Journalism in the service of society

The crisis in Nigeria’s education sector (1)

NIGERIA’s education sector, from top to bottom, is unquestionably in deep crisis for a number of reasons. In fact, even the current complaints about the relatively poor quality of student intake across the tertiary education sector can be traced to the decline in the standards of teaching and instruction in large parts of the education sector chiefly because there is always a symmetrical relationship between poor standards in the primary and secondary schools and the abysmally low quality student intake and staffing in the universities.

Moreover, disruptions to the academic calendar are now legion in Nigeria’s higher education. The key factors in the decline of the higher education sector may be attributed to the following: poor quality of students; recruitment of poorly qualified academic staff; decline of vigorous academic culture and academic excellence in the area of “critical knowledge” production (cutting-edge advances in research output); decline in international recognition and peer-review mechanisms, and the relatively poor quality of university administration as can be seen in the proliferation of “political” vice chancellors and other university administrators who have little interest in creating exemplary conditions for knowledge production in their universities.

Between 1970 and 1990, the Nigerian tertiary education sector saw a remarkable intellectual efflorescence. Nigerian universities in particular were the major centres of academic research in many fields. For example, we had cutting-edge historical studies at the University of Ibadan and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; sociology at the University of Jos; the medical sciences at the University of Ibadan; philosophy at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife; political science at Bayero University and the Universities of Lagos and Benin, and anthropology and literary studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In the same manner, in virtually all the universities and the colleges of education, there was a vigorous reading culture among staff and students, centred around book clubs and reading collectives, not to speak of the vigorous discussion circles on a variety of academic topics and public policies.

In the same period, the universities and the polytechnics published internationally acclaimed journals and monographs such as IDU, Lagos Notes and Records, Savannah, Saiwa, Work In Progress, The West African Journal of Language and Literature, Journal of the Humanities and so on. In the same manner, the culture of debate and academic discussion was widespread: students of English trooping to listen to lectures by academics from other departments, and on topics such as eugenics, evolution, thermodynamics, theoretical physics, nutrition, the history of science, etc.

A wide diversity of professors from different countries, cultures and backgrounds formed a significant part of the universities’ faculty. The presence of such expatriate professors did raise the intellectual calibre of the students and, at the same time, exposed them to different intellectual traditions. In such situations, the indigenous professors could compete favourably with their expatriate colleagues. The eventual loss of diversity in the lectureship led to a more or less parochial university system largely cut off from developments in other more dynamic universities and rapidly changing academic traditions.

The students also had a healthy dose of academic and intellectual curiosity and would read anything and everything on the major academic advances in a host of disciplines, not just within their specialisation. It was very common to see students of economics having active interest in oceanography, medicine, geography, and historical studies, among others. Prominent scholars from across the world would visit the universities to give well-attended seminars or public lectures on a variety of subjects. Well before the word became popular, there was a vigorous multi and inter-disciplinary culture in many Nigerian universities. In addition, academic and scholarly conferences were the norm across whole sections of Nigeria’s higher education.

However, all that began to change for the worse with the military government’s “austerity programmes” in 1976, which drastically affected the funding of the universities, a decline that continued with the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1985-1993 years. One effect of such fiscal and economic policies on the universities was the mass exodus of expatriate scholars from Nigerian universities, which was then followed by the slow but steady emigration of distinguished Nigerian academics and scholars to universities in the West and, in particular, South Africa.

The economic decline of the universities also coincided with the slow bureaucratisation and politicisation of the post of the vice chancellor which eventually led to ethnic divisions, campus intrigues, and the emergence of “political vice chancellors” who, in most cases, were not normally distinguished scholars themselves. Such vice chancellors created the conditions for the proliferation of vested interest groups.

