Against the backdrop of poor funding by their owners, federal universities have always devised ingenious means to remain afloat. In this piece, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL examines the recent decision by the federal government to resist any attempt by such universities to charge school fees for courses offered by students in order to augment the pittance they get from the Abuja authorities
Vice President of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, was once an academic.
He can be said to understand the financial straits of federal universities.
But it is not likely he is in a good position to help his former colleagues in the institutions in terms of getting adequate funding from the government.
It will also appear he is going to be in the way of any attempt by federal universities to ingeniously increase tuition students pay by charging school fees according to the courses they take.
At a recent Federal Executive Council meeting which was presided over by Osinbajo, in the absence of President Muhammadu Buhari, the professor of Law was not impressed by the seemingly novel ideas of administrators of the universities and he, therefore, ordered a full-scale investigation into the issue and in the same breath called for a stop to the alleged tuition system.
To the Vice President, it is illegal for federal universities to charge tuition, adding that the federal executive council has directed the Ministry of Education under Adamu Adamu to ascertain if the allegations were true and put a stop to it.
"No federal university should charge tuition -that is the law.
And, we understand that some universities now charge fees per course unit and we are going to make sure that we investigate that properly and stop it.
But students can pay other auxiliary fees but not in excess.
Various university councils and managements should be able to fix what fees students should pay that are affordable and acceptable. That is the position.
"The federal government does not determine fees for private and state universities.
They only take responsibility for fees paid in the federal universities," the minister had stated.
In April this year, the premier ivory tower in the country, the University of Ibadan, was reported to have increased its accommodation and professional training fees for students -from N14, 000 to N40, 000 and N75, 000 to N100, 000 respectively while the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba (AAUA) hiked its tuition.
AAUA increased its school fees from about N35, 000 to between N120, 000 and N200, 000 per session.
That happened just four months after the Ondo State Governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, announced that the institution's school fees would be reviewed.
But that is not sitting down well with parents, students and the civil society. A human rights advocacy group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), had urged the authorities of the schools to reverse the hike or face legal action.
"The universities ought to have carefully considered the effects of high fees on accessibility and the vision of education that they seek to achieve.
The universities are advised to find solutions to their funding difficulties elsewhere.
But if they fail to reverse these fees within seven days of the publication of this statement, SERAP would take appropriate legal action to compel them to do so," the civil organisation warned.
It is believed that such dramatic increase in academic fees can have the effect of "discriminating" against disadvantaged students who may be unable to pay the new fees, and who are not granted exemption, "thereby creating a classification based on the economic and social status of their parents."
Critics further argue that the increment will also undermine the students' rights to education and equal protection.
Last year, there was acrimony between university authorities across the country and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) over the issue of increasing academic fees.
The union had accused 38 federal government-owned universities of jacking up their fees and claimed that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration seemed designed to further impoverish the Nigerian masses and make education almost out of their reach.
Despite the hue and cry, tertiary institutions, experts admit, are already haemorrhaging due to insufficient budgetary allocation to the education sector.
Abayomi claimed that for seven months, the Ondo State government did not give any subventions to AAUA.
He added, "The total income of the university from students and government is N2.7 billion.
Looking at the expenditure of the institution, with 17,000 students, we have an average of N500 being spent on each student daily -that amounts to N15, 000 per month and N180, 000 per year.
If you multiply that by 17,000 you will get N3.60 billion.
"The salary is N220 million per month and multiply that by 12, you will get N2.40 billion... We now said we should divide these amounts among the students and their parents and the council -that the council should look for money from other sources (apart from the government).
We agreed that the council should assume N1.29 billion that the students should look for N1.7 billion."
When the issue of fee hike was rife in 2017, the NANS President, Chinonso Obasi, had noted that the institutions and the government have always made students to bear the brunt of "administrative ineptitude."
"In saner climes, education funding includes revenue from researches and consultative collaborations. Implementation of UNESCO strategies, particularly commercialising research findings, should occupy Nigeria's educational institutions rather than constant hike in tuition fees payable by hapless students.
NANS believes that the planned hike in tuition would be the last straw that would break the cycle of obnoxious levy on learning and pursuit of education," he had argued.
Obasi pointed out that such increase can jeopardise the future prospects of youths studying in various higher institutions.
