Private universities must be regulated to curb their excesses’

Professor Toyin Falola. PHOTO: UT College of Liberal Arts

Toyin Omoyemi Falola, foremost historian and Professor of African Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, in the United States of America spoke with
Iyabo Lawal on why the education sector must be repositioned to be internationally competitive, the need for academic staff unions to embrace dialogue
instead of confrontation in their quest to effect changes and why government should regulate the activities of private institutions to meet global practices.

There have been divergent views on the quality of our education. As an astute scholar, would you say that the standard has indeed dropped?
There are many ways of looking at it. One is to look at how new knowledge has evolved; internet derived knowledge, Facebook, and even recent technologies. So at that level, we can say that there is a new form of knowledge that is qualitative.

Secondly, if we look at the area of creativity, such as Nollywood, fashion and music, the evidence is that this new kind of knowledge is expanding and qualitative. So when people talk about decline in education standard, sometimes they are referring to the limitations of infrastructure, limited laboratories and facilities, and they are very right. But if you look at it from the point of view of intelligence, we have no evidence to show that the quality is declining because human intelligence is separate from the school system.

Would it be right to say then that the failure of successive leaders to provide the needed infrastructure to aid teaching and learning contributed to the fallen standard?
We can pass the blame around and say it is a leadership issue. But bear in mind that these governments also engage in passive expansion both at the state and federal levels, establishing so many universities. Once you expand an educational system rapidly, there would be consequences like where to get the teachers and materials to teach, thereby producing graduates without the support system.

The failure of government to properly fund tertiary education recently led to a strike action by university teachers, which disrupted academic activities for several weeks. From your own viewpoint, is strike the best option to resolve disputes?
I think strike should be the last resort; you start with dialogue, writing letters, using backup channels, and you are left with one choice. No union will start with a strike because it is counter productive. The question then is, to what extent should they be striking because people would say that it is becoming too regular which is also very counter productive, making a four-year programme become six years.

There has been public outcry against the proliferation of private universities, and the quality of graduates being churned out. What is your take on this?
Private universities emerged because of the limitations of public institutions. While some emerged as a result of deregulation of the system under former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration, others were established because the proprietors have an illusion that they could make money from such a venture.

In fact, getting enough students in a private university is becoming very difficult. There are some private institutions in this country that have less than 500 students, which is not going to make one productive. But we do have need for them because the public universities are not enough for the population of students.

Secondly, they offer the opportunity to rebuild the education system and third, bearing in mind that human beings cannot be confined to a specific space, you cannot force people to do what they don’t like. If Ghana has a private university, people will go there if one is not created in Nigeria, same for South Africa and United-kingdom (UK).

This year alone, about 10,000 Nigerians have been admitted into universities in the UK. So these private universities give us the opportunity to see ourselves as part of a global system in which parents evaluate their choices, calculate their options and go for the best.

What do you do when you apply to the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka or University of Ibadan (UI) but denied admission? What do you expect parents to do? So there is an extent to which these private universities also offer opportunities to those who have no space in public school.

But a few things must be corrected. We need to regulate these private universities to ensure that they offer excellent education and also that they don’t exist to injure the system. For instance, one is always a little bit upset when you hear the number of first class graduates being churned out, it is very disturbing. So we need to be able to curb those excesses. Well, they will argue that their standard is high, but we all know that only a certain percentage of human beings are exceedingly brilliant. To what extent are they violating that, they would defend themselves.

But is the market accepting the degrees? If you say someone has a first class degree and performed woefully while interviewing for job placement, that undermines the credibility of that degree. So I think each system has to regulate itself. In the older generation, I was the best student in my class, but they would not just give you a first class. Bear in mind that this is not just related to private institutions; every state university faces this problem.

What are your suggestions to the government to improve on the sector?
Well, it is at various levels, because universities consume lots of resources and the question is, to what extent will the graduates contribute to the diversification of the economy? If for instance we don’t train them very well, everybody will pay a price for it because society itself will not move forward. Talk about governance issue, it needs to be corrected. I don’t think we allow students to have a voice in the way these systems are managed; we deny them the voice that allows them to be creative.

We also have issues around infrastructure; education requires a very decent space to transmit knowledge. You cannot crowd six students in a room and expect them to study or learn properly. You cannot underfeed students and expect the brain to function properly. So we have to create a package of incentives conducive to learning.

Do you subscribe to the belief that we still do not have enough universities?
There are two ways to look at it. On one hand is the data that says these spaces are not filled while another data says for a country of 150 billion, 100+ universities are not enough. Whether we have enough or not, if the existing institutions do not offer quality education, that in itself is a crisis because it means that we cannot leverage at the global level,

The second problem is that we don’t have a diversified economy so when students graduate, the expectation of their parents is that they move to the labour market, but there is no connection between universities and communities. At some point, we may also have to think very seriously about labour needs, about linking universities to communities.

Brain drain is one major problem confronting the sector, how do you think this can be tackled?
I will approach this in various ways, Africa as a continent has always been about frontiers. I was born in the city of Ibadan, human beings will always move because they have so many options and they connect mobility to aspirations. But for the question of Nigerians going to the west, the decision was not taken in the country but rather in Washington DC. In the 70s when the economy of Nigeria was working well, they approached us to come and take loans; Obasanjo took the first major loan. By 1984, the amount to service the interest of the loan was higher than the principal amount. In a bid to recoup their money, they came up with a devastating package, the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP); and they said, reduce the prices of what you produced so that you can export more, increase the prices of your import, reduce your public service, cut down your universities.

And that was when people began to go. Many of the doctors produced in the University of Benin left; for literature, Chinua Achebe and many others left, which negatively impacted the system.

So what we have now is not the brain drain of me leaving, what we have is those that I trained refusing to come back, paradox of development.

What is your take on the review of the education curriculum to make it demand -driven and globally competitive?
We were shocked when history was scrapped. We were told that issues around the Nigerian civil war were dividing the country more, that a subject like history is very dangerous, so bringing history back is a very good development. We can be ashamed of the past but cannot run away from it.

We should know that history is relevant to development. You also have to know that you cannot move forward without a control of platform. We have to build knowledge while knowing that the capacity of human beings to make a living for themselves is not limited to what we give them in four years in the university. It is just a foundation that they build upon and as they mature, after leaving the university, they can do so many things.

The education we give must be rich in content and must have relevance, which is what we call demand driven. To start with, the teaching here is too patriarchal which makes it difficult to ask questions, because the society penalises you for asking questions. Secondly, within each university, they have to set up mechanisms to discover creativity, nourish it and look for resources to make it work.

Take for instance, the whatsapp, it was created by an Asian who had no money and migrated to the United States of America (U.S) to make a living, or Mark Zuckerberg when he brought Facebook to Nigeria, that is the creativity of a young person. Even Google that was created by three boys in their 20s which is now one of the biggest industries in the world and so on. Although it is not all creative works that would thrive but those that will, would help in creating jobs, which invariably elevate the society.



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