Conversations on the impact of private universities on public universities in Africa (Part Two)

Of all the superstructures that hold the evolution and development of a society, the education sector accounts for a wholesome characterisation of civilisations and cultures. This was the basis of the conference conveyed by the University of Texas at Austin, funded by the Carnegie Corporation. The overall goal is to redefine the academic culture in Africa.

With a constellation of scholars—the very best of them in their various fields—from five African countries converging on the main campus of the Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Ogun State, to discuss or rather, debate issues revolving around the resuscitation of this sector, no talisman is required to project how dire the condition of this sector is in Africa. Given the robust debates and depth of analyses that followed the opening of the “August” conference, it would not be wrong to assume that the two-day event could have as well ended after the first day.

If there were to be any form of linkages and cooperation between the academic/intelligentsia community, the states, and industries in Africa, this conference provided one of the ready avenues for the states to begin a rethink of the purpose of education in the continent. Also, if the various messages of the conference were to be properly harnessed, it would fall back to the issue of the relationship between the town and the gown. As one of the participants asked, what are the national interests of these states and the direction of their educational systems and structures? Or, to put it differently, what are the ground norms governing the existence and proliferation of these institutions? These were the frames of thought that agitated the minds of seasoned scholars and administrators with great passion at the conference, which began at the convener’s lodge even before the official opening of the event.

In his opening lecture, Professor Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, the amiable Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, implicitly took this discussion further to several cogent issues, ironing out the many contours that prevail on this important question. From quality assurance, the synergy between private and public universities, impact of both institutions on each other and the society, funding and administration of both institutions, possible ways of improvement, and a variety of other issues, the professor of Botany brought together and shared his seasoned experience with the audience. Subsequent panels built on this discussion with insightful inputs and peculiarities from different countries and experiences.

From a gathering that brought together the likes of Professors Jibrin Ibrahim, Dele Ashiru, Jimi Agbaje, Femi Mimiko, Abdul Rasheed Na’Allah, Sati Fwatshak, Biodun Ogunyemi, Ayo Olukotun, Jide Owoeye and countless of others who have doubled in the academic matrix as scholars and administrators, one cannot expect less than an insightful and intellectually stimulating session. The contributions of these scholars made it clear that even though funding is a recurrent albatross on the university system in Africa, the available capacity of these institutions has not been closely adapted and utilised for optimum performance within the academic community or the general public. This goes further into the area of autonomy, where they reiterated the basic value of this existential threat to the sector’s development. By autonomy, they brought to the fore the composition of these universities’ Councils, the apportionment of staff and principal officers, admission of students, programs design, and the general administration of the institutions. The position remains that if the university system in the continent is left to the realm of politicisation and mediocrity, it will remain an industrial reproduction and recycling of a rotten system.

It is hard to pinpoint the most important aspect of the discussion of the day in a short piece like this because the entire event comprises stimulating ideas, proposals, and models. Nonetheless, the debate about the role of ASUU in the university system in Nigeria deserves adumbrating. As the nucleus of the system in the country, the body is not new to controversies, and, at the same time, it is not without its many challenges. The conference brought this to light as the audience became better informed and were reminded of its relevance and impact on the system. One of the interesting panels on the second day of the event was on unionism in the system. Professor Owoeye of Lead City University, Ibadan, made a remarkable parallel between this body and university proprietors in the private universities, a compelling point that cannot be ignored but is rarely considered.

In this light, ASUU is described as the soul of the university system in Nigeria, without which its detractors would have taken the role of undertakers, burying the academic community in the abyss of the anti-intellectual inclination and paradigm of the state. The successes of the body in areas of improving the quality of education and research in the state and holding government accountable to its responsibility, particularly as noted in Section 18(1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, were highlighted in the areas of TETFund, Need-for-Assessment and other deliverables that have characterised the activities of the body since its inception. Without doubting the importance of this body to the university system and the education sector generally in the country, participants also hoped that its operational model could be reviewed for more pragmatic engagement with the state, other bodies in the university system and the university authorities to achieve optimum performance.

According to Professor Sati Fwashak, the question of whether private universities are relevant to the education terrain of African states should not even be contemplated; rather, the focus should be on how to make them better to turn the tide of what he referred to as “compromised access and inaccessible access.” This was what drew Professor Mimiko into the discussion, as he relates it to the operational model of these institutions to attract the best in the society in terms of staffing and student composition. In addition, various speakers from the opening lecture given by Professor Ogundipe suggested how this could be achieved, focusing on broadening the spectrum of their partnership with public universities. Students and staff exchange, joint committees, scholarships, collaborative research, and other areas that border on global best practices were emphasised in these dynamics.

