Professor Ibraheem Gbajabiamila is the Vice-Chancellor, Crescent University, Abeokuta, Ogun State. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, the Professor of Virology explained why the country must reduce the cost of governance and spend the 26 per cent UNESCO recommended figure on education and human capital development, to move the nation forward. Excerpts:
How would you describe the state of Nigerian education considering the impasse between ASUU and the federal government?
We should all be concerned about the education system as a nation. One of the things Prince Bola Ajibola, the Proprietor of the university and a former ambassador once said was that while he was serving Nigeria abroad, people held the believe that Nigeria is a place that does not care about education. He said there were two facts that were thrown at him; that Nigeria has the largest number of children out-of-school at that time. Twenty per cent of the children in the whole world, are Nigerians. So it was very difficult to convince the world bodies that we are serious about education.
Second issue is infant mortality which is one of the worst in the world. With these two facts as the Nigerian ambassador, it was very difficult for him to defend. In the past, students of University of Ibadan, were taking University of London degrees before independence and they performed very well because they are taking the same exams with students of University of London. The University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan was one of the top 10 best hospitals in the Commonwealth. We had world class universities with good facilities. But over a period of time especially with the coming of the military, we spent less on education, and as a result, our country’s education system nosedived. The academics and students then were very focused delivering a world class service and the salary structure of the academics was tied to permanent secretaries in the federal civil service, so people were valued and they contributed their quota very well. UNESCO asked developing countries such as ours to spend 26 per cent on education, but as it is, Nigeria spends less than 10 per cent on education. On the issue of the ASUU strike, we have seen the result of underfunding. For instance, in the past, Nigeria gives scholarship to students from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Botswana and Ghana during the apathied era. Nigerian universities were the destination for most of the African countries. They were all either in UI, UNN, OAU, Ife or Lagos. Over a period of time, those countries improved their system. A case in point is Ghana and we now have 78,000 Nigerian students in Ghana alone. As a result of underfunding of Nigerian education system, we need to spend the 25 per cent that Ghana has been spending. We have seen the result of their spending the money. WAEC exam has been going on now for over 40 years. The first 30 years, was dominated by Nigerian schools, but over the last 10 years, the Ghananian schools have taken over and they are best in Art, Science and English. Having visited Ghana public schools, I saw that they have running water, uninterrupted power supply in the last five years, as well as internet facilities. Our children are taking the same exam with those people who have all the facilities. Can we get a public secondary school in Nigeria that has these three elements? So its unfair on our children to compete in a public exam.
Being a faith-based university, what policy stands it out among others in Nigeria and how have you been able to ensure its successful implementation to impact students?
The institution arose when the Proprietor, Prince Bola Ajibola wanted to improve the Nigerian education system and spare the time for students going abroad. As a faith-based university, because of the level of investment, we have electricity, running water and with internet, we are able to provide an online learning platform for our students. So when the COVID-19 came, we were able to continue teaching online which is a clear difference between the private and public universities. Public universities are crippled because the government cannot meet its own minimum standard of requirement. Our own university has been delivering. Our four or five year course is four years unlike what you have in public universities where students spend seven years for a four year course. That is unfair on the students. When people are out of school for such stay a long time, it could ballon into unpleasant things.
How have you been able to position your institution globally and ensure that your students are competitive by the time they graduate?
Positioning your institution globally is a very important aspect as we are all regulated by the National Universities Commision (NUC) standard. We have full accreditation for all our programmes. We have entrepreneurship as part of the curriculum. A lot of our students have good jobs, we have students working for BBC, Dangote Group, Nestlé and other multinational companies. As a matter of fact, some of the companies asked us to send more students because the academic and moral excellence, are what guides a faith-based university, not just taking brilliant students, but employing those who are morally grounded and can be trusted with any position. That has been the diffrence between private and public enterprise.
What efforts are you making or have you made towards improving and strengthening existing collaborations with other international institutions?
It is very important if you aspire to be a world class, you need to join similar institutions worldwide. For instance, we have a collaboration with University of Derby in the UK. The idea of the collaboration is to allow our students progression, to have their masters or start a programme at our university and finish at the University in Derby. With that kind of collaboration, we have already mapped out our curriculum and vetted it. The students who have proceeded abroad, have done extremely well. We have a Mass Communication student who got a degree here and went to University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Having gotten a first class degree in our university, they invited the head of department to University of Aberdeen, they said the student was not only brilliant and morally sound, she never missed a single class.
