‘Why NUC deserves stakeholders’ support in revitalising university education system’

Prof. Peter Okebukola

In the wake of the discovery by the National Universities Commission (NUC) that there are, at least, 100 fake professors in Nigerian universities, the nation’s ivory towers have come under scrutiny again. The rot in the tertiary education system appears to be degenerating by the day. In this interview with IYABO LAWAL, a former executive secretary of the NUC, astute scholar and seasoned administrator, Prof. Peter Okebukola weighs in on the issue of academic qualifications in Nigeria’s universities and their attendant malaise

How did we get to this sordid situation of harbouring 100 fake professors in our university system in Nigeria?
First, let me congratulate the executive secretary of NUC, Prof Abubakar Adamu Rasheed for the eagle eyes of the commission in picking out the blight of fake professors from the fabric of quality staff for which the Nigerian university system is traditionally known.

This is one of the numerous strands of efforts he has been investing over the last two years in revitalising the system. Nigerians must join hands with him and NUC in ensuring the success of the revitalisation agenda. Having chaired the council of a global body on quality assurance in university education headquartered in the United States over the last three years, I am aware that in spite of all that is bandied around about the Nigerian university system, the typical Nigerian (genuine) professor is one of the most highly regarded in Africa. Anyone who doubts this assertion should go to research labs or international conferences and see the professor from a Nigerian university in action. It is this fame that we must not allow fake professors to tarnish.

On the matter of how we got to where we are, at least three factors converge to steer us in the direction of the fake professor phenomenon. Ego trip is one. Some Nigerians because of love for titles, are quick to grab an opportunity to confer on themselves such titles as “engineer” by roadside mechanics and electricians and “doctors” by hospital attendants. Fake policemen, fake EFFC operatives, fake army officers and fake pressmen abound. In a country where you have fake everything, the fake professor is not an exemption. The other factor is denudation of societal values especially of honesty, while the third is appetite for getting rich quick through trickery. It is worth noting that some persons who are teachers in US schools and who are not professors by Nigerian standards are generically referred to as professors and when they come our way in Nigeria, will refer to themselves as professors.

What are the rules guiding the appointment of professors in our institutions?
In NUC’s latest published version (2017) of the Directory of Full Professors in the Nigerian university system, the basic rules guiding the appointment of full professors are provided, from which I generously quote. Attaining the rank of full Professor in the Nigerian university system is metaphorically like a camel passing through the eye of the needle. The process is one of the most stringent in Africa and when global comparisons are made, the minimum standards are, by and large, comparable to what obtains in older university systems in Europe and North America.

The first level qualification is to have a doctorate degree in the area of specialisation. For medical scientists, a recognised professional Fellowship is generally accepted although in a few years’ time, insistence on a doctorate degree in the special area of medicine is likely to be the acceptable minimum. The second filter is to have put in at least three years of teaching (in a university or other tertiary-level institution), research and community service at each level of lectureship. There are four such levels- lecturer grade 2, lecturer grade 1, senior lecturer and associate professor. Hence, before being considered for promotion or appointment to the rank of full professor, the academic/scholar would have put in a minimum of twelve years of university teaching and research. Worth noting is that only a few make it at the minimum period.

The third and about the most important filter is the assessment of scholarship. This involves evaluation of the published works of the full professorial candidate by seasoned (senior) full professors in the field of the candidate, first within the candidate’s institution to ascertain that the University is convinced that the candidate is prima facie qualified, then secondly, outside the candidate’s institution. Typically, a minimum of 60 internationally-published works (about 80% being articles in high-impact international journals) will qualify a candidate to receive a positive assessment. At least one of the assessors is expected to be from a well-ranked university outside Nigeria, preferably from Europe or North America. At least two positive assessments will qualify the candidate for the final step which is screening via a rigorous oral interview at which an external assessor, usually a professor of good ranking, is expected to participate. The interview is a composite assessment of the candidate on teaching (length and quality) research (scores returned by the eternal assessors) and community service (internal and external). With an overall score exceeding a set minimum by the university, the candidate is then processed to the university council for appointment. Variations may exist from one university to another as the older universities generally appear to pitch higher standards.

Who should be blamed for this anomaly?
The Nigerian society as a whole is blameworthy, not just the Nigerian university system or elements of it such as vice-chancellors. The society, ostensibly due to the high level of illiteracy adores titles and title holders (fake or genuine). The man who just opened a church and confers on himself and later his wife, the title of Dr. is more highly regarded in the community than one who is a mere Pastor and not Pastor (Dr.) and Rev (Dr Mrs).

Also, the value of honesty is fading and society is hardly taking steps to crawl back to what many now fondly recall as “the good old days”. With adoration of titles in the equation and honesty out of the window, the stage would appear set for the phenomenon of fake professors to thrive in the university system through the connivance of some players in the system.

