INTERVIEW: Why Nigeria Open University Operated For Months Without Website – VC

Abdallah Uba Adamu, a professor, is the vice chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria, NOUN. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Festus Owete, Ashafa Murnai and Ebuka Onyeji, he speaks on the institution’s activities and challenges. Excerpts:

PT: You have been in the academic system for a long time, what was your perception of the open distance learning before your emergence as NOUN VC?

Adamu: The open distance learning concept was very hard for people to accept throughout the entire spectrum of the Nigerian education learning system. When the Open University system was conceptualized in 1983, nobody expressed confidence in it. Nobody wanted to be associated with the university and because of this there was crisis of confidence in the university. By 25th April 1984, the government simply decided to suspend it. That suspension was very painful to all of us who were not even involved in the process as at that particular time.

I started working in the university in July 1980. Three years later I had a Master’s degree. I heard of the open distance learning system first in the UK. I was one of those who were cynical about it because I was aware of the Open University of UK. When I was doing my masters in the University of London, one of the lecturers taught us about the open learning system. So, when I came back in 1983 and I saw Open University in Nigeria, I said ‘you are kidding, this cannot be here.’ My perception of it at that time was very poor. At that time they recorded lectures in cassettes and then sell the video cassettes. When you are watching it on TV sometimes light goes off and you lose concentration. The problems were too much. The internet came to Nigeria in 1991. So we didn’t have ICT then and so the government suspended it in 25th April, 1984. There was no stable electricity for it to work. The open distance learning was revived in 2003. I found the sense of irony when Dr. Aminu Ibrahim, one of the facilitators, visited me in Bayero University and recruited me to come and revive the university. When we came to Lokoja I discovered that other professors were there and we spent a whole month writing the programmes. After we finished, the coordinator, Dr. Olugbemiro Jegede, who happened to be my teacher in Ahmadu Bello University, pulled me aside and said, “I want you to become the dean of faculty of education and I said no”. Again there was that cynicism in me and lack of confidence in the Open University system. So I just switched it off. Now zoom to 2016 and I heard on the radio and on NTA that I was the VC of NOUN. Earlier, somebody told me “we are thinking of sending your name” but “I said don’t do that, I don’t want it”. Previously, I was told to be a VC five times. It was twice in Bayero University, in Kano University of Technology and even in NOUN in 2010 when Prof. Jegede’s tenure finished. I repeatedly said I was not interested. So suddenly I am here again with the same old offer. I asked them why they didn’t remove my name. They said that it had already been announced. Somebody who is cynical about the university, someone who initially didn’t believe in open distance learning, who didn’t think Open University is a university is now being called upon to become the VC of that same University. Therefore I saw this as a direct assignment from God. “Since I have so much cynicism about the university, now go and see things for yourself if you can defeat that cynicism.” So, when I came in, I came with a messianic mission. I came in with all guns blazing pulling out every intellectual ideas that I know in order to turn the university around so that nobody will ever look at it with cynicism just like me. I considered it as tournament from God.

PT: You took us through the memory lane. Are you satisfied with the level NOUN has got to at this moment?
Adamu: University can exist in one or two states. A university can be either evolutionary or revolutionary. A university that is trying to improve itself should have all the two states but I will say most universities are evolutionary – it means it grows under normal circumstance. The system will always be there and that is evolutionary. But I decided to take NOUN to revolutionary stage which is total transformation. The first thing I did was to bring to the board this idea of open distance learning, ODL. Prior to my coming in, people didn’t understand what open distance learning meant. Some of our regulators don’t even understand it. To them it is part time education, but it is not so. The university has become revolutionary by embracing the internet. It has walked away from that ancient technology, cassette and things like that. But now with your phone you can get admitted, you can take exams, you can do everything so far you can access the internet. It’s the revolutionary thing we have done. We have brought education to your pocket.

PT: But if you look at Nigeria today it’s not as developed as other countries in terms of technology. Can people in the rural areas access your portal?

