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Dear Mallam Adamu,
How do we achieve sustainable funding for the nation’s public universities in order to avoid union strikes? Can the Federal Government ever allocate more than 10 per cent of its annual budget to education? Is the present tuition regime in the public universities robust enough to bridge the funding gap between government subvention and the universities’ Internally Generated Revenue? If the Federal Government cannot adequately fund the universities, why own them at all?
I am raising these questions in multiple capacities-as a retired university Professor, who has taught at home and abroad; as one who has served on several university Governing Councils, public and private; as a columnist, who has written numerous times on this column about university education; and as a concerned parent and grandparent. Let me sum it up this way: I have been a lucky beneficiary of the Nigerian university education system and a perpetually concerned stakeholder.
I don’t like what is going on with university education in this country, from the admission system to the award of degrees, and I have addressed these issues on this column. As a close associate of President Muhammadu Buhari, especially from the days of the Congress for Progressive Change, your commitment to change is not in doubt. The problem, though, is that the commitment has yet to be demonstrated, not only by you but also by the entire Buhari administration. The continuing deterioration of the education sector is a case in point.
I know that the downward trend did not begin with your ministerial tenure. It could be said to have begun way back in 1975, when the then military dictatorship began its stranglehold on higher education. In that year, it federalised all existing universities, whereas the United States, whose constitution we copied, decided way back in 1791 (in the 10th Amendment to the constitution) to delegate public education, including university education, to the local and state governments. Ever since that time, the establishment of new universities has been left to state governments and organisations or individuals within them.
That was nearly two centuries before Nigeria decided to go the other way. Today, the Nigerian Federal Government owns nearly 70 universities, which, according to the government-funded Needs Assessment of Nigerian Universities, are riddled with serious gaps or deficiencies in funding, infrastructure, staffing, management, and governance.
These are the sources of the discomfort, which has led to incessant strikes by the unions of the nation’s universities, especially the Academic Staff Union of Universities. The discomfort has been aggravated by the indifference, lethargy, or slow response of the government to the union’s demands for decades, especially in the last 10 years.
Your acknowledgement of the government’s failure in this regard is as refreshing as the government’s ongoing negotiations with ASUU. It must be acknowledged, however, that no matter the outcome of the negotiations, it cannot be more than a drop in the bucket of the problems facing Nigerian universities today.
Last week, I outlined four major indicators of quality university education lacking in the Nigerian university system today, namely, adequate funding; world class teachers, researchers, and students; outstanding managers and governance system; and timely and adequate responses to staff, especially union, demands (“University education in Nigeria at the crossroads”, The PUNCH, September 5, 2017).
While adequate funding may take care of a number of these deficiencies, there is much more rot inside the universities than funding alone could mend. However, that is a subject for another day. The focus here is on how to achieve sustainable funding for the nation’s public universities.
No one doubts that funding is critical to achieving the vision and mission of the universities and to the quality of the graduates they produce. The centrality of funding was demonstrated in the 2018 World University Rankings released recently. The two top spots went to Oxford and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom, displacing top American universities, largely for funding reasons: “The US universities’ institutional income … dropped by 23 per cent …while Cambridge and Oxford each received a boost in revenue (by 11 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively)” (Times Higher Education, September 7, 2017).
What is interesting about the revenue sources is that only a fraction came from the government. The bulk came from research funding and the universities’ IGR, especially tuition and endowment.
The truth is that government investment in university education is generally on the decline worldwide, thus putting more and more stress on the universities’ IGR, of which tuition is a central component. That’s why universities in the advanced countries have raised tuition 10 times over. Yet, various governments in Nigeria have kept university tuition low for political reasons but to the detriment of the quality of university education.
It is high time the government owned up to its inability to adequately fund university education, unless it has decided to produce only poor quality graduates on the cheap, by maintaining the present low tuition regime. True, I have consistently argued that the present tuition regime is unrealistic as it cannot bridge the funding gap between government subvention and the universities’ IGR.
However, should the Federal Government decide to keep its cheap universities and allow those who cannot afford high tuition to go there, then it should hearken to Prof. Ladi Adamolekun’s suggestion that one or two universities per geographical zone be identified and specially funded. In addition, I would add that tuition be raised in such universities to a level approaching that of private universities. Such universities would be regarded as Centres of Excellence with a clear mandate to join the University of Ibadan in the top 1000 in the world within the next 10 years or so.
The value of such a stratified system is that, over time, some federal universities would begin to produce quality graduates attractive enough to those parents, who would otherwise send their children to private universities at home or to foreign universities.
States desirous of quality university education could follow suit by raising tuition in one or the other of their universities. This is already happening in Ondo State, where tuition remains low at Adekunle Ajasin University, compared to the relatively higher tuition at the University of Medical Sciences and the Ondo State University of Science and Technology. Nevertheless, in view of the state’s deplorable financial situation and in the absence of other major sources of revenue, the present tuition charges cannot bridge the funding gap in any of the state’s universities.
Moreover, I want you to take a critical look at the disbursement of funds to the universities by TETFund. For one thing, it is often whispered around campuses that substantial leakages occur in the process of disbursing the funds. Indeed, the talk on campuses is that TETFund is a pot of gold for those who have no business on university campuses, except, of course, their companies to which TETFund projects are awarded. Indeed, it is high time a thorough audit was conducted on TETFund.
Besides, it is public knowledge that TETFund often keeps billions of naira at a time, because the education tax generated for the Fund keeps coming in. Yet, only a fraction of it is accessed by the universities. Why keep such huge funds, while the universities wallow in poverty? Why not find an equitable way to share the funds among the universities and only keep a portion to be accessed competitively for research and special projects?
Finally, it is high time a permanent solution was developed that would minimise, even eliminate, union strikes and their disruptive consequences on the university education system in this country.