Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Julius Okojie told Funmi Ogundare at the just-concluded World Innovation Summit on Education (WISE), in Doha, Qatar, that Nigeria needs to address the problems of research and other issues as a matter of urgency.
What lessons did you draw from the just concluded World Innovation Summit on Education (WISE)?
I think the level of collaboration is very important. If you look at what education portend for us in the country, it is on the concurrent list. States have their own input; the Federal Government also has its own. At the point where they share their revenue, you find out that the Federal Government still spends some money at the state level to even get the governments to cooperate on issues. For instance in university education, they go to the house of assembly and establish the institutions, but when it comes to regulation, some of them are not even aware that it is not NUC that issues licences, but we have a regulatory function
. A governor was blaming me that his predecessor approved a university with one church and a building. When a governor is not aware of how a university is created it becomes a problem. Then we talk about that of school children, if you look at it, it is merely at the primary and secondary school level and to get the governors to key into the concept of the Federal Government has been a difficult issue of funding. I once asked a state governor why students are still learning under trees, he told me that he thought it was just a stupid act, but it is an overwhelming act. So they need to go through a process. During the reform era in Obasanjo period, we were talking about Operation Reach All Students (ORAS); we did not have access to basic information then.
Now we are told about the 61 million children the Qatar Foundation is trying to reach. Until Prof. Ruqayyatu Rufa'i came in, there was inadequate data and we must reach out. To reach out, we must also interact with international organisations. We have a very high turnover of ministers at the summit, the minister of education from South Africa. She is a minister of another ministry, but she has information which she carries. This are issues, if you want to address the issue of education in Nigeria, there is need for collaboration and investment. You see the level at which Malaysia has been able to solve its education problems. It was the wife of the prime minister who was telling us what they have been able to achieve. I can tell you that in the last five to six years, we have had more than six ministers of education.
I think that the Jonathan government wants to reappoint ministers in the old concept and we are the gunners of NUC. Out of the 50 private universities, I created 43 of them. I know their proprietors; I know the promoters, as well as the principal officers. The world is a global village now, if you are not with them, you will be left behind and there are a lot of resources out there that we can share. The Qatar Foundation sponsored a lot of people here, which is an incentive for people to attend the summit. We should also be organising some of these international conferences, we have a West African sub-region where we have dominance, we are like big brothers; though there are many things that are still not working in the ECOWAS sub-region and if we don't work hard now, talking about Nigeria alone, we are more likely to have problems.
What are you doing to ensure that the commission is legally empowered to regulate the Nigerian university system?
We are not just supervisory, we are regulatory. First of all we have an NUC Act since 2004; we also have the Education Minimum Act of 2004, which specifies what a minister's regulatory function is. For instance, I can withdraw a degree, I can close a programme. Those are regulatory functions. We say education is on the list, but what we have done in the past six years is to ensure that no state government opens an institution without the input of NUC. Although we don't give them the licence, they come to us and ask for resource persons.
We help them develop academic grade physical master plan. What we now do is we tell them when to start by doing resource verification. Four years ago, we found out that some of them were starting programmes that we asked them not to start and we closed those programmes. They are more likely to obey what we are saying now. You know that a lot of them are not able to draw down on Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). We are ensuring that what they spend their resources on are programmes that are for accreditation. So TETFUND monitor and we also monitor. So I will say that the problem we have with state universities is that once there is a new governor, some of them want to undermine the activities of their predecessors.
We also do a lot of counselling. What has happened recently is that of poor funding profile, which has made a lot of university managements go into part- time programmes. We were not able to monitor them for a long time until recently when I had to order the close up of part-time programmes and no admission this year. A forensic audit of the 20 per cent full-time students cannot pay. Those are the regulatory functions we have. You can imagine a situation whereby Olabisi Onabanjo University graduated 40,000 students. We also need the support of the judiciary. We also have issues with the EFCC. You can't believe that a private university didn't have permission to start law, they started the programme, and now the students can't go to law school. Yet the court ruled that they had the right to start the programme.
We currently have more private universities in the country, what impact does it have on the education system?
We have a very simple answer, we are looking at options. Nobody says you must not go to private institutions. But government cannot create institutions at its wish. If you say education is a right, when you have resources provide it. Almost every state now has a federal government college; we also have even for girls.
It is the same process. Government alone cannot provide primary education. They are just players in the system. We are saying if Federal Government universities have the number of students they can take, where do others stay?
Research conducted in Nigeria does not see the light of the day or even get to the market, what is your take on this?
We've had 30 years of military rule in Nigeria. During that period, there was a flight of academics. Most of our teachers left the country; some of them even became vice-chancellors in South Africa for instance. The top surgeons in USA today are Nigerians, they own their own hospitals.
So when you have that, you know what it is to train somebody. We have that mass movement of people leaving the country. Number one, we don't have the competence for research. Secondly, research is not funded because we have poor quality staff and poor students. Remuneration was very poor in the university system then, there was a time during the military era when all lecturers were asked to leave their accommodation;
there was no job security and they left. Then what we now have are mediocre running the issue, the industry took away the best of our brains. If you have a 2/1 in universities those days, you have to remain in the university. Usually in countries where you have research, development and innovation, there is a support from industries.
In Nigeria, there is inadequate funding and there is decay of the facilities for research, considering the number of times lecturers went on strike. If you have a Chemistry laboratory and you don't use facilities, they will decay. So there is psychological disconnect and there is no incentive to work. Only recently, the Federal Government approved N3 billion for research to be accessed by any type of industry or private sector. Once you have a good project, then it will be sponsored. You will be amazed that out of about 20 proposals made, not many of them will scale through. There is need for us to work harder and address the issue of research.
I was discussing with the executive secretary of TETFUND and I told him that we have to create a body and address issues. When you have gone through the process of training people to write proposal, take them through a process on how to collaborate in research and if you are not getting good result, that is a problem.
I think through the Linkages in Expert and Academics in Diaspora Scheme (LEADS), we can also develop the process of trying to approach research. We also have a lot of discrimination, if you produce soya beans in Abeokuta, an international journal is not likely to take it. What is an international journal? Any Nigerian publication is an international journal. But are you working on the areas that are relevant to the needs of the people?
Nigeria lays more emphasis on higher education at the expense of the primary and post primary levels, what effect does it have on the system?
For a long time, we have relied on World Bank assistance and the early part of their assistance was on primary and secondary education to the neglect of tertiary education. It was recently that we started emphasising on that. The World Bank process is very hard, they will give you conditions; it was difficult to even access.
If you look at the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), it was specially created for the primary education, but during the Obasanjo regime, we had overwhelming problems because we didn't make adequate preparations for students to come into tertiary education. The problem has been that the first choice of parents and their wards is university education, which should not be the case for a developing country. You find out that we have poor regard for those with technical education. Getting a good remuneration for the job they do and they can go to a university much later in the system.
But the question is how many of our students who are graduating in the secondary schools have places in the university system? Even if we have a place for everybody, it won't be reasonable if everybody acquires university education. So how are we going to address the system? In National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), we have drawn up the regulation for Open Distant Learning (ODL). Even in Nigeria you are to put in someone's certificate that he graduated from NOUN, they won't take him serious. I want a situation where when we are talking about access to university education, we must talk about vocational and technical education, OND, HND, innovation enterprise and institution. Those who do POP should also have some level of certification. Upgrade some of the colleges to be able to acquire the skill. Let them know that through entrepreneurship education, they will be employers of labour, rather than looking for job in the ministry. That is the concept. We need an enabling environment.