The Fate of Nigeria’s Private Universities, By Toyin Falola
…if anything, private universities are the frontrunners in technological advancement, competing with tertiary institutions in developed countries and raising the standard for universities in Nigeria. This is mainly in an era of the mismanagement of public universities. Given the above…it becomes imperative for the government to start taking note and rendering much-needed help to privately-owned universities…
When the phenomenon of private universities was emerging in the country some decades ago, it used to be thought that they would remain permanently inferior to the public ones (those of the federal government in particular) and will never do better than them in terms of students’ performance and quality of lecturers. Some questioned whether they would even have the facilities. Perhaps, universities outside the country will not recognise them, and a ton of other doubts. Many questioned the credibility and feasibility of those institutions. Several of these fears later proved to be false. The ugly stone that the builders rejected is now becoming the chief cornerstone!
The past is a prologue. This is 2020, and more than any other year it offers a litmus test for the determination of the extent to which these institutions are alive to their responsibilities vis-à-vis the evolving trend in teaching, research, and conducting other academic activities. Babcock University conducted its Convocation ceremony in the third week of August, demonstrating that a private university can run well and successfully compete with public ones. Students sat for their examinations at the peak of COVID-19. I am not basing this view on second-hand knowledge, but first-hand experience, including signing on to the institution’s website to participate in the viewing of the Convocation ceremony. In partnership with Arizona State University, we had a successful Zoom meeting on collaboration efforts. From my objective assessment, I can attest to the superiority of Babcock University over many public universities, not only in Nigeria but across Africa. Again, in another example that transcends the present circumstance, Lead City University, Ibadan, and Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, in their infrastructural facilities, are far superior to almost all the state universities in the country. The landscape of Caleb University is far more attractive than many federal government universities that are fast becoming archetypes for failing institutions, with outdated, broken down and overcrowded libraries, lecture facilities and hostels. Anyone with more than just a casual acquaintance with the campus and curriculum of Redeemer’s University, Nigeria (RUN), Ede, would see a superior quality programme being run. I am not judging the universities by buildings, but also by ideas and ideals. I have examined PhD theses in both public and private universities. I have given lectures in both, and I can tell you authoritatively about the quality of these institutions.
Indeed, it is much easier for me to convene a conference at Lead City University than at any federal university, in terms of the quick response, organisational efficiency, immediacy of attention by the senior officials of the University, and the peace of mind that a strike action by any of the unions will not lead to any last-minute cancellation of plans and schedules. If a computer fails to work, there is a contact person to deal with it. The drivers have cars to drive, unlike in some federal universities where they go to the office to talk without any work to do. They are that organised. It will take me thirty minutes to reach Professor Ademola Tayo, the humble vice-chancellor of Babcock, but two weeks to even know the contact person for the vice-chancellor of a federal university, where the spirit is that of oga ta, oga o ta, owo alaru a pe.
The fact is that not only are some of these private universities moving forward, matching quickly, and, in some cases, outmatching the quality of facilities and teaching staff in public universities, they have also produced students who are doing well in various fields. Personally, I have placed many of their students in leading universities for graduate programmes because of their quality.
Although many of these private universities remain profit-making ventures, they, at least, provide better opportunities for their students, as contrasted with their counterparts in the government-owned institutions. On the flip side, the issue of profit may even be exaggerated. I am on the Council of one, and I can vouch for the institution that no profit has been made in the last ten years. I regularly speak to the vice-chancellors of two of these institutions — they consistently lose money. Pastor Adeboye, for instance, sustains Redeemer’s University with monthly contributions. One was owing N10 billion naira at a time. The outstanding and far-sighted Professor Kayode Makinde, former vice-chancellor of Babcock and a global leader, created a medical school with loans that the institution is still struggling to repay. I recently had a long meeting with the chairman of the Council of one of those universities; he was in deep agonies over where to get money to pay staff salaries. Maybe these private universities should open their financial records for the public to see. Someone is exaggerating about the profits they are making. Logically, if you have to build your roads, supply your electricity, your water, and provide all other services like refuse collection, recycling, and disposal, that the local and state governments should provide, where will the profits come from?
