OOU VC: We’re Developing Artificial Intelligence to Screen Breast Cancer

Prof. Ayodeji Agboola, a professor of Cancer Pathology, recently emerged the 11th Vice-Chancellor of the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye. Before he rose to this position, he served the institution in different capacities including its Deputy Vice-Chancellor; Dean, Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences and Chairman, Research, Linkages and Advancements Committee, among others. In this interview with Gboyega Akinsanmi, Agboola speaks on the triumphs and travails of the institution to mark its 40th anniversary

What is the secret of your survival these 40 years, especially in the area of funding?

Anywhere in the world, the government alone cannot fund education. The governments are not solely responsible for the funding of most tertiary institutions outside the country. Institutions will do better through endowment than government funding. In Nigeria, governments are doing their own part through subvention. At the same time, we also need to have individuals and corporate organisations that can actually invest in our tertiary institution. We need private interests that can do a cost-benefit analysis of what programmes we have running and measure the benefit of our programmes to the community, state and the nation.

With limited funding support from the government, how does the present leadership of Olabisi Onabanjo University plan to overcome funding challenges?

We are working on different plans to make this institution less dependent on the government. In the last 40 years, for instance, we have graduated no fewer than 265,000 persons. Some of our graduates are today captains of industry and owners of their own companies. If 1,000 of our graduates can give this university N10,000 every month, it will translate into N100,000,000 a month and N1.2 billion each year. If an institution is well managed and it gets a good endowment, the university will do well. I do not really believe that the government should totally fund a university. There is no way it can be done. For me, I think the government should create an enabling environment for the university to grow. There are so many ways the university can generate money. It is not just by increasing tuition fees. Although the government needs to fund it, the managers need to look at the institution as a business venture through which it can generate funds internally.

What are the challenges constraining the inflow of funding support from private organisations and wealthy individuals?

If the image of the institution is good, everybody wants to identify with it. Years back, this university was known for cultism. As a result, nobody wanted to identify himself or herself with it. There was a time we had a meeting with the Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Adetona. At the meeting, His Royal Majesty told us one of the reasons he found it difficult to come to the institution. One of the reasons he identified then was cultism. We then told him that it was in the past. We told him that we now have CCTVs to monitor activities in the campus. Before 2012, we could hardly get 2,000 candidates seeking admission. When we solved the problem of cultism, however, the image immediately changed. The following year, over 30,000 candidates applied to undertake different programmes in this institution. Since that time, it has been on the increase. Also, the way the students were treated would go a long way in determining if they would return. We are changing the narrative because we are products of this place and we know what happened when we were in school.

Can you specifically mention some private interests and organisations that have supported this university in one way or the other?

After we held meetings with the Awujale of Ijebu Ode and gave him assurance that cultism had been addressed, he first instituted a N50o million endowment of a professorial chair in this university. Subsequently, this has since been scaled to the Oba (Dr.) Adetona Institute of Governance Studies. This was the endowment that we got. Awujale has about seven state-of-the-art projects in the university. One of such projects is the Vice Chancellor’s Residence. Similarly, Chief Kensington Adebutu built a N200 million Radio Station for us at the Mass Communication Department and another structure in the University Teaching Hospital. 

What is the present leadership doing to ensure that the graduates of the university will always give back to the institution?

Honestly, we know what needs to be done to students so that they can come back. We will continue to change the narrative as we move on. In the past, we used to have chalk and markers. If you go to our classrooms now, what you see is amazing. We are also changing the environment in which they are learning because it has a way of affecting their psyche. If we make the environment more serene in nature, students will be able to say they want to identify with the university. If you go to the Teaching Hospital at Shagamu, they have standing air conditioning in the classrooms. With this kind of learning environment, how will that student graduate and not want to come back? If you go to the Faculty of Law and see the seats there, you will be impressed. Last Friday, one of our alumni gave us a 750-seater hall. Another is building an Information Technology Centre at the Faculty of Law. We have our business school here, which was just completed. In a way, the alumni now see the university as their own. We are still talking to many more. We believe that if the alumni do all these, it will reduce the pressure. One of the ways to encourage the students is to ensure that those who are indigent can complete their programmes. This is the reason we are now introducing work-study.

Could you talk about the work study programme for indigent students?

We did a study and discovered that in the last five years, an average of 2,000 out of the 30,000 students were unable to pay their tuition. The management reviewed it and discovered that we could start with a scholarship. We started giving scholarships to the indigent students, who are in the second class upper division and above. Until last year, we discovered that it could not go round. We reviewed the study we did. Having worked and studied abroad, we now decided to introduce work-study. We want to plan for 2,000 of them at a go. Some areas that we believe that they will be able to work and do well include the library, mowing and bakery. Just like in the UK where students are given 20 hours per week or two hours per day to work at the institutions where they are studying and earn some living. We believe that the same can be applied here. What we want to do is that by the end of the month, students can have money that can take care of their school fees in a session. We will do it in such a way that no student will be given the money because it could be spent on other needs?

