Repositioning university education in Nigeria: The OAU example

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Yemi Ogunbiyi, Pro-Chancellor and Governing Council Chairman at Obafemi Awolowo University
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This is the text of a speech delivered by Yemi Ogunbiyi on the eve of the 2019 Convocation of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL) at the University of Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria, on 7th August, 2019.


First, let me thank the Academy, and also its President, Professor Francis Egbokhare, for the honour done me and the other distinguished inductees for our admission into the Nigerian Academy of Letters. The honour of being considered an Honorary Fellow of this highly distinguished apex body for the advancement and promotion of scholarship and public interest in the humanities in our country is one that I cherish immensely.

When I was invited to address this gathering for no more than 40 minutes on a topic of my choice, my immediate impulse was, of course, to choose to share with you my experience of the past two years as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the Obafemi Awolowo University, and how that experience has reshaped my thinking about the future of university education in our country. Accordingly, I have titled my address: How to reposition our Universities: The modest example of the Obafemi Awolowo University.

When I first came to work at Ile-Ife in 1977, I was a young 30-year old who had just finished graduate work at the New York University, in the United States. At that time, the University of Ife was a huge beehive of intellectual and cultural activities. A robustly brilliant, nimble-witted academic, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, who had become Vice-Chancellor, I believe, the year before I arrived, embodied the bedrock of the fermentation of intellectual ideas that opened up the University to vistas of new possibilities. His influence and effort paid off handsomely and succeeded in attracting some of our finest academics to Ife. There was a joke at the time that captured the spirit of those moments, namely, that Professor Aboyade had given Professor Wole Soyinka an absolute free hand to institute any department he wanted in the Faculty of Arts, design for himself what courses he wished to teach, or do just about anything he wanted to do, provided his name featured prominently in the University’s teaching staff list! Other young academics, such as Dr. Biodun Jeyifo (as he then was), Dr. Kole Omotosho, Dr. Olabiyi Yayi, the late Professor Akinwunmi Isola, and a number of others, relocated to Ife.

From the collaborative effort and work of our internationally-endowed faculty, a very virile culture of learning and research thrived, leading to a string of various achievements. The atmosphere of those years was not just upbeat, it fuelled a healthy competition and a robust interest in research and learning. My own modest work as an academic is a product of those years.

By the time I came back two years ago, this time, as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, that is, some forty years after I first set foot on that campus, I encountered a slightly different scenario! While much of the architectural beauty of the campus remained relatively intact, there was abundant evidence that the system was encountering severe difficulties. Those difficulties, which are not peculiar to Ife, is the sad story of higher education today in our country. I speak here of very scarce financial support, inadequate infrastructural facilities, acute shortage of skilled teaching facility, a bloated administrative arm of the system, lack of research interests, lack of motivation to compete and collaborate internationally, and an almost zero industry collaboration, etc.

Perhaps, the most fundamental of these problems is that of the inadequacy of funding. Mr. President, I am reluctant to bore you with the history of higher education in our country. It is sufficient merely to state here that, in certain respects, that history is inextricably linked with the problems we face today. When the British invaded our shores in the middle of the nineteenth century and established the first set of mission schools in their trading posts in Lagos and Calabar, their interest was in commerce, not education. As we all now know, the idea was not to provide education for development, but to educate the elites that would assist them in administering the colonies.

So, when, following the recommendations of the Elliot Commission of 1943, the University College, Ibadan, was founded in 1948, it was conceived as an affiliate of the University of London, which was itself founded by Royal Charter in 1836 to function, like its brother institutions, Cambridge and Oxford, as a haven for the training of British professional elite to assist in propping up the Empire. Quite unlike the American model, for instance, where in 1862, the Morrill Act created a uniquely American model, one in which, in principle at least, universities were designed from the beginning “to prepare the masses of young people in a participatory arrangement,” the British model was something akin to the medieval concept of the university, where the Church and the State funded universities in full. The new University College of Ibadan inherited the University of London’s structure, its curriculum, its funding mechanism and its broad objectives, essentially, as I stated above, to enable it to cater to the elite class in Nigeria.

That structure appeared to have worked, at least, for a while. Then following the Eric Ashby Report of 1959, other regional universities were established, such that two years after Independence in 1960, there were 60,000 undergraduates in Nigeria’s six universities, usually referred to as the first generation universities, namely, Ibadan, Nsukka, Ile-Ife, Zaria, Lagos and Benin.

