In this interview by SULAIMON OLANREWAJU, Chief Kola Daisi, founder and chancellor of KolaDaisi University, Ibadan, relives his school days as well as his journey to philanthropy and establishing a private university.
After a successful life in business, what informed your investment in university education?
My parents, God bless their soul, never had the privilege of seeing the inside of a school at all. Their background was within a farming community, a family of farmers. As complete illiterates, they decided to send me to school. When I look back, I am amazed at my father’s own foresight and his passion in deciding to send his two children to school and sustaining us there.
So having had that opportunity, I founded the Kola Daisi Foundation a couple of decades ago and the purpose of the foundation is to provide opportunities for other people in health, education, and poverty alleviation. It’s our concern to serve in those three major areas of human life and activity.
Before going to university education, I went back to my elementary school, Christ Apostolic Church School. We did new blocks of 15 classrooms and knocked down some old dilapidated parts of the school. Most of it was built with clay; we removed the roofs and replaced them with aluminum roofs in all cases. We provided a borehole, and we have almost always gone back there to make sure that the borehole is working. What we did there had a profound impact because we are taking care of about 2000 children in that school. That was how I went into the educational part of the aspirations of my foundation.
I had my secondary education at Ibadan Boys’ High School. It was neither a government college nor an Anglican sponsored secondary school. It was a private enterprise of one Papa T.L. Oyesina. And to that extent, they had limited facilities. When we ended up in 1951, Mr Okonjo, you must have heard of him, (his daughter is Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of World Trade Organisation), was quite a modern person in terms of his background. He loved sports, so he introduced a few sporting activities and so on. But I was very tiny throughout the time I was in secondary school, so much so that when we did our school certificate examination in 1951, I led my school and led the whole of Ibadan centre, and I was presented to the public in the school, nobody believed that it was me and so many people said so openly. And I did so well in that examination in 1951. My Grade 1 was more of A’s than credits. Ibadan Grammar School had no Grade 1 at all and in this private enterprise school of Mr T.L. Oyesina, there were two of us, and we became news. Of course, in those days they published results of school certificate in the Tribune. And we first knew our results from the publication of the Tribune in those days.
That was enough to stimulate my interest in education because that was the background from which I was coming. By the time I was out of secondary school and with my result, it was no longer the responsibility of my parents to sponsor my education. I was sponsored by the Municipal Government to continue my tertiary education in England at the London School of Economics.
Now, these were incidents that must have a very great impact on any sensitive young person, and it really triggered a lot of excitement in me to want to give opportunities to other people who don’t have the opportunity. That was my journey into educational support. I did not invest in any secondary school because that is mostly commercial, but I went straight into university education. Hundreds of thousands of young boys and girls leave secondary school yearly but only a tiny percentage of them are able to get opportunities in government established universities. I think that was the motivation for the government deciding to license private universities. And people who are interested in education, like I am, for reasons I have already stated, try to get into it.
Looking at the education system in Nigeria, how would you compare education in your own time and what we have now?
Generally speaking you will say that there has been a decline in the quality of education. In Standard 6, we were able to write compositions, sometimes even better than what we have in the universities today. But then what we lacked but which you have is your exposure to a much more enhanced and informed and technical society. We had no television in our time at all; the first of it I think was in 1959. But you have the benefit of that in your time and even today for example there is the Information Communication Technology which sometimes, our grandchildren who have not gone to school at all are responsible for teaching us the way to access it and to understand it. Those were opportunities I did not have and which have evolved to augment your own shortage in rigorous teaching instructions. So I have not always been inclined to answer yes or no that there has been a decline. Maybe in teaching as a profession or the consciousness in teaching by the teachers, there may have been a sharp decline in that over the years. But your generation has been lucky to have these other benefits that we did not have in our time. And comparison is usually very rigorous without making those exceptions.
What are those things you will suggest should be added to the Nigerian educational system to upgrade it?
Diligence, especially on the part of the teachers. And discipline, especially domestic, on the part of parents. It will go a very long way if those two elements are inculcated into the system of education. If we are going to talk about improvement in education for example, we have to take the totality of the society, its priorities, and so on, because the general opinion is that the percentage of the budget that is dedicated to education in Africa as a whole, minus maybe South Africa, is far too low for the UNESCO average, where Japan, for example, is voting between 15 and 20 per cent for education. All the countries of Africa individually, ought to be devoting more than 50 per cent to education, that is what it means. But if in spite of the pedestal that they have reached in education they still devote about 15 per cent of their budget to education and we are only dedicating, I think it was between 7 per cent and 8 per cent for example, it means that while those developed countries are incrementally going up, we will be going down and backward. When are we going to produce our own Bill Gates, for example? While we can complain that our educational system is receding, it is impossible to sustain that mental attitude in a world that is progressing as a whole. Whether you like it or not there is a minimum starting point, you either accept and cope or you don’t accept and you drop out.
