Let’s Talk About Higher Education

Last time, I stated how much I disliked writing rejoinders, but ignored the benefit that comes with such work sometimes. Sometimes, you get the author whose work is disputed to raise the stakes. I think that’s happened in this case, since the writer of that article deemed it fit to do another post. It’s bound to get boring if I keep responding to rants and facts about ASUU, so let’s broaden the discussion while selectively showing flaws in my friend’s arguments.

1.University Autonomy – For the last decade or more, the union has been firm in its call for autonomy of Nigeria public universities. Since this a fact based response, read this and Wale Babalakin’s suggestion to confirm I didn’t make it up. There is very little that can be done to improve higher education if 84% of revenues come from government subventions and the unwieldy Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) continues to regulate universities. In a competitive market, universities should self-regulate and the market will pay for value. It also eliminates the NUC’s ability to regulate the curriculum and appointments within universities. Today, public universities are still not allowed to charge tuition fees for undergraduate programs, which is the foundation of the funding shortfall. The solution to this would be something similar to how the government solved the issues around power sector pricing using the Multi Year Tariff Order (MYTO). Both parties should develop a five year plan where the government systematically reduces funding to universities, while allowing for schools to charge tuition fees. While this is happening, government must cede more control to the universities to decide appointments, curriculum and other operational matters. This sets the context for a lot of what I’m going to propose in this post. I’ll leave you with the obvious question. Why will a government that complains of a rising wage bill and expenditure profile refuse to provide university autonomy? Anyone who can answer this will get a copy of Paying the Professoriate.

Hint: The only place government and ASUU seem to agree is that university education should be free, especially when debates occur close to elections. The writer himself alludes to this point with the example about Ekiti State University, and the unsuccessful attempt to raise fees.

2.Financial Aid: Every time the debate on autonomy starts, it is clear education is treated as a social benefit. It also suggests we are unaware that public funding of higher education is now a race to the bottom. In the United States (FY 2009), federal and private loans to students totaled $96 billion, exceeding public state appropriations to higher education ($78 billion). There is no way Nigeria can operate differently, and a more efficient use of government’s budget might be to focus on funding the students, allowing the universities to fund themselves.

3.Journals and Research Publications – I agree with the writer here, albeit with a caveat. Nigerian lecturers need to publish a lot more internationally; it is stupid to say otherwise. The current practice of limiting writing to in-house journals is clearly lazy, but there is a need to present both sides of the story. Academia is divided into two clear but interwoven activities: teaching and research; but it remains a zero sum game. Therefore, universities need better organized schedules to ensure both activities are balanced. I worked as a research assistant to a foreign professor in a Nigerian university for two years, and the experience was awesome. It was a daily learning exercise, but I also know the amount of work I put in to support his case writing and publishing. Today, most university professors (not to mention more junior members of staff) don’t have research assistants, even if they are shared by the faculty. Also, it is a lot easier to focus on research if you don’t teach four times every week.

Note: Claude Ake, whose soul I hope continues to enjoy a peaceful rest, built the Centre for Advanced Social Science to bridge this gap. Sadly, his death in the 1996 ADC plane crash derailed what was already looking like a fantastic research platform. The best thing that can come out of this discourse is to see a few distinguished academics take the lead on this.

4.Overpopulation – The writer makes a good case of saying the faculty/student ratio in Nigeria is not remarkably different to ‘developing’ countries, but like most of statistics, we should be concerned about what the data is silent on. Firstly, faculty/student ratios don’t include the use of adjunct/part-time lecturers, which skew the ratios. India, for example, has used part-time lecturers to ease the burden on the staff with mixed results. If you need to amuse yourself about development in India, you might enjoy this. There is more proof that we are comparing omelets with sausages, with this article that suggests 70% of lecturers in Latin America are part time as are 50% of those in the United States. A quick solution could be the use of adjunct lecturers with industry experience, who will most likely teach a few hours every month for a small salary. I wrote a post about this and other foolish matters almost two years ago.

Secondly, a deeper problem is not the faculty/student ratio but the composition of the curriculum. For example, a teacher in South Africa has a faculty ratio of 1/53 but has to take one class, twice a week. In Nigeria, with a slightly lower faculty/student ratio, the same lecturer has to take four classes per week. I’ve always thought the units needed to graduate in a Nigerian university were too much, and we can do with a review of the curriculum. Everyone should be happy with this – students get better learning schedules and focus on the important stuff, lecturers get more time for research, quality goes up on the y-axis as quantity drops on the x-axis. Why has this not happened?

Hint: Run a Google search on Nigerian Universities Commission; let me know what you come up with. It makes no sense for Abuja to keep deciding how and what to teach.

