A CASE FOR FUNDING OF PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES

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Francis Wale Oke argues why the support offered public universities by TETFund should be extended to privately-owned tertiary institutions

There is no way the history of private universities in Nigeria can be written without generous reference to Archbishop Benson Idahosa. The seed of faith known as Christian Faith University, for which he applied for licence to operate in 1992, which would later become the Benson Idahosa University in his honour, received approval by the National Universities Commission in 2002 to operate as a full-fledged University, being one of the first seven so licensed by the NUC. Between then and now, the private sector, including many faith-based institutions, has invested in tertiary education. For faith-based institutions, the drive has primarily been that of fulfilling the mandate of transforming young minds towards engendering national development.

It is important to establish that the increasing involvement of the private sector involvement in university education coincided with a decline in the fortune of public university education in the country, as stakeholders lamented the deplorable state of facility, overpopulation, poor condition of service and a number of other factors that culminated in incessant strikes by workers, with universities repeatedly shut down, at a time, for almost a year, with the academic calendar continuously facing disruptions.

Twenty two years after the first set of private universities were licensed, not only has the number grown to 99, constituting half of the number of universities in Nigeria, the institutions have stepped in to fill the gap in terms of enrolment and provision of quality education for Nigerians. The quality of facilities at many of these private institutions is comparable to only the best in the world. The huge and sacrificial investment in human and material resources by the proprietors of these institutions has not only created a more conducive teaching and learning environment in these private universities, it has made for a stable and predictable academic calendar, which must, in part, be responsible for the success being recorded there.

Faith-based universities have become major drivers of economic advancement in Nigeria, with products of these institutions playing outstanding roles in different sectors of the economy. Graduates of faith-based universities have particularly distinguished themselves in financial technology solutions and entrepreneurship development. Evidence of the quality of learning and all-round development available at these institutions is found in the impact being made by Sola Akinlade and Ezra Olubi (Paystack), Babatunde Akin-Moses and Onyinye Okonji (Sycamore); Joshua Chibueze, Odin Eweniyi, Somto Ifezue (Piggyvest), among others.

There is no doubt that private universities, especially faith-based ones, have played a significant role in national transformation and development. This has not only been buttressed by reports of the accreditation exercise conducted by the NUC with private universities doing better than their publicly-owned counterparts, recent results at the Nigerian Law School have also strengthened the argument for the quality of education in private universities, with their products emerging among the best in the bar examination.

Given the giant strides that have been made by the private universities in only two decades of operations, there is no doubt that development there offers us, as a country, an opportunity to further move in plugging identified gaps in tertiary education and leapfrog our drive towards technological advancement. That is only possible, if we will address some of the challenges being faced by these private institutions, which has to do with lack of access to long-term funding. Unlike government-owned universities who receive subventions from government, private universities’ source funding from private ventures, investors and tuition fees. Unlike in other parts of the world where the culture of endowment is firmly entrenched, with private universities benefiting from that, along with grants, while tuition fees are paid through student loans, the private universities in Nigeria are reliant on funding from the investors and/or loans obtainable at high interest rates.

Time has come for a review of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (Establishment, etc.) Act of 2011, so that privately-owned tertiary institutions in Nigeria can benefit alongside their government-owned counterparts from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). The mandate of TETFUND for the rehabilitation, restoration and consolidation of Tertiary Education in Nigeria can only be partially met and hard to fulfil if its focus continues to remain exclusively on government-owned universities while private universities which constitute 50% of the universities in Nigeria are left out, whereas the fund itself is generated through contributions by the private sector, by virtue of the 2% education tax paid from the assessable profit of companies registered in Nigeria. Greater progress can only be made in the development of tertiary education with support as offered by TETFUND extended to privately-owned tertiary institutions.

The argument that the institutions being privately-owned cannot benefit from funding is erroneous. In the same way private sector players in banking, aviation, agriculture and other sectors have received different forms of support and funding, so should private operators in the education space, which is even a more critical sector, with foundational role in driving national development be accorded same consideration. The argument is even more strengthened by the fact that the bulk of investors in tertiary education are social entrepreneurs, whose primary interest is not profit. Indeed, the statutes that govern the establishment of private universities already insist on being not-for-profit ventures: “The Federal Government or its Accredited agency shall ascertain and be satisfied that (C) the proposed university is registered or incorporated in Nigeria as a charitable company limited by guarantee and the proprietors or operators, owners, trustees or directors are disentitled from drawing profits from the university”.

The federal government has to take into cognisance the fact that the circumstances have considerably changed from the time when the Education Trust Fund (ETF) was established in 1993, with private universities now entrenched and significant players in the tertiary education space. With the inclusion of private universities as beneficiaries from TETFUND, the institutions, who have, over time, developed robust governance systems that make for greater accountability and transparency will be able to access funds for essential physical infrastructure for teaching and learning, institutional material and equipment; research and publications and academic staff training and development, as well as other critical needs that would help with the overall improvement and maintenance of standards, helping TETFUND fulfil the mandate for which it was established.

The executive and legislative arms of the federal government should work in concert on the amendment of the TETFUND Act for the expansion of the window to accommodate private tertiary institutions. It can only be a win-win for everyone in the tertiary education space. Public-private sector collaboration is key, it is the way to go in driving the nation forward and achieving the objective of rapid transformation.

The African Centres of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) instituted in 2013 by the Governments of Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Republic of Benin, Ghana, Cameroun, Togo and Senegal, with support from the World Bank, to promote regional specialisation among participating universities and address particular common regional developmental challenges as well as strengthen the capacities of the participating universities to deliver high quality training and applied research within the fields of Agriculture, Health, as well as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is domiciled in Redeemer’s University, Ede.

The success recorded by ACEGID, with its various intervention researches and diagnostic breakthroughs, especially with Ebola, Lassa fever and Covid-19 is a pointer on the way to go. It attests to the wisdom in a greater collaboration between public sector intervention agencies, multilateral institutions and private universities. It speaks to one of the ways TETFUND, NITDA and other agencies can tailor their intervention programmes in private tertiary institutions for development of the education sector and Nigeria as a whole.

Bishop Oke is National President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria and Chancellor, Precious Cornerstone University