Universities or glorified secondary schools?

shutterstock_106645070In a sense, the root of the word “university” can be traced to the word “universe”. The universe is that vast repository of billions of galaxies in which our world, technically the earth, is not more than a very tiny dot. The university, on the other hand, is a vast repository of knowledge and enlightenment, where the knowledge of (virtually) all fields is domiciled. At least, there must be someone who knows some things about something in a University as a “universal city”.

What the foregoing naturally implies is that a university is expected to be universal in outlook and global in orientation. Just as we know more of the universe from the knowledge provided by the university, the university itself is expected to reflect some universality, some global standard. This is certainly why many universities strive to be, or claim to be, “world class”, not “country class” or “state class”.

Questions have often been raised about the standard of the Nigerian universities. There is no doubt that Nigeria, given our population, needs more universities, even the current 147 are not enough. However, the crux of the matter is the type of universities we want. Do we want glorified secondary schools camouflaged as “universities” or we want actual “world class” citadels of higher learning that we can be proud of?

I was at the Auditorium of the National Universities Commission (NUC) in Abuja on September 27, 2010 when Dr Jalal Salmi of the World Bank delivered a thought-provoking lecture on “The Challenge of Establishing World Class Universities” as a keynote address to the International Conference on 50 Years of University Education in Nigeria that the University of Ilorin co-organised. He identified three critical factors that underpin the making of world class universities, namely: concentration of talents, abundant resources and favourable governance.

Those who express worry about the proliferation of universities in Nigeria express such concerns on account of these factors, more or less. Do all our universities really have a concentration of academic talents when primordial sentiments are used to recruit staff, including academics? Don’t we now have professors who profess nothing but arrogance?

There is a difference between certificates and certitude. The reality of the day is that talents that are meant for other areas of national development (maybe business, construction, entertainment, etc.) are now getting concentrated in universities leading to low quality.

On abundant resources, the major challenge that many scholars have been complaining about is poor funding of universities. Interestingly, the Government that complains of limited resources lately began to establish additional universities. Between 2010 and 2013, the Federal Government established 13 universities, apart from two universities established by states and eight established by private bodies or individuals, making a total of 23 in less than three years!

When the late former Minister of Education and education expert, Prof. Babs Fafunfa, lamented in a 2010 paper, “The Beginnings and Evolution of University Education in Nigeria”, that “Nigeria now has 104 universities; that is 73 universities established in 11 years at an average of 6 universities per year”, he did not imagine that barely five years later, additional 43 universities would have been added, which is an average of at least eight universities per year. This can make an entry in the Guinness Book of Records!

That there are no sufficient resources to manage these universities, be they Federal, State or Private, based on global best practice, is incontrovertible. Besides, outside this figure is a number of “degree mills”, as the NUC brands them, or fake universities established by charlatans and unscrupulous businessmen operating illegally to swindle unsuspecting admission seekers of their hard-earned money.

The issue of favourable governance is also a sore point in many of our universities. Recently, a vicious fight with the management of a state university by a Governing Council that should have supported the same university led to the mass sack of the principal officers of that university. How can a university attain its full potential in that kind of situation?

Some private universities are drowning under the overbearing influence or weight of their proprietors. Though they may not be academics, the principle of “who pays the piper dictates the tune” is used and abused to stultify innovation and stifle academic development.

My take is that having many more universities is good and desirable. However, the bone of contention is given the state of our affairs and economy, do we really want actual universities or mere glorified secondary schools that some new universities actually are?