It was around that time also that strident unionism and union politics began to trump academic excellence and professional values, despite a self-professed commitment to ethical progress by unions such as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Thus in many of the universities, unaccountable practices in the recruitment of academic staff, now centralised rather than initiated from the departments and faculties, meant that the wrong kind of staff were invariably recruited. In some cases, “in-breeding” practices meant that a majority of the lecturers now in higher education have had all their degrees from the same department or university, and very likely supervised in all respects by the same professors, which is now not the norm in modern universities across the world.

A parallel development was the recruitment of more non-teaching staff than the academic ones, to the extent that in almost all the universities, the non-teaching staff are more numerous than the academic staff; and that, would, with time, sow the seeds of crisis in the system because of the competing needs and demands of the two warring groups within the system. Studies have shown that Nigerian universities have virtually dwindled to the position of super secondary schools, where only third rate teaching is offered or could be done; or a virtual “civil service” in all its essentials, except the teaching function for the academic staff. In sum, the typical Nigerian university or college of education is, to all intents and purposes, now no more than, or not actually better than, a deracinated space where cynicism, in-fighting and unthinking union mentality dominate every aspect of academic life, all in an effort by contending and fractious parties to hold on to what is, or amounts to, and by all implications, a careerist’s haven.

But what could be done to reverse the situation in order to create the conditions for a new and rejuvenated higher education in Nigeria? One way out of the doldrums is through increased — and relatively adequate — funding for the universities. The government could do this by giving more funds to the sector and also by allowing the universities to charge student tuition fees at all levels; and by encouraging the universities to charge “commercial rates” on staff housing and other faculties not directly involved in routine teaching and research.

Yet another is by creating a mechanism by which the universities could reform their appointments and promotions guidelines in the direction of academic excellence in teaching, research, and service. When successfully done, this measure would readily have a positive impact on the slowly faltering levels of “academic pride” and scholarly values, professional and scholarly culture within large parts of the higher education faculty.

Already in many advanced universities, the Research Centre staffed by distinguished academics, is rapidly becoming the locus of advanced knowledge production. Nigerian universities could also exploit this trend because international donor and research agencies are at present more comfortable dealing with such centres and institutes than with the conventional university structures. Nigerian universities could also benefit enormously with a strong academic relationship with scholars in the Diaspora. Many of such scholars are only too eager to help in this direction. In fact, this is one viable way of enriching the relationship and fostering outstanding links with distinguished faculties across the world.

Other measures to reverse the current appalling trend would be the following: more accountable leadership based on academic excellence and merit; revamped curricula that take into account the needs of the country; reduction in the number of non-teaching staff relative to that of the academic staff; the establishment of more private and public open universities; the introduction of a tenure system based strictly on accomplished academic record — a system in which everyone is on contract except the tenured professors; the possession of a PhD as the only entry qualification into the system; the criminalisation of the so called “sex-for-marks” phenomenon; “associations” should replace trade unions in the sector; the declaration of a “state of emergency” by the government in higher education if only to create the conditions for radical, far-reaching reforms within the sector. Membership of university governing councils should not include sitting professors from other universities because the membership includes six persons from the university senate and the congregation.

Finally, in the interest of industrial peace and harmony, the government should not enter into agreements with any union, especially higher education unions, that it knows it cannot possibly meet. Recurring strikes in the higher institutions have always had to do with unions claiming that the government had either breached or failed to live up to an agreement with them over funding, salaries and fringe benefits, and non-salary conditions of service. An alternative to this unstable state of affairs is a “Social Contract”. That indeed is one viable route to a more peaceful and stable higher education.

For example, in November 2008, a meeting of the University Leaders’ Forum, consisting of Vice Chancellors of some of the leading universities in Africa under the auspices of Association of African Universities, held in Accra, Ghana, issued a communiqué in which the Forum echoed previous calls by the African Union for the complete revitalisation of higher education in the continent through a new Social Contract between African higher education institutions and African states. It suggested that such a “collaborative partnership” is welcome because it is necessary to support the fullest expression of the mission of higher education: teaching, research and public service.

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