‘Contributions of private varsities undervalued’

OsaghaeThe Vice Chancellor, Igbinedion University, Okada, Professor Eghosa Osaghae, in this interview with BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE, appraised the complementary role of private universities in Nigeria, and concluded that private schools should also enjoy government interventions. The university administrator, who is also a cleric, decried the demonisation of private institutions by the government and some members of the public, stressing that the institutions were clearly misunderstood. 

What is your assessment of private universities in Nigeria?

It is one sector that is thoroughly misunderstood, undervalued and a victim of absolute misconception. To begin with, private universities came when public universities in Nigeria had been ruined by the declining economic sagacity of the country.

As we may remember, the most famous causality, as a result of this decline in the economy, was education, especially tertiary institutions. This was the backdrop to the advent of private universities. Almost from the beginning, however, the private university has been demonised. Remember also that since the 1970s, government has pursued a tuition-free education at the university level.

The introduction of private universities, therefore, did not only challenge that, but it also seemed to contradict it. Consequently, there was very negative and suffocating welcome for private universities at that time. The fundamental misconception was that private institutions that were complementing public institutions were not able to deliver; that they were elitist and that worst of all, they were profit-making institutions.

But really, private institutions are not any of these. They are not for profit. Rather, they complement those public universities and they do essentially the same thing as public institutions, serving as centres for knowledge production. Unfortunately, this backdrop has polluted public perception about private institutions.

If these public universities were tuition paying, things would never have gotten to the present abysmal level. And I dare say that it is the advent of private universities that gave the required leaps, not just the impetus.

It was the shock treatment necessary for resuscitating the quality of tertiary education in Nigeria. As a nation, we owe gratitude to private universities, which emerged at the time they did. For instance, Igbinedion University together with Macdonald and Babcock Universities were elected in 1999, by which time the public universities had lost it.

So, the private universities came to rejuvenate that sector. It is all thanks to the advent of private universities that our public universities have been rehabilitated and are at the strong point, where they find themselves today.

People are saying that private universities charge too much tuition fee. Do you agree?

If public universities were to be charging tuition, many of them would charge higher than what private universities are charging. For example, at Igbinedion University, medicine is being run as one of our foundation programmes.

The course has over 38 academic departments, each of which is expected to have at least one professor and other senior people because medicine is not like other disciplines, as it requires experience and very top notch qualifications.

So, you have top people, who have to be consultants and who have to be high calibre. Additionally, you are required to run a teaching hospital. In government universities, however, the burden of running medicine is shared.

The Ministry of Health runs teaching hospitals. But in the case of a private university, the hospital is run by the university, the same way the college of medicine is run.

With this, you realise that if the public institutions were to run along the same model; if its costs were not shared, there is no way a student in a public university would pay less than N1m tuition fee. But here at Igbinedion University, students pay N800, 000 to read medicine, which means we are subsidising medical education.

This is the sacrifice that proprietors of universities have been making. This is why I began by saying that their contributions are undervalued, underestimated and if you like, they are not valued at all. Same thing would apply to courses such as pharmacy, engineering, and law among others.

At the Igbinedion University, we have science and technology courses. In fact, 70 per cent of our course offerings are in science and technology and medicine. We have a full range of these courses because that is how we can push our national agenda of development ahead. Even the best public universities, where they have this kind of objectives or mandates, rely strictly on government subsidies.

Let me make another illustration. If you go to a typical public university today, you will see what might be considered high class infrastructure, good buildings and hostels that are designed to accommodate hundreds and even thousands of students, as well as generators that will make you want to say ‘wow’.

But do you know that you are likely to find infrastructures that will beat some of the ones in the public universities in the private universities? Yet, all the infrastructures in public universities without taking anything away from the wisdom, experience and the resourcefulness of the Vice Chancellors of these institutions, come from Tertiary Education Trust Fund, which private universities do not enjoy.

What this means is that if private universities were to enjoy the kind of subsidy that governments are known to give all over the world, then, the private universities would be world best.

The purpose of a university is to excel as the centre of knowledge production. Universities do this through research, publications and problem solving.

All universities are universal, as there is no differentiation between public and private institutions, when it comes to things that are highly and widely recognised globally.

