Higher education in Nigeria must change, argue

 David Mba and Val Ekechukwu

Amid fresh strikes by Nigeria’s Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), one thing is clear: the current funding model for the country’s public universities is broken. The government’s new Higher Education Bill aims to fix it. But unless we rethink the whole higher education system in Nigeria, it is unlikely to deliver the change we need. There is still time to act. First, though, a summary of what the Bill proposes.

In short, this is an interest-free student loan for payment of tuition fees at universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and vocational schools established by Federal or State governments. Eligibility applies to applicants with an income, or family income, less than N500,000 per annum, qualifying over 133 million Nigerians. Applicants require at least two guarantors. And they must begin repayment two years after completion of their National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) term.

Reasonable enough, maybe. But digging deeper we have uncovered hidden problems.

The first is value for money, or lack of. The student loan model in the United Kingdom – similar to what is being proposed here – has, at its core, the customer rights of students. This means fee-paying students have the right to question the quality, service and support provided by their university. Credit hours have to be met in full, course content must be delivered to the letter, and course delivery rigorously scrutinised.

In addition, for science and laboratory-related subjects, students are entitled to expect equipment that complements their lectures. Stipulated lab experiments, workshop, studio and field exposures must be met in full. We must bear in mind, given it is one of the ASUU’s demands, that such equipment is often inadequate or non-existent in many of Nigeria’s public universities. Fee-paying students would rightly desire, and demand, equipment that ensures they get value for the money they have invested.

In its present form, the Bill lacks a governance framework that would support the complaints of fee-paying students. And it includes no way in which the government can find evidence of value for money in support of its own investment in the scheme. It ought to matter because the government will want to seek assurance from universities that their courses are getting students into the workforce. This expectation is in addition to traditional quality assurance measures offered by the National Universities Commission (NUC).

We must then consider which public body is responsible for setting the expectations and outcomes students should receive from their universities, along with the level of satisfaction they should be entitled to. We must consider, too, the types of skills, attributes and employment opportunities students are expected to receive. Which brings us onto the second fundamental problem with this legislation: employability.

Graduate employment is a cardinal principle upon which repayments are premised and structured. Put simply, there needs to be jobs for graduate students to go into before they begin paying back their loan. But with unemployment at 33%, there aren’t the jobs for graduates to enter. And even for those that get into work, there ought to be a minimum threshold of income prior to the commencement of repayment. Without such a threshold, future graduates may be abandoned to a vicious cycle of indebtedness.

Further attention should be paid, too, to how the government manages the flow of public money to universities. The Bill, for instance, makes no reference to future levels of tuition fees. A cost-sharing mechanism between government and students, with a cap on tuition fees, would not, in our view, address the funding challenges of the nation’s universities. Inflationary pressure, with the government raising fees to keep pace with rising costs, will exacerbate the problems we identify above.

Nor does the Bill provide the option for universities to provide maintenance grants that cover the living expenses of students. The new government Education Bank, which will manage the distribution of subsidised tuition fees, may be an attempt to solve this. But it is unclear why funding can’t be allocated to public universities without the need for such an intermediary. This isn’t cost effective or value for taxpayer’s money.

There is a solution to these problems: a rethink of the entire public universities system.

A free market-style system, driven by supply and demand, is one such solution. In practice, any cap on tuition fees would be removed by the government. This would allow universities to charge fees that reflect their own values and mission, and which ensure both value for money and future employment opportunities.

It would have further consequences too. Public universities would be fully commercialised, with the TeTFund scrapped or redefined to focus on specific national initiatives outside tertiary education. Second, students would demand more of their universities, which would drive improvements in student support, teaching practices, and employability. Third, new contracts for staff employed at universities would be struck, and new management hired, ending union strikes. And lastly, the NUC would be given powers to create an accountability framework. Universities would be held to account on value for money as a condition of retaining an education ‘licence’.

A final consequence would be a reduction in the number of students that apply to universities. This would create a bigger pool of student applicants for existing polytechnics and vocational schools, which would also be supported by the Student Loan Bill. This is predicated on the fact there will be varying levels of tuition fees for universities, colleges of education and polytechnics, driven by market forces.

Such an approach would sound a death knell for the provision of public university education in Nigeria, one of the directives of state policy enshrined in the constitution. It would require significant political will and energy to achieve. In short, we do not think such a solution is workable.

In present form the Bill is too simplistic. It needs a governance framework alongside it which addresses the problems we have identified. In exchange for government funding, universities should improve their teaching and support to match student expectations, align academic courses and research to the needs of the national economy, work closely with the public and private sectors, and provide evidence for value for money.

These changes should be considered as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the current public university model. There is another way though, where we balance value for money and employability, with demand for a public university education. This would be a new middle way, which balances the public university concept with a cost-sharing mechanism that involves government, universities and students. Better yet, we would not be copying and pasting models from other countries. This would be a Nigerian solution to a Nigerian problem.

An African Zulu proverb springs to mind; Copying everyone else all the time, the monkey one day cut his throat’.

Professor Mba is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Arts London (UAL). He has held visiting professorial positions at the university of Lagos and university of Nigeria, Nuskka while Professor Ekechukwu was the former Director, Research & Innovation at the National Universities Commission

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