By NNEKA NWAOKORIE
In 1979 when President Shehu Shagari came to power, Nigeria had about 12 universities and that implied that seven of the 19 states had no universities located within them.
To the government, it became a matter of serious concern, especially with an experienced academic as the minister in charge of education. With his pedigree in foreign universities, he reasoned that the 12 universities in Nigeria cumulatively had less number of students than the Ohio State University, US, where he had lectured.
He said the Ohio State University had at least 50,000 students while all Nigerian university students in all the universities were less than that due to incapacity.
Prof. Ihechukwu Madubuike, the minister in question felt it a burden to convince the government make moves for more universities.
That was how the journey for more higher institutions for Nigeria started, a journey that has made quite some mark in making higher education available and accessible to the citizens.
Madubuike took us through the ages and assessed how the sector, the most important in the society, has fared in the past 60 years of Nigeria’s nationhood.
The old technocrat and academician admits that the tottering economy of Nigeria is an outcome of an equally tottering education system
As the education minister, I initiated and took memo to the Federal Executive Council for the establishment of seven universities in the states that didn’t have any within their location after the last state creation three years earlier.
I was from Imo State, one of the states that didn’t have any university. Good enough, President Shehu Shagari was the type that gave the ministers the free hand to any policy or project that is for the good of the country. And within the cabinet we also had some other university dons who understood the importance of the content of the memo, and without any delay, it sailed through.
Seven universities were approved, but because there wasn’t enough fund to take on all of them the same time, we started with three – the Federal Universities of Technology in Owerri, Benue and Gongola states. The rest four had to come later.
With the awareness of the place of practical, technology-based, skill-based new trends in education, we tailored the institutions to technology.
Moreover, since the target was to open up the space for more opportunities to our people in tertiary education, the bill also gave approval for states that so desired and also with the capacity to establish state universities and other tertiary institutions within their domain. That is also what was capitalized on by many states including Imo and Anambra and some others to set up state universities almost immediately. Today, I can’t remember any state that hasn’t a university as benefit of that policy we initiated.
University without walls
My experience was beyond just what I have stated here because prior to my appointment and return to Nigeria, I had my education in universities overseas, including the UK and Canada, in addition to the US.
In the UK, there was already in operation, the university without walls, and we conceived it also. That is what we call the Open University today. We also incubated the idea. I recall that three prominent professors drawn from different parts of Nigeria were in the team that set it up, including the eminent historian, Prof. Adiele Afigbo. Our target was to use Radio Nigeria as the broadcast medium for the Open University lectures. So, the first batch of lectures recorded for airing are still in my archives till date.
But with this new openness, we insisted on standards and strict regulation by the National Universities Commission (NUC) and made it clear that setting up a university, private, state owned and the federal doesn’t just end with registering it with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), the NUC must be involved to ensure standards.
All these were in place as at the time the military toppled Shagari’s government in 1983. I still remember a good number of private universities that had taken roots in Aba then and also the polytechnic planned to be established in Owerri by Chief Nnanna Ukaegbu, a prominent Imo politician and my friend.
The journey in 60 years
Nigeria’s nationhood started with the establishment of an indigenous university that took off with the country’s Independence in 1960 – the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, set up as the first by any African government by the Great Zik himself. Just two years after, some other universities in Lagos, the first by the federal government, in Ife and Zaria joined.
Making it more succinct, among about 172 universities in Nigeria today and the hundreds of polytechnics, colleges of education and other tertiary institutions in Nigeria, only two were there before Independence, that’s the Yaba College of Technology as it is now and the Ibadan campus of the University of London, University College, Ibadan.
Regarding number and availability of institutions, policies for improvement and others, Nigeria hasn’t done badly in the sector in the past 60 years.
As the higher institutions increased, the primary, secondary and others likewise increased in number too. That is commendable. That is in quantity and it ends just there.
On quality, I have my doubts. There doesn’t seem to be progress in that direction at all. We operate a country the people that have managed it from inception are all products of public schools that had good and enviable standards that foreigners used to attend schools in Nigeria, but today, how many of the political, intellectual, economic elite class have their children in those public schools? That is the misfortune of our quality.
The other misfortune is that the decay that pervades the political space has not spared the education sector. Mediocrity is the order and we don’t seem to have realized the need for something to be done in changing it.