Then, in the mid-1970s, our problems began, albeit, gradually. In September of 1976, General Olusegun Obasanjo, as Head of the military government, launched the Universal Free Primary Education Scheme (UPE), clearly the most gigantic educational project ever in the history of Nigeria, at least, up until that time. During the first session of the scheme, that is, the 1976/77 session, 8 million pupils were enrolled in primary schools throughout the country. During the 1980/81 session, that figure rose to 15 million. In the same year, 1.2 million children enrolled in secondary schools and another 75,000 students gained admission into universities. By 1985, the undergraduate admission figures went up to 125,000. And even though those figures represented a tiny proportion of the population, it was clear, even at that time, that the fierce competition to get into the limited available spaces in higher institutions had begun. Obviously, the rapid enrollment into primary and secondary schools had started to create a deficit between the number of students seeking higher education and the amount of slots available in the universities. As at 2018, according to the National Universities Commission, there were over 2 million full-time undergraduates and graduates enrolled in our existing 170 Universities today.

As these nascent problems of our universities began, they were compounded by other global challenges that were way beyond the capacities of these institutions. First, there was the transformation in the global political economy and the significance of information and knowledge to production and management services, known as globalisation. Then came the global economic meltdown of some two decades ago, coupled also with the burgeoning population explosions of the period, which took a greater toll on Africa than the rest of the world. This situation was compounded even further by the rapacious greed of the African elite, whose corrupt practices robbed the continent of valuable resources that would have gone into infrastructure, social services and human capacity development. Then, just as we were beginning to negotiate our relationship with the long period of military rule and its effects on higher education, the HIV/AIDS pandemic struck.

These global challenges led to severe crunches in practically every sector of the economy, from governance, to social services and, of course, education. These also meant that our universities were incapable of taking full advantage of the opportunities and benefits of globalisation. And as the State, which had been the main source of funding retreated, our universities, buckled under the strain. This major challenge, that is, lack of adequate funding, led to the decay we now face today.

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Meanwhile, some key stakeholders in the sector, seemingly oblivious of these challenges, appear stuck in the mindset of the past and insist that state funding of universities is the only viable way forward for our universities to survive and thrive. Without question, adequate funding is key to university education. That view is not open to debate. Without adequate funding, higher education, anywhere, is doomed. But how should higher education be funded? Given regard to the peculiar nature of our history, can the state afford to continue to fund higher education? Are there lessons to be learnt from how universities are funded elsewhere?

My contention, Mr. President, is that higher education in Nigeria can no longer be funded entirely by government. Let me restate this differently for emphasis. With all due respect to the position of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, its contention that Government can fund higher education entirely if all the leakages in the system were plugged, is unrealistic. In my view, no government of Nigeria, now or in the future, can adequately fund higher education for a number of reasons which I shall show presently. Not even the laudable effort of such intervention funding institutions as the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) can fully reverse the current deterioration in the system, to enable us to maximise learning outcomes and contribute efficiently to the workforce here at home or abroad. Even if we were to emulate the example of Ghana, which has consistently, during the last two decades or so, allocated about 15% of its annual Budget to education, we would still not be there. And the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, said that much at the last Convocation ceremony of the University of Ibadan, when, while admitting that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), may be correct in some of its demands, insisted that sole government funding for universities was an invitation to repeated failures.

The existing funding details could not be worse than what is in place at the moment. Take the Obafemi Awolowo University, for instance. With a students’ population of close to 30,000 and a staff strength of some 4,800, we require over N65billion annually to run the university as a modern, top-ranking institution. The annual budgetary allocation for salaries from the federal government is N11billion. When you add that to the various capital Project intervention funds from TETFUND, and the NEEDS ASSESSMENT which come to about N1.5billion, we are looking at an annual maximum income of no more than N13billion.

That situation is further compounded by the fact that we cannot charge proper fees for tuition and accommodation. Even if all our 30,000 students pay their average of N26,000 fees annually, that is, for tuition and accommodation, it comes to a paltry N780 million. What this means is that we receive less than 25% of funds required to effectively run the university. Even a number of private universities that charge proper fees are finding it difficult to remain afloat without the intervention of other revenue sources.

And as Dr. Wale Babalakin, the Chairman of the Implementation Committee of the Federal government and the Unions has brilliantly pointed out, the existing funding demands of our staff unions are not sustainable. Let’s do the sums. ASUU’s demand for N2Trillion to fund university education exceeds in value the total amount of money available for all capital projects in the country, including for Works and Infrastructure, Health, Security, Transportation, Housing and others.

