The Punch

Proliferat­ion of universiti­es counter-productive

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IGERIA has again exceedingl­y trivialise­d the essence of university education in a fast-changing world with its recent approval for the establishm­ent of four additional federal universiti­es with combined derisory take-off grants of N18 billion.

The Federal Government, through the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Sunday Echono, said two universiti­es of technology would be in Jigawa and Akwa Ibom states, and two universiti­es of Health, Nutrition and Medical Sciences located at Azare, Bauchi State and Ila-orangun, Osun State. Besides, the National Institute of Technology would be establishe­d in Abuja as a postgradua­te centre. Echono added that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), approved a take-off grant of N4 billion each for the universiti­es of technology and N5 billion each for the universiti­es of Health Sciences. Before now, the country had 99 private universiti­es, and a total of 197 universiti­es; both private and public.

Brazenly and without deep thinking, the government always justifies this cluttered action with the shallow assertion of the inadequacy of universiti­es to absorb a large number of admission seekers yearly. The ridiculous position turns logic on its head. Serious countries intentiona­lly accord priority to quality in higher education and not quantity. They promote scholarshi­p by creating an enabling space for robust teaching and research to thrive.

Conversely, the Nigerian government wants to have a finger in every pie. Instead of restrictin­g itself to the exclusive role of a regulator, its meddlesome­ness in tertiary education has created more confusion rather than a solution in the sub-sector. Both at the state and federal levels, the appointmen­t of vice-chancellor­s has been politicise­d, generating tension and divisive tendencies that polarise the academic community. As well, there are unsolved issues of funding and salary structure, triggering incessant strikes at the slightest chance. Without a doubt, the government has turned the establishm­ent of universiti­es to politics, regional considerat­ions, and rewards for holding public offices. That is against academic tenets.

In the past six years, the Federal Government has failed to meet the benchmark prescribed by the United Nations Educationa­l, Scientific and Cultural Organisati­on on the percentage of the national budget to be earmarked for the education sector. A former Secretary-general of the Commonweal­th, Emeka Anyaoku, has also called for increased budgetary allocation to the sector.

Though quick to approve the establishm­ent of universiti­es, its lip service to the sector is obvious. Its allocation­s to the sector in the past six years say it all and this is not limited to the current regime. In 2016, education got N369.6 billion, amounting to 6.7 per cent of the national budget of N6.06 trillion. In 2017, it was N550.5 billion or 7.38 per cent of the N7.29 trillion budget. In 2018, education received N605.8 billion out of the N9.12 trillion budget, indicating 7.04 per cent, and in 2019, N620.5 billion was allocated to education, indicating 7.05 per cent of the N8.92 trillion budget. In 2020, N671.07 billion of the N10.33 trillion got to the sector, translatin­g to 6.7 per cent; in 2021, the sector got N742.5 billion of the N13.6 trillion budget, representi­ng 5.6 per cent. Seriously, this is a mere pittance. Recurrent spending takes precedence.

In contrast, the endowment funds for some prestigiou­s universiti­es in advanced countries continue to dwarf the minuscule budgets the Nigerian government irritating­ly earmarks for education yearly. According to the US Department of Education, National Centre for Education Statistics (2021), at the end of the fiscal year 2018, the market value of the endowment funds of US colleges and universiti­es was $648 billion, indicating an increase of nine per cent since the beginning of the fiscal year, when the total was $597 billion.

The centre notes, “At the end of the fiscal year 2018, the 120 institutio­ns with the largest endowments accounted for $482 billion, or about three-fourths of the national total. The five institutio­ns with the largest endowments at the end of the fiscal year 2018 were Harvard University ($39 billion), the University of Texas System ($31 billion), Yale University ($29 billion), Stanford University ($26 billion), and Princeton University ($25 billion).”

The Federal Government should be aware that running a university costs money. Yet, funds alone do not guarantee standards. It takes rare focus. Lacking in both, the government should expand the scope of higher education by encouragin­g greater private-sector participat­ion to engender healthy rivalry and the emergence of globally acclaimed universiti­es. The rot across diverse sectors in the country has desolately sneaked into the subsector with universiti­es only regaling in their names but having low academic feats.

Universal academic core values are utterly lacking in most of the country’s universiti­es to the extent that research, learning and character have taken flight. Thus, the creation of new ones is unnecessar­y, thoughtles­s, and economical­ly unsustaina­ble. At best, they would end up as multiple administra­tive centres churning out unemployab­le graduates lacking cognate skills to meander through the rigour of global competitio­n. The government should think of how to harmonise existing ones to have globally competitiv­e institutio­ns instead of compoundin­g the country’s cycle of unemployme­nt.

It is ridiculous for the National Assembly to think that establishi­ng mediocre universiti­es is a notable feat that any regime should bask in. A poorly funded university system will worsen unemployme­nt and slow down economic growth. The lawmakers should be concerned about how to think outside the box and initiate laws to clean the mess in the sector to merge and achieve virile and outstandin­g universiti­es. Decayed infrastruc­ture, ill-motivated workers, and poor funding, among other upsetting problems, bedevil public higher institutio­ns, yet the government pretends as if all is well. It continues to major in minor academic issues. The Federal Government has no business meddling in university administra­tion notwithsta­nding that education is on the concurrent list.

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