Two Good Men and the Nigerian University

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Saturday letter1 

The year 1999 didn’t just mark the beginning of Nigeria’s democracy (another attempt), it is also the year of Nigeria’s first private university. Entities other than the government would for the first time participate in providing university education to its citizen. Twenty years on and a private university (Covenant University) now sits as Nigeria’s number one institution (Times Higher Education). But let’s quickly get back to the title of this article “Two good men”- Lebron James and John Harvard. Although they lived in different times and led different lives, these two men burned with the same passion, to educate generations after them.

A quick summary of their educational creations:

Lebron James’ ‘I PROMISE’ School: Free tuition-free uniforms, free transportation within two miles, free breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Guaranteed college tuition for every student who graduates food pantry for families GED’s and job placement services for parents, free bicycle and helmet.

John Harvard and Friend’s HARVARD UNIVERSITY: “After God had carried us safe to New England… One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”

Yes, two good men. So you may ask, what’s the link? Well, let me save you more tales, the purpose of this article is to vent my frustration at the dominant perception by people of colour that ‘free’ is the only real charity/non-profit. The story of these two men (Harvard and Lebron) is as old as time and as new as now. It is the story of the developed world vs. the underdeveloped; the capitalist vs. the socialist. Nigerians seem to love Lebron James’ ‘free’, while despising the private universities’ model of charging for value which happens to be John Harvard’s model.

Nigerian Private Universities have faced heavy criticism over the cost of education particularly those built from religious donations. Even if accumulated evidence and the Nigerian experience overwhelmingly suggests that “only economically sustainable models are sustainable.” Charity does not always mean free. John Harvard and friends are still widely considered great men despite the fee of Harvard University. It is high time we also appreciated the free giving of our religious houses and private investors towards the creation of financially sustainable universities that do not depend on government funding.

While there is the legitimate argument that cost excludes some from these institutions (at what cost will everyone be at these institutions), however, we must ask if attending is the primary goal. What about the other contributions, research, jobs created (Lecturers and admin staff) and businesses; drugs and healthcare advances and ultimately the robust economy that the graduates from this institution contribute to. Yes, we have given from our little to build several religious affiliated universities and private investors have put down their resources. The giving is for posterity or as the founders of Harvard University put it “dreading to leave [an] illiterate [country] when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”.

The lack of recognition of two successful decades (1999 to 2019) of private universities in Nigeria, is an indication of a lack of appreciation of the ‘John Harvard wisdom’ in our society. I can only hope that someday a generation of Nigerians will celebrate this success story.

However, this does not in any way seek to undermine the good work of Mr Lebron James or disparage the goodness of free things such as scholarships (e.g. Harvard scholarships, Orphanages). It is just a wake-up call to go ‘sustainable’ with this all important sector of our society.

Dr S. O. Ohize, Minna