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Federations Magazine Article
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Higher Education Needs Urgent Attention

Higher Education Needs Urgent Attention BY Kole Shettima
Post-secondary education in nigeria has been
shaped by the country’s evolution through colonial
rule, the first republic in 1960, civil war, intervention
of the military in politics and the striving for national
unity, the oil boom and bust over several decades,
and finally the transition to civil rule in 1999.
Different aspects of post-secondary education, such as its scope,
admissions policies, regulation, autonomy, research, unionization,
and reform, have all been affected by this evolution.
Historically, higher education has been a joint function of the
federal and state governments. Even under military regimes this
concurrency of function was understood, if not always observed.
The first post-secondary institution in Nigeria was Yaba
College, established in 1934 by the colonial administration primarily
to produce graduates with mid-level technical skills. It
was followed by the University College of Ibadan in 1948.
Immediately after independence,
half a dozen universities and a
handful of colleges of technology,
polytechnics, and advanced
teachers colleges came into being.
Since the 1960s, the size and
shape of post-secondary education
in Nigeria has changed
significantly. There are now 88 universities (compared to just
five in 1962), 85 polytechnics and monotechnics (four in 1964),
and 64 Colleges of Education (four in 1964).
Each type of school has federal, state, and private institutions.
This expansion of the post-secondary sector was related
to the increase in constituent states in Nigeria, which tripled
from four in the 1960s to 12 in the 1970s, and tripled again to 36
by the 1990s.
The post-secondary sector in Nigeria is characterized by a
high level of unionization. Many of the unions are affiliated
with each other, enabling sympathy strikes. Hence, national
strikes have been common in the post-secondary sector, particularly
in the universities. Indeed, university unions, especially
those of academic staff, were one of the few organizations with
enough societal rank to challenge the military.
Accreditation Can Be Revoked
Most institutions are regulated by national organizations that
are empowered to oversee the quality of education in their
respective jurisdictions. Disciplines and programs that receive
partial accreditation are expected to remedy their deficiencies
within a short time while those not accredited will not be
allowed to award degrees.
All students must sit for an exam organized by the Joint
Admissions and Matriculation Board (jamb) to gain admission
into universities, colleges of education, or polytechnics. Under
the 1999 Constitution, post-secondary institutions are expected
to reflect more accurately the diversity of the country in admissions
and recruitment of staff.
There has been little organized support for research in the
post-secondary sector and successive governments have failed
to provide adequate funds. A more systematic approach was
recently announced with the proposed National Council on
Research and Development, endowed with $5 billion, to award
research grants on a competitive basis.
Universities enjoyed considerable autonomy during the
colonial period and for the following decade, being insulated
from the vagaries of politicians and politics. But the incursion
of the military into the body politic in 1966, with its centralizing
tendency, contributed to much less institutional autonomy.
The Chief Executives of post-secondary institutions are
appointed by the president of the country or a state governor on
the recommendation of the governing councils. Free Tuition No Longer Sustainable
The financing of post-secondary education is another area
where the lack of institutional autonomy is obvious. With
increased oil revenues in the 1970s, the federal government
took over some state universities and abolished tuition fees.
As a result, these institutions became much more dependent
on the federal government for most of their needs. These levels
of support, however, are not sustainable in the long term.
Yet the policy of free tuition at all public institutions
remains in effect despite the government not being able to
take care of even the most basic budget needs. Salaries are
often in arrears, and institutions are dependent on monthly
allocations from the state capitals.
Robust federal and state scholarships existed until the
1980s when oil prices turned down. The Federal Government
tried to rejuvenate scholarships but that initiative collapsed
due to lack of foresight and management skills. Scholarship
and bursary programs are more readily available at the state
level. Regrettably, these schemes are not sufficiently funded
and many thousands of fully qualified students are unable to
attend institutions of higher learning due to prohibitive costs.
Increasingly, children of the poor are shut out. Private universities
charge as much as $7,000 for tuition fees, and very few
provide student aid. Most parents who send their children to
private schools do so not because of their quality but rather
because of the instability of the public institutions.
Post-Secondary Sector Needs Major Reforms
Ms. Obiageli Ezekwesili, appointed Minister of Education in
2006, has proposed wide-ranging reform initiatives, including
a controversial one to consolidate many post-secondary
institutions. Under the scheme, all federal Colleges of
Education and polytechnics (with two exceptions) would
become satellite campuses of the universities. Benefits of the
consolidation plan, according to its supporters, include saving
costs through the reduction of supervisory agencies and
bureaucracies. In the long run, this would also increase
admission spaces by more than 50 per cent. Criticisms of the
plan are the lack of infrastructure and low quality of instruction
in many of the colleges of education and polytechnics,
and that it is a World Bank plan, as Minister Ezekwesili is taking
a post there in 2007.
Whatever the outcome of the consolidation plan, broad
reforms of post-secondary education in Nigeria are badly
needed for the sector to grow and improve. As Minister
Ezekwesili has said, Nigeria’s is a national crisis, not an educational
one. The new president elect, Umaru Yar’Adua, should
declare a state of emergency in the educational sector.
Addressing issues of quality and adequate funding, from both
public and private sources, must certainly be high on the list.
But so, too, must be the issue of equity and whether the traditional
Nigerian approach of free tuition in public institutions
along with limited amounts of student financial aid can succeed
in opening up education opportunities to traditionally underserved
populations. Nigeria needs to look at international
experience to learn what might be done to improve both equity
and quality, and to do so by going beyond the traditional influence
of politics in shaping post-secondary policies.