The Vice Chancellor, University of Calabar, Prof. James Epoke, in this interview with EDEM EDEM , discusses the several challenges facing the institution and the efforts his administration has made to tackle them. He also says the university is on the path of sustainable progress.
By this month, November 2012, you will be two years in office, how has it been
By November 30, 2012, I would have spent two years in office as Vice Chancellor, University of Calabar. The university is for teaching and research and, as such, my main aim was to strengthen teaching and research. I saw that there were three areas that I should act very well: the academic which is mainly for teaching and research; welfare of the students and welfare of staff.
The university is for staff and students.Their welfare should not be compromised. There must be infrastructural development where the people will stay and then, of course, the environment and lastly there must be peace and tranquillity for all the things you aim at to come to fruition.
Let's look at the first , the academics.
We took the academic aspect head-on. First of all, we have noticed before then that there was a form of decadence in academics; students would finish academic work for up tofive years or more, but no results. They will stay three or four years or more, but they can't go for the NYSC.
And even when they have results, there are no certificates, so we started by clearing the stable as they say. At the end of my first year, I knew that I had signed 10,000 certificates but right now, I can proudly say I have signed 25,000 certificates, clearing as much backlog as possible. But, strangely, some days you see it coming; you still continue to clear them.
What were the other problems in the university when you took over?
There were really problems. Before now, we saw that one of the greatest problems of the university was that of 'sorting': lecturers collecting money to give grades. We now observed that the reason for this was because the results were not released on time. If the results were not released on time, it means the lecturers will be waiting for the people to 'sort' (bribe) before releasing whatever results.
And to tackle this menace, we now gave target: within one month, if lecturers have not turned in their results, they will not be paid. This worked very well and before the students could come around and look for money to sort, the results are out on the notice boards. So we now have timely release of results and reduction in sorting. You can ask the students.
Did you have the problem of missing results?
Yes, there were some areas that we had missing results in General Studies (GS). They are courses done by everybody, so it was a very huge market, and you must pass through GS before you can continue. That makes it lucrative, so it was easy to say 'your results is not there'; 'your result is missing' and if you brought N5,000, your result came out. We saw that this is terrible; everybody was under that yoke.
People cried, so we tackled this GS issue head-on and made the GS exams computerized, which means within two weeks the results are out. The scripts are all customized: each student has his name on his answer script. In the last exams, we did not have up to 20 people in the whole school of over 30,000 with complaint of missing results. So the GS results problem has been solved and the students now have A's in GS - you never saw A's: when you bring money, they gave you 'C' so I think in that aspect, we have succeeded in checking that menace.
What about the issue of NYSC?
NYSC was a serious issue. Students were not mobilized to serve. Afte they finish their decree programmes, it will take them three or four years or more before they serve. We sent out circulars that every decree and final year students filled and they complied. Today as I am talking to you, all those who received their decrees by February are now in camp; all with their certificates. My daughter is one of them.
We were confronted with another major problem. We saw that in our Centre for Educational Services, where we called consultancy or GSS, students there were treated as second-class citizens. The result would be prepared for regular students while their own were not. Eventually, we came out with the idea that unless lecturers bring in both results they will not have salary. Now GSS results are coming out.
Again, we felt that there was something wrong. We observed that there were different registration numbers for both regular students and those of GSS. We went back to the drawing board and said that every number should be the same. We only use code to differentiate GSS and regular students.
Before now, you cannot differentiate between the GSS registration number and regular students. This is a novelty thing we have done. Eventually, those students might even be able to go for NYSC like regular students because they have the same number. There is no differentiation; not that we are promising them that they will go for NYSC. All these are areas we made changes in academics, because knew that without a conducive atmosphere there will be no education.
How did you tackle the problem of infrastructural facilities?
We tackled problem of classrooms because there was no public address system, no seat, and no classrooms. We procured public address system, white boards and installed them in all the classrooms, and these make teaching conducive. And we have created more classrooms.
Our library is one of the largest in West Africa. Under the library, there are series of classrooms; we have converted eight classrooms downstream left and eight classrooms downstream right. A time will come when we will not have the problem of classrooms. We have ordered for 870 seats from China which have already been paid for. The seat will be fixed in all those classrooms we did not have seats.
On research, were you able to secure grants for research work for both students and staff?
Researches need funding and there are lots of funds outside, which are untapped. We started by bringing agencies to come and teach our staff craftsmanship, and how to secure these funds until finally we have subscribed to Research Africa for the next two years where we can get grants for our staff and students for them to do their research. This is quite encouraging. We paid up to $13,000 and bid for another $13,000 for us to get subscription for staff and students to key in.
But in doing this research, we took steps to clean the system and also stamp out plagiarism. We are moving forward in the area of research. We have been bubbling in the area of research and teaching; we tried as soon as possible to improve our landscape. All these things cannot go on without adequate infrastructure. We have been able to win special intervention by TETfund for universities in the south-south geo-political zone for this year. Our institution was chosen for south south, and we are expecting N3billion to improve our infrastructure.
What do you intend to do with the money?
We have already thought of where to put it. Our university runs five hospital-based courses - medicine and surgery, radiography, medical laboratory science, nursing and public health. The teaching hospital was all along at Moore road, but for the past 30 years they have been building the permanent site of the teaching hospital. That is being built by Ministry of Health. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education was folding its arms. Even with the five hospital-based courses we are running, not even one was put there for our medical students and all those that should have been in the hospital.
We are happy that they have given us TETfund; we hope to build the Faculty of Clinical Sciences and Faculty of Allied Medical Sciences near the teaching hospital. There are other things we intend to do. Already, Faculty of Education and Faculty of Law are going on. Other buildings are coming up. We have mentioned that we wanted to do Faculty of Engineerin: yes, we have not yet forgotten about it; what happened was that the contractor we awarded the contract to, as usual, was petitioned. And once there was a petition, due process has to be followed and because of this the project had to be put on hold but we are still on focus.
What happened to the money given to the university by the Akwa Ibom State governor?
The money is still intact and we will still brief you accordingly after due process. We are starting with the Faculty of Engineering and Pharmacy. We know that we need it very much. Right now there is sensitisation. Eventually we are going to launch for it, but we must have infrastructure before we start the programme.
So based on that, we are gradually putting up something, that could be left behind as infrastructure in the university. Already, TETfund is building a publishing centre; that should be the one that represents the South-South. Where you see them constructing, it is a publishing centre. We don't know how it will look until they finish.
What is the university doing for the students?
We have done a lot for the students of the uuniversity. For the first time in 30 years, we were able to paint the female hostels, both inside and outside; all the hostels have been painted. Their insides have not been painted for 30 years. We went on to repair and refurbish most of the hostels: Hall Five is being refurbished totally; the Malabo refectory that had become a church for every Tom and Harry, we are bringing it up to a standard cafeteria. We want these things.
A university should have these things so that students should behave like university students.When a student goes to small place, they behave like that but when they come here, we give them what they want and they behave like university students. We give our students conducive atmosphere for study. The First Bank has promised us another refectory at Hall Two. We have given them sites and that will go on. All these are for the students.
They burnt their union car at the last riot, and we have conveniently replaced the burnt car. They burnt one but we provided two, one for the Students Union Government (SUG) president and the other for the vice president, so that they can go on politicking and not distract us. We are on track; we have been on course; we are now on the map of universities as far as we are concerned.