COVID-19 has once again shown the gap between these institutions and the government-owned ones. A pointed joke making its round on the social media lately mocked the students in federal universities who love glorying in the titles of their schools, with silly nicknames and exaggerated anthems that call them the “greatest”, forgetting that their mates in private universities are moving far ahead of them during this lockdown and consistently under other circumstances. Many of the students in public universities are aware of their spaces and pains. When they say “Great!”, it is no more than a simple case of pride, the type that has a child insisting its mother’s gruel is superior. The students are fully conscious of its misplacement, just like I routinely defend Nigeria in the worst circumstances, my expression of misplaced pride.
There is no question that the pandemic has widened an already huge gap between the private and public universities. And for this, it should not be surprising if these institutions remain the saving grace for the parents with the means to send their wards to universities in the country, and perhaps may become the redeeming quality for the relevance of higher education in Nigeria in the post-COVID-19 new world order. There is the matter of the conspicuous absence in them of the children of those who now make the decisions that affect these institutions, particularly the public ones. Ironically, these opportunists were trained in these public universities in their glorious past and benefitted from the system before its decline, but now sit comfortably to supervise their funeral plans.
…while the leadership of ASUU kept maintaining that Online instructions won’t work, Babcock University held a virtual convocation. In August, Benson Idahosa University completed a full session and summer and would be resuming a new session online in September. Covenant is actively in session, while Afe Babalola University and Bowen University most recently concluded their exams.
Already, the social class composition of students in private universities is changing from what it used to be in the past. Parents now take loans to send their wards to these schools because, among other things, the number of years to complete their degrees is guaranteed. This way, attending a private university in Nigeria is no longer a measure of the wealth of a family, as striving families (especially lower-middle-class ones) now struggle to get their wards through these institutions. The market woman in Sagamu, eking a small living from owo oniru, owo alata, has a child in Babcock. The farmer at Ado Ekiti has a son at Afe Babalola University. Even when they don’t pay on time, I know of private universities that allow such students to complete their degrees, only refusing to release their certificates until they pay.
With the current state of the education sector and the relationship between the government and University unions, most especially the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), an unpredictable school calendar might continue far into the future. This implies that private Universities might be the future of higher education in Nigeria, the same way private primary and secondary schools have taken over the other levels of the education system in innovation, infrastructure, pedagogy, and impact.
The belief that private universities could be the future of Nigeria was also re-echoed by the National Universities Commission (NUC), especially in light of the inadequacies and humongous problems mitigating against government-owned institutions. Indeed, it is safe to assume that the availability of the means, no matter how limited, would mean many parents and guardians, if not all, would prefer to register their wards in private universities, knowing fully well that the return would be worthy of the investment.
We have serious questions to pose: What would become of those who cannot afford private education? Can Nigeria weather the pressure of an increasing number of the uneducated? Is ASUU paying attention to how strikes can damage public institutions and the image of Western education as we know it? Do the federal and state governments realise that the failure of public institutions is enabling the success of the private ones? If private universities become essential and needed, how does the nation allocate its resources to education?
This is why I write, to begin to trigger conversations on whether we want to destroy the public institutions and therefore do so more efficiently. Critical questions must be posed: Do the states wish to maintain their universities or keep running to the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) for funding? I once laughed on a visit to a state university, many of whose buildings were made possible by TETFUND. Why, then, would the state government create the University, if not to tap into the resources at the centre? Do we want to sell the public universities to private investors, as the country did to many public enterprises to transfer national investments to a small cabal of wealthy people? Or should we give them away for free? There should be a reason for keeping the University of Ibadan, if the government does not want to fund it.
The effect of the COVID-19 on the country saw the shutting down of tertiary institutions across the country. The standard expectation would have been that educational activities such as teaching, examinations, matriculation, and even convocation are suspended. Indeed, while this is true of federal and state universities, private universities have shown once again that they are the leading lights in the technological advancement of the educational sector in the country. The imperative and advanced use of ICT in every aspect of daily life has become the norm in developed countries of the world. ICT apps/media, especially WhatsApp, Zoom, Google Meet, Webinar, and Telegram, are some of the most veritable platforms used for academic purposes, serving both audio and audio-visual communications. Indeed, these media have been adopted in leading private universities in the country such as Babcock University, Covenant University, Bowen University, Benson Idahosa University, Afe Babalola University, American University of Nigeria, and Crawford University, amongst many others. With the aid of these technologies, while students of government-controlled universities remain at home, their colleagues in private universities only experience the impact of COVID-19 by communicating with their lecturers and friends via social media and not physically anymore. With the state of the 21st-century technology, how could anyone explain or understand that one of the renowned federal universities could not provide students with their transcripts because of the COVID-19 lockdown? Put differently, private universities have swiftly adopted virtual/online learning — fully integrating their students into an academic process that ensures that the impact of COVID-19 has not been able to stunt the academic progress of their students, thereby delaying them at all. As I noted above, while the leadership of ASUU kept maintaining that Online instructions won’t work, Babcock University held a virtual convocation. In August, Benson Idahosa University completed a full session and summer and would be resuming a new session online in September. Covenant is actively in session, while Afe Babalola University and Bowen University most recently concluded their exams. I monitored all of these, doing my research, to ensure that these universities are not scamming the public. They have been honest.
