Nigerian Universities In The Development Equation By Alex Otti

Introduction: In his book, the ‘Origin of Species,’ Charles Darwin wrote: “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” In other words, in the natural order of things, the weak tribe, the shallow ethnic group, the intellectually limited race and the socially inferior being or nation becomes predisposed to an unfortunate but certain end, death; which yields room to the more accomplished, the intellectually superior, the technologically advanced and the culturally sophisticated.

Life leaves little room for weakness. Life is a continuous evolution of superior minds and societies attaining greater levels of growth and development. Indeed, life is about change and adaptability. Perhaps at no other time in human history have change and adaptability become so significant than now. Computing power is several times greater than it was as recently as twenty years ago when there was no Business to Customer (B2C) online shopping platform like Alibaba.com. Amazon was just a fledgling online book retailer, as distinct from the retail behemoth it is today. Think about it: just ten years ago there was no Jumia, and no Konga. Elsewhere, Tesla has shown that cars can actually be driven on batteries rather than fossil fuel. Solar energy solutions are becoming increasingly cheaper and more diffuse. Waste to energy (WTE) solutions are converting shredded used tires to low Sulphur Diesel fuel and medium capacity electricity. In other words, high grade thinking is redefining the human workspace, home space and indeed play-space.

Putting it in even more epigrammatic light, one of the greatest minds of the last century Albert Einstein noted, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ If Nigeria is to correct the errors of the past and chart a course that assures her of an enviable place in global history, she must start with a new mental paradigm.

THE DEMOGRAPHICS

To provide perspective, we should take a brief overview of the nation’s socioeconomic context. Nigeria is a giant with gigantic problems. With over180 million people and an annual population growth rate of 3%, if we apply ‘the rule of 70’, Nigeria’s population would double over the next 20 years.

Also of critical importance here is the fact that Nigeria’s population is one of the youngest in the world. Over 70 percent of the country’s population is less than 35 years of age resulting in what you could term a “pot-bellied youth bulge”. This is not necessarily bad, but if this growing army of young talented Nigerians is not put to productive use, the intense social unrest that could be precipitated could lead to one of the most disturbing socio-political upheavals ever experienced on the African continent, making the Arab Spring of the last decade, a child’s play.

Officially, Nigeria’s unemployment rate is considered to be about 18% today. At best this is a politically convenient figure, but even this number is 100% higher than the 9% unemployment rate recorded in 2015, a mere two years ago. The clearly worsening unemployment situation in the country at a time the nation graduates roughly 350,000 students yearly, leaves little to the imagination about the dire consequences of not growing the nation’s economy by at least 10% per annum over the next 10 years.

UNEMPLOYMENT SUBTERFUGE

At the beginning of 2016, the unemployment rate was at 10.4%, by mid-year, the rate had increased to 12.1% with a year-end forecast of 18%. We are almost at ‘the tipping point’ when the unemployed may begin to push back against society and escalate open social dissension.

So far, we seem to be blissfully ignorant about the implications of our demographics and surprisingly treat the issue of population and its nuances as if it were some minor inconvenience, like a mosquito humming in our ears. To be sure, Nigeria’s burgeoning population and its attendant repercussions are far more complex and exceedingly more dangerous than a bite from a female anopheles mosquito.

Again, lemonade comes from lemons not oranges; if a nation aspires to the greatness it must groom great people, it cannot thrive with people unaccustomed to advanced thinking, intellectual rigour and social flexibility. If Nigeria is to progress, we must improve our productivity and the challenge starts with our schools, especially our universities.

EDUCATION AND ITS RESPONSIBILITIES

At the heart of a nation’s progress are not its mineral resources, its ethnic or tribal affiliations nor necessarily its geographic location but the quality of its people. The difference between rich and poor nations is a contrast between the types of people that live within their different geographic boundaries. Nigeria has remained a struggling country, largely because it has incrementally betrayed its responsibility to the education of its youth. Nigeria is one of the lowest spenders on education on the African continent.

Rich nations have better-educated people and tend to attract such people to reinforce already exceptional talent. We can debate whether Harvard is an exceptional University, but what is not in contention is that Harvard attracts exceptional students, just like Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Gifted students are attracted to Harvard and become gifted lecturers who in turn attract gifted students. Which University in Nigeria today can lay claim to attracting the finest of Nigeria’s brains deliberately and consciously to build a school tradition of excellence that will attract independent funding? Most Nigerian universities, private ones inclusive, are funded in ways that cannot guarantee the excellence that the nation requires to forge ahead in an increasingly digital world, with technology proceeding at a pace Microsoft’s Bill Gates once said was ‘faster than the speed of thought’. The world of Tesla’s Elon Musk is certainly not the world the Nigerian educational system is preparing our youths for. We are talking of the world of advanced robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), neuroplasticity, driverless cars, digital urban roadways, automated route switching metro lines and smart cities! The emerging world order is driven by intellect and creativity and no longer the dumb mining and trading of natural resources.

As a people we have become comfortable with a lazy view of life. We have come to expect that we should do well because we have a dubious wealth from oil. This is one of the most blatant falsehoods we have created. Wealth is not a ‘thing’ it is a ‘process’. The problem we face today is that our education is not designed to create wealth. It is structured and nurtured to produce at best bureaucrats, and at worst plutocrats. Men and women who expect to become wealthy through all kinds of means other than the rigorous application of their intellect, and creativity. These are people that bury money in septic tanks; stash loot in obscure buildings and flaunt everything but intellect.

