US education system can tackle unemployment, poverty in Nigeria – AUN President
Professor Margee Ensign is the President of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola. In this interview, she speaks on how to make university products more effective, the financial challenges of running a private university, how the AUN is coping in Nigeria and the plans by the institution to establish schools of Law, Engineering, Medicine and Agriculture. Excerpts:
Can you briefly tell us about yourself?
I did my undergraduate studies in Peace Studies and International Relations. I did a Masters and PhD degrees at the University of Marlin in a disciplinary PhD in economics, political science and computer science. I studied my teaching career at Colombian University in the school of International Public Affairs and then spent a short time as visiting Professor at Georgetown in AU and went on to a Dean at the University of Pacific in California then an Associated Provost for International Studies and finally came to American University of Nigeria (AUN). My research for the last 10 years has focused on challenges of development in Sub-Saharan Africa specifically Ruwanda. I had one daughter and I was brought up from a wonderful family in California. My parents are planners in the airline industry. My Dad went on from loading bags to running of a bigger airline and as his youngest child he took me to everywhere he goes; he exposed me to world and I am sure that is why I am here.
The AUN was set to achieve some educational goals. How far have you gone in that respect?
I think ending the first phase and the first phase was defining a vision which the founder did at my inauguration. Atiku Abubakar was very clear that day; he said the university was founded to be different; it was founded to train people to understand for themselves problems and solutions. Higher education has many disconnect in many places and in many universities between generating knowledge and applying knowledge. In my country the best example of what we are trying doing in Nigeria was that the US has succeeded in moving from being a poor country to becoming a super power in agriculture in 1800s where in universities there was great development of newest grow foods but that wouldn’t have got now if there was no what is called extension agents. So we are trying to be the extension agent in Nigeria moving the knowledge and solutions in the classroom out, learning what the problems are in the community and bringing back ideas to solve them… So phase one was defining the vision and beginning to do that work. Now we are moving to the phase two which is expanding our vision and monitoring it to make sure we have in it intended impact. So phase two is pulling it together and making sure that we are following the right vision.
What courses are you offering at the AUN?
We have three schools and four faculties at the moment. School of Business and Entrepreneurship with undergraduates and graduates programmes, School of Information Technology and Computing for undergraduates and graduates programmes. In the American setting the first two years of a first degree there was what we called general education where we are trying to educate everyone to be a good thinker, good writer and good citizen. So for the first 18 months everyone does the common course and that is located in our School of Arts and Sciences so the general education programme is there in economics, petroleum chemistry and English. We are just at the initial stage of applying for the School of Law and then over time we will do engineering and medicine.
What of agriculture?
As you know we are beginning to do some community projects in that area, we haven’t looked at the agriculture yet and we should. But we have a board meeting coming up and we will probably discuss it because Nigeria need to go back to agriculture and do it in a modern way and as we know from the Chinese experience to reduce poverty and unemployment.
It appears that the AUN is being run in line with American education style. Is the system giving you the expected results?
Well, an American style of education teaches critical thinking and a teacher should be an independent thinker. Yes we are an American university style in a Nigerian context; we follow all the Nigerian regulations but we are trying the teaching and learning differently. I think we are the only university that requires every student to be out to the community for a development project. I am pleased to say that our students did not only understand our vision but also embraced it.
Do you think this system can work in the Nigerian public universities?
Absolutely, I think it can work anywhere in the world. I think for this century this type of learning is critical because we have to solve the big problems; the global warming, the unemployment, the massive poverty so we have to continue training people to become strong, independent thinkers that are focused to find solutions to their problems. The system can change Nigeria for the better.
How about your relationship with the host community?
We have a very strong connection. The peace council; the Muslims leaders, the Christians leaders, the traders, some of the government people and the NGOs we meet almost every week. So to me we are working together to find common goal. We want to keep Yola peaceful and we want make sure that this community is one everyone in the country wants to visit to see everything working, to see youth employed, to see advanced technology being deployed in the schools and young people learning.
Running a private university is not an easy task considering the financial implications. How are you running the AUN?
I always get tired of hearing people saying our school is for the elite and is the most expensive in the country. So we are not school for the elite, we are school for the best and brightest. Like an American university we turn around and use your own funds to find the best young people in this country whether they can afford it or not. So running a university on the financial side would be impossible here without His Excellency, Atiku Abubakar; it is his vision, it is his generous fund that fills the gap between what we charge for tuition and what we pay as salaries, what we pay for fuel every week and what we pay for construction and that is the only way we can keep functioning. It means we are working hard to become sustainable. We are looking at establishing certificate programmes in Abuja and Lagos; a combination of online and in person so that we can extend our university to have more impact in generating more resources that will over time make us more sustainable.
In your own opinion what is the major problem of Nigerian education system?
We are in the 21st century and education has to be in the 21st century. In the last two decades we really learned how we learn as human beings, we have got to incorporate the knowledge from the colleges of science about learning in the classrooms but like every country people don’t make education a priority, I don’t understand why. In my own country the number of dropout in secondary school is huge so we have to give education priority globally. So somehow we have to convince people that learning is daily and a lifelong thing. So I will say to the leaders in Nigeria to pay your teachers well, train them well and make sure they have the best education.