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Nigerian universities in quest for global excellence

By 2050, Nigeria will become the third most populous country in the world, according to the United Nations, with 399 million people – most of them ambitious youths. However, the country’s public university system is in a state of dysfunction. In this piece, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL, examines what makes foreign universities tick and what local institutions can learn from them.

Universities abroad, with their distinctive campuses, emphasis on research and scholarship, and singular form of governance are often seen as academic sanctuaries, separate from the rest of society though they are also products of the society that shaped them and exert unique influence on society as well.

With the world more fast-moving and interconnected than ever, higher education institutions are no longer isolated ivory towers, said Stephanie Kim, Faculty Director for the master’s programmes in global higher education and higher education administration at Georgetown University. “They are becoming vastly more interconnected with each other and the societies in which they reside, both here in the United States and around the world.”

Kim cited five trends to look for as universities respond to the demographic, economic, political, and technological challenges which Nigerian university policymakers and administrators can borrow a leaf from.

In Nigeria, the biggest issue of the university education system is little or no funding for research, development, and infrastructure. This is similar to what obtains abroad. Declining support for higher education at the state level has forced public universities to scramble for funds.“There’s more attention to the bottom line, which makes higher education more expensive,” Kim said, with bigger tuition costs and less money for loans and scholarships. According to a recent study by the Economics of education review, every $1,000 cut in per-student state and local funding results in the average student paying $257 more annually in tuition and fees.

Rather than whine and go on strike, these universities abroad have become ingenious, creative, developed business models and partnered non-profit and profit-making organisations to keep doing what they know how to do best.One of the X-factors of overseas universities is increased interconnectivity. For example, Georgetown is one of several US universities with campuses in Qatar, and Yale University recently opened a branch in Singapore in partnership with the National University of Singapore. As of 2013, 52 US universities operated 82 branch campuses in 37 countries, according to the cross-border education research team at the State University of New York-Albany.

Another factor is technology. Online learning will continue to grow, expanding the reach of higher education to include more nontraditional students. In a sense, this virtual classroom is more democratic, Kim said, as it not only expands access to higher education but also changes the dynamics of student-professor relationships, with the professor positioned as more of a facilitator.

The infrastructures of foreign universities are specifically designed to make learning fun and inspiring to students; everything is designed with learning outcomes in mind. Maintenance is key to sustaining these beautiful, aesthetically modelled buildings: from the classrooms to the library; the labs to the hostels; the playground to the sceneries. All these make learning, teaching, and innovation and excellence possible. Adequate infrastructure is a mirage in Nigeria. The sense of scholarship is high in foreign universities. Standards are very low in Nigeria.

A Nigerian, Barnabas Angyer, said, “Anytime I see the way knowledge is being imparted to students abroad, I always wish I can have the opportunity to be there forever. Well, it is not as if the knowledge is really different anyway. But I can admit it is advanced and as such what is transferred to the students is up to date and the measures used to impart such knowledge is advanced too. Leading to productivity that’s very high.

“In Nigeria, even our normal boards we use to write out information are so old that you hardly differentiate writings from scratches. Although it is not in all universities. Now the issue of projectors, I believe we will grow to the stage of constant use of projectors to study, but until then, the source of light will not even permit us to manage the one projector the whole department is even using.”

University education in Nigeria, at least in the public sector, is in a state of dysfunction. Its human capital is in disarray, so is its physical infrastructure. Academic standards and infrastructure are daily eroded with not a few disillusioned students wanting out. Their teachers are frustrated in the face of poor motivation and ramshackle facilities. As the rot deepens, so does the Federal Government’s neglect of the education sector worsens.

Nigeria’s 2020 proposed budget for education is the lowest in 14years (2020: 6.32; 2019-7.12; 2018-7.14; 2017-7.40; 2016-7.92; 2015-10.78; 2014-10.53; 2013-10.15; 2012-9.69; 2011-9.39; 2010-8.17; 2009-8.51; 2008-9.68 and 2007- 9.75 per cent.None of the E9 or D8 countries other than Nigeria allocates less than 20 percent of its annual budget to education, even among sub-Saharan African countries, Nigeria was trailing far behind smaller and less-endowed nations in terms of its investment in education.

According to the world education service, there will likely remain a dynamic growth market for international students. This is largely due to the overwhelming and unmet demand among college-age Nigerians.Nigeria’s higher education sector has been overburdened by strong population growth and a significant ‘youth bulge’ with more than 60 percent of the country’s population under the age of 24. Similarly, the rapid expansion of the nation’s higher education sector in recent decades has failed to deliver the resources or seats to accommodate demand.

