The universities are necessary, but they should be made to satisfy certain criteria
With the recent approval by the Federal Executive Council of six additional private universities, several pertinent questions have come up. The questions speak to the concerns of critical stakeholders as a result of the proliferation of these institutions of higher learning in our country and they include: What are the standards? Who is accrediting the courses? What are the minimum infrastructure requirements? Is there a national minimum standard for university education?
Ordinarily, the increase in the numbers of universities need not be a matter for alarm if other questions are posed and answered satisfactorily, namely: Are there adequate and equal numbers of high quality technical colleges? Are there competitive ‘community colleges’ supported by, and relevant to, needs of local authorities for training locally required personnel? Are local communities involved in monitoring the quality of the culture of learning, quality of favourably remunerated teaching and administrative staff? Are local primary and secondary schools endowed with high quality staff, infrastructure, teaching material and innovative teachers?
There are many more questions to pose but the main worry stems from the fact that the sheer incompetence in tackling the problems in the existing public universities is being waived by this reckless recourse to all manner of ramshackle private universities with the attendant lowering of standards. Lecturers who can’t hold their own as senior lecturers in respectable universities are being hired as professors and even vice-chancellors in some of these universities. The same thing that happened with the banks when we had close to a hundred of them is now happening with universities.
We must point out here that we are not opposed to the idea of private universities and we appreciate the critical roles many of them are playing. What we abhor is the current cynical approach to education in Nigeria and that explains why we have been calling for a total overhaul of the sector. That of course will go beyond the universities, private or public.
The late Tanzanian President, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once argued that since the vast majority of Africans work in the agricultural sector, and since room for training youths are severely limited in pyramidal tertiary educational sectors, it is vital to invest the largest percentage of budgets for education in providing very high quality pre-primary and primary schools so that the products can creatively transform rural economies with their inventions and local manufacturing and processing activities.
The competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union was manifested in the former copying the focus by USSR on community libraries holding high quality books including classics from ancient cultures worldwide. The communist ideology of developing higher quality human beings / citizens fuelled this investment. In the United States, the belief that the defence of democracy depended on well informed citizens also drove the focus on holding high quality neighbourhood libraries.
Rulers of feudal Britain were as fearful of educating their low classes as the Hausa ruling classes whom Mallam Aminu Kano attacked and fought against. This fear warps education policy. Fear of foreign domination pushed Japanese leaders in the same direction for reasons of producing local personnel who can match feared invaders by also using their own model for training leaders.
While Africa needs a combination of the two models in an age driven by innovation and knowledge, the ideological guide needs to be openly discussed by critical stakeholders. In as much as we cannot continue to shut out millions of Nigerians from gaining access to university education, the high numbers of private universities must be matched with ensuring high quality teaching and learning within their precincts.