Recently, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund sponsored a one-week capacity building workshop in Dubai, United Arab Emirate. The Head of the Department of Research & Development, Salisu Diri, spoke to the Business & Economy Editor, Bassey Udo, and the Head, Investigations Desk, Mojeed Alabi in Abuja on the benefits of the trip to Nigerian universities. Excerpts:
PT: Last month, TETFUND sponsored Directors of Research of public universities to Dubai in the United Arab Emirate for a one-week capacity building workshop. Critics say the trip was in defiance of an existing public directive against foreign training by government agencies. What advantages were there that could not have been derived here in Nigeria?
DIRI: There is no research capacity in the country. Our national budget is so low on research that less than 0.002 per cent of the country's gross domestic product is spent on research. That is a shame. All the examples given on countries are making progress are about those living by research. They are the ones we go learn these trainings from.
Also, the training facilities suitable for such purposes in Nigeria are non-existent. So, we have to go where we can see where the research process is available.
Again, the concept of the Directors of Research & Development in Nigerian universities is new. An ad hoc committee was set up to deepen research and development. It was supported by the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), which is co-chairing the committee headed by Professor Placid Njoku, now the deputy governor of Imo State.
The committee was given the responsibility of identifying what TETFUND should do to deepen research and development in the country.
Our investment in research and development in Nigeria is near zero. Our worry is that we have many universities whose major responsibility is to carry out research. Yet, they do not have directors of research. The research they carry out is only for publication, and not for development. Majority of the research findings, if not all, end up in shelves, thereby, contributing nothing to Nigeria's economic development.
The Asian Tigers, namely China, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, and South Korea emerged from nowhere. But, because of knowledge gained from research, they innovate, patent and commercialise.
Recently, we were in Israel as part of this assignment. What we found out was that Israel is the hub of innovation. They make more money from only research (about 50 or more times than Nigeria makes from the export of crude oil), not to talk of the products that come out of research.
Israel takes pleasure in embracing failure. They are not afraid to fail. They have a special budget for failure as part of research.
So, the question we asked was why is this not happening in Nigeria? Why do we have all these universities in Nigeria that can't even pay salaries from their own internally generated revenue? This is because what they make is nothing. How can we continue this way and expect to develop as a country?
We went to the University of Cambridge. The office of General Electric, the manufacturers have an office in the university campus. Microsoft is in Cambridge. This is where they do all their researches and development of patents.
Look at the amount of money they spend on research. When people talk about Google, Facebook or WhatsApp. These are innovative ideas from undergraduate research works in the universities. As a result of their innovations, they are bringing so much money back into their economy. But, in Nigeria we have distanced ourselves from all that.
Yes, we have educational institutions in Nigeria, but nothing is happening there.
So, the National Universities Commission needs to ensure that we have research centres or units in every university and empowered to coordinate and deliver researches. The centres must ensure that the research is not for research sake, but problem-solving research for national development.
Therefore, that ad hoc committee had zonal meetings with all directors of research across the country in Abuja, Kano, Enugu and Lagos and came to a consensus.
As a result of that, we realised that even Directors of Research do not even understand what Research and Development means. It's not even about the issue of capacity. They don't even understand what it is. The meetings came up with mountain of problems and challenges. The report of the community is so voluminous. It is being released in parts.
Arising from those meetings was the need to really have a training for the directors of research of Nigerian universities to enable them understand really what is research and development; understand the link between research and development and industries, and in particular innovation.
The other point was for them to understand their roles and what they were expected to do to contribute their quota to national development. There is going to be a paradigm shift in the national development agenda. TETFUND is moving away from the investment in the university buildings to content development.
There are different types of research like institution-based research and applied research. We are also going to establish Centres of Excellence across the country
TETFUND, together with the NESG and the NUC, is going to create a platform for university- industry linkages. It's actually a complete turnaround. Unfortunately, the system from within does not even understand or have capacity to give or absorb the training.
As a pre-requisite for this, we have gone to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States. Their annual budget for research is $500 billion. We had a meeting with them along with the NUC.
We also had a meeting with a similar agency in Brazil called SAPESCO, a research institute. They have just sent TETFUND an MOU for professional research.
Based on the agreement, we are expecting that Nigeria is going to have not less than 5,000 fellowships for Nigerian academics that will interact and have a joint research and fellowships with the Brazilian government. TETFUND is currently studying the document.
We have also had a meeting with the German agency on research and development.
We have now realised that university systems are universal. One cannot cut off from the world and say it is on its own. Even the ranking of the universities we are talking about, the Nigerian universities are ranked low. When we went to the National Science Foundation in the U.S. and they showed Nigeria in the research community, South Africa was ahead of Nigeria.
We protested. How come Nigeria has all these linkages with South Africa, yet we are down there. One cannot see Nigeria in the knowledge community map.
Their explanation was that, yes Nigeria may be doing her research, but the country is on her own. Nobody sees her on the global knowledge community map. What that means is that whatever research we do in Nigeria is only inside Abuja, Ibadan and Lagos.
We are having another cooperation agreement with Finland, which has one of the best education systems in the world. There is another such cooperation with Kenya.
So far in Nigeria, we have only N85 billion NRF Research Grant. TETFUND is trying to increase the amount next year.
Most of these MoUs we are signing are meant to build capacity for our university lecturers for national research and development, research and entrepreneurship training, higher education management, leadership capacity building. The Finish MoU is about research for solving problems.
