Ayorinde Ogunruku argues that

university education is being smothered by corruption and special interests

Universities in Nigeria, at inception, were known to have been highly competitive and impactful in the actualisation of their mandates of knowledge generation through research, knowledge impartation through teaching and learning, and knowledge application through community service. With the establishment of the University College, Ibadan in 1948 as a campus of the University of London, a sure foundation was laid for a highly competitive university system in Nigeria. Other universities that were established followed the solid foundation of the traditional British university model, largely in structure and systemic operations. As proceeds of the Law of Parliament or military decrees, there was an adherence to the age-long principles of a university system expected to be committed to excellence in delivery of mandates. They were allowed a modicum of autonomy and freedom which facilitated the carriage of their objectives and competitiveness.

Over the years, with succeeding environmental influences, the Nigerian university system began to dissipate in function, operation and impact. The environmental influences of the political landscape, ethno-religious inclinations, loss of concrete societal values and virtues, economic downturn, despite the opulence that petro-naira brought upon the nation, and issues of elite competition for relevance or dominance in national affairs took their tolls on a system that ought to be the fulcrum of national development. The system itself became affected by the confusion in the orientation that it became confronted with, courtesy of the multifarious experiences of those that ran it. The British model that was bequeathed to the nation following its colonial history was first influenced and moderated by the American university system that was largely developed to answer their own developmental challenges. This came with the land grant model of their emerging states.

The German model of emphasising the post-graduate work as a foundation for national development also came to impact upon the orientation of the Nigerian university system. Thus, while British model gave the structure that largely formed the basis for the law that established the system in Nigeria, operations were largely influenced by the American model that emphasises a semester system of academic delivery and the course unit system of grading and assessing the students. Of course, the post graduate school system also began to take root. Indeed, taking the best from other climes are excellent propositions for better mandate delivery. However, in our clime, this has been sources of confusion since such propositions were not carried through and conflicted with structure and experience of the players.

Why is there concern about the state of our university system today? This is because there is a wide belief that universities in Nigeria are largely bereft of impacting society positively. Rather than be bastions of innovation for national and societal development, they are theatres of war and enclaves of manifestation of selfish myopic interests. It became a wonder that the university system one was opportune to join in January 1973 as a student and in 1982 as a staff member, that showed great potential for a burgeoning impact on society and relevance have degraded to irrelevance. It is today known that hardly are government policies influenced by well- thought out and deeply researched inputs from the academia.

Up until about 1985, government foreign policies were baked from the intellectual outcrops from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) Institutes of Administration. Medical research in Ibadan was of competitive quality as those from Oxbridge and Harvard. Agricultural development in the nation was a proceed of the research works in Ibadan, Zaria, Ife and Nsukka. The human capacity being churned out from Lagos, Ibadan, Ife, Zaria, Nsukka and later Benin were of the best quality. The impact of these citadels of learning must have no doubt contributed to the yearnings for multiplication that led to the establishment of the seven universities in Calabar, Jos, Kano, Ilorin, Maiduguri, Port Harcourt and Sokoto, in the mid-1970s and ultimately the universities of Technology and Agriculture in the 1980s.

Since then, the same fervour had created the establishment of many more universities in Nigeria today. Going by the exponential growth in number to today’s 174 universities, public-federal, public-state, faith-based private and others, it is expected that national developmental outlook should also reflect an exponential positive impact. This largely remains to be seen. Rather from our universities emerge news of brigandage arising from pecuniary parochial interests, students devaluation arising from decrepit infrastructure and value disorientation, failure in allowing the dominance of the rule of law in management, challenge of quality of service delivery and relevance of the products, wanton disorientation of the ideals of university culture, unbridled unionism that takes on the jugular of the system and an aggregation of the poor values bedevilling the large Nigerian society.

The concern here is whether or not these issues are being addressed. We have a situation in the Nigerian university system today that calls for urgent attention. Since, as it is often said, the success or failure of an institution rises and falls on leadership, it is important to interrogate the issue of leadership of the institutions. Leadership of universities in Nigeria today goes beyond the Vice Chancellor who by law is the chief executive of the university. The present crops of vice chancellors are subject largely to dictates by some ministerial and civil servant directors or individuals of lower ranks who delight in dictating and manipulating the direction public universities should go. Vice Chancellors are invited to Abuja at a go via text messages from different competing ministerial or department agencies (MDAs) – Education, Health, Federal Character Commission, Office of the Accountant -General of the Federation, Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation, etc. This is apart from the ignoble roles of the parliament under the guise of oversight functions.

While not being oblivious of the essence of accountability in the exercise of theirs, should universities be locked against initiative that allows them to function without being breathed through by the MDAS and the parliament? Why should a university take directive from the Senate/ House of Representatives Committee on Education or Office of the Secretary to Government of the Federation or that of the Head of Service of the Federation to recruit staff? This brings to the fore the unfortunate situation in which many of the universities established recently were subjected to the manipulative directives of the Federal Ministry of Education in staff recruitment to the extent that while there were inadequate academic staff, they were inundated with a retinue of administrative officers. Some of the universities had about 200 administrative officers recruited in one fell swoop and less than a 100 academics. This is in a system that should have a ratio of about one administrative staff to five academic staff.

Quite unfortunately is the fact that the universities are themselves internally riddled by pecuniary interests of the operators. There are constant immolative conflicts for Vice Chancellorship and filling of vacant positions of Principal Officers and Deans/Heads of Department, the winner takes all syndrome that turns some vice chancellors into emperors, sending them to be far from their constituencies, unbridled interest of host communities in taking administrative control of the institutions on their lands using natives to foment troubles, challenge of accountability in management, challenge of quality and relevance of research and lack of effective and positive use of the committee system. All these dwarf the universities’ capacity to impact positively on society and be competitive with their homologue in other climes. These matters are further not helped by poor composition of the governing councils that should give policy directions for good governance.

How can one explain having people with poor understanding of the university system appointed as Chairman/Pro Chancellor or member of Council? Or what explanations are there for appointing a serving professor in a university to serve as a Pro Chancellor in another, or yet a serving Senior Lecturer or other staff to serve on the council of another perhaps bigger institutions? There was once a personality that could hardly communicate in English appointed into the Council of a Federal University. There is the recent one of a member of staff in the private business of a Pro Chancellor serving in the same council as his principal. Is our nation too large to do thorough background checking of appointees? Rather than concentrate on the essence of service, exercising due diligence in the manner of appointment of council members, the civil servants are more interested in controlling the universities as they do the Polytechnics and Colleges of Education. Many of those appointed to represent the Federal Ministry of Education in council rather than ensuring adherence to university tenets are fond of foisting the civil service rules on the universities in a manner to justify their ego of exercising supremacy over the universities.

Where do we go from here? It is my belief that universities are easiest places to govern where all the stakeholders allow the laws to prevail and not manipulated to massage egos or further personal nests. Vice Chancellors must see themselves as primus inter pares and not Lords of the manor. Officers must advert themselves to the laws, performing according to its dictates. Government authorities should desist from over-burdening controls. Appointment to offices should be merit based rather than the prevailing ‘turn by turn’ or satisfaction of ethnic, parochial or pecuniary interests. To achieve excellence requires a foundation of excellence.

Ogunruku is a former registrar, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife