There is a sense in which it may be said that had the University of Nigeria not existed in the first place, the generation of post-independence leadership of the country would still have had to invent one.
This is because, looking back now, the establishment of the university bordered on a historical mission, as encapsulated in the Report of the Economic Rehabilitation of Eastern Nigeria (1955) which made the case for the immediate establishment of a full-fledged university in the Region: "Such a higher institution of learning should not only be cultural, according to the classical concept of universities, but it should also be vocational in its objective and Nigerian in its content."
The dawn of political independence in Africa was all the more remarkable as it offered the new nations a context to dream lofty dreams. It needs be emphasized that, in the case of Rt. Hon. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the founder of the University of Nigeria, the original impulse for the establishment of the University ran far much deeper than the crush of independence.
The reason the university will for a very long time to come remain the reference point in the development of higher education hinges on its history as a catalytic influence in the diversification of knowledge and the democratization of access to higher education. The introduction of vocational courses and the teaching of General Studies (GS) have bred an academic tradition that defines the mission of the public university. Through thick and thin, this tradition has largely held firm and constitutes the connecting thread in the tangled web of the institution's history.
Twenty seven ago, the University celebrated its silver jubilee anniversary. It was an auspicious occasion to reflect on the institution's history and to contemplate its future. Onigu Otite, a pioneer graduate of the university and by then a professor of sociology at the University of Ibadan suggested at the time that the chequered origins of the school made its first 25 years appear to collapse centuries of the normal rise and fall of such institutions elsewhere. Inevitably, the ravages wrought by the ugly spectre of the Nigerian civil war have since become an integral part of the narrative of the University. Upon his return to the war-scarred institution in 1970, Dr D.R. Duncan, an Inter- University Council adviser from Cambridge University made a sobering observation of the patent devastation and destruction, on the one hand, and a burning determination and purpose to create something unique from the tragedy of the past, on the other.
Despite a succession of national educational crises punctuated by internal upheavals, the University has grown in exponential terms ever since. The take-off student population of 220 in six foundation departments in 1960 and an academic staff strength of 13, which, by the 1962/63 session had shot up to 1,248 students in 27 departments and colleges, and a total of 160 lecturers, pales in comparison to the current student enrolment figure of about 35,000, academic staff and faculty population of 1,785, in addition to non-academic personnel of 5,420. In fifty years, the University has graduated over 125,000 students in various degrees and diplomas (compared to the first set of 150 graduates in 1963) and today boasts 106 departments, 15 faculties, 10 centres and 3 institutes spread across four campuses- Nsukka, Enugu, Ituku/Ozalla and Aba.
With research at the heart of the founding of the university, post-graduate studies stand out as a beneficiary of the exponential growth of the institution. Fresh from the ruins of war, the school conferred its first Master's degree in 1971 and its first PhD four years later in 1975. In the 1978/79 session when the School of Post-graduate Studies came into existence, the post-graduate student enrolment figure stood at 288, but by 1984/85 session, the figure had risen to 1,309 students. By contrast, with all academic departments presently running fully functional post-graduate programmes, a total of 2,226 new students enrolled for various programmes under the school in the 2010/2011 session.
Much has been made of the ennobling dreams of the founding fathers of the university, but in reality those dreams might have counted for little without the commensurate sweat and exertions, commitment and conviction of the men and women in the arena of teaching and research.
As we mark the 52nd Founders Day this year, preparatory to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the pioneer set of university graduates from a Nigerian university in October 2013, I cannot but register once more my appreciation of the tortuous journey that started with the singular vision of Dr Azikiwe, former Premier of the Eastern Region, former President of Nigeria and foremost nationalist.
Professor Okolo is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.