Adamu: Just like the MTN slogan, where ever you go there is a network. We also have Glo, Etisalat and the Airtel which are almost covering the country in terms of data provision. However, we are not even naive enough to think you are in a deep village and cannot access our data and that is why we have study centres. We have 75 study centers. We have nine additional study centres which we have approved but not yet active. We have about 84 study centres which are scattered throughout the federation. So, we can reach out to anybody anywhere even in the village. It’s an ODL.

PT: Your option to relocate the headquarters of NOUN from Lagos to Abuja was not welcomed by some Nigerians. What prompted the relocation?

Adamu: NOUN has never been in Lagos. This is the only university that says “national” and if its national then it should be were the national capital is and the national capital is in Abuja, not Lagos.

The Act establishing the university did not state a specific location for the university but since it’s national it means that wherever the capital is that is where the university should be. When the school was created its first location was in Kushingoro in Abuja. This is the land that was given for the university to be established. Then they were given lands for offices in Area 2 or 3 (Garki District) for offices to share with the Ministry of Education.

So, we started there. Then the university started expanding. Even after it was suspended, the university was still in Abuja. When the school now returned in 2006, government now said look, ‘establishing the university in Abuja will take a lot of time and money.’ The Federal Ministry of Education in Lagos is vacant in the meantime because the ministry had moved to Abuja. So we were told to go over there till we sort things out here. So that is how NOUN moved to Lagos in three days from Abuja. We renovated the buildings and we moved in.

Then when I became VC I did not know that this campus (Abuja) had been built and when I went to collect the letters of appointment I ask them where the university was located. They laughed and said it can either be in Lagos or Abuja, it’s up to you. So I set up an internal meeting with the former VC and the contractor that built this place and some staff after which I discovered that President Buhari gave approval and this building was built in just eight months.

I asked the contractor when the building would be fully ready and he said before the end of March. During my inauguration on 1st March, 2016 I told my people that we were officially moving to Abuja on 25th of March. Although nobody expected such drastic movement, it was not disputed. The challenges of dislocation came up but I told them ‘it’s either you do it my way or you go the highway but all I know is that I am moving on the 25th.’ We eventually moved here on 29th because 25th was Easter. That was one of the most courageous move I made and I didn’t even think it through.

PT: So, you didn’t even consider dislocation of families by your decision?

Adamu: I considered the fact we are serving Nigeria. For me I had to relocate from Kano because of the job and service to the country.

PT: Where was the opposition coming from?

Adamu: There wasn’t any single opposition that I am aware of. People might be grumbling but nobody came to my face to say it. One thing about NOUN is that the staff and students are people I deeply respect because they deeply respect me. I have introduced a lot of reforms and they have supported me.

PT: Why does NOUN still have low recognition in terms of university rating in the country?

Adamu: NOUN is fully recognized by the National University Commission. We have programmes that are accredited by NUC and we can’t go farther than that. NUC says “we know you, we accept your existence”. We offer Bench Mark Minimum Academic Standard (BMMAS). It is a curriculum created by the NUC and it is the same BMMAS in all universities. Let’s take political science for instance. Our political science BMMAS is same as that of University of Ibadan, UNILAG and other 151 universities across the nation. NOUN is the only university recognized as an ODL institution. About 10 universities provide distance learning programmes but NOUN is the only one recognized. For the others, its dual mode ODL because sometimes they will go to the campus to meet their lecturers, but in NOUN it is fully ODL. I can spend five years as a VC without seeing a single student.

Same as the deans, HOD and lecturers. They don’t need to see the students physically. We don’t have to have face to face interaction with students because at all the study centres we have facilitators who guide the students. But the reason why people are looking down on us is because of the nature of learning in the African society. The system of learning in Africa recognizes apprenticeship system. You want to learn, you go in front of a master, there has to be face to face interaction. But our system says you are on your own. The textbook are there as well as the handouts, read and guide yourself. So even the students lack confidence to do it on their own. For us in Africa, that system of learning is unsettling, it is something we are not used to. We are used to hanging on to an apron of someone who is going to lead us, someone who will guide us and someone who we will blame when we fail. But here the power to pass or fail is in your hands. If you pass it is because you read well and if you fail it means you didn’t read. If the students are doing the E-exams which are timed automatically by the computer and the time is up, you can’t complain because it’s a timed exam and your time has finished. The moment you put your hands on the keyboard, the time starts reading. So, it’s that level of investment and responsibility on you that makes people feel uncomfortable with our system.

