Universities for Profit

A knowledgeable person I spoke with said universities can hardly be run as businesses, that what is needed are endowments and not a situation where fees are increased yearly in the hope that the proprietor begins to turn a profit. How do you fund research with a profit mentality? How many Nigerian businessmen have a 50-year point of view?


As we may well know, we never admit mistakes in Nigeria until things get to disaster levels, then we call the whole global community to come and save us from ourselves. That is perhaps the reason behind the decrepit state of everything here today. As infrastructure went un-maintained, as the laws of financial management were ignored, as every logic was turned on its head, as we ignored science and hugged superstition, as we borrowed more and more money that we couldn’t repay, and as we neglected public educational institutions and looted them blind, we refused to admit our errors. Instead, those who tried to raise alarm were treated with contempt, ‘dealt with’ ruthlessly, hung out to dry, impoverished, and some even lost their lives for showing ‘too-know’.

I have written here earlier how Nigeria is presently with its head in the sand and its ‘derriere’ in the sun as regards its luxury real estate bust; an event that CNN and co. would have bored us to death with had it happened in any of the ‘master’ countries. Here, it doesn’t matter, even if we have misallocated trillions of naira which sit as dead capital in the hundreds of thousands of luxury houses that they are tied down in. The prospects of a recovery looks bleak, because we are even sending even more money in the same direction. This is how the model works; a few ‘lucky’ people who are near the commonwealth simply take the money. You call it corruption, I call it insanity of the highest order. And since it has become more difficult to launder money abroad – especially if you are a Nigerian (nobody opens accounts for us anymore) – our lucky people soon run out of ideas and dump huge amounts on real estate. Since most of it is unearned income, the decisions are not properly thought-through, and so we end up with luxury flats and duplexes that those who have been rammed further down the poverty line (because they were deprived of public goods and amenities) could never afford. Ten years from now, disuse would have physically degraded many of these buildings, even if AMCON takes over those of them financed by banks through equally opaque and shady deals.

But that is not my concern today inasmuch as I want us to keep an eye on that subject.

My concern is with Nigeria’s private universities which look like they are also experiencing their own bubble and bust. I recently visited one of the ‘best’ ones and wasn’t so impressed. The image outside is much better than what I saw inside. At best, the ‘university’ is a slap-up arrangement of disparate buildings without theme, panache, style, vision or finesse. Even the building walls were not straight and one couldn’t see how the institution will be seen as a legacy in 20 years to come. The environment wasn’t particularly well taken care of and I began to wonder if this ‘university’ wouldn’t simply be worse than the public ones if it was in the hand of government. I didn’t see that private-sector attention to details that I expected. I had had high hopes because some of their graduates that I had met were intelligent. But now I believe that they are academically smart and little else, for they have been exposed to an environment just a little bit above mediocrity. If expensive private universities don’t understand the need for them to really stand out and be excellent, beyond getting professors to come and regurgitate academics that have never worked in Nigeria, then another generation is lost.

I began to see why even with this coming generation (those aje-butter products of our new-fangled private universities), Nigeria may still not change. If such an expensive school could be located in the middle of so much chaos and poverty and filth, and not have seriously impacted on that environment, but instead has inevitably imported some of that environment into its supposed haven, I’m sorry I don’t see hope. We need to have a rethink. The owners of these schools have enough influence in society to establish a certain ethos beyond showing the world how they have arrived, financially, and generally putting out that their students are children of the high and mighty. It’s the same thing that happens to our expensive private nursery and primary schools where children of rich parents thumb their noses down on society. They can’t wait to finish schooling and jet abroad where there is sanity, even if they often become second-class citizens there.

That university I visited is the good private university. I believe their problem is that they tried to expand too quickly. A few faculties with the highest of standards – academically, environmentally and in terms of total human development would have been better, in my view. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

Someone said we should praise these private universities for at least bringing some standards, but one wonders if it’s a chicken and egg situation. Do we have private universities because our elites deliberately ruined the public ones we all attended, or vice versa?


But a number of the other private universities are having serious problems. I will not mention their names but many of them are owing salaries; some for up to a year. Some already have what we accountants call ‘going concern’ problems. After a few more months of not being able to pay their bills, the creditors may move in and students may find themselves stranded. Some private universities have started giving ‘targets’ to academic and other staff for them to bring ‘customers’ a.k.a. students, or else their salaries will not be paid and they will lose their jobs. Private universities have become the new Nigerian banks. Who will call a halt?

A knowledgeable person I spoke with said universities can hardly be run as businesses, that what is needed are endowments and not a situation where fees are increased yearly in the hope that the proprietor begins to turn a profit. How do you fund research with a profit mentality? How many Nigerian businessmen have a 50-year point of view? This is a serious problem. I may not know the exact financial situation of these universities but I know lecturers who are owed salaries by them. That alone is enough. How can lecturers do the right thing when they are being owed for months? Should this have ever come up in the first place? What do we do about this?

So, as Nigeria overdoses on privatisation and entrepreneurship, as we get totally carried away by the need to make money and ‘blow’, our educational sector is the new casualty. Entrepreneurship does not solve every and any problem. Those who call themselves leaders here have sucked the very lifeblood of this country away entirely. You cannot bleed a country’s commonwealth down to a pint and then expect some capitalist ideology to save the nation. It will come back full circle and the blowback will be severe. Nigerians should get ready for rougher tides ahead. This country is totally mismanaged beyond finances. The demographics, and the future of our children, totally mortgaged.

foraminifera

Someone said we should praise these private universities for at least bringing some standards, but one wonders if it’s a chicken and egg situation. Do we have private universities because our elites deliberately ruined the public ones we all attended, or vice versa? Perhaps we would have been forced to slug it out with government if there were no private universities.

As I walked round the premises of this ‘good’ private university, I thought of the high fees they charge. I felt it was no more than a glorified secondary school. The students are even stripped of self-respect in a way. I then recalled my ongoing sojourn at Walden University online education. Phew! Online is tough. Online is the future. In time, these models will surely struggle. And many will collapse. We should have known. Anywhere people rush to from the profit motive, always suffers a major decline.

‘Tope Fasua, an Economist, author, blogger and entrepreneur, can be reached through topsyfash@yahoo.com.