In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, former Vice-Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and Secretary General, Committee of Vice-Chancellors in Nigeria, Professor Michael Faborode said Nigeria should invest in knowledge system through human capital development as a panacea for under-development
How would you describe your experience going back into the classroom to teach after your tenure as the vice-chancellor of OAU and working closely with state and federal institutions in the country, National Universities Commission (NUC) and other international bodies?
I have been off the classroom mostly for 15 years, but it was quite interesting. It was a personal decision because I decided to take first year students because we are trying to re-orientate the training in engineering to make our engineers more productive, practical and more realistic. Our engineers should know about current issues that affect humanity and mankind rather than just theory. I took courses in Introduction to Engineering for all engineering students and Introduction to Agricultural Engineering for those in my particular discipline. I felt the course can be handled in a way that will be exciting to students.
The basis is to provide a good foundation for this new concept of design engineers for those that will address problems in Nigeria and Africa and proffer solutions to them. This is coming out of the Africa Centre of Excellence (ACE) in OAU. We have successfully run it for four years and now it is an upgrade. The initiative is to ensure that we are able to get the university and industry to work together as partners. So we have a lot of industrial partners. The essence of that is to ensure that some of the products of research in the university percolate to the industry and society. That we have done to some extent successfully. Already, five spin-off companies are growing in the eco-system which is the technology transfer body that we have created in OAU known as the OAK Park. At the end of the first period, we have at least five spin-offs for those who are using products of research in the industry that will enable the university to create new employment and enterprises considering the fact that the country will need innovators.
How will the partnership with the industry boost the content of the engineering training in the institution?
We do not want a kind of engineering that will just be based on theories alone that will not involve real practice. For instance in medicine, the way doctors are trained, they work directly with patients and cadaver. The training is as similar to the practice and that is what we also want in engineering. Part of the problem is that our industrial sector is not thriving and so we do not have industries that students can have real experience and see things in practice. In the normal economy, the industry helps knowledge by allowing good experience and that knowledge goes on to improve the industry for human progress. That is what is lacking here. By trying to force such a system, we feel that the new engineers that we will be produced in OAU following that way, will be more practical and that is one of the complains of the society that we have engineers that are not solving problems of poverty, water and infrastructure.
That experiment has been successful because we have partners who work in the university system. They are not only involved in offering opportunities for internship for our students during the period that we are on vacation, but they are also involved in designing the curricular. What we teach now must reflect what the industry needs so that the products will be addressing issues in the industry. Whether we are talking about electrical or chemical or agricultural engineering, we will bring in practitioners to have a say in what our students must learn. They are also readily able to offer opportunities for the students to have engagement with them in the industry. It’s a two-way thing which is mutually inclusive such that everybody benefits. The industry gets some of their problems solved while the university solves problems that will give students and staff very practical experience. What we are trying to do in the course that I teach is to prepare the minds of the students for what is going to come. I trained as an engineer myself; we looked at it in the abstract, how does it relate to machines and solving farmers’ problems? So the ability to connect the fundamentals that you teach in the classroom to practical life is very important. One of the things that we are doing in this course is to gradually introduce the students to the real life situation.
How do you show the students practical examples?
There are two ways; one is as part of the teaching efforts and blending with the industry through internship. This course is a first year course. As a result of my experience having interacted with institutions and several industrial concerns, when I give examples, I give real life examples. There is no textbook for the course as far as I am concerned. The students have to learn from what I teach them and publications that are very current that refer to particular farms for instance. I literary transposed the students’ minds to what is happening at the farms and when the time comes, I will take them on a visit so they can see what is happening there practically. So, the class environment can be made to let them feel the real life situation. It is not just a question of definition or cramming. It is about your day-to-day life and being conscious of problems and thinking of solutions to the problems. They can now understand some of the theories being thought in the classroom and link them to the practical aspect which they will better appreciate. For me, it’s quite exciting that we are doing it and getting the students interested right from day one in the university system.
You recently visited the US for a meeting with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), what was the outcome of the meeting and how will it impact the tertiary education system in Nigeria?
At the heart of the education system is the issue of quality. When we talk about quality of higher education, we are talking of the graduates and research that they do and the quality of their engagement with society and transfer of knowledge. For instance, what you have learnt in the classroom, how do you get people to understand so that they can tell the stories properly? That is the function of the university system; to teach research and engage. So if you want to ensure that the education you give serves the mandate, then you must ensure that all these aspects are guaranteed. That is what is called quality assurance. You do that by accreditation. CHEA is a global body concerned with ensuring that quality is properly measured and assured. That is the fundamental function. In Nigeria for instance, NUC is statutorily charged with accreditation of different programmes in state, federal and private universities.