PT: So don’t you think there is need for some kind of enlightenment?

Adamu: Yes, that is what we are doing. We are doing our best to enlighten people. We have been bombarding the internet with information about us. We didn’t matriculate students in June last year because we didn’t have enough students to matriculate. So we started the media pleas and campaign in July and then last month the director told us that the total number we have registered was 13,932. That was quantum leap and all this information is on the website. The awareness we have created has created confidence in the university. Last year we negotiated that the Committee of Postgraduate Studies should hold their annual meeting here in NOUN.

Hosting a meeting is expensive but this was part of our media campaign. Every single dean of post graduate studies was there on that day. We learnt that this committee had been looking for a secretariat and we said we will give them a secretariat here and by that we captured them and brought them closer and brought them in.

PT: Graduates of NOUN do not participate in the NYSC program. Why is it so?

Adamu: We have come out very aggressively to tackle that issue. We have been going on air. I can count the number of times we have gone to the National Assembly on this same issue of NYSC. In 1983 when this university was conceptualized, it was meant for civil servants, people who are matured and already working, for very few students. Then the issue of part time comes in. Students only come on part time basis.

By mid-2000, the number of students seeking admission into institutions across the country via JAMB had doubled. Out of over a million that applied, only 300,000 will be admitted and so the vast number of people who cannot gain admission have to find employment as they try again and again.

Some will keep trying and keep failing to gain admission. I know someone who tried eight times and failed.

So some brave souls decided to try the NOUN. They found out that we are actually doing something and that most of the study materials are written by professors. You can work in a supermarket or as a ‘danfo’ driver or even if you kill somebody and they lock you up in jail, you can still continue your studies. There was a rush in NOUN and we didn’t think of it till the issue of NYSC came up.

The fact is that the NUC law doesn’t allow those who do part time studies to do NYSC. And the original Act that established NOUN says we offer courses by correspondence and that is the expression NYSC is using to say ‘if it is a correspondence course then it is part time, if its part time then the students are not eligible for NYSC.’ That is why our students can’t go for NYSC. So we have to remove that clause from our Act that indicates we are part time. We want to amend the Act. That is why we have been going to the National Assembly. We even had a public hearing. It has passed the first reading at NASS. We have inserted the ICT and luckily it’s not even us that is now initiating it, it’s now the legislators themselves.

They sponsor the bill themselves. It passed the first and second reading and then we went for public hearing and it passed public hearing and they brought it back to us for any amendment before it will go for final hearing before it goes to the president for assent. The reason why we don’t participate in NYSC is the perception by NYSC that we are part-time and that perception is in our old Act which we are about to amend. That is the same problem we have with the Council for Legal Education which also says we are part time.

They don’t allow students who go through part-time studies go through law school. So, it is a question of misconception based on our Act. When the bill is passed into law, then they have no right to block our students from participating. In fact we can even sue them for denying them their rights because we are no longer part time.

PT: So now what happens to the people who graduated previously without going for NYSC or law school?
Adamu: I am a teacher. We have the list of NOUN students who have graduated but could not go for NYSC. They are given exemption certificates and we are taking care of that. The only problem are those who are not up to 30 years who couldn’t collect exemption letters. Maybe by the time the process of amending the Act is over they will be up to 30 and then we give them exemption letters.

PT: Is there any form of discrimination when it comes to getting job with the NOUN certificate compared to others that graduated from other universities?

