Min. of education, Rukkayatu rufai
Does the National Universities Commission (NUC) have the powers to suspend or withdraw any university’s licence in the country? Davidson Iriekpen asks in view of the commission’s recent suspension of the licences of six universities and the intervention of the House of Representatives
All is currently not well between the National Universities Commission (NUC) and the House of Representatives over the suspension the operational licences of six private universities in the country.
The House last week announced that the commission does not have the powers to suspend the licences of the universities. Acting on the report of its Committee on Public Petitions, the lower chamber of the National Assembly proceeded to declare NUC’s action null and void, ultra vires and of no effect.
Chairman, House Committee on Public Petitions, Hon. Uzor Azubuike, disclosed that the NUC Act Cap N81 Laws of Federation of Nigeria 2004 does not empower the commission to suspend or withdraw licences of universities.
He said the law only empowers NUC to investigate and recommend to the government the best way to advance the course of the university system in the country. Azubuike also contended that going by judicial precedence in the case of CETEP vs NUC in Suit No: FHC/AB/M/489/06, the commission has regulatory authority over the universities, but was not authorised by law to suspend their operational licences.
The report, which was submitted to the House and adopted at plenary before the lawmakers proceeded on their annual vacation, did not only declare the action of the commission null and void, ultra vires and of no effect, but also urged it not to take further actions that could disrupt the normal academic programmes of the universities.
The report further mandated NUC to carry out a forensic audit of the affected universities and advise the federal and state governments as required by law.
Trouble was said to have started when on July 4, the commission suspended the operational licences of six private universities and withdrew that of the seventh for various offences, including unwillingness to comply with its regulations; commencement of academic programmes without approval; mounting illegal programmes; and inappropriate governance structure, among others.
The universities are: Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Ikeji-Arakeji; Madonna University, Anambra State; Caritas University, Enugu State; Tansian University, Anambra State, Achievers University, Owo; Obong Ntak University, Akwa Ibom (which had its licence withdrawn) and Lead City University, Oyo State.
Few days later, the commission reversed itself by restoring the licences of Achievers University, Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Madonna University, and Caritas University, leaving out Lead City University.
As a result, Lead City University petitioned the committee headed by Azubuike, seeking for its urgent intervention. In its argument, the university submitted that the NUC has no powers to suspend or withdraw licences. It referred the House committee to Section 4(1)(a), b(i) c(ii) and (iii) of the NUC Act Cap N81 Laws of the Federation, 2004, which it argued, does not empower the commission to suspend or withdraw licences of universities.
The institution specifically stated that Section 4(1)©-(I) of the Act only grants NUC powers to investigate, recommend to, and advise federal and state governments on the best way to advance the course of university system in the country.
It also referred the House to a subsisting judgment of the Federal High Court in Abuja in the case of CETEP vs NUC, which the commission is yet to challenge at the Court of Appeal.
A careful perusal of the NUC Act by THISDAY revealed that nowhere was it stated, either categorically or implied that the commission has powers to suspend a university’s licence.
Under the Act, the commission’s powers are restricted to only academic programmes, advisory and consultative roles. Section 4(1) (a) of the Act stated that the power of the commission “is to advise the president of the federation, the governors of the states, through the minister on the creation of new universities and other degree-awarding institutions in Nigeria.”
Whenever licences of private universities are approved, what Nigerians hear is “the Federal Executive Council has approved the establishment of ‘a University’. The information had never been “the NUC has approved the establishment of a university.”
THISDAY checks revealed that licences of private universities are granted by the Federal Executive Council on the recommendation of the minister of education and are suspended or withdrawn by the same procedure after due consultation and visitations to the affected universities.
The questions then arises: If the NUC is not the authority that grants a university licence, then from whence come its powers to suspend or withdraw such a licence? Can the NUC suspend or withdraw what it did not grant or approve in the first place?
It was against this background that a Federal High Court in Abuja in the case between CETEP vs NUC in suit no: FHC/AB/M/489/06, in 2006 declared the action of the commission unconstitutional, ulta vires, null and void when the commission attempted to withdraw its licence.
It held that though the commission has regulatory authority over universities in the country, it is not authorised by law to suspend their licences. The court also emphatically declared that the commission does not have the powers to suspend the licence of CETEP University.