Referring to the 2018 Budget, which was N9Trillion, Dr. Babalakin said: “If you look at the break-down of the Budget, after debt services are removed, you remove recurrent expenditure, all that is left for the federal government is about N2Trillion. Last year (that is, 2017), the former Minister of Finance celebrated the fact that in 2017, we spent N1.5Trillion on capital Projects, which was the highest we have ever achieved in Nigeria”. In other words, if we spend an average of about N1.8Trillion annually on capital projects, ASUU’s demand for N2Trillion is unrealistic in its extremes. Recall also that in the 2019 Budget, a paltry sum of N620billion, representing 7% of total expenditure was allocated to Education.

Faced with these realities, the Babalakin team has come up, in my view, with a number of well-thought-out proposals, among them a call for a huge increase in the number of scholarships provided for students of federal universities, a rapid implementation of a Student’s Loan Scheme, presumably, under the rubric of an Education Bank and the introduction of internally-driven and self-regulating Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), to ensure maximum return on investments. Implicit in these proposals, of course, is the assumption that universities, under a climate of full autonomy, would be allowed to charge proper economic fees for tuition and accommodation and that students in need of assistance would be able to avail themselves of the services of an existing Education Bank and a robust Loan’s Scheme.

But Mr. Chairman, even these measures, laudable as they may seem, would not be enough to get us to the Promised land. To be sustainable in the long-term, our universities would need to meet the full economic costs of teaching and research and these include proper staff remuneration, cost of research, costs of field trips, costs of equipment, cost of services, cost of replacing infrastructure and the cost of investing in innovation. Indeed, universities, by their very nature, need surplus income, because without surplus income “universities would be unable to deliver the scale of investment required to meet students’ demand, remain internationally competitive and continue to be financially sustainable”.

Again, let me, by way of emphasis, restate these facts somewhat differently. Our universities would need to creatively source for additional alternative and sustainable revenue streams to enable them to survive, thrive and compete internationally. In the absence of a robust tradition of endowments, which, for instance, is a key funding source for many American colleges and universities, our universities would need to do a lot more for them to join the league of the world’s top universities.

I contend further, that if we do not do this now; if we do not come up with fresh, creative ideas on how to survive, the future would be bleak for higher education in our country. Indeed, at the risk of sounding like a doomsday Prophet, I predict that if we fail to look inwards now and fail to see our current challenges as symptoms of an impending larger crisis, and continue to rely solely on government for funding, some of our current universities might not be around in twenty-five years from now to tell their stories. In the concluding section of this presentation, I would attempt to share with you our modest effort at Ile-Ife to confront this challenge, head-on. But before I do, let me quickly share with you two other aspects of the Higher Education debate that are relevant to the future of our universities, namely, the question of whether we should or should not establish more universities, and the perceived quality of our university education.

The funding debate had led some to argue, not without justification, that in the face of the huge scarcity of funds, which has led to serious decay in the system, government should put a freeze in the establishment of new universities. But that position is unrealistic and obscures a different, and perhaps an even more fundamental problem, in the face of unfolding realities. Again, let’s look at the figures. The World Bank estimates that at an annual growth rate of close to 3%, our population could be close to 500 million by 2050, which is only 30 years away! That would make us the most populous nation on earth, after China and India!! Close to half of that population, some 200 million young people, would be between the ages of 15-30, the age bracket that would most be in need of higher education. Bear in mind also that as at today, we deny close to one million young persons access to higher education because we cannot find spaces for them in our existing 170 universities. This exclusion confirms the World Bank’s figures that state that access to higher education in Africa remains, at 5%, the lowest regional average in the world, where the global average is 25%. So what would happen, thirty years down the road, when we hit the 500 million population mark?The economic implications of these realities are grim, especially for a country such as ours. If our current institutions are incapable of responding to our immediate skills’ needs to support productivity-led growth, what would happen when we are 500 million people? Put differently, how do we reap the demographic dividends of a huge growing young population in a way that enables us to plug the huge deficit in human capital development, while at the same time responding to our immediate skills’ needs?

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What these realities suggest is that we cannot afford to ignore the huge demand for higher education. The viable way forward, in my view, should be an expansive two-track approach that compels us to meet the yearning demands of higher education by establishing more universities, while at the same time striving continuously to improve on the quality of existing institutions. The example of India comes readily to mind here. With its 800 universities, 45,000 affiliated colleges, and 315 million student population, it could not shut its doors to the establishment of new universities, because India is acutely aware that it still has a huge exclusion problem of persons seeking admission to universities. What India did was to devote its time, resources and assets towards improving on the quality of some of its key institutions, while allowing at the same time for more universities to be established to cater to its 1.3 billion population. Even inspite of its many problems, India’s technological advancement today bears testimony to the fact that this model has paid off. We must make huge investments in the quantity and quality of our higher education. There are no two ways to it.

