By IKENNA EMEWU
The Nigerian university system has grown through the phases since 1948 when a campus or college of the University of London opened shop in Ibadan.
Seven years after, the Eastern Nigeria government enacted a law to create the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, a university that started operation in 1960, the same year of Independence. In a matter of four years later, three other universities had joined the list in Lagos, Ile-Ife and Zaria. But while the university in Ibadan remained an appendage of the University of London until 1962 when it gained autonomy, UNN had taken off fully on its own two years earlier, and also bringing the American university curriculum system which the entire Nigerian university system later adopted.
After this first generation came the offshore sub-campus system where most of the existing universities opened sub campuses in the early 1970s, which later in the mid 1970s became independent till today.
Later, as the country returned to democracy in the twilight years of the 1970s, the government of President Shehu Shagari wrote a new chapter in the history of mass university development that has endured till today. But that the latest generation has birthed personalized universities where government officials appropriate universities built with government resources to their hometowns and if possible names.
When it started, from Zik to Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Alhaji Ado Bayero, the Sardauna, no university was built in the hometown of the founder or named after the founder. Zik who pioneered it built the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, not Onitsha, his hometown, Awo took his to Ile-Ife, not his Ikenne, Sardauna thought about access to all the north and left his Sokoto at the tip and brought the university to Zaria. Understandably, the first university built by the federal government was sited in the capital city, the University of Lagos. But today, the script has changed while we can’t attest that the localization has brought any improvement to the system, the base line.
We spoke with a major players in the history of the system still alive and their stories inspire and challenge us on how we manage the sector today and what is not done right, or needs improvement.
We championed the great boom days of our university system to open up the space – Ihechukwu Madubuike, Education Minister in 1979
In 1979 when I was education minister, Nigeria had 13 universities and with enrolment of about 30,000 students. But I recalled that the Ohio State University, Columbus where I taught in the US had up to 50,000 students and I felt that something was not right and we needed more schools and students enrolment.
Another school where I lectured last had more than 50,000 students on one campus. I also looked at the JAMB statistics and found that universities admitted not more than 10% of all applicants every year. So with these figures, I set up a definite education policy away from what obtained in the military era where there was no defined policy on how the educations sector operates. We set up an education system in a presidential system of government. So the government in which I supervised the education sector as minister set up laws to create universities of technology in states that had no universities. With the 19 states then, that means we had at least six states that had no universities, including Abuja. So immediately I raised the issue before the council, it didn’t go through any debate and was approved outright but with the only concern of how to fund the universities at the same time. To handle that, I came up with another idea that we split the six into two batches. Therefore, three were started with my Imo State then, Gongola and Benue. At the second batch the rest three were to follow. Good enough, we also had a law that the vice chancellors be taken and posted to other states than theirs. Even today, you can’t start a state university without the National Universities Commission (NUC) approval from the federal government. That was the procedure we put in place then, that is why the federal government gave the approval for the state universities then and don’t forget it was a novel idea and had to emanate from the centre in a country that was just new to democratic system of government after long years of military regimes. There was no state university before then.
It was even through the decision of council then under my supervision that we also created the law for private universities and an open university system. Yes, we didn’t call it open university but the concept of university that operated through correspondence was the idea and created by law. I did it for the fact that I knew then that one of four graduates in London, was a product of the open university.
The law for the new universities, the private universities and an open university came the same time, but the open university as called now didn’t take off yet before we left office. But for the private universities, I stand my ground that there were there in existence full time.
I still recall an interview Chris Anyanwu then of NTA and later senator granted me where I read out the modalities and conditions provided by the law for the creation of the state universities, universities of technology, private universities and the open university then.
So at the point when the military took over power in the last days of 1983, we had private universities and I can bet you that there were about three in Aba alone. Recall that a prominent politician, Nnanna Ukaegbu, from Imo State had a private polytechnic in 1980 in Owerri. The military wiped them out and even made efforts to stop the new technology universities that were created few years earlier.
What stopped the open university coming on was after I had left and would not account for what happened to the bill and policy implementation. But under my watch, the federal universities of technology in Owerri, Yola and another had started while the rest three came later. I know that the subsequent government later merged some of those universities.
I can factually say that the government of Shehu Shagari was responsible for the university boom in Nigeria that has continued till today and thereby giving young Nigerians the opportunity to find universities and other higher institutions to attend.
So having watched the sector these years, I can tell you that the problem of the education sector is politics. We politicize and over politicize education when it should rather be insulated from politics. Every government that comes starts afresh and truncates what had been there, introducing new things that are never thought through. That is why most of the things we bring into the system never last or succeed. We introduce policies that are never implemented and when the world moves ahead we don’t understand and sit behind playing politics.
We have a system that introduces education policies and don’t have what it takes to implement. We have had many of them even in the lower tiers of the education sector uch as the reviewed 6334, universal basic education, teachers training, basic qualification and recruitment systems.
Our system should have sustained the policy of not localizing federal universities for instance. There was nothing wrong with posting vice chancellors to manage universities away from their part of Nigeria, and today it has got so bad that even the locality where a federal school is located claims ownership and wants to dominate and manage the institution.
These things kill professionalism and cut short ingenuity to the extent that even our curricular content is not developed or updated according to the times. So, no matter whatever we see as the shortcoming of our school system, we can never get it right with the type of politics we play with education.
I wish we can go back to those boom days of Shehu Shagari when the government saw ahead and worked ahead to open up the space from the 13 universities to this explosion that has enabled our younger generation to actualize their dream and desire of getting higher education.
I was the minister in charge of education and I boldly say I worked the policies, presented to the council that was populated by a lot of erudite scholars and people who valued education. Now after achieving the numbers in the federal, state and federal universities, polytechnic, colleges of education and many more, what we need most is quality. We can’t get that quality until we take away politics from this most important system.
Since the world has gone digital and spends more on research, we also have young brains who excel wherever they go, let us give them the right education by updating our curricular content. I challenge Nigeria to build on that good foundation of mass quality higher education which Shagari’s government with me in charge of education championed. He followed in the steps of the founding father who saw the benefit of education and pursued the development of universities.
The Great Zik started it in 1955 when the law to establish UNN was passed and it came to fruition in 1960, and even gave birth to some other university campuses that later gained autonomy and helped open the space.