He continued, "Consequently, NANS wishes to serve a notice to the authorities concerned that Nigerian students will never endure any increase in tuition at this time of the nation's socio-economic challenges.
If administrators of Nigeria's educational institutions have run out of ideas of funding and sustaining educational institutions in the country, they should feel free to liaise with students to explore new ways of funding the institutions.
"While we express our readiness to speak with chief executives of tertiary institutions, NANS wishes to reiterate the fact that Nigerian students have been patient with the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.
The President should recognise that this is the time to reward the understanding and cooperation of Nigerian students with education subsidy, proper funding of education and adequate welfare initiatives for students."
In May 2016, the minister of education had promised that the federal government would harmonise tuition of all federal universities to stop arbitrary charge of fees by some university -that has not happened.
Speaking about the widespread protests that greeted announcement of fee increase by some federal universities that year, Adamu had said, "Since the protests started, we have summoned the authorities of the universities and sat down with them and we are going to harmonise everything.
Because, I think it is N45, 000 that is the maximum that should be charged. But the ministry would harmonise everything and I believe there will be no more protests over fees."
As regards the problem of hike in tuition and inadequate facilities conducive for learning, Dr. Nkechi Okoli, noted that such inadequacies brought about the 1978 "Ali must go" saga.
Students had taken to the streets with some of them killed by soldiers.
"In the early 1970s, governments were giving grants, subsidies and scholarships to as many as gained admission into higher institutions.
Many candidates who were indigent and who never dreamt of seeing the four walls of a university had the opportunity to go to school," Okoli recalled.
By 1978, following the "Ali must go" saga, parents began to pay full fees for their children and that closed the doors to indigent candidates who could not pay school fees. Since then there has been steady increase in fees at the university level.
The federal government had made it mandatory for universities to find other avenues of generating funds internally. It seems apparent that hike in tuition is driven by this mandate.
All over the world, funding and tuition payment are some of the most contentious issues to deal with in universities - Nigeria's federal universities may have had more than their fair share.
In countries around the world, tuition can cost an arm and a leg. In Nigeria where an average citizen lives on less than $2 a day, the federal government has had to subsidise university education.
Experts in tertiary education funding have noted that federal government's financial contributions to run the universities are hardly sufficient resulting in the government demanding that the universities should source for 10 per cent of the fund needed to keep running.
The need for alternative generation of revenue by the universities was emphasised by the implementation committee of the National Policy on Education that the universities must device means to be self-sustaining, and "use their internal reservoir of initiative and ingenuity in finding alternative options in the face of the challenges of financial stringency".
However, scholars have noted that increasing tuition especially while the country is going through difficult economic and political situation will result in negative impacts on students leading to reduced enrolment and many drop-outs.
Scholars like Prof. Comfort Akomolafe and Mrs. Esther Aremu, in their research on alternative sources of financing university education, argued that funding remains vital to the provision of functional education that can lead to a national transformation.
"Unfortunately," they said, "there has been an outcry against poor funding of education in the country most especially at the university education level.
Between 1990 and 1997, the real value of government allocation for university education declined by 27 per cent even as enrolment grew by 77 per cent.
For three years - 2004-2006 - N196bn was allocated to federal universities (which is only 14.8 per cent of the required N1.3249bn billion).
This is despite the fact that Nigeria is currently witnessing increase enrolment of university students as provided."
Some have claimed that inadequate funding of university education illustrates a lack of commitment to the future growth and transformation of the nation on the part of the government even though more than 90 per cent of university funding comes from the government.
Without government subvention, it is unimaginable to see how Nigerian universities will continue to exist. But the funding is not enough.
A few years ago, the Committee on the Restructuring and Rationalisation of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies headed by a former Head of the Service, Stephen Oronsaye, recommended how federal universities can be salvaged from financial haemorrhage.
One of the Oronsaye panel's recommendations that caught the eye is the introduction of school fees in federal universities.
The committee suggested that it cost N450, 000 and N525, 000 respectively to train arts and science students per session in Nigerian universities, therefore, recommending that the government should, over a five-year period, stop funding universities with effect from 2013.
For Prof. Des Wilson at the University of Uyo, the government needs to step up.
"My opinion is that we do not even have tuition in the federal universities.