According to the judge, "It is trite law that a power to function is derived from the act creating it. It is clear that the respondent in all its statute empowerment lacks the power to suspend, even if it is a regulatory authority. It therefore means that it acted ultra vires its powers and its decision is liable to be quashed.”
Many analysts are of the opinion that instead of suspending the licence of a university, the best way the NUC could punish any errant university that disobeys its guidelines, rules and regulations, especially in the area of course accreditation, is to sensitise the public not to apply to such a university or course.
Section 10(1) of the Education National Minimum Standards and Establishment of Institution (NMSEI) Act gives the NUC power to lay down minimum standards for all universities and to accredit their degree and other academic awards. Both the NUC and Education (NMSEI) Acts do not in any way give the commission power to do otherwise.
Many believe that the decision of the NUC to suspend the licences of the six universities and later restoring five was a calculated attempt to finally cripple Lead City University, which it had long standing issues with.
Since the appointment of Prof. Julius Okojie as Executive Secretary of the commission to replace Prof. Peter Okebukola, there was no love lost between the commission and the university. The disagreements between the NUC and the university started when it commenced its law programme in 2006.
The commission had complained that the university should not have started the programme then because a five-year embargo existed from the Council for Legal Education on the establishment of new law faculties. A letter dated June 3, 2005, which approved the take off of the university, then called City University, Ibadan, said its College of Law should be deferred.
However, in 2008, the NUC accredited the faculty, which it admitted was done in error following a resource verification visit it had done in 2007 to assess unapproved programmes run by universities.
Since then, the commission refused to recognise the faculty on the grounds that it did not approve its establishment. Also, none of the graduates of the faculty had been allowed to proceed to Law School. The climax was when a graduate from the Faculty, Rev. Segun Ademola Alli, dragged the commission before a Federal High Court in Ibadan in suit No FHC/IB/CS/50/2009.
In July 2011, the court, presided over by Justice Jonathan Shakarho, nullified the commission’s decision to declare the faculty illegal. The court also declared the Law Faculty “legal, recognised and accredited.”
In his judgment, the judge described NUC’s action as “a constructive malice against the university.” He therefore held that the commission lacked the power to declare the already approved and accredited Faculty of Law of the university illegal and unaccredited.
Justice Shakarho ruled that the NUC should immediately release the faculty’s accreditation report of 2008, which was rendered invalid because the Council of Legal Educational was not part of the exercise. He also ordered that the Council of Legal Education should immediately visit Lead City University and moblilise its graduates for the Law School within 60 days, with effect from Tuesday, July 26, 2011, which has not been complied with till date. In addition, the court held that the NUC did not need to co-opt another statutory body like Council of Legal Education before it could accredit the faculty.
Reacting to the suspension, Lead City accused NUC of witch-hunting the institution. The Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Olufemi Onabajo, and Pro-Chancellor, Prof. Jide Owoeye, who addressed journalists in Ibadan, accused Okojie of deliberately lumping other universities on the suspension list to cover up the execution of his determination to “kill” the university.
Describing the suspension as arbitrary, Onabajo said the institution was not running any illegal programme. He stressed that it was “pure implementation of Okojie's ambition to kill the university, as he earlier promised in verbal threats.
Insisting that the university has not breached NUC regulations in any way to warrant the suspension of its licence and that there is no dispute between the institution and the commission, Owoeye alleged that Okojie was out to frustrate the existence and progress of the institution from the beginning.
He said the institution had escaped his plots several times since its establishment, adding that Okojie prosecuted his ambition against Lead City by misinforming the Federal Government about its activities. He cited several instances and also accused Okojie of spreading wrong information that the university was running illegal programmes.
Owoeye recalled that the institution was ranked third best among the over 30 private universities graded by NUC in 2007, under Okojie’s leadership, insisting that "regulatory bodies exist to foster growth and not to destroy, as the steps portend.”
Responding to the question as to whether or not the NUC has the power to suspend the operational licences of universities, a university don who preferred anonymity, said: “The House of Representatives has oversight powers concerning education. This issue is first of all a legal matter, and one would have to go through the law when considering the rightness or wrongness of the situation.
“The NUC should have the power to monitor universities, which they give licences to, but in this situation, there seems to be some forms of high-handedness and the universities have the right to ask questions if they feel that they are not being properly treated because we are in a democracy. If the House of Representatives cannot check the NUC, then the commission will be too powerful.”