It occurred to me that the phrase ‘federal university’ is a misnomer for the new age and for the federalism of which we are still searching for the ‘true/pure’ type. Students under the National Association of Nigerian Students shut down Lagos local and international airport on Monday 19th September 2022, vowing to continue their activities in other parts of the country for a week. Their agony is palpable, and we just have to pity these hapless young folks. They are caught in between a broke Federal Government and a wounded Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). What is the way forward really? A week later, the Federal Government obtained a High Court decision asking the university lecturers to go back to work; a decision which the lecturers’ union promised to immediately appeal. When that did not work, we read in the papers that the federal government ordered Vice Chancellors to reopen the universities and commence lectures. A day later, the federal government rescinded its marching orders. It looks like this time, it is fight-to-finish.
I had written earlier about how – in my humble opinion – we all seem to have misunderstood the whole concept of education – which is to solve extant problems of society and to prepare for the future. That assertion still stands. We have spent too much time looking at education as something to have (certificates), just to obtain bragging rights, to shine, to oppress, and to earn money and affix titles to our names. Our universities are meant to be repositories of knowledge and intellectualism, but it is doubtful whether cohesive brainstorming goes on in most of them, to impact society at large. Much indiscipline crept in and anyone observing from afar will have concluded that we as a people could not run anything. Male students went into cultism, girls did high class prostitution, the university administration embezzled otherwise inadequate funds, lecturers played truancy and took advantage of students and so on. And since bad money is likely to chase out good money, these atrocities became the defining features for our tertiary institutions, not the good, hard work that majority do in the system. This strike that ends all strikes is simply an indication that the university system is having to go through such a painful process of metamorphosis, when such a change ought to have been spurred automatically from within. The university system ought to have reformed itself but there are several problems with that. Academia the world over has evolved to be self-protective. This is evident in how difficult it is for new ideas to permeate. Even professors with unorthodox ideas are frozen out and cancelled in the intellectual community. Qualifications for entry – and even acceptable articles in the topmost journals – are skewed towards those who can reinforce, not challenge orthodoxy. Therefore, for Africa and Nigeria especially, we are stuck with recycling very outdated ideas. And 74 years after University College, Ibadan, we do not have the capacity, willingness or derring-do, to manufacture a bulb on our own, with our own technology.
The situation is more callous for Africa and by extension Nigeria, because there is so much to grapple with. The educational system imposed via colonialism was alien to us. It meant we had to jettison what we had – which may have been slower and largely undocumented. It also means that our academics have largely seen themselves as custodians and protectors of what the white man handed down – not challengers of it. This has also led to our underdevelopment and of course inability to have profound reforms in our universities as reflected in the maintenance of colonial arrangements called ‘federal universities’. It could also be that some have tried in the past and been shot down. Could there be ideological links between our academics here and there mentors abroad? For when ideology is concerned, people become very rigid. Or could it be that years of financial neglect made many of our academics give up and start seeking their own wellbeing? It could be a combination of these factors. Bottom line is that we are saddled with a mess, and things have come to a head. The best the Buhari administration may hope to do, is patch things up for the next administration, and somehow beg the lecturers to resume work.
Professor Eyitope Ogunmodede, the Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, one of Nigeria’s topmost universities gave one of the most profound insights on this matter when he described the funding challenges that university administration goes through. I cannot get it off my mind that students still pay N90 (Ninety Naira or barely 15 cents) for a whole year’s accommodation, and some N10,000 ($15 or less) per annum for tuition in what we call our federal universities. According to him, when universities try to increase these fees and charges, they meet with riots from students, protests or strikes by the lecturers’ union, ASUU, and indeed the Federal Government chests out to say no need and that all bills will be met by it. Imagine that! and so we dug a hole for ourselves, making young Nigerians entitled to everything free. This is not sensible at all. Why did we think that because universities were free in 1960 they must remain free today? Now, I attended a state university – the type that the ASUU president called quack universities. But it so happens that state universities are a legitimate idea in a federalism, but federal universities are not. Indeed, state universities – given the lean resources of the states – have always charged some fees and are a little more flexible than federal ones for state laws are a lot easier to amend. I believe that university administration requires such flexibility. The ultimate play is that even the states will need to spin off their universities and allow private ownership to enable full autonomy. Contributions from states and federal – as it is done in America – will then be worked out but not as a big, choking burden around the neck of an already-overburdened federal or state government.
