What public varsities can learn from private ones

Private universities have become, in the last decade, an influential fixture of Nigeria’s educational landscape. Unplanned expansion of public universities, still the main players, has deepened the crisis of underfunding and of dysfunction manifested in frequent disruptions of the calendar, as a result of which private universities have begun to look like islands of refuge in a turbulent sea. Parents, including lecturers, in public universities are increasingly accessing the auspices of the private universities with their stable calendar to educate their children.

Let us recognise, however, that it doesn’t say much for private universities that they are expanding by default of a derelict state, unable to provide minimal services to helpless citizens. In other words, to be worthier, our private universities must do more than merely occupy the space vacated by a state that has reneged on the social contract and become attractive in their own rights.

In the United States for example, private universities such as those of Harvard, Yale and Princeton dominate front positions in international league tables. This means that citizens can exercise the power of choice between more expensive but top-rated private universities and cheaper universities funded by public money, most of which are efficient though they are not in the top league. This is an entirely different architecture from what we have in Nigeria where there is little to choose between up-and-coming private universities lacking the resources and visage of established institutions and the older public universities caught in a double whammy of serial unrest and eroding budgets.

This is the context which has forced the exodus of Nigerian undergraduates from privileged backgrounds to overseas universities.

It should be noted that budgetary cuts in higher education are not limited to Nigeria but are a global trend and university administrators find themselves increasingly responding to financial jolts through inventive funding devices. That notwithstanding and within the constraining ambience of Nigerian higher education, there is the possibility that our public universities can nudge upwards if they learn some lessons from certain aspects of the culture of our private universities.

Our public universities can borrow from the private ones a student-centred learning culture which prioritises teaching and detailed attention to the needs of the students.

For example, the interesting practice whereby lecturers in private universities are expected to submit at the beginning of each semester instructional materials replete with course outlines, summaries of lecture notes has helped to focus attention on the preparation, content and quality of instruction. It also makes it possible to see the extent to which lecturers are updating and keeping abreast of developments in their disciplines.

True, the larger students’ population in public universities sometimes militates against detailed attention to students. It should be possible, however, to experiment with Oxford style tutorial classes which were once features of instruction in the older universities.

The other lesson which our public universities can usefully learn from their younger cousins concerns the speed of decision making, timelines and policy implementation. While the committee system is an insurance against arbitrary power, it sometimes leads to the unfortunate consequence of bogging important decisions down in endless rounds of meetings. In other words, it should be possible to turn around the managerial culture of our public universities while preserving the verification essence of their administrative procedures.

Importantly, if our public universities are not to be consigned to obsolescence, they must somehow be able both to generate more resources than they currently do, as well as maximise them, by cutting waste for enhanced productivity. Charging modest fees is an often canvassed but politically explosive option because of an ingrained culture of free or virtually free public education. However, this writer believes that if the public is sensitised ahead of marginal increases and not ambushed to sudden jumps in fees, Nigerians will be willing, as they already do, to pay more to get better education.

One sore point concerns the instability of academic calendars in our public universities with the University of Ilorin being an exception because of its success, even if controversial, in taming the power of militant unions. As a former President of the Obafemi Awolowo Students’ Union myself, I am reluctant to criticise students and workers’ militancy. But as Prof. Niyi Akinnaso reminded us in his article recently, militancy must not be pursued to the point where it denatures or imperils the system. This, of course, implies that management itself should be proactive while government, the proprietors should become more sensitive to the need to safeguard the sanctity of university calendars.


  • Olukotun is a professor of political economy.