Following the Federal Government's approval of three more federal universities to be sited in Gashua (Yobe); Birnin Kebbi (Kebbi) and Gusau (Zamfara), vice-chancellors, educationists and parents are divided on whether having 37 federally funded varsities is a step in the right direction.
Rising from its Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting, Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, said the decision was in fulfillment of government's promise to give each state a federal university.
According to Maku, only 10 per cent of school leavers get admission into higher institutions nationwide due to limited space available. Skeletal services are to start as soon as possible in the new varsities and academic work should start by 2014/2015 academic year.
This view was supported by the Policy Advisor, Civil Society Action Coalition on Education for All, (CSACEFA), Mr. Wale Samuel, and Senior Lecturer, English Department, Lagos State University, Dr. Henry Hunjo, who said this would translate to more access to education by more people.
According to Samuel, "There is need for more varsities considering the challenges of access in terms of the high volume of secondary school leavers seeking admission. However, government should equally address issues like funding to achieve quality tertiary education and the need to support hands-on education at the polytechnic level. The Open University system, when strengthened, is another viable option of addressing the access problem."
For Dr. Henry Hunjo, "though this would provide more access to education for those that are qualified, but we should ask: after these degrees are awarded, what plans are being made to translate these degrees into jobs?"
On the issue of funding, Hunjo said that would not be a problem as they would be adequately funded because government would not want to be criticized.
"But we must note that this move is politically motivated as government wants to make sure that no zone complains about lacking a federal university," Hunjo said.
For Gloria, a parent, only God knows the fate of Nigerians if we still had only the University of Nigeria, University of Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo University and Ahmadu Bello University.
"As long as the NUC does its job of ensuring that these varsities get their programmes accredited, there would be no problem. In 1976 when Gen. Murtala Muhammed wanted to establish 14 second generation varsities, he was criticized for trying to water down the quality of education.
"The same thing when Jim Nwobodo established the first state university at Enugu, and it continued with the establishment of the private varsities. With a population of over 160 million, Nigeria needs as many varsities as possible to educate all these young people."
Providing further insight on government's decision, Minister of Education, Rukayyatu Rufa'i, said out of 1.3 million school leavers that seek entrance to higher institutions every year, less than 200,000 gain admissions into existing institutions.
"The establishment of the new varsities complement efforts being made by the Federal Government towards tackling educational challenges at all tiers in the country, from almajiri schools to post-primary institutions,", Rufa'i said.
Not in agreement with the reasons for establishing more universities is the immediate past VC, University of Jos, Prof. Sonni Tyoden, who cited lack of qualified staff as a major challenge.
"I hope government did their homework well in getting staff because even the old varsities are facing the challenge of qualified staff, especially as it takes almost 10 years for a varsity to produce PhD holders.
"What this implies is that these new varsities will be gleaning staff from the existing ones, hence short-staffing them, and this would likely create more problems for the sector in the future."
To avert this trend, Tyoden advised government to provide opportunities for staff to do crash doctorate programmes abroad.
Calling on government to get existing varsities to strengthen their Distance Learning Departments, a vice-chancellor, who pleaded anonymity, said this would solve the issue of adequately trained staff.
"Assuming there already are administrative staff, do they have the teaching staff or do they want to turn out half-baked graduates? Rather than more varsities, government should expand the existing ones by distributing the available human resources among them and get them to strengthen their Departments of Distance Learning to accommodate more students."
In as much as there is need for more varsities, the VC, Bells University of Technology, Prof. Isaac Adeyemi, tasked government to ensure that emphasis is placed on quality, not quantity.
"Even if we need more varsities, we should be clamouring for qualitative education and improved facilities and structures, while consolidating on the existing ones. Another issue of concern is lecturers, especially at the senior cadre because it takes about three years to earn a PhD and government must be ready to award scholarships to these lecturers for them to be properly grounded in their fields.
"I'm of the view that we should explore the options Distance Learning offers, just as it is done in developed climes because if DL takes pre-dominance in Nigeria, all the structures in these institutions would become obsolete in the nearest future.
"Besides, approving the establishment of more varsities is not something that we should just dabble into because it involves a lot of strategic planning which takes time to execute. But if government is willing and capable of adequately funding them, then they can go ahead, otherwise there is no need to approve more universities."