By Abdelghaffar Amoka Abdelmalik, PhD

According to the founders of the American Philosophical Society, universities are concerned to create and transmit “useful knowledge”. Boulton et al. in their article titled: what are universities for, published in Chinese Science Bulletin in 2011, defines the useful knowledge as partly what is practically useful; what serves the broadest purpose of rendering the human condition and the world we live in coherent to us; and the preparation of what we do not yet known to be useful knowledge.

Stefan Collini, a Professor of English Literature and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge states that one way to begin to think about the distinctiveness of universities is to see them as institutions primarily devoted to extending and deepening human understanding. He opines that no other institutions have this as their primary purpose. He thinks that university is beyond an institution that just ‘contributing to economic growth’.

Universities generate a wide range of outputs. They create new possibilities from research and shape new people through teaching. The combination of these two produce the ideas and the personnel that see to our timely needs as well as shaping the future that is yet unknown. Policy-driven demands are placed on the universities. That is why contemporary governments and societies that know their onions pay an unalloyed attention to their universities.

I was in Norway in December 2012 for an interview. After the interview one of the Professors offered to drop me at the City Centre to get the bus to the airport. In the chatting that ensued on our way to the City Centre, the Norwegian Professor told me that when oil was found in Norway and subsea exploration became one of the major activities in the country, the research activities of the university then got tailored towards subsea among other things and providing R&D support to oil companies and the subsidiaries. The Electric Power Engineering Department of their university was involved in DC power substations, subsea power stations, power electronics for subsea oil and gas exploration, etc. From my observations during my postdoc, there were several collaborations between the universities and the industrial partners. In the project that I worked on between 2013 and 2015, there were about 5 companies involved in the project.

The operation of universities in Norway seems to fit into the European Union’s promotion of a “modernisation agenda” for university reform “as a core condition for the success of the broader Lisbon Strategy to make the European Union “the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world”. In the strategy, the role of universities was designed and shaped to exploit the popular “knowledge triangle of research, education, and innovation”.

Governments around the world see universities as important sources of new knowledge and innovative thinking, as providers of skilled personnel, agents of innovation, attractors of international talents, agents of social justice, etc. But what is the idea of universities to Nigerian government? Providers of skilled personnel and agents of innovation or just a clearinghouse? What is the role of universities in the Nigerian government’s policy drive? Just onlookers? The ideas of the government on Nigerian universities became obvious when President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration on 15th November, 2017, approved the appointment of Malaysian consultants for 458 million naira to help conduct a study for 13 weeks in the country that would aid the implementation of the government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). The government could not find any Economist or a Professor in the Economics departments of any of our universities to do the job at even a much lower cost but from Malaysia.

But why would the government place policy-driven demands on a people whose opinion do not even matter on policies that affects them. They for example, refused to listen to the argument that IPPIS policy is against the University Autonomy Act and that it will destroy what the university stands for. They dragged the IPPIS issue for 9 months and were eventually forced to drop it. If the opinion of the people in the university had matters to the government and they listen to them, ASUU would not have gone on the warning strike before the 9 unbelievable months of strike.

Universities are acknowledged worldwide to hold the key to innovative ideas but not to the Nigerian government. So, where do they source for innovative ideas? Black market? Could that be responsible for the trial and error policies that have created more problems than solutions? A government that will allow the universities to be shut for 9 months over issues that ordinarily don’t deserve a 2-weeks warning strike does not possibly need innovative ideas from the universities.

The universities are attractors of international talent. While we are supposed to be improving on the system to attract international talents, the government attempted to send away the few expatriates in our universities. The handlers of government policies are possibly not aware that there are still few international scholars in Nigerian universities, else they won’t attempt to force on public universities a policy that will close doors to international scholars to come to Nigeria. That is the level Nigeria government has placed Nigerian universities.

What then is the role of Nigerian universities in economic growth and nation-building aside graduating students every year to join the labour market? Unfortunately, we run a purposeless system. Hiring in MDAs, including the universities is purposely. There are people in the university that have got no business with the university. It is possibly just a meal ticket to them pending when they will get another job that pays better. When I was hired for a postdoc job, I was told on arrival and after orientation that at the end of the 2 years contract, I am expected to produce at least 1 IEEE journal paper and 1 IEEE conference paper. I was given all that I needed to make me comfortable to work and I started working to achieve the set target. I eventually produced 3 IEEE journal papers and 1 IEEE conference paper, something above their target and they were very excited with the output. Consequently, earning me a nice send-off lunch with the Professors in the company of my 6 months old daughter and handshakes before I left back to Nigeria.

