Nine new Private Universities: One too many By Jide Osuntokun

On the recommendation of the National Universities Commission, the Federal government has approved the take off of nine new private universities mostly in the Southwest, South-South and North-Central areas where there are enough private universities already. The obvious questions to ask is where will these universities find good students, bearing in mind, the number of students who pass in five subjects at credit level, including English and Mathematics is usually not many. The existing universities sometimes have to struggle to find enough students to meet approved quota. Secondly, where will the staff to teach in these universities come from bearing in mind that foreigners would not accept current salaries paid to academics in Nigeria where a full professor earns two thousand five hundred dollars ($2500) a month at current rate of exchange. The result of this is that these new universities would poach staff from existing universities leading to a situation where people who cannot be senior lecturers in existing universities become professors in new ones.

Thirdly, running a university is an expensive venture. If those who are establishing mushroom universities think they would make money, they are definitely in for a great shock. If proprietors are determined to make money, then they will have to cut corners in students’ accommodation, provision of laboratories and libraries and staffing as a whole. The result of this will be frustration of students and staff to the detriment of the institutions and vicariously to the detriment of our country.

I have not said anything about employment for those coming out of these universities because I do not think this is a strong argument against training of young people. University education is for the purpose of training the mind and developing the total man or woman. Getting jobs should be regarded as secondary. If people are well trained no matter what discipline, they would either get jobs or start something on their own. Certainly, they would be in a position to shape the future of their country through critical participation in what goes on in the society as responsible citizens. An educated citizenry is a fundamental condition for development.

I have said it in my column once that by the law of natural competition, a few of our private universities will die but that the ones established by corporate or sectarian bodies are more likely to survive. At least, I know a university that was approved some ten years ago that flew for sometime before crashing out of existence. More of this is likely to happen in the future. Finally, government needs to give itself a breathing space for consolidation of the existing private and public universities before approving new universities. Many of the present new universities both public and private are too small judging by students’ enrolment. Half of the over one hundred and forty universities we have in this country have less than five thousand students each and the entire number of students in the over 140 universities we have in this country is not up to one million. So it is not the number of universities that really matters, what matter is quality universities that can take more students in existing universities while saving cost on administration.

I was at the centennial celebration of the association of commonwealth universities in London last year and one of the trends noticeable is that a few top universities in Europe and America are beginning to establish branch universities in developing countries and offering courses through electronic education and graduating students some of who have never been to America or England with degrees of Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge as the case may be. So instead of establishing many universities all over the place, would it not have been better if a few of our universities were made to develop university campuses in other parts of our country? After all, we have the historical experience of London University having colleges in Ibadan, Legon, Accra; Mona, Jamaica; Makerere, Uganda; Nairobi, Kenya; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore, Singapore. The trend now is that some British and American universities are having large campuses off shore in China, Malaysia and the Middle East. Maybe if such branches were established in Nigeria, the cost of going there will be so prohibitive and few of our people would be able to go there and perhaps this accounts for approval of new universities in Nigeria. Whatever the case may be, the increasing number of mushroom universities in Nigeria, both public and private, calls for caution before we end up producing certificated illiterates who may be a scourge on the society that cannot meet their expectations for jobs and employment.

I hope I will not be misunderstood that I am advocating, shutting the door of education against the teaming millions of Nigerian youths who want to go through the portals of universities. Universities in India and America are of varying degrees in educational quality. We of course, already have these varying degrees in the quality of our universities. This is in spite of the fact that the NUC foolishly imposes on all Nigerian universities homogenised programmes without allowing each university to develop its own character and uniqueness. I do not know how the NUC came to do this because the NUC in its formative years was patterned after the British higher education grants commission. It was meant to receive grants from the government and distribute to universities but overtime, the NUC in Nigeria has become not only a grants commission but an academic standards organisation. The result is that all the universities offer the same programmes whether private or public and there is no room for uniqueness or academic identity. This makes the point I made about a few universities in Nigeria being made to establish campuses all over the country and the present campuses of existing universities being turned into mere tutorial and examination centres. There is a need for debate about the need of higher education in Nigeria; and this debate was started in the commonwealth universities association centennial celebration; and there is a need for stakeholders in higher education in Nigeria to be actively involved because this is about our future; and our future cannot be left in the hands of a few bureaucrats no matter how highly educated they may be. Higher education is too important to be left in the hands of the to be left in the hands of NUC.

NATION