades and subsequent performance. Yet the NUT will pretend that this is not an issue and in fact protects this. Study the situation with secondary school teachers especially the males. Many are drunk with alcohol before 8 am every day. You think this is exaggerated? Investigate this.

Now, the universities

Is there no real possibility that our public universities are heading the same way as our public primary and secondary schools? Many persons seem to suspect that there is a move to shift the fulcrum of the Nigeria university system towards the private. Afterall as some would say, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc., are private universities. Clearly by 2007 and the years preceding, more private universities had emerged, and fewer public universities, especially at the Federal level emerged between 1999 and 2007. The scenario of having more public universities, Federal and states, got reversed since 2011.

As VC of one of the 12 new Federal Universities established in 2011/2012, I have repeatedly reminded colleagues, that we have to justify being established. Many persons believe we should not have been established, that the country has many poorly delivering public universities, and rather than establish new ones, we should focus on the older struggling universities. But that is a school thought. There are of course counter arguments on this. Nevertheless, my position that we need to justify being created, becoming original and innovative, carving a niche, learning from the challenges that we see, and frog jumping ahead remain valid. But we may not rise to this consciousness and performance seemingly because colleagues have chosen not to, or may act as if they have forgotten what the idea of the university is, and the responsibility of the academia, as a vocation, a calling, rather than an occupation. I have made attempts to distinguish between the lost sheep and the sheep in hiding.

Nothing exposes the weakness of our country, and our university more than the current COVID-19 pandemic. In a period of some kind of war against humanity and our life and livelihood, the Nigeria intellectual class is anonymous. We find excuse to be unpatriotic and missing in action. This is not a war of guns and bullets but of brains. A country with about 200 universities, largely lacking in conviction, soul and spirit. Who did this to us?

1967 to 1970, Nigeria faced a war of guns and bullets, and the intellectual class was neither missing nor anonymous. The intellectual class of Biafra was patriotic and not distracted by the correctness or incorrectness of the political leadership they had to deal with, its adequacy, logic or lack of it, but saw a problem of hunger, death and defeat and did not wait to be mobilized, cajoled or begged. Today with many more universities, PhDs and professors, we are comparatively unable to rise to the level of performance and delivery of more than half a century ago. We lack patriotism and manifest no love for our country. We wonder at the performance of Senegalese, Egyptians and South African universities, laboratories, and professors, engaged with human trails of vaccines, and we fold our arms, watch the soaps and movies of the National Assembly, while waiting for the British, French and Germans to produce vaccines.

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We have a generation of academics sufficiently victims of self and society, spending time in beer palours and motor parks, and often found in the company of jesters. The quality of discussion has become very pedestal and lacking rigour. We even advance arguments to our ‘dis-welfare’ and ‘dis-wellbeing’, if there are things like that. We are so focused on bread and butter, in least exerting interests, that we do not see more ennobling use of the certificates we carry. We lose respect every day and everywhere, and we do not see that, because by the hierarchy of needs, food, drinks and clothing are more urgent than honour, dignity, and respect. We reduce our presentations to japs without evidence, as in beer palours and hairdressing salons, keeping with the dictum, tell me your friends and I tell you who you are.

Yes, it’s the COVID-19, but also the ASUU strike. Perhaps apart from AE-FUNAI that concluded the first semester 2019/2020, which other? The culture of lack of seriousness and no respect for NUC prescribed carrying capacities lures by the corner. Let’s assume that the public universities reopen by October 2020 or January 2021, where are the universities on their academic calendars? AE-FUNAI may commence the second semester of 2019/2020 by either that October 2020 or January 2021 and ending that by January 2021 or April 2021. Right? Then we may commence the 2020/2021 session by February 2021 or May 2021. But JAMB says we should admit for 2020/2021 session from August 2020! When will those admitted commence studies? Will JAMB advertise for 2021/2022 admission by December 2020, going by the convention? Will WAEC and NECO hold from September 2020 as being planned?

While this is the lot of the Public universities (COVID-19 plus ASUU strike), the private universities have COVID-19 minus ASUU strike. In this period, the private universities have been having lectures online, taking tests and examinations, having matriculations and even convocations, organising webinars/seminars, etc. Some people will argue that the main constraints to online learning is how to conduct practicals/workshops and similar. But if the private universities continue online with what they are doing, have we thought about “Alternative to Practical”, which many public universities have been doing, and can you image they adopt a European style “Modules”, in which there is a phased invitation on aspects of the practicals and workshops running every day for one week, and staggered, with the necessary examinations at the end? Imagine a Practical laboratory class that should run for twelve weeks of two/three hours a week, being collapsed into one week of only practicals and workshops each lasting four/six hours a day for six days in a week, and which ends in twelve days (two weeks)?

Have we imagined the private universities successfully making a case to reopen in September 2020 for this purpose and reopening a new 2020/2021 session by October 2020?

Have you taken stock of the number of lectures and staff of public universities whose children are in private universities? Does that begin to look like teachers in public primary and secondary schools with their children in private schools, even in rural areas?

Have you imagined parents realizing that our big public universities may have to cancel the 2020/2021 session entirely as many of them are yet to go far with the first semester of 2019/2020 session?

Are you aware that Private universities in the southwest of Nigeria are operating at comparatively high levels, and that in some global ranking of universities, Covenant University features highly? Are you aware that Babcock and Covenant among others are unable to admit all those who currently apply to them for admission? Are you aware that there is a possibility that up to 60% of students in some private universities in the southwest of Nigeria bear names sounding like coming from the southeast of Nigeria? Are you aware that private universities in the southeast are struggling to have students, but that 2020/2021 admissions exercise may be a turning point for them? Are you aware that if that happens parents may realise that it is better to find N500,000 to N700,000 to pay to keep their children in private universities rather than have them at home longer, or in fact intermittently?

Do you realise that the people in the southeast, may be slow to join a bandwagon, but when they do, they tend to do it more? When the consciousness of private universities catches on in the southeast, and aligned with the slow but steady crawling up that has happened/happening in the southwest, that may change the face of university education in Nigeria, and if that happens, we may end up like OPEC, assuming you are important but only for yourself, and unlike 30 years ago, no one knows when OPEC is meeting? Are we getting to a stage where ASUU will embark on strike and no one but ASUU will know?

Just questions?

Are our public universities heading in the direction of our public primary and secondary schools? Just a question!

Professor Chinedum Nwajiuba is the Vice-Chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo,Ebonyi State, Nigeria.


  1. It is quite unfortunate that our constitution does not give room for rigorous evaluation of backgrounds of those seeking for leadership positions (especially in politics).

    Undoubtedly, this has significantly led to leadership failure in the country. To the best of my knowledge, our constitution possesses inherent errors which often surface in the affairs of leadership.

    Until the constitution is properly revised to entail necessary ingredients, leadership failure in the country may continue to grow indefinitely.

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