We also have professional bodies such as the Council of Registered Engineers in Nigeria (COREN), Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN), and the Legal Council that are involved. Ideally they should all work together with NUC because they can take care of the particular needs of their own profession. NUC is a member CHEA; the staff are regularly sent on trainings. Apart from the conference that we attended, the council also offers trainings and opportunities to practicalise accreditation and have diverse bodies. For instance, we are currently trying to revise the instruments for accreditation to bring it to standard so that once we accredit something here locally, internationally, it should be accepted. Accreditation is a process of quality assurance and there are two ways to it. One, every institution must have a unit for quality assurance which spreads across all the functions of the university in terms of teaching, interaction with students, students and staff welfare. You must ensure that everything is done with the right quality that is when the human brain can function when the environment is very conducive. That is when you can have innovations and things that will transform the society. For instance, when you allow students to live in hostels that are not conducive, you can never have good products out of the students because they will not be able to think properly.
Why is OAU still having such problems?
What we have in OAU currently is not ideal and that is why successive administrations have tried to see what they can do to improve the accommodation problem. As a result of government policy on hostel development, it has compounded the problem. Right now, about 45 per cent of students are accommodated and that is like the national average which I believe is not good enough. From my experience over the years and of the conviction that we must house all the students of tertiary institutions in accommodations, not necessarily that the institutions must provide, there must be an arrangement either through Public Private Partnership (PPP) or Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT). This will ensure that students live in descent accommodation either of two or four bedrooms. If a room meant for four students can have 20 people living in it that is chaos. In the first place, the facility will not be functional or damaged and that is why the current vice-chancellor in OAU is limiting the number of students in the hostels.
How about limiting the number of intakes into the institution?
It takes us to the problem of access. We have a complicated system in Nigeria and that is why we need a holistic approach to tackle the problem properly because education is the key to development. Any country that wants to develop must focus on education to enhance knowledge and breed innovators and innovations. If we don’t follow that logical sequence, we will continue to have problems. If universities reduce the amount of students they admit, then that will preclude a number of people from gaining admission into the university. Last year, almost two million candidates registered for UTME and we ended up taking about 500,000. Those that could not gain admission will join the group this year. Universities are under pressure.
OAU for instance was built for a population of about 12,000, but today it is about 30,000. ABU is about 35,000 while UNILAG is about 40,000. Those are overloaded and exceeded their carrying capacities. But faced with the challenges of access, universities have to modulate. That is the problem. If you ask me whether we need more universities on the basis of access, the answer is yes because some people have argued whether existing universities should take more, but there is a limit to that. Harvard University’s population for instance is still about 8,000. When you talk about the quality of Harvard that is one of the factors; so we cannot allow universities to be overloaded excessively even though we are trying to solve the problem of access. At the same time, we cannot allow universities to proliferate beyond what the quality dictates. It’s a complex gamut and we better get serious about this issue in Nigeria otherwise we will continue to compound our problems.
What is your view about strike as a solution to the challenges in the university system?
ASUU over the years has tried to ensure quality in university education by crying loud every time over lack of facilities or on number off academics. We want to wonder, the government that they cry to, don’t they listen and feel that these things are justified? It is a question of national priority. A country like South Korea knew that the solution to its problems 50 years ago lies in education and it invested in it and now the country is reaping the results. It has joined the first world countries because it invested in the knowledge system. Until Nigeria realises that investing in knowledge system; and World Bank has stressed the importance of human capital, health and education. If these things are not important, nobody will be drumming it to our ears all the time. Locally, we have been saying it. This is the panacea to our problems, let us solve the education and health problems and the rest will be added to us. Education and human capital is what we need to develop this country.
The quality of political leadership that we have is impacted by the quality of education. If our education is broken from primary school to secondary school, we have several lecturers complaining about the quality of students that they are teaching. It is not their job to start re-teaching those who are coming from the secondary schools, that is not good for the country. Strike as an antidote to the problems we are talking about, but no longer the only alternative. The time has come for academics to engage their own intellect to find solutions. Strike is self-defeating, every time there is strike, the university system takes a very serious toll and collapses, the whole life on campus is affected and after three months, you have to start again. Let us all wear our thinking caps and think out of the box on education by creating public awareness to educate the people about the dangers of not pursuing education. It is not just the lecturers that are fighting for the university system, it is a national fight and the whole society needs to know. To continue to shoot ourselves on the leg through strikes is as destructive as the problems we are trying to address.