It is curious and even provocative that the authorities and the people of Nigeria have not been considering groundswell of informed commentaries that Nigeria needs better, not more universities at this time that disruptive technologies daily shape economic development through innovation - triggered by research.
And so, the National Universities Commission's (NUC) recent revelation that it was processing 303 fresh applications from individuals, corporate bodies and faith-based organisations for the establishment of more universities in the country should be of huge concern to all. The NUC's Executive Secretary, Professor Abubakar Rasheed who said the requests were in various stages of verification, noted that 208 of them were in the first verification process, 63 in the sixth stage, 30 in stage eight while two were in stage 10. The pertinent questions are: Who are those applying for theses universities? What are the sources of funds? Should universities be so commonly established as hotels? What is the relevance of the proposed programmes to national development?
Anyway, as the debate on the proliferation of universities rages, a school of thought argues that Nigeria needs more private institutions to complement its population growth. While another argues that rather than issuing more licences, NUC should endeavour to provide a blueprint on the number and type of private universities needed in the country and where they should be situated.
Currently, there are 170 universities in Nigeria - 43 owned by the Federal Government; 48, state government; and 79, privately owned out of which 38 are faith-based (32 owned by church groups and two owned by Islamic organisations).
Although, the National Policy on Education, promotes the provision of equal access to educational opportunities for all citizens of the country at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels both inside and outside the formal school system; it states that for the philosophy of education to work harmoniously for Nigeria's goals, education in Nigeria has to be tailored towards self-realisation, right human relations, individual and national efficiency, effective citizenship, national consciousness, national unity as well as towards social, cultural, economic, political, scientific and technological progress.
To this end, the Nigerian education system must be value-laden and tailored for the betterment of the citizens in order that they may live a better life and contribute to the advancement of society. For instance, shouldn't Nigeria be thinking about specialised universities in line with the agenda for the nation's growth and development?
For instance, in the aviation sector today, aircraft are serviced abroad in Africa's most populous nation. So, can't policy makers and NUC encourage proposals for specialised universities that can take care of this priority need in aviation industry, instead of just licensing universities and replicating courses that are already available in existing 'mega' universities? Why do we get our children to be applying and registering for almost the same poorly funded courses, which do not trigger employability skills all over the country? The ordinariness of our curricula of studies has been worsening the employability index of Nigerian university graduates. Yet no one is thinking out of the box, in this regard.
It will be recalled that The Guardian declared a state of emergency on the education sector in 2014 and till date it remains in place as many editorials have been written to draw attention to the parlous state of education in the country. Today the situation is worse. And that is why any report about proliferation of universities without concomitant improvement in funding infrastructure can be quite provocative. The country indeed needs better and not more universities.
So at this juncture, NUC should pause and ask: What is university education doing for Nigeria? Is university education addressing the manpower deficits of Nigeria? Again, do we want a knowledgeable populace or a certificate society?
Again, while it is important to improve access to tertiary education, the issue of quality should be of concern to all. While there are good private universities, there are concerns that some of them have fallen short of expectation as their quality and standard of education have been markedly compromised. Some of the allegations levelled against the private universities include over inflation of unhealthy parallel grades to attract 'customers'; inability to fulfil admission quotas allocated to them per session; inadequate funding; ownership interference, paucity of qualified teachers, among others.
Furthermore, it is important for NUC to take stock of the available manpower before approving more universities. There are reports that the number of lecturers available perhaps will only be adequate for about 40% of the existing universities in the country today. The implication of this is that even the resource verification carried out before approval of programmes, to a large extent, is merely 'fulfilling righteousness' because the name of one lecturer most often than not, appears on the list of lecturers for many private universities as an adjunct lecturer, some of which are in states that are very far from where the lecturer is working on full time. This raises questions about the frequency and quality of teaching that such an adjunct lecturer offers. Furthermore, if lecturers spend all their time teaching, when will they write grant proposals, carry out researches, participate in professional activities and do community service? As a matter of fact, it will be in public interest for NUC to do some introspection before licensing more universities.
Therefore, for a nation that is serious about its own sustenance and improvement, it should constantly look in the direction of the quality of its tertiary education, not just more institutions of higher learning.
This situation calls for urgent action, because the situation is even more terrifying with obvious misplacement of priorities and celebration of mediocrity pushing the country's education to the edge of a precipice. Something must be done now or else in the future, pundits will be trying to understand how Nigeria became, to use the words of our only Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, "at best, yet another failed state, (and) at worst, an overcrowded necropolis where the hope of the future lies interred in unmarked graves."
Therefore, NUC should halt the processing of more universities and rather standardise and specialise the existing ones. It should push for universities that are adept in research, industry and innovation; aimed at developing manpower in line with the needs of the country; instead of 'credentialism.' Besides, the authorities in Abuja and the 36 capitals should be thinking about Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) to encourage the collaboration of the arts, science, technology, engineering and maths - for national development. This will drive innovation and research to create business solutions that will fuel long-term economic growth.
More important, our leaders should brace up and establish more technical colleges/vocational schools; not just universities. 'Rushing' for more universities is just to have armada of universities that may not be relevant to the priority areas of national development. As such, our emphasis as a nation should be on competence, not 'credentialism'; skill acquisition, not certificate. The nation can only survive on people with knowledge and skills, which can add value that innovative technologies trigger at the moment.
Therefore, instead of approving applications for more universities, NUC should 'push' the Research and Innovation (R&I) offices in Nigerian universities to encourage students to develop innovative ideas and creative products in a collaborative setting. While the R&I offices and entrepreneurial centres should encourage students and businesses to incubate new ideas, and prototype new creative products and services. Students in cognate disciplines should be encouraged to fabricate machines and equipment; and experiment with digital, wood, metal and print production.
We must be a focused society in consonance with the realities of our environment and the modern world. This way, the NUC and Nigerian universities will be celebrated even in global context because our tertiary education will be relevant to the needs of individuals and the society. What we need, in the main, are better universities with clarity of purpose on national development, not more!