Can Nigerian varsities drive development?

The university is a crucial component of human and national development worldwide. Apart from being an essential and powerful driver of global innovation and economic development, it is a fertile ground for generating ideas, providing new knowledge and skills needed to meet the challenges of sustainable development in a community while raising public awareness and engendering social change.

It is therefore not out of place to say that the principal aim of establishing institutions of higher learning is to play pioneering roles in addressing problems of poverty, unemployment, hunger, illiteracy among other social ills.

Sadly, the Speaker of the House Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila, believes Nigerian universities lack what it takes to move the country forward. According to him, it is doubtful that the country’s institutions of higher learning can drive development like their counterparts in saner climes have been doing.

Nonetheless, academics insist that poor budgetary allocation, brain drain, lack of an enabling environment, lack of autonomy, government insensitivity, among others, are stumbling blocks that hamper groundbreaking research in universities.

Dr Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju, a senior lecturer in the Department of English, University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), believes Nigerian universities have not been well-equipped to realise their potential. He cites perennial underfunding and unwholesome interference by the ruling elite as militating against the progress of the nation’s ivory towers.

He said: “Universities drive development through groundbreaking research and scientific breakthroughs that benefit humanity in multiple.The question is whether Nigerian universities have been able to do any or all of that, and unfortunately the answer is no (or yes only to a very limited degree).

The real problem, however, is that university system in Nigeria has not been equipped or allowed by the ruling elite to realise its full potential. The development of Nigerian universities has been stunted through perpetual underfunding and untoward meddling in its affairs by the ruling elite. The ruling elite has repeatedly sacrificed the fundamental objectives of university on the altar of political expediency.”

Oloruntoba-Oju continued: “Of course there is much internal connivance. In the process, the university’s tradition of excellence gives way to clannish, ethno-religious and nepotistic arrangements. It has been rightly observed that many people who have no business in the university populate the universities due to such arrangements and the university’s value system is distorted down the line. One may occasionally find some bright spots within the system but these are few and far between.”

Oloruntoba-Oju, however, wants the challenges afflicting the university system to be addressed to allow it fulfill its mandate.

”The distortions in the system need to be corrected to give the Nigerian university system a fair chance at fulfilling its objectives. There is the need for adequate funding, autonomy and serious minded visitation and reforms to curb endemic abuse of power in the system. The academic staff union has also repeatedly called for these measures, but unfortunately its entreaties have always fallen on deaf ears,” he added.

Expressing his displeasure, the Chairman, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU),University of Lagos, Dr Dele Ashiru, noted that it is not about a lack of capacity on the part of the universities. Rather, he blamed it on greed and insensitivity of leaders.

His words: “That is the tragedy of our society. Nigerian universities have capacity to drive Nigeria’s development if our leaders do what their counterparts in other societies do. Nigerian graduates excel once they get out of the country. The problem is not about lack of capacity but the insensitivity and greed of those in power and their their deliberate machination to destroy the Nigerian university system.”

Re-echoing the views of Oloruntoba-Oju, Dr Mahfouz Adedimeji, immediate past Director, Centre for Peace and Strategic Studies, University of Ilorin, stressed the need for adequate funding of the education sector. He wondered how poorly funded universities would drive development. He chided lawmakers for allocating outrageous amounts to renovate their offices in Abuja while education is made to suffer.

”Nigerian universities have the manpower and intellectual resources to drive development. Indeed, graduates of Nigerian universities are driving the developmental agenda of various countries of the world. There is no doubt about the capacity.

”The challenge that Nigerian universities have is the lack of commitment by those represented by the Speaker to give the universities sufficient teeth to bite.

”A comparison of education funding as a percentage of GDP a few years ago revealed that Nigeria invested the least in education. Togo, Sudan, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Mauritius, Mauritania, Malawi, Jamaica and Bangladesh, among other developing countries, do better than Nigeria in education funding as a percentage of GDP where Nigeria is far below one percent.

”Besides, Nigeria is among the lowest ranking countries in the world in terms of percentage of budget allocated to education. Where Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Morocco, South Africa would allocate between 25 and 31 per cent of their budgets to education, Nigeria would be at the bottom of the table with about eight per cent ,” he explained.