Another good instance is what we designated the educationally disadvantaged states in the past 50 years or so. Why are so many of those areas still disadvantaged till date even after the preferential treatment they get in admissions quota, qualifying grades, budgets and even compensation for proper utilization of the special budget? That is a big question we need to find answers to.
A system that has no place for the lower income citizens getting access to quality education is not doing it right. A system that forces the parents to seek for money from just any source and pay so much to send their children to other countries for quality education has something wrong about it. An education system that doesn’t prioritize technology and skills acquisition in today’s curriculum isn’t getting it right. That system that still produces a crowd of graduates who only rely on public employment has missed it. And also, the system that hasn’t factored in the need to keep expanding the opportunities for the utiilisation of the enlarged human capacity it produces every year is wrong and defeated.
Furthermore, private universities were permitted to operate, having met the conditionality set out for it by the ministry of education. Notwithstanding that the Nigerian constitution provided for individual participation but there was need for it to be guided, and the mechanism for setting standards, rests with the Ministry of Education. That is why as hospitals are under the Ministry of Health, teaching hospitals within them are under the Ministry of Education and universities of agriculture are also under Ministry of Education through NUC’s regulation and setting of curriculum.
Education, being on the concurrent list of federal and state laws of Nigeria, the government then came up with a policy in May 1980, stipulating and setting the standards for institutional operations as there was no standards set out for tertiary institution operations on how individuals can set up private universities.
Changes in the concept and standards
There have been a lot of changes in the education system in Nigeria, both to the negative and positive. For instance, there was a time in Nigeria that people spent eight years in primary schools. But now, the case is different as people spend about five or six years in primary school. But when we talk about standards in Nigeria education system, it is horrible and there are still things we have to come to grips with in education in Nigeria and what is happening in certain parts. While some parts still remain focused on education and are still doing well as they were doing then, others still lag behind as they lagged in the past. That is the irony and crises we face in Nigeria. It is so disheartening as an elder statesman who had seen Nigeria take the right course in education and human capital development that we have taken this wrong and negative turn.
However, this crisis of standards changed so much after the war. When the first two higher institutions came through the colonial masters, they of course were modeled after the British curriculum. But the UNN came with the American education style, and that triggered an ideological competition that turned out positive.
Because those used to the old system saw UNN as different and possibly inferior, that was actually the American system which produced Zik himself, the public system introduced examination system for products of the universities for employment. But after they tried some years and the UNN products dominated in performance, they were forced to drop it and rather start copying the system that made the UNN products of the American education system shine. That was the ideological competition that brought us good.
I remember how we traveled to Canada on scholarship after graduating with an NCE from the Alvan Ikoku College of Education that also operated the American system. On our arrival, we were tested for qualification for our degree courses, and surprisingly, about two of five of us, myself inclusive, made outstanding grades that marveled the school, and they recommended us for a masters’ degree course instead. We were the ones that refused it and opted to do a one year direct entry bachelor degree course before we proceeded for our masters.
Today, the standards have been ethnicized and politicized even in grades at graduation and award of professorial classes and doctorates. What we adopt today is which schools produced the highest number of first class graduates and which ethnic region has highest number of PhD holders and professors. Quality is no longer the issue as each ethnic region manages wholly the higher institutions within it.
As NUC pegs requisite qualification for admission at 5 credit passes, some regions and ethnic groups don’t care and have their separate standards. At the public work place, there is no standard merit. Merit is rather based on where you come from. The pass mark for promotion for someone from state A is not the same for the one from State or region B. That even started from the pass mark to qualify for admission into Unity Schools. These are what I mean when I say standards have been ethnicised just like politics. So our education standard and quality have taken a terribly negative turn.
Hope reigns eternal in the affairs of human beings. So there is hope. But I am afraid that hope can never yield us any dividend until we deliberately do the most important thing – restructure Nigeria.
Restructure Nigeria and kill this negative competition. With restructured Nigeria, it is left for every region to think of how best to manage itself. Anyone that targets quality can do so, and the ones that prefer quantity and quota system that lowers standards can also go ahead. The products and how they impact the growth of the regions would define better who does it right over time.
My humble position is that ignorance and the lack of standards can never be virtue for any society that wants to grow.
That is what would help us change our paradigm about education from an anachronistic focus to a progressive one that encourages creativity, skills acquisition and innovation. They would in turn derive from a curriculum that encourages development and self-reliance.