What is the mode of application?

When they come in, they are supposed to register two weeks into the session. At the end of the two weeks, people who begin to apply for leave of absence indicate that they cannot pay. At 100 level, everyone will pay because if they don’t pay, it means they are not students. In subsequent sessions, however, we will know those who are unable to pay their tuition fees. We can then harvest them. We will call them for a meeting and give them options of the available jobs from which they can pick.

What is the university doing to reconfigure some courses to fit into the country’s current socio-economic and political realities?

Interestingly, NUC is currently migrating from Basic Minimal Academic Standards to Core Curriculum Minimal Academic Standard. That means that 70 per cent of the courses are centrally designed by NUC for all universities while the remaining 30 is left to the individual universities, according to what they want and what they want their universities to be known for. That can be applied in virtually all the courses. Every course is interrelated. For instance, a course like Philosophy will always be there because there is philosophy behind every course. In this university, we are trying to modify some of the programmes to meet the needs of society. We have looked at it globally. We have seen that there is a need for us to identify the skill gap that our products will naturally have when they get out of the school. Perhaps that is why people say that some of the courses in the Humanities should be changed. However, I have a different view, there was a time in this university when the numbers of students were used to determine if a course would be run or not. For Religious Studies, the number of students they used to have was not up to 10. But we have professors there. We said to ourselves ‘if we cancelled Religious Studies, the motto of the university would be defeated because in this university we pride ourselves on Omoluabi and our colour is blue. In Yoruba, blue signifies calmness and boldness. If we are going to produce Omoluabi, it has to do with morality and religion is part of it, which is why everybody goes to mosques and churches. If we train those people they will be the one to man the churches and mosques, making society better.

If you do the cost-benefit analysis of some courses, will it be economically reasonable to run such courses, especially when you consider the number of applicants you have?

There is no course that is useless. However, it depends on the applications. When you strictly look at it from the cost-benefit perspective, Medicine should have been canceled a long time ago because it produces 60 students with 15 departments. We have not less than six lecturers in each department including professors to produce just 60 students.  In the Faculty of Science, there are about six departments. In each department, there are no less than 120 students at a go, without needing more than 10 lecturers to produce those 120 students. In a way it depends on what we are looking at in society and how society will look back at the institution saying if not because of this institution we will not get this far.

Universities are celebrated around the world for the impactful research they conduct. Which area has this university excelled in the last 40 years?

We are the first to make use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to conduct Post-UTME. During COVID-19, we were running up and down without knowing what we could do to conduct an exam for over 25,000 candidates. During that period, the government was saying one third of the candidates could not sit down somewhere. In this hall, only 10 or 15 students could sit down. We then asked ourselves how many months we would use to conduct the entrance exam and ensure quality assurance in the process. We were mindful of the fact that questions could leak. There might not compromise quality assurance in that kind of examination. What we did was to ask our colleagues in the Computer Science Department to come up with how we could make use of AI. AI has been available, but people have not been applying it to what we do. We asked how we could apply it to all areas of learning. We did the first tests before we applied it to Post- UTME. We did four to five rounds of those tests to see if we could make use of it. It eventually worked well. What we did was simple. We opened up more spaces into the venue for the AI. We trained it in such a way that it mimics if you are in the class. We also supervised the students. We tried it, and it worked when about five of us were in the same classroom looking at the students having their tests. AI is one of the best ways to go because it is stricter than humans. For instance, as we are sitting down here, if we use AI, it takes charge of the whole room. If it sees a movement it can tell that person wants to cheat. And it shuts down the system immediately. After the first one we did to conduct the exam, it was so perfect. However, we discovered that it is too sensitive. We then apply it to some of the areas of the research.

Which other areas has the university used artificial intelligence or is currently planning to use artificial intelligence?

Currently, one of the things we are doing now is to see how we could use AI to do the screening of people with breast cancer. What we do with AI is just three: input, processing and output. I am also an oncologist by training. We are applying it to virtually all areas of learning in this university. What we are doing is more digitisation. We are currently working on cancer screening to have a control study of those who have breast cancer and those who do not. We need sophisticated equipment that is worth $11,000 to help us to do the test in such a way that we can use artificial intelligence to actually develop a screening test, like the glucose kit to screen those who are going to have diabetes. It is that kind of equipment we want, instead of cutting people to do biopsy. If we are able to get that equipment, we will be able to use it to screen cancer patients before they now come for confirmatory diagnosis by the pathologists. So, we can use that to do mass screening for people that are likely to have breast cancer.

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