Before Another Four Universities

The latest Nigerian governmental craze, apart from acquiring a string of titles, must be the obsession to establish universities. Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State wants to establish at least one in each senatorial zone while his counterpart in Oyo State, Abiola Ajimobi, wants to establish one for the bragging rights: other states in the South-West zone have a state university but Oyo does not have one. Meanwhile, Oyo State clinched the unenviable position of 34th in the ranking of states from the data of the last West African Senior School Certificate Examination results. That, for me, is enough for the state to spend time and money remedying without saddling itself with the foundation-laying ceremony of another ‘unifactory’ where indigenes who fail WASSCE will be further miseducated.

Apart from the ‘honour’ of being a visitor to the state university and making the academia an extension of political territory –something that is an issue in the faith-based universities where the patriarch makes the university an annexe of his religious fiefdom – what sound reasons are being offered for the creation of these universities? There is little need to rehash the well-worn out arguments about the state of Nigerian education, especially at the university level.

For me, governors who seek to establish universities should ask themselves if they have ever given grants – outside salaries and running costs — to any existing university to support academic ventures. How many times have they even demonstrated their respect for these institutions by seeking solutions to nagging social problems from the academia?

One of the most sobering stories in Nigerian academia/society interface is that of Dr. Meshida Lawal of the University of Lagos. He invented Laterite, an award-winning compound that has the potential of resolving the perennial worn-out state of Nigerian roads but his invention has yet to be patronised by any level of government. Yet, huge sums of money are expended on tarred trunk roads yearly. So, what’s the point in having more ‘degree awarding institutions’? In more organised climes, the don and his team would have a laboratory where they would have been improving on their invention and funding will not even be an issue, both from the private sector and government.

Nigeria makes no pretence that it has little or no use for research and far less respect for knowledge, yet builds more universities. It must be the only place in the world where nine universities are established with N13.5bn! And if a school is set up with such a dismal amount of funding, who would expect that it will have any relevance to the society other than award degrees?

What Nigeria needs sorely is not more, but quality universities. For starters, before building universities, improve university libraries and let there be a boost in knowledge; let’s establish university press and improve the state of scholarship; let’s endow chairs and challenge professors to come up with inventions; in short, let’s expand the frontiers of existing institutions by devoting more resources to them. Using scarce resources to build more schools which will merely run students through a shoddy system, push them into an ever narrowing labour market will not do for now.

In reality, good universities don’t come cheap and one of the central issues in the Nigerian university system today is funding. Nigerian universities are abysmally funded. Recently, Webonomics released its 2012 list of university rankings and our universities ranked low. It wasn’t surprising for a number of reasons. Nigeria as a country – and its universities individually — cannot match the top universities in funding or endowments. For instance, Harvard University that usually leads the world, has as its 2011 budget, around $3.9bn (with a $130m deficit) while the entire budget for Nigerian education the same year –from primary to tertiary to extra-tertiary — is an estimated $378m! (Of course, there are many considerations in between but I make this comparison solely for argument purposes).

As much as I believe that the state has the responsibility to come up with more money for our education system, the truth is that the requisite amount of funding cannot come from the state. The challenge is for the society to assist the state in having better universities.

One immediate way is to create a system where Nigerians give to the university system. We need to convince our people that instead of spending vast sums announcing to an ‘I-do-not-care-world’ on Network News that it’s been X years our grandfather ‘slept in the Lord’, why don’t we use the money to institute a prize in his name in the university? Why not donate books to the library in the name of our loved ones rather than staging those lavish ephemeral burials or those expensive mausoleums in private cemeteries? Instead of churches buying cars for First Class graduates in their congregation, why not sponsor a cancer research instead? We need a system where Nigerians who can afford to die in foreign hospitals will write their wills and donate a lump sum to the system to advance scientific knowledge so that others don’t have to die from the same malady in obscure parts of the world or in more pitiable places in the country.

One big snag, however, is that the money may be embezzled. Nobody wants to donate hard-earned money only for a professor to spend it on building a house in his village. It is true that greed does not preclude dons but we can set up a mechanism that ensures the money is judiciously spent. There is no need reinventing the wheel, the prototype already exists.

I must add that I understand what universities mean to us as a people: they award degrees and degrees increase our chances of getting a job, earn us respect among other things. And a state university is also good because it negates the exorbitant fees charged by private universities and is a legitimate demand on a popularly elected government because it widens the number of educated citizens but then, universities are also much more than a set of buildings where people are taught theories and formulas the rest of the world discarded long time ago. I am not too keen on more universities but if they have to be established, the state should realise they need money to make it happen. One way to go is for the governor to start by creating a system where the people give to the university along with the state funding.

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