The above goes on to show that if anything, private universities are the frontrunners in technological advancement, competing with tertiary institutions in developed countries and raising the standard for universities in Nigeria. This is mainly in an era of the mismanagement of public universities. Given the above, and the several problems impeding against public universities, it becomes imperative for the government to start taking note and rendering much-needed help to privately-owned universities as institutions that have contributed immensely in preventing a bad situation from getting worse.
However, the huge status and comfortability of the above-mentioned private universities should not be misconstrued to mean the situation is the same in all private universities in the country. This is especially the case as there are private universities, most especially the newly-established ones, that are struggling with the effect of COVID-19 and are unable to function at all.
…the TETFUND scheme should be extended to incorporate private universities. After all, they are Nigerian universities providing quality education for Nigerians. I understand the contrary argument — public money should not be used for private citizens to make profits. Yes. But scholarship to Nigerian students attending those schools is empowering our citizens…
Given the advantage of private universities as a whole and their contributions to the future of the country, it is pertinent that the government, both at state and federal levels, do not continue to ignore them. I, therefore, recommend the following, especially for struggling private universities and for an efficient rejig of the system:
1. The government should provide reasonable tax breaks for the ‘struggling’ universities to assist them financially. A tax break or total exemption is the least the government can do;
2. State governments can assist private universities by contributing to infrastructural development. Indeed, the Ogun State government, for instance, should have an annual budget to help Babcock, a pride in the State. Why not maintain social services or subsidise the fees of all the disadvantaged students of Ogun State attending the university?;
3. Also, the TETFUND scheme should be extended to incorporate private universities. After all, they are Nigerian universities providing quality education for Nigerians. I understand the contrary argument — public money should not be used for private citizens to make profits. Yes. But scholarship to Nigerian students attending those schools is empowering our citizens; the corollary is that by doing so, it is contributing to the economy of the State. Funding research that is beneficial to society is not putting money in the pockets of the founders. No one denies a research grant to a professor at Stanford University because he or she teaches in a private school;
4. Apropos in line with suggestions 1 and 2 above, by so doing, the government could encourage expensive private universities to reduce their tuitions and fees, which would allow for more student intake, thereby decreasing the number of failed admission applications annually. Statistics show there are always some half a million students per year who have been unable to gain admission into universities. Perennial failures at such and the inability to access private institutions have often made many youths give up formal tertiary education. Thus, reliable support from the government, using both parameters alone, would go a long way in strengthening these private institutions, increase their recognition, as well as reduce the number of students unable to gain admission to the above.
5. It is here recognised that such government intervention, as stated in points 1 and 2 and their possible implications as noted in the 4th point, could bastardise the private universities, and it could only be a matter of time for them to mirror the conditions of their public counterparts. Therefore, to ensure that government support for these institutions does not erode the gains made by the private actors, which informed these proposals in the first place, the National Universities Commission, the regulatory body, has to be reformed for effective monitoring and operation of the system.
6. In addition to the above, the government should look into encouraging wealthy Nigerians to invest in private universities, especially the struggling ones. These investments can be in two forms. First, a wide variety of scholarships could be given to intelligent and willing students to these private universities. The volume of these scholarships would reduce the intake pressure on public universities. This is purely altruistic. The other way is for private individuals or company owners to invest with the mindset to reap dividends. The government can encourage them to do so with dividends taken not from the school but in the form of other mutually beneficial concessions (i.e., tax break—reduced percentage, etc.). It is a standard global good practice for governments to promote charity with non-taxable allowance for individuals, and a similar allowance for private companies for their expenses on community/social responsibility services and community development projects.