Adedimeji, who disclosed that Harvard University’s budget for last year was bigger than the entire country’s, noted that it is imperative to resuscitate the education sector through adequate funding instead of spending huge amounts on trivial things .

His words: “Rather than revamp education through adequate funding, the National Assembly would be budgeting the humongous amount of N37 billion to renovate their office complex in Abuja. How can universities be in position to drive development when they are not properly funded? The endowment of Harvard University alone for 2019 was $40.9 billion, which was even bigger than the Nigerian budget for the year.”

For Dr Afolabi Aroyewun of the University of Lagos (UNILAG), said if the country desires technological and scientific breakthrough, unrestrained autonomy should be granted to universities. Citing the payroll issue, he urged the government to borrow a leaf from advanced countries and stop unnecessary interference in the affairs of universities.

Stressing the need for our leaders to translate research projects in our tertiary institutions into meaningful ventures, he cited DHL and FedEx courier services as being products of students research project.

”It will surprise you that DHL and FedEx originated from a student research project. These projects were translated into what we have as multi-billion empires. The same cannot be said here because there will be administrative bottleneck that will hamper the implementation of such research,” he said.

Beyond research, he suggested that government should put academics to task by contacting them to proffer solutions to the country’s perennial problems.He stated that the security challenge of the country is worrisome, yet, the government has not deemed it fit to involve the academia in addressing it.

Aroyewun said: “Academics should be made to utilise their knowledge for the advancement of the country. Sadly, our security architecture has collapsed, yet, nobody is calling academics to look into it and proffer solutions to address the situation.’’

He continued: “ I can recall, during the financial meltdown in the US, ex-president Barrack Obama sought advice of the academia to on how to solve the problem and indeed, they overcame. But in Nigeria, politicians are at the heart of everything, they give advice that brings short-term relief.

And how many times has the Nigerian government called on the academia to bring up ideas that would initiate development?”

Also lending his voice to the debate, Prof. Moyosore Ajao, ASUU Chairman, University of Ilorin (UNILORIN) chapter, blamed public officials for their non-chalant attitude to education because many of their children are in prestigious universities abroad.

He disclosed that initiating developmental projects will be almost impossible if government does not properly fund research in institutions and fulfill the between 15 to 20 percent budgetary allocation to education to education in line with international benchmark.

He decried the terrible state of some federal universities, calling on the government to empower them so they can contribute more meaningfully to national development.

Similarly, Director, Centre for General Nigerian Studies, Lagos State University(LASU), Prof. Biodun Akinpelu, lamented what he called “deliberate abandonment” of the nation’s universities by the government. He noted that despite the suffocating environment universities operate, the yearly National Universities Commision (NUC) Accreditation and Resource Assessment, strives to change this trend by aiming capacity for growth and development of the nation.

His words: “A close look at our universities would reveal how the government directly under-develop our educational systems through deliberate abandonment.

‘’In spite of the very harsh environment, our universities are still doing their best to drive national development. The yearly NUC Accreditation and Resource Assessment Exercises have a singular aim of driving capacity for growth and development of the nation.”

Akinpelu continued: “Have we ever asked ourselves why industrial action has been the only language our governments understand in resolving issues that concern the Nigerian universities? I wonder what our governments would have turned our universities into without the direct intervention of staff unions – ASUU, SSANU, NASU, and NAAT.

It’s their input that led to the formation of TETFUND (Tertiary Education Trust Fund), and other intervention strategies. This is the only country I know where government would enter into agreement with staff unions and will never attempt to implement the agreement.”

He wondered how the nation’s universities would drive development when picking a job in the universities now seem herculean. Akinpelu equally questioned efforts government is making towards effective implementation of strategic plans for the country’s universities.

Appealing to the Education Committee of the House of Representatives to embark on a thorough study of staffing in our tertiary institutions Akinpelu bemoaned the government for not involving universities in their developmental projects and programmes.

”How much of involvement do our governments at all levels grant the universities in their developmental programmes? There are engineering faculties in the universities but how many of them are involved in the least of construction activities going on in various states?” he queried.

According to him, however, there is a glimmer of hope for the country as a number of Nigerian universities have been recognised by the World Bank as Centres of Excellence.