As can be seen from the minimum standards for appointment of professors which I enumerated earlier, the chief criterion is scholarship. A key aspect of such criterion is publication in scholarly journals.

It is alarming to note that academic corruption is pervading the land where some university persons are deeply immersed in fake publications or publishing in roadside journals with doubtful academic quality. Such persons present their curriculum vitae, fully laden and padded with fake journal articles and books and end up being appointed professors by university authorities who fail to do due diligence in the publication assessment process. Let us kick the can up the road a little bit to some vice-chancellors who compromise the publication assessment process by asking the candidate for appointment to the post of professor to name six persons who will assess him or her. This is the starting point of corrupting the quality process. The candidate, of course, will nominate his/her friends or persons he/she can pressure to turn in favourable assessment. The vice-chancellor’s office will select three of such persons and send the publications to the assessors. As soon as the candidate gets wind that the publications have reached the assessor, then lobbying begins. At the end of the day, the assessor is intimated to turn in a favourable grade. While this is not the case for all, it is becoming pervasive hence Prof  Rasheed initiated a scheme to scuttle the compromised process by publishing the list of full professors (to be updated annually) from which vice chancellors can draw without recourse to the candidate, head of department or dean. I am glad to note that many vice chancellors have started toeing the Rasheed model hence the system will soon be cleansed of such sharp practices.

The other matter to blame when we narrow to the institution, is the propensity especially by new universities (public and private) to cut corners in the professorial appointment process to meet the quota of professors expected of an academic programme by NUC. I should stress that this is not the case of fake professors but of professors of relatively poor grade. You see a senior lecturer in a federal university who is yet to be found qualified for promotion to the associate professor grade now fast-tracked via a spurious process to the full professorial grade by a new public or private university so as to meet the quota for professors in a programme.

How has the discovery by the NUC validated the wrong perception about the quality of our students?
The discovery by NUC provides some validation because the fake or poor-quality professor will end up producing poor quality graduates. For me, the happy news is that we are looking at relatively low figures. Today, there are about 12,000 full professors in the Nigerian university. Members of the fake group are sub 300 in my estimation. This is a small fraction. Since Prof Rasheed and his NUC are weeding them out, we are confident that their impact on quality will diminish.

It must be quickly stated that the factors contributing to quality of graduates is not only the quality of professors but also the quality of resourcing of laboratories, classrooms, hostels and the general ambience of the teaching, learning and research environment. We are all aware of the deplorable state of resourcing of our universities so quality of our university graduates is depressed also on account of such poor resourcing.

Can we describe the discovery as a collapse of our university education system?
The discovery of fake professors is not a solo index of the collapse of our university system. It is one of over 100 indices of a depreciating university system which NUC is striving to restore. There is a 2019-2023 revitalisation agenda of NUC (called the Rasheed Revitalisation Plan) which was developed through a massive stakeholder consultative process and now in the public domain. This plan with its 10 strategic goals has reduction leading to elimination of academic fraud as one of the core priority areas.

There are two approaches- one at the larger society level, the other at the university system level. At the level of the larger society, we need intensive and sustained values reorientation to steer us from deprived values which fuel the existence of fake professors and fake everything. Sadly, the younger generations of Nigerians have signed up to this crave. Our places of worship have roles to play, our schools have roles to play and more importantly, we need leadership by example at all levels of the society. At the level of the university, we need NUC to bare its quality assurance fang more menacingly and bite hard to deter institutions that fall foul of the minimum standards for appointing professors.

Why is it that even the elites and policy makers have lost interest in the Nigerian university system, at what point did we lose it?
I am not sure the elites have lost interest totally. Afterall,many of the high-performing private universities such as Afe Babalola University, Covenant University, Bells University of Technology, Crawford University, Caleb University and many more in the eastern and northern parts of Nigeria have children of the so-called elites enrolled in large numbers. Parents, elite or not, are dissatisfied with the disruption to academic calendar occasioned by the spate of strikes in the public university system. We lost it at the point of the indeterminate length for students to graduate owing to these strikes.

Apart from private universities, why is it so difficult for people to obtain their doctorate degree in Nigeria, why do we complicate issues here? 
This is because of the high level of inefficiency of postgraduate schools in many public universities and the elongated sessions due to strikes.

As a renowned educationist and administrator, what are you telling the government about improved funding of the sector? 
The sector is appallingly underfunded. Greater investment is needed in the sector while the private sector and other innovative funding models should complement the efforts of government. Nowhere in the world do you have government carrying the funding burden of university education. Basic education, yes, university education, no. Cost sharing is the winning formula.

What is your take on plans by the Federal Government to enroll university teachers for IPPIS? Does the scheme negate the principle of university autonomy as claimed by ASUU? 
The Federal Government is enrolling university teachers only in the federal university system that it picks the wage bill. I am chairman of Council of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), a federal university, and our staff are enrolling. I am sure that ASUU and the Federal Government will work out an amicable solution in due course and we will have a win-win situation in our hands.

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