Since the law establishing private university was enacted in 2004-2005, educational investors and educational administrators in Nigeria have taken up the challenges to help the nation with their contributions to improve the quality of higher education by investing in the establishments of private universities and private polytechnics, and running them with or without profit motives.
It would have been a different story if private universities had come during the success years of "oil boom." The present situation in the country has affected the management of private universities adversely. I mean the national economic situation. Let me borrow Prof. T.M. Yesufu's (1996) summation of the Nigerian economic situation.
"Nigeria is suffering from the death throes of socio-economic ebola caused by a cross breed of the viruses of political myopia, moral bankruptcy and cultural decadence."
This quotation is from Yesufu's (1996) "The Nigerian Economy: Growth without Development." Yesufu's statement made in 1996 is even more relevant in today's assessment of Nigeria's situation, especially in an economy overly reliant on government to provide everything.
The culture of expectations on government funding support may have affected the fortunes of private universities since their expectations and requests for government financial assistance have not been met. By current statistics of Nigerian universities, private universities have taken the first position with 61 or more institutions, federal universities take second position with 41 institutions and the states have 40 universities, bringing the total of Nigerian universities to 142, excluding newly approved universities.
From the above statistics, private universities form about 43% of Nigerian universities as at the moment. This figure will definitely rise when more private universities established and approved by the government are listed.
This, therefore, implies that private universities are rescuing the government from the burden of providing adequate university education for the nation. This implication needs to be addressed by the Federal Government to ensure the provision of "free university education" to Nigerians who are aspiring for qualitative university education.
In his view on this constitutional provision, Wilson, D. (2010), argues thus: "This wish has remained largely unrealisable because there is a gulf between this wish and implementation, a difficulty which has arisen, a lack of cooperation."
Since the governments have failed to cooperate with private university authorities, the dream for free university education cannot become a reality for many years to come.
What remains to be done is for the authorities and proprietors of private universities to find the answers to the current financial crises that are prevalent in their institutions. As at this time, nearly all the private universities are going through harsh economic experience occasioned by lack of sufficient funding.
Many private universities like their public university counterparts are owing salary arrears to their workers (academic and non-academic staff). Many projects hitherto planned for their institutions' development have been put in abeyance; while management of some of the universities have put embargo on staff employment, temporarily. Some of them have pruned down staff numerical strength to be able to pay salaries conveniently. The same scenario is also present in many public universities throughout the country.
What is the answer to this economic predicament in a depressed national economy? Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Ikeji-Arakeji, Osun State seems to have found a practical approach to ease out its prevailing financial problems, hence the university has adopted the "minimalist approach" to infrastructural project execution as well as investing in other small-scale fund-raising commercial activities. This sort of diversification has been solving a great deal of its financial problems, while the university management is gazing at better days ahead.
The university which has been rated by an Israeli international institute to possess great capacity for profitable commercial agriculture has gone many steps further to develop its potentials in large scale farming. Before its rating, JABU has made great strides in entrepreneurial agriculture by having bumper harvests in plantain, poultry farms, fishery, bakery and in cattle ranching.
The Galilee International Management Institute of Israel and its President, Dr. Joseph Shovel were impressed with JABU's achievements in commercial agriculture to the extent that they have almost concluded arrangements for a partnership in large commercial agriculture with JABU. Before this initiative is completely realised early next year, JABU has become a force to reckon with in cassava farming. In March last year, the university was honoured by the famous Cassava Millionaires Club Initiative Nigeria (CMCIN), for being the most agricultural friendly university in the country.
In the middle of last year and in the previous year (2014), JABU distributed several cuttings of high yield cassava stems to scores of farmers from Ekiti, Ondo and Osun states. The cassava stems were distributed freely to the farmers.
This hospitality displayed by the management of JABU demonstrates the institution's Town and Gown relationship. It is also a clear display of the hidden green wealth being nurtured by the institution. Being the first entrepreneurship university in Nigeria turning out fresh graduates into instant employers, JABU places much emphasis on entrepreneurial studies. Hence the JABU approach to economic recession is a welcome method in the war against poverty and unemployment.
The role played by the university's council members in cooperating with management to use their managerial capabilities to turn things around positively is a factor in JABU's success. The use of committee system to advise in management's planning and in the execution of new academic programmes and the initiatives in profitable commercial projects is additional factor which makes it possible for the university to have the capability avoiding tidal waves of harsh economy and swimming cautiously for survival in the troubled waters of economic recession, which have swept some private universities to isolated islands where regular payment of workers' salaries is now a difficult task.
The approach adopted by JABU in investing in medium scale commercial agriculture and diversifying into other profitable and money spinning ventures is a right step taken to forestall the economic threats posed by the current national economic recession.
All universities, public and private and the polytechnics could borrow the JABU economic approach in order to escape from the economic ills of the country's present situation, and swim ashore in safety.
The management in JABU and the university council members appear to have carried out a diligent search for the elusive clues to take their institution far away from the era of recession and economic frustration which the country is currently battling with.
In their indisputable optimism, the efforts of faith-based private universities with the partial financial support of their corporate founders as well as those of other private universities established by individual Nigerian patriots shall not be in vain. One can say with Nigerian characteristic optimism that better days are ahead for well administered private universities in Nigeria.
Duyile is former HOD, Mass Communications Department at Joseph Ayo Babalola University.