What policy-driven demands has the government placed on our universities? What is the strategic plan and vision of the universities? What is the set target for the workers? None, except the target you set for yourself. Have we got all that it takes to achieve that target, including welfare package? People, including Mr. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, a career Nigerian politician and the current Nigerian Minister of state for education, say Lecturers should leave the job or go for alternative income to supplement their salary rather than complaining of low pay. Going into farming or possibly combine it with lecturing was even suggested. I trembled for their ignorance as they don’t know the implications of such statements. University academic work is a full-time job and 24 hours a day is not enough if you want to do it as it should. And the Minister of state for education said on International TV that: “We need more farmers than Lecturers”.

Meanwhile, if I should combine a supplementary job with lecturing, the attention will surely be divided with likelihood of more attention on that supplementary source of income, especially if the supplementary is bringing in more money than the primary (lecturing). In that case, the primary job inadvertently becomes a secondary job. And what is going to happen? The students will suffer and the Nigerian system will be at the receiving end. Let’s keep swimming in our river of ignorance.

Does it mean that they don’t know the role of universities in economic development and nation-building? Of course, they do, else they won’t send their kids to study in universities in Europe. They don’t just see the need in bridging the gap by investing in the education of the masses but deliberately decided to underfund public education. Does it mean that they don’t know the role of intellectuals in nation-building? Of course, your guess is as good as mine. Else they won’t approve the invitation of Malaysian Economic Consultants to Nigeria to conduct a study that our Economists can do even much better at relatively lower cost.

Universities have a great role to play in nation-building. Treating the people that made the university what it is and hold the key to innovative ideas, like they are nobody is prolonging the time it will take the nation to grow. There have been a series of trial and error policies since 2015. I want to believe that would have changed if policy-driven demands are placed on our universities and the intellectuals are involved in policy development and implementation.

They are always quick to agree that a nation cannot grow beyond the education of its citizens yet the education of Nigerians is never seen as a priority. There is always no money to properly fund Education, Healthcare delivery, and maintain a sound policing outfit in Nigeria. They hold the money (our national resources) and dictates how and where to spend it irrespective of the needs of the people. According to Mr. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, the Nigerian Minister of state for education, “you don’t dictate to the person that holds the money”. That is the mindset. The hold the money and the money (our money) is spent at their discretion irrespective of the critical needs of the society.

Our country needed money that seems not to be there for the basics but always there are billions for our politicians to spend on what can be avoided (cosmetics). Why can’t we go unicameral and scrap the Nigerian Senate, reduce the number of Nigerian House of Representative members, and make it less attractive by converting the legislative arm to part-time job: a job for serious minded people who have something to offer and for not career politicians. People that have excelled in their fields and are fully employed. Remuneration will be based on sitting allowance. The 128 billion naira allocated to NASS in the 2021 budget and money saved from other unnecessary expenses will go a long way in fixing these critical sectors.

The future of an economy that is based on oil is not very bright going forward with the market of electric cars growing worldwide. As we can see with Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla Electric Car emerged as the World richest man. He attained that peak position by the sales of his electric cars. The government of President Buhari has put a lot of emphasis on diversification but ironically education is not part of it. Many governments worldwide, such as UK, US, Malaysia, etc., have invested massively on universities and they are serving as sources of earning foreign exchange. How do we make our universities attractive to the rest of the world for it to generate foreign exchange without proper investment in them? How do we make our university programs attractive to international scholars without proper funding and facilities? An average Professor in Nigerian university earn less than 1,000 USD (average of N380,000) per month. How do you make them produce innovative ideas without a good welfare package? How do you attract international talents with such ridiculous net salary? How are we also going to create a dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy like the rest of the world? How do we position our universities to exploit the so-called “knowledge triangle of research, education, and innovation”?

There are still people within the universities doing what they can do against all odds to create an environment for research, education and innovation. I am fortunate to have worked with some of them. I am also fortunate to have belonged to a group of relatively young academics that have struggled to develop a lab that worth at least 50 million naira. But how far can we go with the government’s attitude towards education? Is it time to give up on these “our idea of universities” and move elsewhere? What is the future of a country without a functional public education system?

Our idea of a university system in Nigeria where the government has to be forced by the ASUU with strikes and other industrial actions before funds are injected into the university like the recent 9 months of the strike is definitely not the global idea of a university system. Our idea of the university system in Nigeria is surely not the global idea of the university system where contemporary governments and societies pay so much attention to the universities.

Mall. Adamu Adamu, the Minister of Education at FEC special retreat on education in 2017 requested that “state of emergency be declared on education”. It has remained just a request since then. The people in the government should drop their pride and ego and bring together the stakeholders in the education sector with all sincerity to clearly define the kind of education (from primary to tertiary) that we want for economic development and nation-building, and develop a road map towards sincere and conscious implementation, else we’ll keep swimming in our pathetic idea of education and university system in Nigeria.

Education is arguably the most critical element in building a nation. It is only an enemy of the state that will not prioritize the proper funding of public education but send his kids to private schools or schools abroad to study.

Abdelghaffar Amoka Abdelmalik, PhD.
Ahmadu Bello University
Zaria.

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