For instance, the farmers-herders clash that is killing people in Nigeria, how many cattle do we have in Nigeria? Not more than 18 million.
But, Brazil has over 340 million. Yet, we cannot hear that any cow has gone to eat up some other person's tomato.
If we look at the population of Brazil itself it's over 200 million, with over 340 million cattle, yet there is no clash. They have also improved their breed that produce more milk. And Nigeria with only 200 million cannot solve the problem. Brazil is saturating Europe with their meat. Exeter corn beef is made in Brazil.
In San Paolo alone, six out of 10 oranges in the world come from there. These are all products of research. But, we realized that anywhere we went, there was need to build and deepen capacity of even those who are not involved in research.
PT: Why was this training organised abroad?
DIRI: First, we started locally here before we brought one Professor Abraham Akampe from the U.S. who is a Nigerian. But, in the U.S., he has 11 patents. He also works for the NSF and a consultant for NASA. He offered to give this sensitisation pro bono.
Because he is professor in the U.S who has been involved in research for a long time, he has all the contacts necessary to do all the trainings. A professor should not be poor because of the money he makes from all these research and innovations.
We were to have gone to the U.S. for the training. But, if we were to go to the U.S., the process of getting visas now is not easy. The alternative was to bring those Americans to Nigeria. But, it's one thing to just talk, but another thing to go and see and brainstorm.
To my surprise, when we were in Dubai, some of the participants confessed in private that they have never seen a training as important as that. I was shocked.
PT: So how many participants were in Dubai?
DIRI: We had one from each of the public universities, about 78 of them. We asked them to submit two names. But, only one was finally chosen. Even those that did not have a research office, TETFUND forced them to appoint someone even on a temporary basis.
The committee had said that TETFUND and NUC should collaborate and come up with operational guidelines for the appointment of the Directors of Research. We are looking for the list to be submitted to the Board to look at it.
PT: Information we got was that about 230 people attended the training, with TETFUND officials more than the participants from the universities?
DIRI: It's not true. TETFUND has a duty to administer the training. In each of three thematic sessions, we did not have more than seven staff from TETFUND. Where we did the training, the accommodation of the hotel cannot take 230.
PT: What were the themes in focus at the training?
DIRI: From the three themes, we had four presentations. There was so much to give. For instance, the presentation on Blue Economy, which is about water, if one looks at Nigeria, which is surrounded by water, yet we do not have water to drink and we are dealing with drought.
Yet, we have all these professors in the universities who should look at their areas of research and try to apply it to solve the problem of water in the country.
PT: There are institutions that depend virtually on grants from TETFUND. Yet, some of these agencies disappear without trace?
DIRI: Talking about value for money and alignment to government policy, which is a multifaceted instrument. TETFUND is a product of policy. There are certain intrinsic requirements for the delivery of its mandate. One of those peculiar mandates is to ensure that whatever money is spent is properly monitored and reported. That is in its workflow. There is actually a department for monitoring and evaluation. There is an administrative process for dealing with those issues. The process of checking is so rigorous that there can never be a rebuttal to a decision. The receiving institution also has a responsibility to be accountable about the money they receive.
On TETFUND's side, we have a duty to ensure that the money that has been given is for the purpose for which it was meant within the mandate of the Fund.
Where is discovered, even if it is two years after, that the work was not done, there is always a recourse. There are some institutions that have lost their annual intervention because of that.
PT: But, was the programme holding outside the country not contravening government directive on such trainings?
DIRI: The issue of cutting cost of governance is in line with what TEFUND is doing. We would not want to put people who are not prepared to go and head the directorate of research. Where can one learn a skill one does not have? It is from the people who have it. One cannot learn a new skill from a man who is also struggling to learn the same skill.
In one of the training processes, participants were taken to an experimental arm in Dubai to see how farming in the desert is done. These people were taken from Nigerian universities. TETFUND staff who were in Dubai went to see how research interventions are managed.
PT: How soon are we expecting the investments in these trips to begin to bear fruits?
DIRI: What I will say is that it's not the day you cut down a try that the leaves dry up. TETFUND has a plan. The ad hoc committee I spoke about earlier has worked out a programme.
The interim report has just been submitted. The board in their next sitting will consider the recommendations in that report. What we are doing now is the advocacy; watering the ground and making sure that the people that will carry out this duty are prepared to do so. And those that will do the monitoring are equally strengthened to monitor.
One cannot monitor what one does not know. As we know the research culture in Nigeria is very low. But, now that the paradigm is shifting, the country needs to prepare.
The additional advantages are obvious - the country is building linkages, partnerships and creating opportunities for expansion of knowledge to take Nigeria back into the research map of the world. All the MoUs TETFUND has signed are being discussed at a level where sister agencies are getting interested in collaborating and end the era of working in silos.
It will take a while for the fruits to yield. Change is the most difficult part of progress to manage. We must carefully prepare in managing the change.
TETFUND has a letter on the need for the training. We wrote to the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation.
In 2015 when the initial circular on foreign training was sent out, we found that TETFUND was sponsoring staff of public universities to all over the world for the PhDs, Masters degrees, in areas of study that were not available locally.
When that law (circular) was passed, we saw that it would impinge on the impact and the expected outcome of the academic staff training and development programme and all other capacity building programmes. The university system is not in Nigeria. Knowledge is global. TETFUND's scholars would have been affected if that directive was carried out to the letter .
So, the management and the Board of the Fund sought an exemption of the Secretary of the Government of the federation.