If this country must progress, schools must be dedicated to producing students equipped to think creatively, deeply and unconventionally. Albert Einstein did not become great by memorizing the theories of his lecturers, but by diligently challenging their concepts unless they could irrefutably prove their correctness. He persistently asked the question, ‘why’ and if that would not be sufficient he would then ask, ‘why not’ an alternative! It is this critical tradition that has now culminated in a composite worldview where in the western world today, universities do not generally teach students ‘what’ to think but ‘how’ to think!

This is at the very basis of the failure of Nigeria to translate academic knowledge into solutions. This has inhibited our ability to solve even the most basic of problems in the areas of science, technology, and engineering. The lack of intellectual flexibility and creativity, the willful laziness of our campuses have resulted in a nation that is dependent on everything that is imported, no matter how inappropriate to our unique environment. Nigeria produces oil but the sector is not ‘internalized,’ and its major participants are foreigners serving external interests while dropping crumbs on the table for the locals to keep them from being restive. We have not defeated slavery; we have merely made it more subtle and perhaps more permissible. Our universities, with due respect, have so far failed us.

Nigerian universities have remained in the lower rungs of rankings in the World and Africa. In the latest edition of Times Higher Education Ranking, 2016, no Nigerian University made it to the top 981 universities in the world, quite unlike in 2015 when we featured at No. 600. That explains how fast the rest of the world is moving and or how fast Nigeria is moving in the wrong direction. In this same report for Africa, University of Ibadan which placed 11th in 2015 had dropped to the 14th position. Out of the best 15 universities in Africa, South African Universities took the first 6 positions, except the 4th position that went to Makerere University, Uganda. In another report, the 2017 African University Ranking, which largely agreed with the Times ranking, only 4 Nigerian universities made it to the top 50 in Africa.

Most curricula are a poor imitation of the study packs of western universities. Our universities lack the creative muse, the authentic homegrown feel that makes study instantly relevant to the local environment. Our graduates are simply not being prepared for the real world. They lack an interface with their likely future work environment and falter from the very start of their careers because of poor preparation.

Furthermore, our universities are not tailored towards solving evolving challenges. If power has become an albatross to us, what solutions have our egg heads proffered? Why have our universities not designed, marketed and implemented alternative energy solutions? Why must we wait for Bill and Melinda Gates to fight malaria? With over 150 universities in the country today we should feel extremely scandalized by the ‘entitlement’ and ‘dependency’ culture we have encouraged. We should feel terribly pained by the fact that we have to look abroad for solutions to local problems. Nobody can love us more than ourselves. Nobody can understand us better than ourselves. As far as foreigners are concerned we are a great source of demand for their intellectual products. We are the consumption haven waiting for their production paradise.

A CALL FOR ACTION

If we must take our place in an intellectual world, we must rethink education now. I believe the following actions must be taken amongst others:

We must have the will to spend at least 25% of the country’s annual budget on education and create special education fund to support R&D in priority areas.

The government should grant special education support for students in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) while company investments in R&D should be tax deductible.

Universities should run their schools much more efficiently and effectively. They should market their schools the way companies market their products. They should sell research, provide feasibility studies, and run joint ventures. They should get off their butts and work!

Universities must ensure that their curricula are not only relevant to our peculiar circumstances but up to date with realities. The study of pinhole cameras in a digital world can only pass as a history topic.

Universities need to use their alumni networks to attract endowments and bequests. They should produce saleable journals. They must see the possibilities of the commercial viability of their own indigenous products and processes. Handouts are no longer fashionable. These days the smartest dog gets the fattest bone while the patient dog eats no bones.

Our universities need to engage government. They need to analyze government’s policies, produce papers, host seminars and create a buzz that makes them noticed. The comfortable and serene indolence we seem to be witnessing today helps nobody. Elsewhere, universities take positions; challenge orthodoxy; keep people and governments on their toes. They do not have to be ‘nice’ but professional.

We need a national agenda on education. Where are we? Where do we want to go? And how do we get there?

CONCLUSION

If our universities would be relevant in the development journey, they must make drastic changes. We cannot continue to do the same thing and expect different results.

Ladies and gentlemen, as the young minds here today go into the world to express the gospel of education for development, I wish to admonish that they will find no free lunches, they will find no helpful handlebars to prop themselves up. What they will find is a world prepared to accept them for what they can offer. They will succeed to the extent of the value that they are prepared to add to society. This, therefore, is the primary task of our gowns, to provide top class minds to drive the development of our towns. While Einstein insists that “education is what remains when one has forgotten what one has learned in school’, I shall modify it to “education is what is of value when we put what we learned at school to use”.

Someone out there may like to draw my attention to a failed educated person and a successful person with little or no education. My response is, for everyone educated person that failed, I will show you ninety-nine successful educated people and for everyone uneducated successful person, I will show you ninety-nine failed uneducated persons. I will also like to add that if the successful school drop-out was able to complete his education, only God knows how successful he would have been.

Email: alexottiofr@gmail.com

Penultimate Wednesday, I was privileged to deliver the 2017 Convocation lecture of the Babcock University. Below is the edited paper which I hope, readers will find useful.

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