World-class education, even in the most obscure institutions, has become a buzzword. It is used not just as a descriptive or scientific term, but for marketing purposes with several countries claiming to have or ascribe to world-class universities and standards. Hard to define precisely, it has become a branding tool designed in several cases to invite students from all over the world to study and of course, pay exorbitant fees to these institutions. That notwithstanding, there are agreed parameters to qualify higher institutions of learning. Some of them include outstanding merit in teaching, research, transfer of knowledge, and international clientele.
Several years ago, there was quite some interesting hoopla in Nigeria about our universities ascribing to world-class, measured by advantageous position on league tables such as Webometrics and Times Higher Education Survey. In those years, ironically, the proportion of the annual budget devoted to education hovered between five and seven per cent, making mockery even a jest of the legitimate aspiration. The 2023 budget marks up a little the vote on education, but it still hovers around eight per cent, representing the highest proportion ever under the current administration.
It is noteworthy that these days there is little talk except from the Academic Staff Union of Universities about Nigerian universities embracing world-class standards. In between the years when that aspiration occupied the front burner and now, there has been a palpable decline in educational standards, with Nigeria dropping to more and more backward position, not just globally but on the African continent. Peruse most of the 2022 surveys on higher education in Africa and you will find that South African universities occupy the best positions with such names as the Universities of Capetown, Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch among others with one Nigerian university coming in as punctuation as the numbers swell. In other words, the agenda to recover Nigeria’s position in international competitiveness is not only lost, but has been reversed.
What this means, at least in the short and medium terms, is that Nigerian youths hungry for the golden fleece will increasingly form part of the migrant youth population besieging foreign lands for qualitative university education. It will also imply that we will more and more depend on foreign experts for manpower needs, creating a ghetto segment of Nigerian scholars confined to the classroom but not allowed in serious national planning, projections and discourse. That already is happening, but current trends regarding our backwater position will make the consequences of those trends even more subversive.
As an illustration of the same syndrome, the recent strike by ASUU which ran into eight months was treated with disdain by the national authorities which saw it, not as something to hold a national conversation about, but rather as a phenomenon to be conquered or subdued. So when the authorities finally ‘conquered,’ there were song and dance from the likes of the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, who took the battle as a crusade and actually went to court among other steps to undermine and de-legitimise ASUU. But whose victory, whose triumphant mission are we celebrating, one may ask, when the consequence of that victory so-called is to further erode Nigeria’s already fragile position in the global scientific community?
Other indices showing that Nigeria has dropped the ball as far as higher education is concerned include the explosion in the number of universities—federal, state and private—while the existing ones are tattered, ill-funded and ill-clad. Were the country to focus on world-class education, at least at the university level, it will have concentrated on funding the existing ones, nurturing some of them to global stature, instead of dissipating resources and energy on multiplying the number of institutions in the manner of mushrooming that does not conduce to orderly and qualitative development.
In earlier years, specific Nigerian universities were known and reputed for cultivating high standards and maintaining specialisations to increase their renown. Ibadan majored in Medicine with the University College Hospital becoming a haven visited from across the globe; apart from the famed Ibadan History School. The Nsukka literary circle produced several writers and artistes of global recognition, Ahmadu Bello University had a world-class architecture school. Ife was noted for agriculture and agricultural economics, apart from possessing an internationally resonant School of Law which produced some of our best lawyers while the University of Lagos had a befitting school of engineering, among others. Pray, tell me, which of our universities, public and private, any longer command attention and respect in any particular specialisation?
In other words, in those years, Nigerian youths enjoyed world-class education without the government announcing it as a policy objective. That was partly because the inherited legacy of British education later complemented by America provided a good kick-start. Also, a policy model focused on neo-welfarism majored in the advantages of free education, or at least subsidised education as well as the ripple effect of association and transfer of knowledge and values from the colonial power. There also were in those years qualitative education at the base of the pyramid, which meant that primary and secondary education were well taken care of, and the universities, few as they were at the time, took over the education of students who have been certified for passing exams set by the University of Cambridge and mediated by, for instance, the Higher School Certificate. Needless to say that the exchange rate in the days brought to our shores scholars in African studies from across the globe, thus enabling a ferment of a cross-cultural and international nature with requisite cross-fertilisation within and across disciplines.
The purpose of this narrative is to star up the gains of the past as a prelude to recapturing as best as we may, at least the residues if not the essence of that lost paradigm. True, and no thanks to the serial management of national resources, we no longer possess the financial wherewithal to kick-start and maintain quality higher education since we now borrow to pay for most of our needs. Nonetheless, make no mistake about it, you cannot fund world-class education on shoestring budgets. The saying is apt that “it costs a billion dollars to ask a question in nuclear physics.” The application is now to all disciplines, and not confined to nuclear physics, in a generation where knowledge expands rapidly by the day.
So, to pick up the ball suggests that rather than multiply universities for political and other reasons we should devote efforts to funding and furnishing the existing ones, making best practices possible from at least a few selected ones which would be the equivalent of our elite universities, evocative of America’s Ivy League universities.
No great nation leaves other nations to educate its youths while keeping its own universities in tatters. As a new government in Nigeria hopefully comes in next year, it is important to draw important lessons from our history and heritage. Our universities must grow beyond the National Universities Commission’s minimum standards used for accreditation. They must stop increasing quantitatively without corresponding qualitative uptake.
Finally, they ought to produce the answers to several questions regarding making the human condition in Nigeria and Africa benevolent rather than toxic.
- Professor Ayo Olukotun is a director at the Oba (Dr.) S. K. Adetona Institute for Governance Studies, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye
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