Those are the products that we are really proud of. That has been the pattern in the past. I have worked at the University of London for five years, so we used to receive Nigerian students. When they are given the opportunity at the facility, Nigerian students do well. Having returned to Nigeria 10 years ago, as the VC, we have been able to create a network for students to progress abroad and improve themselves.
What other first would you say your institution has recorded?
At the Nigerian Law School, our law students have done extremely well. For those that got first class, within the last five years, our students have been able to carve out a niche for themselves. A lot of them who have gotten first class at the Law School, are now practicing barristers. That I think is an achievement for a small private university to compete with other faith-based universities.
What challenges have you faced since coming on board and how were you able to surmount them?
The challenges are those that we have in Nigeria as a nation, which is virtually the problem of electricity. The reason why students are doing well in Ghana is because of constant light, unlike in Nigeria where we have to run generators. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed us as a nation. There were only two functional laboratories in Abuja and Lagos, later we progressed to about 40. We must remember that in the light of donations of testing kits, we have spent less on education and health. One of the problems of running those tests is that you need to run some tests for between 15 and 18 hours on generators. As a virologist, it is very difficult for anybody to do meaningful research if you don’t have the right apparatus to do it. I must commend our doctors who are working under challenging circumstances as the COVID exposed our inability to provide basic healthcare and education. We were able to surmount the challenges by providing generators to run the university and sustain our laboratories, as well as internet facilities which is a key learning tool for students. We spent money on infrastructure and ensured that the students are getting the best education.
Some private institutions are running on Independent Power Project (IPP), are there plans by your institution to have a similar plan?
Inevitably we will be able to have an independent power project to sustain the institution. If the government cannot do it, then a private provider will have to do it. If you want to run a private university, you must look at IPP as a way of surviving in order to join community of nations and catch up with Ghana, but it’s like a reversal. We are just above Somalia, a war-torn country, where we are spending less than 10 per cent on education when our competitors are spending 26 per cent. So you cannot expect the same level of achievements. If you don’t provide light, our industries cannot run. A lot of entrepreneurs are doing their best providing a means of energy for their factories. So these are the real challenges and that was why I said our challenges are the challenges of Nigeria. Parents now know that our hospitals and universities are inadequate. So the way forward is spend the 26 per cent UNESCO recommended figure. That was why there was agitation when they brought out the budget, it did not reflect spending more on education and health. They are spending more on the National Assembly. We need to reduce the cost of governance and spend money on the necessary things that will allow us to move forward as a nation.
Considering the recent happenings in the country following the EndSARS protest, what impact can universities make to curb youth restiveness?
Universities are building skilled manpower and future leaders. But if you continuously have strikes and not providing the basics, if a government signs an agreement and fails to honour it, there will be issues. The issue between ASUU and the federal government has been going on for years. What happens is that whenever there is a strike, the government will agree to sign, but will not honour it which will lead to another strike. This is disruptive to the education of the youths. It frustrates them. The students have been out of school for eight months and parents are concerned about this.
Federal and state universities cannot provide those facilities and pay staff. Those are things that are clear to everybody and the agitation will be there. In Africa, particularly Nigeria, the youths are the majority, but they have not been able to harness the energy. They may feel shortchanged and decide to go abroad. Sadly, not everybody is able to do that. More importantly, the country has a duty of care to the youths. We are one of the top 10 oil producers, there is no other top 10 oil producers in the world that does not have constant electricity or not spending 25 per cent on education. Our challenge is that even when oil was $120 per barrel, we did not channel it to education or health, is it now that it is $20 a barrel that Senate will do it? I think it is the failure of planning and supporting the youths.
That was what the agitation was about. Harnessing their energy is about providing the opportunities through education.
If at primary school level, we have 13 million children out-of-school, that means 20 per cent in the whole world are roaming about. Chief Obafemi Awolowo once said that if we fail to educate the children of the poor, we may face unpleasant situations, and that is what is playing out now. So at the primary and secondary school level, we have major challenges. At the tertiary level, we have a major challenge, at the hospitals, we also have challenges. These are the facts before us. If we must harness their energy, we must have a youth-friendly policy starting from primary school to the tertiary level so that we can regain the kind of system that our parents left for us. We are leaving a worst system than we met it. Unfortunately, things went down and we can’t even boast of being among the top 100 schools in the world.
The youths are talented, when they go abroad, they do very well. Microsoft is establishing facilities in Nigeria for COVID and when students are given the opportunity, they do very well. We have mechanics and vulcanizers who can repair cars without training or formal education. We have human capital which we need to develop and focus their energy to national development.