Nigeria, once home to some of the best universities in the world, missed out even on the African group of the elite in the 2016 editions of global ranking of universities on employability skills index released by two reputable global bodies.

The rankings, which recognised only four universities in Africa, marked out two in South Africa and another two in Egypt. None of the more 160 universities in Nigeria was rated.The decadence in university education, according to experts in the sector is attributable to years of poor funding, incessant strikes by university teachers, poor admission standards, corruption, and fraud.

The four African universities reflected in the 2016 Quacquarelli Symonds’ (QS) “graduate employability” and “global employability” rankings were the Universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand in South Africa; the American University in Cairo and Cairo University in Egypt.In 2018, Sola Odunfa wrote for BBC reflecting on a controversial proposal to ban the children of government officials and top civil servants from completing their education abroad.

He shared his personal experience: “Back in the 1980s, my daughter won a place at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) one of the top state-funded institutions in Nigeria. She embarked on her studies with a spring in her step, expecting to emerge with a prestigious qualification five years later.

“Soon enough though, she would learn the truth behind the modern Nigerian saying: university students can only be sure of their matriculation date; they cannot say when they will graduate. Her studies seemed to take forever. If the lecturers were not on strike, they were planning to go on strike. One of the strikes – a nationwide action – lasted almost a year.“Halfway through the course, my daughter’s morale had collapsed and only the combined entreaties of our extended family could convince her to continue her education. Disillusioned and frustrated, she eventually graduated. The five-year-course was completed in seven, through no fault of her own.”

He continued: “Universities remain poorly funded and the lecturers’ union – known by its acronym ASUU – is more militant than ever, routinely threatening to close down universities in its battles with the government. It is today widely regarded as the most strike-prone of Nigeria’s labour unions. It says the government rarely delivers on its promises.”

Lawmakers had come up with a proposal that put a ban on the children of top officials from travelling abroad to complete their studies.They believed that this would make the officials, many of who send their children abroad to study, to increase funding for the education sector.
Nigerian universities do not have that international ‘touch’; often too local and archaic in approach and intent.Eminent scholar and former Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola, has identified reasons why African universities are poorly ranked among global league institutions.

Okebukola listed low investment in research, system inefficiency, low ICT use in promoting visibility, sharp practices in research works as well as failure to attract international students as some of the challenges hindering the global ranking of African universities.

According to Prof. David Mba, Nigerian universities have been under-funded for decades. Like a talented but under-achieving football team, the universities fail to achieve their lofty goals because the country has not invested enough in their structure, facilities, and people.“We found that the country’s universities lag well behind equivalent emerging global economies like South Africa, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, and Brazil. They also lag behind traditional world leaders.

“Nigerian universities lack prestige. According to the 2019 Times Higher Education world university rankings, Nigeria has two universities in the world’s top thousand – Covenant University and the University of Ibadan. This compares to nine from South Africa – out of a total of 26 in total – and 11 from Egypt.

Presenting his case further, the professor said, “Universities under-perform on research. According to our research, Nigeria’s universities produce only 44 per cent of the “scholarly output” of South Africa and 32 per cent of Egypt. This is despite the fact that Nigeria has nearly four times more universities than Egypt and over six times more than South Africa.” Of course, the Nigerian university education sector loses local talents and fails to replace them.

“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this,” said Mba. “The trouble in Nigeria’s case is that it fails to attract the equivalent in foreign students. It becomes a ‘brain drain’ rather than the ‘brain exchange’ it could be.How to fix the problem was, however, suggested by the scholar. “We would argue that improving the outcomes of Nigeria’s universities requires investment, powered by a national strategic vision and matched with good governance.

“The Nigerian University Commission (NUC) has indicated that it intends to increase university capacity by supporting the creation of new private universities. But indications show that the commission hasn’t focused on the level of scholarly output. Quantity is of limited use unless accompanied by quality.

“Offering joint faculties or schools between foreign and local institutions would be another way of bringing investment into Nigerian universities. The foreign investment model has led to significant improvements in the quality of education in other countries, for example in Malaysia,” he explained.

But turning to the international market for investment would require significant policy and governance changes within the NUC, Mba argued.
“To improve university research activity, the proposed establishment of the national research and innovation foundation as detailed in the science, technology, and innovation policy of 2011, is now urgently required,” he explained. Continuing, the professor stated, “Of course, decades of neglect will not be remedied in a year. There are competing demands for government funds, but there must be a strong political will to improve universities year on and make education a long-term priority.

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