Following this were country reports from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and Nigeria in which Professors Sati Fwashak (Nigeria), Samuel Oloruntoba (South Africa), Peter Wekesa (Kenya) and Abeku Blankson (Ghana), providing the audience with relevant statistics and practices from the assessment of the education climate in their various countries. The issues are more or less the same, and the challenges reflect one another. This implies that there are many areas in which these countries could learn from one another to develop what could be referred to as the education/knowledge industry if taken together from the position of the participants. Referring to the education/knowledge industry alludes to a model of administration that is business-inclined and which encompasses resource management, resource development, capacity building, flexibility, goal setting and purpose-driven dynamics. Even though a lot needs to be done in these areas in the private universities, participants believed that public universities would have to learn this model from them to survive the anachronistic landscape that drives the anti-intellectual culture of states in Africa.

With the view that “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” raised by Dr Bola Dauda, participants debunked the pedestrian view that tuition is not paid in public universities. In a way, this argument further justified the seemingly exorbitant rate charged by private-owned universities, considering that the government spends an average of about 750,000 naira on each student in these public institutions annually. This is even at a time when the education sector only accounts for a mere five to six per cent of the country’s annual budget. The South African case is even peculiar in the face of the relics of its apartheid past, in which the Black population are still struggling to access higher education. Similarly, other countries accessed in the program still operate within their colonial past, as the system continues to produce students for colonial social needs and demands that are obsolete and in need of a serious rejig.

From this perspective, the convener and other participants proposed the possible future of higher education in Africa. Citing the instance of Nigerian hip-hop artists like Davido and how the entertainment industry is globally representing and exporting Nigeria, he noted his view on the promotion of outside class/curriculum talent among students in these institutions. Other areas brought to the fore in this matrix include fashion, coding, and information technology. Attention to this area is even more essential when considering the weak synergy between the state’s economy in Africa and the education system, which has led to the ongoing production of unemployed and underemployed graduates. However, due to lack of adequate time, the compelling point raised by Professor Olukoya Ogen on ICT in the United States, including coding and new models, which has the potential of spreading to various countries in Africa, was not adequately expressed.

Nevertheless, since the future of humanity lies in data and information technology, this is one of the areas to explore to bridge the gap between the town and the gown in Africa. It appears that such a model is already springing up in places like Ghana with the Ghana Communication Technology University and informally in various locations in Nigeria. Undoubtedly, harnessing global best practices into their operations would go a long way in securing Africa, if not for the present century, then the next. In this regard, the First Technical University, Ibadan, is currently epitomising the public-private partnership model. In his presentation, the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Professor Ayobami Salami, educated the audience about the possibility of having different private interests in a university, with each group or individual investing in the faculty and research areas that interest them within the governing rules of the institution. If properly designed to avoid conflicting interests and the usual politicking in the current university system, this is a promising model that speaks to the business approach many of the participants emphasised.

As the conference progressed into the second day, more of these rigorous ideas and in-depth debates continued with panel discussions about the reformation of the public university’s system after the convener declared the program opened. Leading the discussion, Dr Hannah Muzee shared the dynamic experience of an academic from Uganda and South Africa, where she articulated the limitations in the system, challenges of reform and models of surmounting these gaps through public-private partnerships, for instance, and what she described as academic capitalism. During the panels, speakers synthesised their discussions around professionalism in the academic culture and community for optimum performance. This included the establishment of higher institutions of learning, the structure of management and administration of these institutions, recruitment process, community service, ethnicisation of the university system, archaic pedagogical methods of teaching and research, unionism and management engagement, assessment of lecturers by students, the democratisation of the management process, the media and the dissemination of information about innovative developments in the intellectual community, particularly in the higher institution of learning, and other issues too broad to list out but are intertwined largely within the preceding frames.

Continuing the conversation, Professor Sifawa from Sokoto State University lamented what he described as the civil service mentality in the education system. This position illuminated the recruitment process and system within the academic community, and other issues related to the remuneration of (academic) staff, the higher institutions of learning as causes rather than value centres (in the words of Professor Francis Egbokhare), the relationship between the town and the gown, and many more, delving deeper into the entire academic culture of teaching, administration, and research. The community seldom attracts the best brains to impact quality into the general fabric of society. Following this cancerous paradigm, participants recommended that the culture of mentorship be revived, and students with such capacity should be encouraged to join the community. This is even more so in the face of the wide-range shortage of staff in many of the public universities, which is made worse by ageing, lack of diversity in staffing (especially in the areas of gender and ethnicity), the exploding ratio of lecturers to students, and other related issues that put pressure on the existing capacity of departments and faculties for viable knowledge production.

Still within this understanding for reformation is the equal remuneration model, which has been argued not to encourage or reward productivity by adopting a blanket model. This was brought to light on the first day of the conference by Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Olufemi Mimiko, and became reflective in other discussions on the second day, with effect on the emerging thought in the academic community on the extent of the paradigm shift required in the system for it to function to benefit the society in tandem with global best practices. According to the argument, the current system promotes academic laziness in the community, impacting negatively teaching methods and the recurring devastating state of town-gown relations. Professor Ya’u, for instance, followed this logic up when he highlighted the inability of these institutions to deliver programs and innovative panacea to the peculiar problems of their constituencies, which starts from their host community to the state and the region.