7. Similarly, the government, at all levels, can mandatorily sponsor the best students in various states in equal proportion to these private universities. Increased students breed increased revenues to private universities at almost the same expenditure. By so doing, the cost of tuition, when spread overall, will automatically make for the reduction of the cost per student. For example, if the cost of maintaining the resources being used by five persons is N1 million and as a result, each person is charged N200,000; the usage of the same resources with equal maintenance by ten persons means a person would be charged N100,000. Thus, tuition is reduced, and affordability increased. Meanwhile, there will also be less pressure on public universities.
8. Government, as a matter of necessity, can encourage private establishments such as banks, firms, and industries around newly-established schools, some of which are in the middle of nowhere, to support private institutions. This would improve infrastructural development of not only the area around the schools, thereby lessening the financial burden on schools and also attract attention to them, it would also be multi-achieving as it means more industries are being developed and ‘barren’ or hitherto unutilised spaces in the country are being positively transformed.
Our options are now exact: Develop the public universities to their maximum capacities, and develop the private universities to their full capabilities. The reality of my proposed solutions above is that they are easy to achieve, citizen-thinking, beneficial not only to private universities but also to the public universities and the whole country…
9. The government, in consultation with public universities, should work out a formula for equipping them to create job opportunities for graduating students, instead of just turning them loose, and also to produce marketable items/ideas that generate revenue. Public universities can be equipped to be self-sustaining. The government, in consultation with the public and the private universities, as well as other major stakeholders in the Nigerian education system, should, as a matter of necessity, develop and support small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs) to ensure that the years spent within the walls of the universities do not go to waste for the students, their families, and the entire community. SMEs, as we all know, have been the primary drivers of every economy for centuries.
10. In line with the above, the school curriculum must be remodeled to reflect the reality of the Nigerian job market and social environment. Even though the transnationality of persons, skills, and professionality provides an alternative job market, it is not certain that due to the intricacies of this global system, only a few have access to this opportunity. Hence, the curriculum must serve the increasing pool of “diaspora Nigerians” whose only hope of engaging their skills and using their degree certificates remains in their flight. There is an age-long link between a state economy and its educational system. If SMEs are to be promoted, the economy needs to be reordered and the school curriculum reinvented.
11. This area is non-negotiable because of the age-long link between a state economy and its educational system. If SMEs are to be promoted, the economy needs to be reordered and the school curriculum reinvented.
12. If a lack of government funding is the major challenge facing public schools, asking the government to fund private universities might be equated to confusing priorities directly. Tax breaks and breaks in other utility charges in exchange for reduced fees to accommodate more applicants may sound better to the ears of politicians. Supporting religious organisations to continue to promote their universities without minimising the rewards of secular knowledge, sciences, and technologies may bring rewards. Universities such as McPherson and Glorious Vision can tap into the extensive charitable giving of their church members.
13. The NUC thinks in terms of one national university system but establishes a grip on private universities in a way that they cannot be as creative as they want to be. And after the hold, they are denied access to funding, creating double jeopardy for those institutions. Education is a public social service. Hence, all government ministries, departments, and other agencies of education, such as the NUC and the examination boards, are for all the citizens, not only for the government-owned institutions, to the exclusion of the Nigerian children and youths in the privately-owned institutions. Thus, a minister for Education is not a minister for the public sector education, but the minister of education of both the public and private sectors. The aim should be to facilitate and increase capacity, not discourage in the guise of ensuring standards. Collaborations should be encouraged to cover deficit and increase capacity. Education in Nigeria needs every hand on deck! If you want to control the private sector institutions, at least realise that the students are Nigerians, entering the same labour market and contributing to our collective development. We cannot abandon these students and hope to turn them into patriotic citizens who will not seek the means to take the next flight to Canada, the United States, or anywhere else they find greener pastures.
None of my recommendations must be implemented by eroding the power and autonomy of private institutions to pursue their visions and missions. My fear is also that if the government can be so committed to the highlights mentioned above, from tax relief regime to scholarship, and from access to state resources by these private-owned universities to job creation, then not even the public institutions would be suffering under a known ailment without cure till date. The question that remains unanswered is how to get the government to see, appreciate and implement these suggestions; after all, our problem as a nation has never been due to a shortage of ideas, but the implementation.
Our options are now exact: Develop the public universities to their maximum capacities, and develop the private universities to their full capabilities. The reality of my proposed solutions above is that they are easy to achieve, citizen-thinking, beneficial not only to private universities but also to the public universities and the whole country with increased educational opportunities. More than anything else, let us pursue a win-win situation for all. Anything less is a recipe for disaster!
Toyin Falola is University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair, The University of Texas at Austin.