Okebukola: We need minimum of 30% budgetary allocation

Peter Okebukola

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Former executive secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola, told ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, that many universities only match secondary schools in some countries in terms of infrastructure and facilities for teaching, learning and research. While wishing a seamless relationship between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal government, he said the former has been more of a positive enabler of development in the university system than a depressant. He also recommends a funding system that is sustainable and corruption proof.

Since subsequent governments have shown themselves incapable of honouring agreements reached with ASUU except they are forced to, is it not time the university teachers explore other ways of providing solution without jeopardising education, the backbone of societal advancement?
Over the last six years, I have travelled to 38 African countries, studying their university systems as part of an African Union-European Union consultancy on the setting up of a Pan African Quality Assurance Agency. From the data gleaned from our studies, I hide my head in shame when we compare the level of resourcing of our universities with many African countries that are not as economically endowed as this “giant of Africa”. Many of our universities match secondary schools in some of the countries in terms of their infrastructure and facilities for teaching, learning and research.

An American professor who visited us this week had the benefit of seeing some of our universities. To say the least, he was unimpressed with the general ambience of a few of these universities. In 2012, the Federal Government did its own introspection by way of a Needs Assessment Survey of our public universities, the findings of which exposed the huge infrastructural rot in the system, which the American professor saw a glimpse of this week.

Our study of African university systems confirms that most African governments are tardy in responding to demands by staff unions and only hearken to the cries of the unions for improved resourcing and welfare issues after prolonged strikes.

In contrast, in Asia, Europe and North America, a few days of strike and it is all over. All parties reach mutually satisfying settlement. In Africa, resolving industrial disputes in universities especially with governments is like using your knuckle to extract the nut from palm kernel.

Let me continue this narrative by making two assertions. First, education in Nigeria is already jeopardised whether ASUU is in the picture or not. Second, if you took ASUU out of the picture, the level of jeopardy of education today would have been cataclysmic and catastrophic. The slight restoration of the glory of the university system in Nigeria after its battering in the mid 1980s can be boldly ascribed to ASUU’s action and pressure on government beginning from 1992. The establishment of the Education Trust Fund, which recently metamorphosed to the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) came about largely through the recommendation and pressure by ASUU. The improved welfare scheme of staff in the universities could have been shadowy if not for the pressure of ASUU. The hypothesis I wish to cling to is that ASUU has been more of a positive enabler of development of the Nigerian university system than a depressant of the system. Of course, I will hasten to add that the length of strikes has been most deleterious to the image of the system. This is why ASUU and other unions should be temperate in the extent to which they stretch their national strikes.

Having said all these, let me express my delight at the frayed-nerve-soothing way the Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu has been handling the current ASUU strike, especially in boldly acknowledging that government erred in not honouring the agreement it freely entered into with ASUU. Since I have been part of the Nigerian university system, this would appear to be the first time we have had such mea culpa. I think this question should be turned around to “why should government enter into an agreement with ASUU and other university unions it knows it cannot execute?” Since an agreement has been mutually consented to, it behoves both parties to strive to meet their sides of the bargain. This is the crux of the logjam whose resultant is the strike.
Take the scenario you painted in your question about university teachers exploring other ways of meeting their demands. The information that I have is that dialogue was explored on the side of government and ASUU to resolve contentious issues, but there are a few grey areas that I believe will soon be cleared. The genuine commitment of the acting president who is an outstanding academic himself and that of the Education Minister, who has been an ardent supporter of ASUU before he came into office, as well as the underground moves to diffuse tension by the current executive secretary of National Universities Commission (NUC), give many of us the confidence that the strike storm will soon tide over.

ASUU appears to place a lot of premium on the 2009 agreement, as well as the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Government, which have remained unaddressed. Can any meaningful thing happen between both parties without these two issues being addressed?
From the feedback we are getting, there is a ray of hope in reaching a consensus on the contending issues and the strike should be over soon. What I know will be a no-go area for government is the TSA, which government will resist exempting the universities from, as this will create a precedent that may throw the whole concept of TSA overboard.

Obviously government cannot fund tertiary education sufficiently. Apart from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), what can government do to further address funding challenges in universities? 
The Federal Government apparently subscribes to the public good concept in university education. This means, university education leads to products (graduates) whose services are for the good of the public. This philosophy implies that public education should be supported through public funds, the hallmark of which is the tuition-free policy. So long as the Federal Government directs that tuition should be free in federal universities, it should be prepared to pay every kobo for the education of every student in every federal university. This amount is easy to compute. NUC knows the cost of training a student in every course for a given year. Simple multiplication with the total number of enrolled students for every university will give you how much a particular university will need in order to give quality education for that year. The scenario which unfolds based on our 2015 study on funding university education in Nigeria is that federal universities typically get about 62 per cent of what is needed annually to run the university. The state universities fare much worse.