The future of universities in Nigeria is fully private. The brickbats flying between federal government and the lecturers’ union today points to that very clearly. The current model is clearly unsustainable and will soon jettison itself. By every means, the federal universities at the centre of today’s strikes will likely come off more damaged than they were before. Already private universities are cashing out big time as parents who had hitherto tried to avoid the fees are now getting more inventive and are trying to save their children and wards some time. The government will have to understand that its remit is to concentrate on basic education – perhaps up to secondary school level or vocational skills studies. The rest must have to spin-off. Ultimately, our universities must be totally independent.
I have tried to find out all over the developed world and there are nowhere the universities are owned by the Federal Government. Even in highly-centralised China, the states own most of the universities. In the USA, from where we copied our federalism, there is no university owned by the Federal Government in Washington. The same for the UK, our colonizer. Westminster is not running any university. I am open to more knowledge in this area, but it looks like it is not just a tenable idea. Running a university or getting involved in their daily affairs, appointment, and regular funding for salaries etc, is just too granular than to be handled by the federal government. I believe this idea started because of our colonial past. When the British were leaving, they did try to put a lot of institutions and structures in place for their territories and Nigeria was not an exception. This meant the creation of University College, Ibadan, as an affiliate of the University of London, in 1948. Naturally, University of Ibadan as it was later called, including others that were established after it – largely for regional balance like Unife, Unilag, UNN, ABU etc – must have to be catered for by the central government. But this cannot and should not continue into perpetuity. Maybe if we hadn’t had the military incursions, we may have thought things through properly. But we are where we are today, with the federal government proudly creating dozens more university and every member of the National Assembly dragging one down to his/her village. It is sheer madness. When the federal government should be getting out of the liabilities it had created, it decided to keep adding more? I looked at Makerere University, Uganda, formed as a technical college in 1922. In 1970, Makerere became an independent national university. Now, the concept of independence does not mean that governments should altogether ignore these universities. Even in the USA, Washington gives money to universities and Harvard – a private university – usually gets the highest. However, the universities must not become a burden to the government. We need to study how other countries do this. And change urgently.
I close by referencing howbeit at length, the work of Professor Leonard Shilgba, who recently researched how things work in some African countries, especially as regards pay structure. I believe Prof Shilgba is still at Federal University, Otuoke where I met him some years back:
South Africa has 26 public universities, among which is University of Pretoria, which hosts about one-third of South African students in universities in the country. The average undergraduate tuition fee (excluding other charges, which push up the cost for its students) for citizens at the university is 36, 000 South African Rand (ZAR) a year or 880, 480 naira (at the exchange rate of N24.68 to one rand). It should be noted that tuition fees at South African public universities vary according to degree programs. The salaries of professors at the university range between 550,000 ZAR and 1,000,000 ZAR a year, while the median estimate is about 880,214 ZAR or 21, 723, 681.52 naira… At Stellenbosch University, another public university in South Africa, undergraduate tuition fees for South Africans range between 34,272 ZAR and 70,038 ZAR (N845,832.96 to N1,728,537.84). The highest paid professor at the university is paid about 1, 459,008 ZAR or N36,000, 317.44 per annum, which could be easily defrayed from tuition fees (excluding other charges). Tuition fees by only 40 or fewer students could defray this salary.
