Repositioning Nigeria in Global Ranking of Universities

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Adagbo Onoja

In the midst of so much chaos across the world and even more so within Nigeria, it is probably a luxury to worry about global university ranking. But university ranking has its own place in the scheme of things.

The national sensitivity that has greeted the recent QS 2021 ranking confirms that the performance of Nigerian universities in the global university ranking is an issue in Nigeria as can be seen in Prof. Joseph Ushie’s metaphor of late arriving mothers from the farm for the experience of searching in vain to see Nigerian universities early on the list, (https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2020/06/23/the-2020-world-university-rankings-i/).

The QS 2021 ranking has been particularly revealing, interesting and instructively supportive of the reality of this mother called Nigeria and her universities appearing too far, far at the back of the league table. A ranking featuring a South African university among the top 300, another South African university in the top 500 and yet another South African university in the top 1,000 without a single Nigerian university up to this point is bound to be a source of tension for Nigerians. It is not envy but recognition that South Africa is the other African country by which we can reasonably critique ourselves.

In a world in which the ranking industry has come to stay and in which even the most reputable universities are happy when they rise in ranking, sulking when they fall, the concern captures a vital missing link. It cannot be otherwise in a country whose first and even the second generation universities were deliberately planned to be world class universities and were, indeed, so in terms of quality of presence in the key spaces and sites by which scholarship is measured. And then the crash from that height, the details and dynamics of which is the second achievement of Prof Ushie’s two-part piece already referenced.

The late Prof. Abubakar Momoh never failed to stress how political leaders and military commanders in the Second World War agreed to exclude universities on either side from deliberate targeting throughout the war. Although this was never completely adhered to as King’s College London, for instance, was hit, it still shows the salience accorded universities even in such a moment. In contrast to a war situation, universities in Nigeria collapsed from the impact of conscious detonation of the neoliberal bomb by a fraction of the elite at the instance of international finance in pursuit of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. The framing game that made that war against knowledge to look reasonable was academics ‘teaching what they were not supposed to teach’.

Two decades thereafter, the society is up in flames as the alternative to the feared radicalizing impact of critical scholarship took over in the forms of cultists, terrorists, kidnappers and sundry criminals. Universities set up by one set of national elite to be world class centres of knowledge production, from the size to architectural designs and academic traditions were simply reduced to gravesides as far as the very idea of knowledge is concerned. It is understandably going to be difficult for the nation not to connect to this background each time a ranking exercise makes the headlines.

The long and short of it is that what exists as the university system in Nigeria today is neither acceptable nor sustainable. It would amount to a conspiracy against the future to let the current situation prevail because the universities as they exist today cannot produce students who can reproduce the country at any serious level. Even the Federal Government of Nigeria said this much in 2018 by declaring that the universities have disappointed the country in terms of industrialisation. Whether the government of the day is entitled to that statement is open to debate but the statement also fits into a deluge of similar statements by vice-chancellors, university administrators, academics, the media, industry and Nigerian intellectuals in the Diaspora. If what exists is not acceptable, then what are the plausible ways out of that?

There does not appear a way of contemplating alternative futures without mentioning the struggles of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU). In fact, there is nothing to dispute in the claim that the day a critical mass develops in Nigeria that is on the same page with ASUU, the first step towards bringing back the universities would have been taken because the Nigerian state would, on its own, commence that process of restoration by developing a strategic lens to the university idea through priority funding. The state plays the card it plays now because it knows the populace has not, unlike ASUU, deconstructed its moves against provision of quality (university) education. The question then would be why does a gap exist between ASUU and the larger populace, when and how might such a gap be closed.

One would also argue that nothing will fly even if the universities have the best funding package unless and until Nigeria is able to shake-up the prevailing knowledge structure. This might require a different article to flesh out but it should be clear that academic content in Nigeria now require massive updating to support the quantum of publishing that can push up Nigerian universities in the rankings. There have been so many shifts in social theory in particular that are still not part of the curriculum across Nigerian campuses. It could be worse outside the Humanities Complex.