By quality of education here is meant the quality of teaching, learning and research. The questions that arise from this phenomenon are simple, but varied. Are our current university curricula responsive enough to the evolving demands of students and society? Are these curricula achieving the important aims of undergraduate education in an era of globalisation and the emerging age of Artificial Intelligence? Do our current patterns of skills production, as embodied in our curricula, match our labour market demands and developmental needs? Do we have a robust tradition of applied research that would drive and generate intellectual property, develop technologies needed to grow our economy in a way that ensures social mobility for our students? Are we doing enough in the area of ICT development for teaching, research and learning? Do our current curricula help develop greater intellectual competence in our students in ways that help them acquire such basic skills as critical thinking, critical reasoning and even basic writing? In today’s highly competitive world of digitalisation, developing such competences as critical thinking in an atmosphere of collaborative work is more valuable than merely acquiring information, facts and figures that are transmitted in passive lectures.

While not ignoring the Liberal Arts and the Social Sciences, our focus must now be on the Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, Agriculture and the new frontiers of the study of Science such as Robotic Engineering and Artificial Intelligence. It is now abundantly clear that ICT systems will, with time, become more complex and indispensable, based essentially on the exponential amount of data that is constantly collected, transmitted and utilised today. By now, it ought to be mandatory that undergraduates of our universities, in whatever discipline, must be equipped, ab inito, with basic digital skills as a prerequisite for a degree.

Let’s face it: the brave new world is here! Without question, the fourth industrial revolution is on us, with its focus on artificial intelligence, robotics and big data. And as society changes, we must change and adapt, otherwise, we become relics; we become the odd typewriters in the age of smartphones.

Mr. President, I am the first to admit that the issues I raise here are far more complex for a short forty-minute presentation. How do we find trained, suitable teaching staff for these new institutions which are bound to be established in the face of our growing population? How do we fund and equip them? But, then, what do we do with 250 million restive young Nigerians, yearning to go to universities? How do we strike a balance between the skills’ needs of a society of 500 million people, the yearning desire of some 250 million young persons for higher education and the ability to fund these institutions?

In our effort to create a more inclusive and less unequal society, perhaps, we should be looking at a different, more cohesive higher education model for our country. Perhaps. But, at least, let the process of addressing these problems begin in earnest. For instance, the federal government should establish, as a matter of priority, the much-talked about National Research and Innovation Foundation (NRIF) as contained in the Science and Innovation Policy of 2011. As conceived, the Foundation would start the conversation by mapping out a cohesive policy for the quality of higher Education generally, and of Research and scholarly output, and ultimately point the way forward in developing research areas that are critical to our economy.

I should quickly add, Mr. President, that these concerns about the quality of our university degrees are not peculiar to us in Nigeria. There is an ongoing debate even in better-funded university environments about just how much undergraduates are made to benefit from university education. Nowhere is this debate more vigorous than in the United States, where, in the face of rapid scientific evolutions, faculty review of curriculum has become an annual event in most colleges and universities. My good friend, Biodun Jeyifo, himself a former ASUU President and now retired Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, put his (Marxist!) finger accurately on a variant aspect of the problem when he asked in one of his weekly columns in The Nation newspapers: “Are the graduates we are producing now and that we will be producing in the future; are they being taught, being trained by academics and professionals who are themselves trained and good enough for a modern technology and science-driven capitalist economy?”

THE EXAMPLE OF OBAFEMI AWOLOWO UNIVERSITY, ILE-IFE

The old University of Ife has a unique history. As conceived by its founding fathers, the university was designed to chart a new direction and orientation in higher education in Nigeria. In his brilliant history of the university’s first ten years, Emeritus Professor Banji Akintoye documents how “from the beginning, a major objective was to step away from the pattern of university development designed by the British colonial rulers… to provide university education for only a small number of young Nigerians”. The university’s founding fathers dreamt of a novel community-based institution that would be self-sufficient and self-sustaining.

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So, when the current Council of the University assumed its assignment, it decided to go back to basics and seek to secure alternative funding sources in the hope of making the university virtually self-sustaining and self-sufficient. Armed with an expanse of some 10,000 hectares of University land and the support of the university’s Vice-Chancellor and his team, Council decided to establish an Industrial Farming Park that would put the land to industrial commercial use.Under the scheme, a privately registered limited liability company, the OAU Integrated Farms Ltd, has obtained a Lease of some 10,000 hectares of land from the university. Backed almost entirely by the Afrixexim Bank, the OAU Integrated Farms Ltd has entered into partnership with a number of foreign and local-based companied to stimulate the industrial development of agronomic production, processing and distribution on a single unit of the agricultural land in Ile-Ife.In more specific terms, there will be six components to the project: a massive industrial Poultry Farm with a 600,000 holding capacity of broilers and a cold room storage facility of 80 tons of chicken; a 500 capacity cattle feedlot and a dairy farm of 300 cows, with a capacity of 100,000 litres of milk a day; a large scale production of crops such as maize, soya beans, alfalfa, sunflower and cassava as impute into an industrial feed mill for the farm’s livestock and sale to other farmers; the production of high-yield vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, egg-plants in green houses and open field and a 1,700 hectare of hybrid coconut plantation for the production of coconut oil and other by-products.