I have chosen a top public Ugandan university for analysis. Makerere University is the best university in Uganda. From its published 2020/2021 schedule of fees, I have gleaned the following data:
As at University of Botswana, Makerere University’s tuition fees vary according to degree programs, but are paid on semester basis. The following range are undergraduate tuition fees for Ugandans and East Africans, and are quoted in Ugandan shillings (Shs), which exchange at the rate of about 3,785.47Shs to $1:
Lowest semester tuition fee (Bachelor of Arts) is 958, 151 Shs ($253.11), while the highest is 2,645,000 Shs ($698.81), which is for Dentistry. Besides, uniform fees called “Functional fees” are paid across programs as follows: First semester: 860,954 Shs ($227.43). Second semester: 132,250 Shs ($34.93). Thus, excluding other charges such as Council for Higher Education (equivalent of Nigeria’s National Universities Commission) fees and others, Ugandan and East African undergraduates studying at Makerere University pay approximately between $768.60 and $1,660 per session. The monthly salaries of lecturers of the University are between 1,790,000 Shs ($472.86) and 6,190,000 Shs ($1,635.20).
Public universities in Ghana charge annual undergraduate tuition fees in the range of 20,000 to 70,000 Ghana Cedis (GHC) or $2,006.02 to $7,021.06. However, the salaries of professors at those universities are below those of their Nigerian counterparts: Professors at public Ghanaian universities are paid between 94, 000 GHC ($9,428) and 98,000 GHC ($9,829.49) per annum (at the exchange rate of 9.97 GHC to $1)!
I think that in analysing all these different pay structures, we must also consider the concept of Purchasing Power Parity. The other day, a Nigerian professor narrated how he earned $17,000 monthly on a sabbatical in the USA and barely $1,000 in Nigeria. Bad as that is, it must be noted that based on PPP, $1,000 in Nigeria gives you almost $7,000 equivalent in the USA. I mean that for you to enjoy the standard of living that $1,000 gives you here, you need $7,000 in the USA. A bottle of coke may sell for N150 here, but same bottle is $1.50 (or N1,150) in the US. That’s how it works. So, I believe professors should earn at least N1,500,000 per month in Nigeria, but the burden cannot be borne solely by governments. A lot will have to change. Students will now have to pay. I think that the decision before us is to see how moderate fees can be introduced, and then how a plethora of NGOs, foundations and private entities can pour in their support in order to solidify the new structure. Indigent students could then have a more structured means of winning scholarships that see them through. This will also encourage such students to wok harder as private scholarship is usually based on performance.
Also, Alumni who have enjoyed the good /better times should kick in. In this country, we had university students who had their beds laid for them. Some were forced – yes forced – to eat one egg a day… as the British worked on nutritional deficiencies. Look, it is not everything the British did that was bad. I often wonder, if we were in their place, would we have had such magnanimity, presence of mind, or altruism? And the rest of us went to university when fees were indeed small. Now, that is all over. We have too many issues to deal with as a people – infrastructural and otherwise. The alumni of all these universities/polytechnics must chip in bigly. I currently anchor an initiative for my alumni as the chair, Ekiti State University Eminent Persons Group (EKSU EPG), and we assist the larger alumni body to focus on some interventions by raising money. It hasn’t been an easy affair, but I welcome the challenge.
Lastly, our academics must reform their thinking. The academia must connect with society, and their impact must be felt visibly. That we have not developed at all, and are still overly dependent on other countries, is a failure of our academia too, not only politicians. The academia must reform from within, and saboteurs of our national dream must ship out i.e as yorubas will say ‘awon to ti gba’bode’. It is not enough to cocoon yourselves in ivory towers and wrinkle your noses as society decays around you. We must have something – a lot – to show for the millions of degrees we have issued, beyond bragging rights. When I visited Uganda in 2013, I watched on their local TV how students of Makerere University devised a fruit processor, mounted behind a van and went into the villages to help them rescue post-harvest losses. I was encouraged that students could be useful. When I ran for president of Nigeria in 2019, one of my ideas was that engineering students – and others – be encouraged and incentivized to transform this country’s infrastructure by getting involved with small road and other projects as part of their practicals starting with the very rural areas. Even our electricity challenge could be so tackled from the ground up. My suggestion remains. Our university students cannot afford to waste time anymore. We have too much to catch up with as a nation.
These are the issues that have come to a head in Nigeria today. The struggle for more pay is just a symptom. Are we ready to cancel the idea of ‘federal universities’ and unleash mental productivity in the proper sense?