Adamu: There will always be discrimination. If you present a Harvard certificate and someone presents xyz certificate, there will always be discrimination. So it’s normal. It’s not about the quality of the university but the perception of the people about the university. But legally if you present a NOUN certificate and they refused to give you a job because you are from NOUN, tell us so we can pick up the fight because NUC have told us that any employer that doesn’t employ you because you are from NOUN then he is committing a crime. He/she can reject you on other reasons not because of your school.

PT: How affordable is education in NOUN and how assignable is it?

Adamu: It costs N41, 000 to register now but education in Nigeria is free. We don’t charge fees but our registration costs 41,000. The allocations we get is for salaries. Government deals with that. They pay us for capital expenses. Look at private universities, they are charging between N2 million and N3 million and they are using the same BMASS we are using. Education is free but every institution is allowed to charge for administrative costs. They call it Internally Generated Revenue in other schools but in NOUN we call it paid services revenue. N41, 000 is for new students while returning students pay N13,000. Then you also pay for course registration. The beauty of it is that you can register for 10 courses but if you are not ready to take them all at the moment, you can just pay for the ones you are ready for and take the other ones later. It is flexible. We have almost 400,000 students in our system but only about 95,000 are currently taking exams. So it’s flexible. You can take the exams at your own time.

PT: Your portal was reportedly hacked recently. What caused the problem and how were you able to resolve it?
Adamu: When I came into this university I discovered two companies were in charge of data management- Cyberspace and Emerging Platform. Cyberspace is responsible for the portal, admission, exams and so on. Emerging Platform on the other hand is responsible for e-facilitation. They supervise facility for people to come online to access our data, watch videos and so on. Then I discovered that 70% of what we got goes to Cyberspace. Students are to pay N10, 000 for ICT administration and N7, 000 goes to Cyberspace and N3, 000 comes to NOUN. That’s unfair. It is my students, my data and yet you take the bulk of the money. Also we have e-facilitation, where we charge about N15, 000 and 85% of that goes to the company, 15% comes to NOUN. That is unfair. So I said ‘let’s call a meeting.’ One of the companies said take 60% and let’s take 40%. I said no, if we are going to work out any formula at all, you take 10% while I take 90%. So there was no agreement and I came up with a committee within the school. The committee said ‘let’s create our own.’ So we created our own.

We have a Computer Science department which has a concentration of intellectuals. Why will I now get someone to design my data for me? So that is how we cut off from them. I taught System Analysis. I know there are two ways of system converting method and the most dangerous is switch off, switch on. You switch off the old one and switch on the new one and that is the one we did. It’s risky but very necessary for security purposes.

The other service providers said they will help us move the system gradually, little by little until the transfer is complete, but I disagreed. I am a businessman from Kano. How can I remove 70% from someone and expect him to help me and show me the way? Is that possible? So, I said no. We then created a dead zone between June and November, which there was no portal. That was the period we had challenges. We signed an MOU with the companies to help manage somethings until that November because the portal is no longer ours and that is where we started facing problem. I said I have no problem, I can shut down the university for a whole year and sort myself out first. I have that power but I said no we need to tackle the issue. In January this year, we launched the new portal and now we have 14,000 students registered in it. Within the first few weeks the system almost crashed because there was a rush. But the most important thing you should know is that the portal that is not working is nounonline.net. But our portal is nouonline.net because technically speaking there is nothing like the National Open University of Nigeria. We have amended that in our Act so our name is National Open University. So we maintained that on our portal which is nouonline.net but someone came up with nounonline.net and the natural tendency for people looking for us online is to say ‘noun’ and the moment you go there you will see “site not working” or “site under construction”. That is what they see and say this man has come and changed the entire system and the portal stopped working. But if they go to nouonline.net, it’s there. That is the challenges we are facing, people are coming up with series of fake website to cheat people or to confuse people. We reported this to NITDA. Another challenge we faced is that when we cancelled our MOU with our old partners, we asked them to give us back our data which was in their system but they refused. They refused to give us the wallet balance system. Someone will come and tell you he registered about two years ago and has about N25,000 in the system, “how will I get money now?” We tell him that we will sort it out and then tell him to give us evidence that he paid the money. But we can’t access these information on our data because our old partners refused to give us our old data.

