At the combined 19th and 22nd Convocation Ceremony of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi in January this year, President Muhammadu Buhari lamented the low ranking of Nigerian universities in Africa and the world.
The expectedly concerned President expressed his dismay in the following words: “We rank below a thousand, if we do not aspire to be among the world class universities, we cannot boast of robust system capable of making the country among the top economies of the world. It is worrisome that no Nigerian university is among the top 100 universities in the world’’.
Represented by Professor Julius Okojie, the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), President Buhari said whatever makes the nation’s abundant talents to fail at home but excel abroad must be identified and neutralized for the benefits of the present and future generations of Nigerians. He identified the incessant strikes by university teachers as a major bottleneck to the progress of the country’s university system.
All the President said about the Nigerian university system is not new. But it is a peep into the mind of a concerned leader who, perhaps, is determined to tackle the problems and the rot that have permeated the nation’s academia.
While incessant strikes by academic and non-academic staff of our universities have detracted from whatever remained of the system, the President should not just blame the teachers for the frequent industrial actions, he should first ascertain real reasons for the frequency and muster enough political will to address the fundamentals.
As a stakeholder, I am aware that most of the industrial actions are borne out of frustrating work conditions arising from inadequate or lack of teaching and research facilities, poor remuneration, and the disdain with which the system had treated university teachers before some dignity was achieved.
The President’s identification of strikes as a major threat to the health and progress of the nation’s university system is in tandem with the opinion of many Nigerians, who focus only on this factor, and believe an end to the incessant strikes will be a positive turning-point for a return to quality and productive university education for the country’s teeming youths. They may not be far from the truth, but this could just be a scratch of the surface as the rot in the university system is deeper and widespread.
First is the issue of staffing. In the days of old, universities attracted the best and brightest to their faculties, but the reverse is the case today. The best and the brightest now go to places other than the university. While poor remuneration and inadequate work facilities are known to discourage some from joining the faculty, today, nepotism controls appointments and promotion in most of the country’s universities. As it happens in other sectors of the country, qualified people who have genuine interest in teaching in our universities are overlooked while academic positions are given to cronies who have absolutely no business being in the system. The consequence is better imagined.
Related to this is the petty bickering and personality wars tearing the faculty apart. While this cannot be completely ruled out in any human enclave, the rate at which academics get at one another over mundane and ridiculous issues has turned departments into mere artisanal structures and our universities into a marketplace. This has led to the creation of cliques and camps, and usually, the wars between these camps are pursued at the expense of students and the system.
There is also the wide gap between town and gown; an increasingly inevitable aspect of modern and globalized academic curriculum. It is shocking and sad that a significant number of 21st Century Nigerian academics does not operate beyond the four walls of the university.
Rather than facilitate a constant interplay of theory and practice by encouraging professionals to impart some industry knowledge, this category of academics will hide under anachronistic systemic rules to frustrate any attempt at a theory-praxis symbiosis.
Professionals with invaluable field experience who attempt to join the faculty are usually offered repugnant positions in order to discourage them. As a result, students are deprived of the much needed industry skills that could enhance their employability.
But according to available information, there are a few exceptions, as the Department of Music, Obafemi Awolowo University is reported to have recently appointed juju music maestro, King Sunny Ade as a Visiting Lecturer. Accomplished composer, musician, artist, designer and administrator, Sir Victor Uwaifo is probably still teaching at the University of Benin following his engagement by the school at a point. More of this town and gown synergy is required in all fields of study if Nigerian universities are to be in reckoning for serious webometrics.
The increasingly confusing admission process is another reason why the nation’s universities are ranked low. The Joint Admission and Matriculations Board (JAMB) was doing well before the peculiar Nigerian vices overwhelmed the body. Disturbed by the erosion of JAMB’s credibility, stakeholders came up with Post-UME Tests, an intervention some universities have also turned into an opportunity to serve primordial interests.
Students’ disposition to learning and research is another source of concern. Generally, the present generation of the country’s undergraduates just read to pass examinations. There is a pervasive lazy attitude to learning, aided, ironically, by the internet. Libraries are occupied only when examinations are approaching and the quality of assignments and long essays continues to ebb.
The country’s high unemployment rate equally makes nonsense of the little efforts made by our universities. It is seriously questioning the essence of university education. With significant emphasis on theory, Nigerian universities continue to produce graduates with little or no entrepreneurial orientation. While most of the schools now have tangential entrepreneurial contents at the General Studies level, current national and global economic realities demand that this be made a core element of curriculum.
As President Buhari pointed out at that convocation ceremony, Nigeria is blessed with an abundance of talents who excel elsewhere but appear incapacitated at home. Therefore, to address the rot in the nation’s universities and make them eligible for noticeable ranking, we must meticulously interrogate the fundamentals and be ready to take hard decisions. In addition to emplacing a sustainable paradigm for injection of funds and facilities into the system, a periodic academic staff audit is also necessary. This should be handled by independent and objective assessors beyond the universities. The essence is to ensure quality and gradually weed out those who see the job as a mere meal ticket and those who use the platform to harass, intimidate and extort students.
Academic staff should collaborate more in the area of teaching, research and mentoring instead of bickering and being negatively envious of one another. They should also stop discouraging professionals who genuinely wish to add value to the system. Most times, their disposition is borne out of envy and complex and a morbid passion to protect imaginary territories. In today’s world, gown and town need each other. More objectivity should go into the admission process while undergraduates should have an eclectic attitude to learning, research and studying. The rot in Nigerian ivory tower should not be allowed to continue. We all have a role to play in repositioning our universities and make them citadels of pride and key players in the global academic community that they once were.