This is why the thrust of universities goals and development is competitiveness. So, as a private university, are you able to compete with public universities? I think the one-sided privilege being given public universities by government is actually something that this country does not need. We must open the space for competition. Let us also compete for the same resource the way it is done all over the world.

We do not believe that public universities should enjoy a monopoly of public resources because after all, the graduates that are being produced from our universities do not serve the private sector only.

The preferential treatment being given public universities is conceptually flawed from the beginning because the goal of all tertiary institutions is to promote the production of not just knowledge, but also public good.

Do you think private universities have the necessary experience? Are they pulling their weight?

I would say that they are more than pulling their weight. Private universities have proven today that they are the future for university education.

At the time public universities proved to be a little incapable of delivering on their mandate, private universities came to the rescue. Students go there and are able to access quality tuition. They also graduate when they should. If private universities did not exist, this country would have been held to ransom.

The alternative provided by private universities has stabilised every one. And so today, public universities are better because private universities exist.

What is your view on the lack of government support for private institutions?

There is nothing emotional about it. Let us face it, government policies are supposed to be objective, which should come out of good planning based on good information, cost benefit analyses and others. The whole point has been overtaken by the misconception that private universities are products of profit seeking.

That is the point I have laboured to make. This is a fundamental misconception. Strictly speaking, private universities cannot run on the basis of fees paid by students.

There are private universities in this country that do not have up to 1, 000 students and they have all the departments that public universities have. They have qualified lecturers, they have overhead. What we need to understand is how much sacrifice the proprietors of these private universities have made and have continued to make.

How do you view the proliferation of private universities?

The procedure for approving private universities is straightforward. In fact, the requirements are stricter and higher for private universities.

When some newer public universities are compared with the private ones, you’ll discover that they are substandard. The National Universities Commission (NUC) is charged with quality assurance. That is the reason programmes have to be approved and accredited, and universities have to be approved and licensed. You must meet the criteria. So, I do not think that private universities are substandard in any way. This is part of the misconception in the public domain that I am talking about.

The issue is that if you have not been there, if you do not have the experience, it is difficult to make a comparison. The stakeholders are there, just like many of us that went through the public institutions and those that went to private universities can tell the difference. These are things that can be verified.

If a university, whether public or private, is not doing well, NUC will seal it. If the programmes do not meet the required standard, NUC will de-accredit the programmes. The NUC has the monopoly of sanctions and it is directly in charge of quality assurance and standards and I bet you that NUC is doing a very good job. It does not apply double standard; public and private universities are evaluated the same way.

What do you have to say about the reckless award of first class degrees by private schools?

That has to be one of the most unfortunate outcomes or fallouts of the perception of people about private institutions. I studied in a public university. I have taught all my life in public universities. To get 50 per cent in some subjects in the hands of certain lecturers is the most difficult thing on earth. How can somebody come to the university and he cannot exceed 50 marks. Only four people will get 50 and so on.

The problem with many public universities is that tuition is very poor. Not that the lecturers are not capable, qualified or that they lack the experience. But because of the large number of students, they cannot teach them effectively. Look at what private universities do at the pre-university level. They perform better than the public schools. So why would the performance that the private university students put up be surprising?

The question to ask is: why are those students at the pre-university level outperforming their counterparts in the public university? I say to parents when they come to Igbinedion University: ‘give me the greatest dunce that you consider a never-do-well and I will transform that person into a genius for you.’

Public universities are too anonymous to care about individual student, but we care for every category of students because we care for students, we have smaller numbers and better facilities. If you must know, public universities have a lot to learn from the private ones.

Is the purpose for examining students to ensure that they fail? As a teacher, if my student fails or do not get grades that are close to A, it must be that I have not taught well. Private universities attract the brightest students from secondary schools. The students I have here are some of the top 10 you will find anywhere in the world.

Would you like to set an agenda for the new government?

I would like to tell the new government to see and treat private universities as complementary to public universities. It should not fall for people’s misconception and the very misleading things that are being said about private universities.

Rather, the government should look for ways to shore up the capacities of private universities and strengthen them so that together, they will take university education to the pinnacle. There is no way you can get to the zenith, if you continue to discriminate between public and private universities.

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