PT: So, the website was not really hacked?

Adamu: There were attempts to hack the website and we have been hit to the extent that our system is totally damaged. There are many attempts. You know hackers can do anything to attack anybody but we have made sure that we provide up to date security to prevent these attacks. We are also a victim of our own success because sometimes we find out that the software put in place to block attackers might as well block a genuine user. When we see an IP trying to hit the site so many times, the program might blacklist that IP till we sort it out and say that the IP is legitimate.

PT: How much did you save by disengaging from your old partners?

Adamu: That is what is called confidential information. We have not saved much though but we have saved time, energy and efficiency. In the past when we needed information from our old partners we had to send it to them in Lagos. You know they are handling other things so it takes time for them to respond but now everything is here with us. If there is any issue now we tackle it here and we have put a hotline number on the portal. So what we have saved is efficiency and service delivery. Our clients now know us and work with us directly and again by creating this our own portal through our computer science department shows we have confidence in what we do.
PT: There was a report of imbalance and disparity over registration of students in some sections of this country. What is the situation and how are you trying to bridge this gap?

Adamu: The situation is that states like Sokoto has only about 648 students while Delta has about 33,000. That is the disparity. The gap is huge. The northern states are very poorly represented in NOUN. I think the reason is lack of awareness and again that old suspicion of not being comfortable to study on your own is another factor. People normally believe in the conventional way of learning by going to the class rooms and so it’s hard to accept the system we run over there.

PT: Could the long stay of the institution in Lagos have been partly responsible for the disparity?
Adamu: Not necessarily. It is just that the level of awareness is not enough in the north. The study centres are not probably doing enough advocacy over there. And of course they are not being empowered enough but we have decided to create regional medium of resource in each of the six geopolitical zones in the country. We will assign one officer in the zone who will now liaise with facilitators in the study centers in zones and create more awareness and it is working. We didn’t have this in the past. It is this kind of strategy that we use to make people become more aware of what we are doing and with this we can now generate more interest in the university. Another thing we did is that we are giving total free education to prisoners. Anybody who happened to be locked up in prison for whatever reason, if they want they can become students of NOUN free of charge, no registration fees or anything. Now we have about 104 registered students from the prisons, newly registered which doesn’t include those who are already in the system. Last year someone graduated from the prisons.

PT: Even people on death row can register?

Adamu: Yes, of course. At least when you die, you die a graduate. You can take your certificate to your grave or be buried with it if you want.

PT: Is there any imbalance in the staffing of the institution?

ADAMU: There is an imbalance because the institution is not well known. Not many people were willing to apply because it was in Lagos. Even I was not willing to apply.

PT: The current government is now two years in office. What do you think it has achieved in the education sector?

Adamu: I am not in position to answer for the entire education sector but I can say that there is more liberalism, transparency, openness and debate on the quality of education. We no longer operate under an oppressed atmosphere or under uncertainty. We now operate under a much relaxed open system of learning. Most importantly this openness has generated innovations. We always come up with something new and that desire to innovate is because we are given a free hand to operate.

PT: There is the problem of low quality graduates in Nigeria. What is your view on this?
Adamu: Universities are there to provide services and there is this old cliché’ that says “you can take a horse to the water but you cannot force it to drink.” This issue of low quality of education has been going round and round. I studied in the 60’s.

The students we have now are even smarter than us due to the advent of modern technology. So, it’s not just about education but about knowledge. Education is a straight forward process; you read, you understand but knowledge is about the way you integrate within the larger picture.

I don’t see a problem in the education system because if I say so, it means I don’t have confidence in what am doing.

PT: What legacy do you want to leave in NOUN?

Adamu: I want to leave NOUN better than I found it. I want to make it easier for someone who will take over after me. I want to create a robust system that is transparent so that when I leave, NOUN will no longer be a noun but a verb, a doing word.

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