In most developing countries, the private good model is popular where students pay tuition. For those who can ill afford, scholarships, bursaries and loans are attractive options. Let me take two case studies. In Finland where the public good model predominates, universities are largely tuition free and government funds the universities to deliver quality education. Of course the universities support government funding with endowments, consultancies, alumni donations and private sector partnerships.

The second case study is the American system that is largely hinged on the private good philosophy. Here, tuition is not free. It is subsidised for in-state students while others pay steeply for their education. Like the Finnish example, the university also gets huge support from endowment and alumni.
Back to the Nigerian case, until the day dawns when we will subscribe to the private good model, we will continue to groan under the yoke of the tuition-free burden. It is intriguing that parents who can pay for secondary education feel constrained to pay for university education. My proposal is for the Nigerian government to keep the public good idea for basic education and gradually introduce private good for higher education. Operationally, this will translate to making basic education free and compulsory as provisioned in the National Policy on Education and to allow federal universities to introduce a tuition fee regime that will be minimal for a start and scaled up over time. Universities should also be encouraged to be more vigorous in their drive for internally generated revenue.

To what extent does the inability to independently generate funds impact on scholarship in Nigerian universities? 
The impact is negative as you require funds to conduct meaningful research, attend national and international conferences to share the findings of the research. On the conduct of research, you need state-of-the-art laboratories and workshops. The scholar needs such facilities to collect respectable data that can earn publication space in top-rate journals. It needs to be said that TETFund has been exceedingly supportive in providing funds for all public universities to support scholarship. Monies are made available as research grant, for attending national and international conferences and for publishing scholarly books and journals. I am aware that many universities such as LASU, UNILORIN and BUK deploy some of their internally generated funds to support scholarship.

Some universities abroad are financially independent. How can Nigerian varsities get to this pedestal?
We can only attain financial autonomy if government can muster the political will to give managers of our universities free hand to source funds through tuition and other means. On the matter of tuition, it is clear that because of the high poverty level of many parents, ability to pay will be limited. This is why scholarships, bursaries and loans should be generously available. Universities abroad that are financially independent are heavily dependent on tuition and endowments. To attain the heights they have reached, we have to shift gear and move in the direction to which they have set their financial course.

Why is it so difficult for Nigerian universities to commercialise their research findings, or generate sufficient funds from consultancy services and sundry ancillary outfits
Two reasons can be adduced. First is the weak private sector support for Nigerian universities in terms of contracting university scholars to undertake research for their processes and products. A good number of industries especially those with headquarters outside Nigeria will not touch Nigerian universities with a 10-metre pole, preferring instead to get universities in Europe and North America to provide solutions to their problems. The second reason, which is closely tied to the first is the perceived poor quality of research that is conducted by many Nigerian scholars, who depend on outdated equipment and methodologies.

What we need to break this cycle is for improved resourcing of our universities, capacity building of our scholars and a supportive policy environment for commercialising research outputs by our universities. We also need government to give first consideration to our universities in awarding contracts for services, which our universities offer.  

Will jerking budgetary allocation to the much-touted 26 per cent allegedly recommended by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) solve the problem of education in the country?
Yes, it will in part, but is not the sufficient condition. We need a funding system that is sustainable and corruption proof. In a 2016 study, our estimate is that in the next five years, we need at least 30 per cent allocation of the budget of each state and the Federal Government to education to spring it back from its rot. The truth of the matter is that this request is a pipe dream. What happens to other sectors if a third of the budget goes to education? What happens to health, agriculture, security, power and others? What we need to do is to ensure that all stakeholders carry the funding burden of education, not only government with the mythical 26 per cent budget load. Parents have to be fully part of carrying the funding burden; so also the private sector.

There are insinuations that even funds injected into tertiary education are not transparently applied, to what extent has this contributed to rot in the sector, and how can funding be tracked to ensure proper utilisation?
These insinuations have empirical basis as the 2012 study conducted jointly by the NUC and the ICPC show. There is some unacceptable level of corruption in the system. Not only financial. The TSA is a potent tool for tracking the funds. 

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