The sixth component of the programme that deserves a special mention is the students’ Internship/Work-study Scheme, where students of diverse backgrounds and disciplines can, in their free time, not only earn money from working on this farm, but would also end up picking up skills that could change the courses of their lives after their graduation. In other cases, undergraduates of the Agricultural Sciences could be allocated hectares of land, supported with a lot of facilities to ensure the success of the scheme.

It is unnecessary to go into the financial details of this project here. Nor is there time to analyse its numerous and extended benefits. Again, it is sufficient merely to state that after several meetings and consultations, over a one-year period, with financial experts drawn from the Africa Development Bank, Afriexim Bank, in Cairo, the Governor of our Central Bank and the immediate past Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, we are certain that this $65million venture, which is already operational and (which, by the way, is the single largest investment of any Nigerian University, since Ibadan was founded) would turn our financial fortunes around at Ile-Ife. And when they do, 40% of the total profit from the venture would be assigned to Research, Teaching and Training, 25% to Infrastructural development, and the other 20% to Human Resource Development and Staff Support, 10% towards community development and the final 5% retained as an Emergency Relief Fund.

Again, there is not the time here to explain our effort at Ife to undertake a thorough review of our curriculum, which we are determined, would remain a continuous exercise. Neither am I able to explain our modest efforts to establish effective links with industry to enable us, among other things, to guarantee the employability of our graduates. But these processes are already in place and are beginning to yield results.

CONCLUSION

In discussing the challenges of university education in our country, I hope that I managed to convey a picture that is complex, varied, but not insurmountable. Again, because of the constraints of time, I have left out other key areas that could form the bases of a discussion at another place and time. However, one area that I shall touch up on, if only in passing, is the question of the leadership of our universities as embodied by our Vice-Chancellors. I speak here of the transformative power of leadership to create new possibilities, because, ideally, our Vice-Chancellors should be in the forefront of reshaping the debate about higher education in our country. Mr. President, I do not make this point lightly. I say this with considerable insights today into the problems of our universities at that level. Being a Vice-Chancellor is a tough job, with its mounting challenges, both inside and outside the university. But to be a Vice-Chancellor is also a privilege, because it offers an opportunity to shape young lives and contribute in many ways to shaping society as a whole. But without principled, courageous and creative men and women who have the character, vision and behaviourial skills to match the task, as well as the instincts and experience to understand and respond to the complexities of the job, no amount of funding from anywhere can transform our universities. Yes, it helps a lot to put in charge as Vice-Chancellors outstanding academics, with administrative experience. But it helps even more if such persons have integrity in a ways that elicit respect and elevate the ethos of a University.

But in concluding, let me state again that in the effort to reposition our universities, there would be no short cuts, no quick fixes. As we are discovering at Ile-Ife, some difficult choices will have to be made about the broad policy framework of higher education, which will be deftly negotiated by all stakeholders in the entire education gamut. Without impinging on the broad framework of our educational objectives, we must be prepared to take the bold steps of making cuts where necessary, of eliminating wastes, creating shared services, utilising assets more efficiently and renewing the relationship between administrative and academic functions. But our solutions must be united by one common thread, the focus on innovation. Our new normal in our battle to save our universities must be continuous innovation, characterised by flexibility and creativity. We must adapt and innovate, or we would become irrelevant.

For instance, in our ‘new’ curriculum choices we must seek better frameworks to advance all the important goals of a well-rounded university education. In deference to developmental needs and labour market demands, we must come up with curricula that is not only robustly structured to accommodate a theoretical ability to think systematically, but also one that can confront our acute shortages of higher skill labour. And we must be prepared to put in positions of leadership men and women of integrity who can drive these changes.

But in all that we do, let us remain clear that the purpose of university education is to train and graduate students to meet our demands for higher skills, to generate world-class research that would transform lives, drive innovation and support local and national economic growth and well-being.

The way forward may be tough. But I know that within us are to be found dedicated, committed and exemplary leaders who can respond to these challenges.


Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi is the Chairman, Governing Council at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State. The former Managing Director of the Daily Times Newspaper who also worked as a Director at the Guardian Newspaper was honoured as a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters in August.

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