Preceding such a curriculum re-jig would, of course, have to be a successful reclamation of the Nigerian idea. Right now, the idea of Nigeria as a state is in tatters. The Nigerian state has to be re-invented before we can re-invent the university idea since the university idea is the dependent variable in this context. This is not difficult to appreciate even by merely looking at the countries refracted in the university ranking: US, UK, Switzerland, China/Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and it goes on like that. How the re-invention of Nigeria comes about now is the puzzle, given the elite disarray at a time of great power transition.

Critical to the way forward must be the obvious imperative for a return to the Schools of Basic or Preliminary Studies as a layer of the educational process in Nigeria. This writer does not subscribe to the idea that the squalid primary and secondary school background must be reformed before the quality of undergraduates can improve. That would be to deny the constitutive force of agency and context. My preferred strategy is where universities make those entering them fit to do so, through a School of Basic/Preliminary Studies internal to each of them. This would prepare students to be able to listen, take notes, engage the literature, synthesise such notes and even engage the teacher in the class as against the monologue going on nowadays. Any teaching that is not a conversation up to a point is dead on arrival. Unfortunately, much of what we are doing as academics across the country is dialogue of the deaf between students and academics. It is not true today’s students are, biologically, too young. What is true is that most of them enter the universities totally unprepared for undergraduate work. We cannot ignore this since teaching is part of the criteria for ranking.

The last point must be the question of what we want from the ranking in the context of our national difficulties. Is it for, at least, the University of Ibadan to appear in the top 100 or for some departments in one Nigerian university or the other to be ranked among the top 25 globally? The two things are not the same. The global ranking exercise have a subject ranking component which doesn’t make as much headline as the overall ranking but it is equally important, especially for students, being the basis upon which a prospective undergraduate in the UK, for instance, would prefer going to the University of Essex to take a degree in Discourse Analysis than go to Cambridge for a same or similar course because such a degree from Essex is more or less like an American MBA in the eyes of recruiters. Is this what we want or is it to have distinctive faculties?

Distinctive faculties is my own coinage for where the big names that have shaped social theory in the post Cold War are based, most of which are never in the top 10, top 25 and even top 100 universities in any of the rankings. It is true that Prof. Barry Buzan who planted the seed that germinated into critical security studies, just to give an example, did so from the London School of Economics but the critical security studies that developed subsequently did not come from any theorists based in any of the big name universities, be it the Welsh School, Copenhagen School or French Theory/Paris School.

Still in the Social Sciences, apart from John Agnew at the University of California in Los Angeles, Emmanuel Adler at the University of Toronto and one or two others, none of the crack names in emergent International Politics, for instance, is based in the big league universities, whether we are talking of Nicolas Onuf, Alexander Wendt, Richard Ashley, Michael Shapiro, Gerald O’Tuathail, Joanne Sharp, Lene Hansen, Simon Dalby, Derek Gregory, Roland Bleiker and so on. Even when we make allowance for names as Jason Dittmer at the University College London, Klaus Dodd at Royal Holloway and Christopher Browning most associated with geopolitics of Nation Branding at the University of Warwick, this thesis holds true. It is unlikely to be the opposite in other faculties.

The question of what exactly a country such as Nigeria wants from global ranking of universities is thus a major question. There is need to move from why we are poorly ranked to how we are poorly ranked. When we do that, we would quickly arrive at the painful conclusion that unless we specify what we want, it will be magic to expect any African universities in the top 50 or even top 100 by the current ranking criteria.

Nothing in the foregone justifies why Nigeria should not be the hub of scholarly activism in Africa. Even if Nigerian universities do not attract substantial number of students from Europe, North America and China, it should be a destination of choice for students of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. Instead of that, the reverse is the case as majority of Nigerians who can afford it are migrating to Europe, North America, Asia and the Arab world in search of education considered more qualitative. Tragic!

Onoja teaches Political Science at Veritas University, Abuja