Academics seldom see their responsibility as a call to duty and service for the public good and genuine reinvention of the society, but rather as a source of livelihood, just as in other professions. However, various participants bemoaned this culture as they counselled on reformation. Taking this further, Professor Oluyemisi Obilade, among other participants, argued that specialised institutions should refocus their priorities to manifest the particular purpose they have been established as “specialised institutions.” This sparked a debate on why these institutions exist in the first place. For instance, why do we need specialised institutions of higher learning focusing on technological development and innovations, agricultural productions and scientific discoveries, medical innovations, oil and gas development, education and teachers’ training, and many more, when these could be factored into the existing general structure of the universities, as in faculties and colleges? The answer to this lies in the ability of these institutions to regulate their activities in line with their peculiar frame of objectives and service to the community without interference in an encouraging space that encourages research and teaching in these fields. However, this argument is limited by the current state of regulation of these entities, as well as the fact that despite the presence of agricultural institutes, colleges, and institutions in the country supposedly serving as the botanical and experimental farms of the state, many agricultural consumables still come from outside of its shores.

Among other things, it was concluded that for a specialised institution, a specialised regulatory body is required with adequate funding for research and teaching. Emphasising the above, Professor Obilade insisted that there must be returns on investments in the specialised institutions. This simply means that the staff of the institutions have to be productive and responsive to their immediate environment and the global market of knowledge and innovation. Also, the government and management of the institutions must provide incentives for this paradigm shift that impede them from the “civil service” mentality that often binds them to (administrative) distractions. Certainly, investors have a role in restoring these institutions to their proper place in society. During the session on this subject, it was made known that investors could partner with institutions to produce innovative ideas that will provide marketable solutions to the myriads of challenges in the country. Notably, some of the solutions have been imported from foreign countries, putting existential strain on the country’s economy. It is not hard to see how this relates to the First Technical University model and the business-oriented approach to the above education system.

Going by the administrative structure of these higher institutions of learning encoded in the various acts establishing them, these approaches have always been the establishing rule. When followed to the latter, items (m) and (n) in Section 3 of the 1978 University of Nigeria Decree allow university authorities to manage the institution’s resources, including prudent investment of the resources for viable returns to its coffers. The tone sets the motion for the administrators to access loans, implying partnership with investors for the exploration and execution of innovative ideas. In contrast to this expectation, and probably given the social condition of the Nigerian state in which the academic environment operates, such partnership has only largely been explored in building more physical structures that continue to reproduce the deficiencies of the state. As the participants observed, there is an urgent need for concerted efforts towards staff training and retraining, quality teaching and research output, flexible curriculum, recruitment of staff, admission of students, social relationship within the community, and the relationship among the communities. This goes into the relationship between the private and public universities, specialised institutions and universities, relationship with the media, engagement with donors and other stakeholders in the state’s educational sector.

Professor Olaopa referred to all of these as development approaches to teaching and research. The erudite technocrat and professor of Public Administration, and other participants, particularly during the session on Unionism in Public Universities: Impacts and Changes, deepened this intervention further into the discourse of unionism and the wider relationship within different (governing) organs in the system. While some participants argued that university administration is left to academics, giving them academic autonomy/independence with the possibility that even the Pro-chancellor belongs to this community, it was further observed that the current relationship between the Vice-chancellors, who are often appointed from a pool of seasoned academics, and the unions within the community has not been good because they seemingly belong to the same cult.

The issues surrounding this are complex and yet multi-layered. Some aspects mentioned by participants at the conference included the political process that often dominates the process of appointing vice-chancellors and the over-militarisation of the union bodies. In its response, ASUU reiterated its position that the alleged militarist posture of the union has only resulted as the last option when all other channels of diplomatic approach had been exhausted in years of fruitless negotiation with the authorities. On this, Professor Ogunyemi called for a situation where the government reverts to the union in the face of difficulties in reaching an agreement to avert the recurrence of strike action that does not benefit anyone. Professor Mimiko, who had a passionate encounter with the body during his tenure as the Vice-Chancellor of Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, and whose articulated view of the system was animated in the account of his stewardship in that position published by Pan-African University Press, counselled that union bodies in public universities should avoid reaching agreements that are not feasible with the government. ASUU was also advised on the discipline of its erring members and to take into cognisance their welfare in its operations.

On a grander level, discussions at the two-day events focused on the need to reinvent higher institutions of learning in Africa towards deeper integration into the evolving global community of practice, state, and industry. The stimulating event was brought to a close by the convener, who highlighted significant features of the conference after discussing the experiences and views of students. There is no doubt that all participants at the conference were enriched in one way or the other as discussions were opened up for long-term consideration and execution at various levels.

A huge congratulation to the Carnegie Foundation, University of Texas, at Austin, Babcock University, the convener, and participants from five African countries on the success of this regional gathering on the reinvention of the educational system in Africa.

 

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