Academic activities in Nigerian public universities have been on hold since November 4th due to the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) Strike. ASUU strike has become a major part of Nigeria’s university calendar for more than a decade. The union which has shut down universities almost annually and sent students home for periods ranging from a week to as long as a year has for more than a decade been demanding for better funding and autonomy for the universities from the country’s state and federal governments.
Public universities in the country which are both run by states and federal government are understaffed, overcrowded, underfunded and operate on a centrally defined outdated curriculum. The country’s university system is not performance driven and highly susceptible to the influence of politicians. It also lacks efficiency, transparency and accountability. The tertiary education system in the country is so weak that no Nigerian university is currently among the top ten ranking universities in Africa. For instance, on the 2018 ranking by UniRank, a leading higher education directory and search engine featuring reviews and ranking of universities globally, no Nigerian university was among the top fourteen (14) universities in Africa. Yearly. The best University in Nigeria has always been ranked behind those in South Africa, Kenya, and Egypt, and while the universities from these countries are ranked among the top 1000 universities in the world, no Nigerian university has ever made the list.
As Nigerians prepare for the country’s general election come February 2019, it was expected that the presidential candidates contesting against the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari, would propose a better system that will solve the problems presently being experienced in the sector. Candidates have released their policy plans and that of Abubakar Atiku, the presidential candidate of the People Democratic Party (PDP) and Oby Ezewuesili, the presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) are the most talked about in the media. Both candidates are proposing radical changes in government policies and one of the proposed radical changes of both candidates is on tertiary education. Education is a key to unlocking opportunity, prosperity and progress of any nation and is, therefore, is a major issue that should be discussed in this election.
According to Atiku’s Plan Document, he plans to transfer the responsibility for funding and control of all public tertiary schools to state governments by 2024, except the technical tertiary schools which will remain under the federal government. Under this proposed arrangements, the state governments will assume responsibility for all tertiary schools located in their respective states and set up Regional Common Services Agencies for the joint running of these institutions while the federal government remains responsible for policy design, harmonization and regulation.
Atiku, a former Vice President of Nigeria, thinks the current system whereby federal and state governments concurrently operate tertiary institutions is chaotic and has resulted in a multiplicity of institutions with often unclear and overlapping functions. He plans to streamline the functions of tertiary institutions for greater efficiency by transferring the responsibilities to the state governments. He plans to improve the quality and relevance of education in the country by establishing a supervisory body that will create an educational scoring system to grade the performance of states and also establishing an independent scoring agency to reward high performing states with financial and social benefits. In his plans, the federal government, however, will still run a university in each geo-political zone as Centres of Excellence which shall be encouraged to charge user fees at market rates under a partnership between the federal, state and local governments and will give grants and scholarships to economically disadvantaged groups and areas.
Ezekwesili, a former minister of education, on the other hand, plans to transform twenty (20) Nigerian universities to ensure that they feature in the rankings of the top universities in the world in the next seven years. According to her Policy Speech, she plans to grant full autonomy to public universities while continuously funding them with grants that will be linked to performance, results and accountability, aiming to encourage the universities to become innovative with how they raise funds. She plans to bring in accomplished Nigerian academic abroad to serve on the faculties of these universities through partnerships with their institutions abroad. She also plans to give scholarships and student loans to students.
Analysing Atiku’s policy plan, we must first note that state government owned and funded universities in Nigeria has always crowded the bottom of university rankings in the country below federal government and privately own schools. This is due to several reasons that include excess political interference, poor management and poor funding. Even with Atiku’s proposed arrangement and increased funding from states, the federal own schools will most likely still be better than the state owns school as his policies will not in any way change the way state-run their tertiary institutions or solve the issues of reoccurring union and government clashes over funding, salaries, and appointments, neither will it increase efficiency and accountability in the universities.
The grants to state governments for performance and the scholarships for students may increase funding of education in recipient states and enable disadvantaged young people to get tertiary education but it may have no effect on the performance of tertiary schools or quality of tertiary education in the states because it is not an incentive for the tertiary schools but rather for the states in general. Under this plan, the government of the states will also be responsible for running and funding primary, secondary and tertiary education and giving these states which already have two or more poorly funded and managed state-run tertiary institutions may not be a smart thing to do.
This shows that Atiku education plan is more a plan to restructure tertiary education in line with his national restructuring plan aimed to give state government more funding and responsibility while reducing that of the federal government, and less a plan to specifically solve the problems in the tertiary education sector. Also, his plan to create an agency to independently score universities in Nigeria, a function already been done by the Nigeria University Commission is unnecessary and will result in duplication of functions.
Ezekwesili on the other hand also plans to transfer the responsibly of running tertiary education away from the federal government but to the local authorities of the schools themselves while still funding the school with funds that will be tied to performance and compliance to an agreed standard. Ezekwesili’s autonomy plan will make the authorities of tertiary schools to become innovative and resourceful on how they raise and spend funds for their schools instead of depending on the government. This will reduce political interference on the running of the schools, and also increase accountability and efficiency. All these, in turn, will encourage collaborations between tertiary institutions and industries on research, and collaborations among tertiary institutions on teaching and research. Her plan to give scholarships and study loans to students will enable students to also access funds to attend these schools.
Autonomy has been among of the several demands of ASUU as they think it will effectively put an end to government and academic unions disputes, and solve many other problems facing the Nigerian university system. As voters decide on who to vote, it is important that discussions are issues based. The problems holding the country down should be brought forward and the solutions being proposed by political candidates analysed and compared by think-tanks to enable voters to make educated decisions on which Candidate to vote for.