5.Comparative Salaries – I love how the writer uses statistics, and he’ll do a damn good job as a propagandist for a floundering government with this skill. However, for this debate, let me provide clarity. It makes little sense to compare salaries of lecturers between countries. For example while the writer is correct that Nigerian lecturers earn more than their peers in Japan and Norway, but less than the ones in South Africa. What does this tell you? Almost nothing. In the same study, lecturers in Ethiopia earn a lot less than most of the sampled countries, but their salaries relative to GDP is very high, 23 times the country average. What this tells you is that though salaries of lecturers in Ethiopia are low compared to their peers globally, they are actually very well paid compared to other Ethiopians of similar education. Seen what I’m trying to do? That’s exactly what the writer did in that piece, quite ingenious I must say.

6.The BSc to PhD Syndrome – If President Jonathan’s degrees read: BSc (Manchester), MSc (Manchester) and PhD (Manchester), will the writer have the same problem? I don’t think internalization is as big a problem as quality assurance. It is clear the writer is not aware of the promotions, otherwise he won’t be fixated on the “getting more than one degree from the same university.” The real solution will be to ensure the external examination process works like it ought to. For appointments and promotions, let the process go through a rigorous external examination process, where each faculty’s list is examined by a panel of five external assessors, with two foreign assessors among them. This will increase operating expenses of universities, but also raise the standard.

7.Physician, Heal Thyself – ASUU is not a gathering of saints, and I need to state this. Among the members, there are claims of sexual harassment of students, plagiarism and nepotism. It is difficult to take union that protects such members serious, and it is the responsibility of the senate in each university to take a hard stance against such practices. Simply put, if the autonomy of universities is ever going to stand a chance, the trust deficit between town and gown needs to be bridged. The problem here comes back to autonomy; university senates will always cite the method of appointing the university governing councils and vice-chancellors as a major obstacle to cleaning the Augean stable.

8.Funding: Alumni, Endowments and Grants – I have never been contacted by the University of Lagos since I graduated over a decade ago; unlike my brother who receives monthly letters (and sometimes financial requests) from his alma mater in the United States. It is clear Nigerian universities have ignored a viable source of funding, their alumni. By failing to run effective alumni offices, universities not only lose funding opportunities, they also miss out on the vital networking between students and successful alumni.

Endowments and programs like this will take Nigerian universities closer to autonomy, but the trust deficit must be erased before more corporate organizations participate in higher education. While many organizations term this as social responsibility, it will soon become clear there is a clear for-profit reason to support higher education. Organizations need people to succeed, and the quality of the manpower coming out of universities correlates with the ability of businesses to unlock value.

Finally, the message on research is stark. “If you want to stay alive, you must publish.” Universities must be forced to use inventions as a veritable source of funding. There is no point branding the place as a citadel of knowledge if some of this knowledge cannot be sold, simple.

9.Online Courses: A friend of mine has spent months trying to convince the eggheads at NUC that it’s a bright idea to accredit online courses in Nigeria. Of course, it’s taken them a long time to understand the benefit of democratizing education. Apart from creating global competition for domestic universities, this approach will improve course scheduling and reduce the current pressures on physical infrastructure.

I’ve crossed the 1,500 word barrier which means it is time to shut up. The journey to improving higher education should start here. Again, I am hopeful that the current strike will not be narrated around higher wages but a concerted effort to improve higher education. As Da Vinci reminds us, “study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”


4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Higher Education

  1. Agree re point 8. I have also never been contacted by Unilag since i graduated close to ten years ago.Graduated from Oxford in 2012 and within a few months was contacted and had contributed to an endowment.

  2. I think this is a very good post on what needs to be done.
    But aside from occassionally paying lip service to ‘autonomy’, I am not sure even ASUU will agree with you on the points you’ve raised.
    The current situation is not palatable but if govt is paying for their existence, its to be expected that someone in Abuja will view a governing council as a place to shunt political jobbers and such like.

    On point 5 – I am sure the stats actually work the other way. When that report was released, I read that in a couple of days, there were around 350,000 posts on Sina Weibo (Chinese twitter) where the users were complaining that the $250 average salary for Chinese lecturers was more than enough or even too much! They complained that Chinese lecturers have a wide array of other sources of income including brown envelopes to pass students. Also that $250 in China is definitely not $250 in America.
    The only reason anyone will say ASUU members are poorly paid is because ASUU say so. It has now been elevated to the point of received wisdom where everyone just assumes they are poorly paid without checking the numbers.

    On point 6 – to be clear, there is a distinction to be made here. President GEJ having 3 degrees from Uniport as President is actually a very good thing given how poorly educated our past leaders have been. However, Dr. GEJ the lecturer having 3 degrees from Uniport is a no no. Absolutely not acceptable whether all 3 are from Harvard of Manchester.

    • One question, what exactly is bad about having three degrees from one university? Not sure I’ll ever understand the angst on this one. Also, its not my job to say if ASUU is poorly paid or not. This is a negotiation between employer and employee, the onus is one party to trump the other on the negotiation table. Why should ASUU be criticized for government’s poor negotiating ability?

  3. Pingback: A Discourse on Tertiary Education | atamssokari's Blog

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