Reimagining Higher Education and Knowledge Management in Nigeria

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Prof. Tunji Olaopa

By Tunji Olaopa

The Graduate Research Clinic (GRC), an online platform of eminent scholars, erudite intellectuals and budding researchers, has thrown the gauntlet on the state of higher education in Nigeria’s national development agenda. And it did this through a most timely roundtable on the theme, “Reimagining Higher Education in Africa: The Role of Learned Communities and Professional Associations.” With the array of invited speaker and discussants, the GRC leaves no one in doubt as to how serious it is taking, and wants Nigeria and Nigerians to take the issue of higher education. The keynote speaker is by no other scholar than the president of Nigerian Academy of Letters, and a professor of Linguistics, Francis Egbokhare. And the discussants are two able scholars from two different but significant spectrum of the academy. Professor Moses Ochonu, from Vanderbilt University, has demonstrated his concern for Nigeria’s higher education dynamics over and again through many engagements with several dimensions of it. And Professor Yakubu Ochefu is eminently involved with the administration of higher education in Nigeria; first, as the vice chancellor of Kwararafa University, Taraba and then as the Secretary-General of the Association of Vice-Chancellors Nigerian Universities.

To have been invited to chair the occasion of the roundtable is a huge honor. The Graduate Research Clinic, over the three years since its establishment, has grown to become one of the reference points for how a professional and academic platform ought to be—sane, informative, engaging, and the very essence of scholarly discursivity. This is a site that makes intellectual dispute and informed narratives a beauty to be involved with. And there are arrays of academic benefits flowing daily from the platform—from a daily English refresher course to nightly cultural proverbs that stings one into awareness. And in between are myriads of timely and urgent discourses on the state of nearly everything in Nigeria. The roundtable on higher education is therefore a natural concern for a network that has as one of its objectives the facilitation of academic and scholarly interaction among scholars and academics of all hues. I think it is high time that the GRC start the process for its own institutionalization as a professional network, with a pride of place among the already established high-end networks.

I am not new to discourses on higher education in Nigeria or on the continent. My reform philosophy and advocacy have brought me to that axiomatic moment about the relevance of education not only to the human capital development of any state, but also to the development of other institutional dynamics that all cumulate towards national development and good governance. Right from my time as the coordinator of the education sector analysis and head policy division at the federal ministry of education, I have been opened to the multiple deficits of Nigeria’s education system compromised politically, infrastructurally, academically and policy-wise. Without mincing words, the Nigerian education system is not capacity and intellectually ready to backstop Nigeria’s entry into the knowledge age or even support her aspiration to be a top contender in global competitiveness in the twenty first century.

The recent celebration of the University of Ibadan among the top 500 hundred universities in the world is a good place to start reflecting on how to move the Nigerian education system forward. That achievement, for me, speaks to a lone feat; the sustained desire of one university to keep pushing the boundaries of qualitative and competitive tertiary education in Nigeria. Unfortunately, a lone effort, or a series of lone efforts, is not sufficient to catalyze Nigeria’s human and national development. The challenge is to deeply rethink the fundamental philosophy of education in Nigeria in the light of global benchmarks, continental peculiarities and national imperatives. Let me start my brief diagnostic analysis with one of the issues about higher education that is close to my heart—the sidelining of the humanities and the social sciences (HSS) in the overall scheme of things, according to the Nigerian Policy on Education. The disturbing issue here is that Nigeria is conceiving of a robust understanding of higher education by simply unreflectively following in the market-propelled neo-liberal ideological tradition with a low ratio for the HSS. The question then is one of how development could be holistic within a context that favors the physical and managerial sciences to the detriment of the HSS? True, the global benchmark for development now references STEM education. But then, STEM education cannot be regarded as a one-size-fits-all solution for all national education and development need. Rather than STEM, we need STEAMSS—Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics and the Social Sciences.

It is also high time we began to rethink the complicated relationship between the concept of autonomy and the funding of the universities in Nigeria. The nature of autonomy is such that it provides a university with self-regulating capacity not only to generate its own sustenance but to also calibrate its own research designs that speaks to the context that gave birth to the university. In both cases, funding becomes very significant to the idea of autonomy, and demands some modeling that will catalyze the creativity of university administration to transform the university into an institutional driver of change. Unfortunately, our present reality is such that universities go cap-in-hand to Abuja every month in search of subventions that are grossly inadequate to cater for the twenty-first century needs of a functional and innovative university. The simple implication is the current model is not working. In essence, waiting on government hands-out forecloses the possibility of strategic planning for any creative vice chancellor. This is even more so in an undisciplined governance environment where establishment of universities fulfils political consideration with scant regard to their viability and sustainable funding.

Rethinking the model of autonomy implies that funding could be generated to allow university administrators the leeway to deepen a university’s administrative and academic traditions. And without totally taking the government out of the autonomy picture, the idea is to factor the cost of educating an average student into a benchmarking of a negotiated financial model between the university, the government and the private sector. The negotiation is to arrive at a mutually agreed framework with inbuilt flexibilities to accommodate variability in government earnings. Government, through the National Universities Commission (NUC), can then empower such institutions like the Education Bank, Students Loans Board, with other stakeholders contributing to ameliorate equity concerns through bursary, scholarship, etc. This will ensure that the craving for sustainable funding does not snowball into untrammeled commercialization of higher education.

We cannot emphasize enough the relationship between universities and industries/private sector which, to all intents and purposes, has not really taken a firm root in the operation of Nigerian universities. This relationship has a lot to do to backstop the financial modelling of university funding. And this is even more so because such a partnership also suggests a collaborative dynamic that facilitate the research focus and direction of universities. As we noted earlier, a university is responsible to its context. This means that a significant aspect of the research framework of any university ought to be channeled towards meeting the challenges of where the university is located. This truism plays right into an industry’s research and development framework geared towards meeting the development needs of any state. The universities ought to be the natural point of call for all industries and the private sector in terms of R&D. Outside of this urgent collaboration, the universities will keep on with abstract research that fails to impact, while the industries will not enjoy the benefit of sustained and robust research. Such a collaboration defines knowledge management for the greater good.

The last point is definitely not the least. The notion and nature of community of practice and of professional associations is one that I am grounded in as an institutional reformer. A community of practice (and even of service) is a gathering of a group of people who are united by an endeavor they are passionate about and which they learn, through the sharing of experience and competences, to do better through critical collaborations, engagement and interactions. And the trajectory of this community of practice to the evolution of institutional reform is something I have charted for many years. In public administration, the communities of practice challenge researchers, scholars and practitioners of public administration as to the new frontiers and research issues that could facilitate breaking new research grounds and problem-solving framework for moving public administration theories and practices forward. The beauty of such a framework comes out fully in the emergence of the scholar-practitioner paradigm—a professor of practice that unites in her person the dynamics that bring town and gown together in deep and mutually beneficial relationship. The universities do not need less. Each discipline has its own professional association which acts as the gatekeeper for intellectual and academic agenda setting. But I will go further to recommend cross-disciplinary communities of practice that will be founded on the scholar-practice paradigm. Such communities serve the greater purpose of achieving a knowledge management framework that utilizes the professional competence of different disciplines and discourses. Universities certainly do not exist for the sake of producing unusable knowledge.

I sincerely hope that this roundtable will further tease out the other dimensions of the issues involved in making higher education more effective as a system from which to commence the transformation of the Nigerian state and her governance.

(Being the address delivered Prof. Tunji Olaopa, retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) Kuru, as Chairman of a Roundtable on ‘Reimagining Higher Education in Africa’ by the Graduate Research Clinic Network to Commemorate its 3rd Year Anniversary Sunday)