What have been the challenges since you established the university?
The challenges are enormous beside the academic side that you are thinking about, it is providing the infrastructure. To start with you are expected to have a minimum of 100 hectares of land before you get the licence and approval. And getting the land where it is accessible to the society and the public, the nearer it is to the city, of course the more expensive it is.
Then developing the infrastructure, houses, roads, other accesses and so on and so forth, is not cheap. Currently, we are developing a hostel that will accommodate 600 to 700 students. It is almost nearing completion but the cost of it is getting to N1billion. And by the time we finish it, it will be more than that. And that is the way we have had almost all the facilities we have here. We have two hostels, of course one for females and one for males, each of them containing accommodation or residence for 300 students, before the licence was granted. And we had to provide classrooms and laboratories for students. It has to be not just acceptable but acceptable plus because things are changing very fast, particularly in the science and technological areas. We are required to get a separate building entirely, no matter what you have built before, for law faculty. We are just now processing the application for medicine and I can tell you, the medical laboratories are totally different from the ordinary sciences.
Talking about infrastructure, there have been calls by private university operators that they should be included in TETfund. What is your take?
Well, the law itself is not inclusive, it speaks about government universities. And it will require a fundamental amendment to get it to cover private universities. And unfortunately, up until now most of the government functionaries believe that you are making a profit out of universities, just like secondary schools, forgetting their own stipulations for infrastructure. It will be a big bonus if the government ever relents and extends the facilities of TETfund to private universities. At the end of the day, the boys and girls being trained in private universities are Nigerians too. And they should benefit from government spending on education. But that is only an argument; they don’t see it that way. I am not over-bothered because I know the mentality of public service.
One of the complaints against private universities is that the fees are on the high side. How affordable is KolaDaisi University?
Our average is N500,000 per annum. I believe that Bowen is higher, Covenant is, of course, higher. They are double the average but people still go there because they have a reputation. But on the average, with N500,000 that we charge, we spend something close to N1.2 million on every student. Because the payment of good teachers, other staff members and depreciation on existing infrastructure and so on. And you find that the universities that are charging a million naira save a little closer to the cost. In ordinary economics we call it cost of production. Where the cost of production is equal to revenue, in economics you call that the level of equilibrium. But you cannot get equilibrium in any private university, except the exceptional ones like Bowen, Covenant and so on. And if you go into it like I have done, you go into it with your eyes open because you are going to make a sacrifice, create a legacy and all of that. And you don’t buy those things cheap.
How do you cope with other expenses?
Through subsidy, from my pocket, there is no other way. In our ordinary economics, if per teacher you have only 20 students, there is a vast difference to when you have 30, 50, 100 students to one teacher. Even when you insist on very high standards, the larger the number of students that you have, the better; the easier it is for you to sustain it. But in the first four years, even six years, you don’t come near that at all. You have to build up your reputation, you have to have exposure. But as long as I have the grace of God and I am able to subsidise to achieve quality, I am quite satisfied.
I announced an endowment of N1billion at the convocation the other week, and hope that some of my friends will buy into it as time goes on. But I am not reckoning with that as a certainty. If we make the right investment and we get the right result, we will have the right reputation and the society will respond appropriately. Harvard University is reputed to have the biggest endowment fund in the world today, about $250 billion US dollars. It is a function of reputation and past performance.
Are there some students on scholarship?
Yes, several of them. I personally sponsor a few. My children also have a few and I believe some well-wishers and friends have people that they sponsor. And one of those I sponsored had a first class. I was happy and proud of it.
What is unique about KolaDaisi University?
It is like wanting to describe yourself without a mirror. It is people who have access to that who can say whether it is unique or not. But what you might consider as some of our strong points is that we try and recruit students with the best results as much as possible. And we try to encourage them and try to concentrate on areas of study that will assist them to be self-employed when they get out or even to be employers in their own right. It is too early to talk about what is unique when we are just four years. And we are in a competitive environment. Everybody wants to carve a niche for himself but it takes time and a lot of sacrifice.
What is the plan to make the university sustainable?
I have given them N1billion as endowment, but from year to year, I give a N100 million here, N200 million here and so on. I simply give to them with the instruction that they should never compromise on standards and quality. That they should appoint the best teachers available and sustain them by encouraging them, which is what they do.
Where do you see the university, say in the next ten years?
By the grace of God, it should be a microcosm of the Harvard or Stanford or Yale, or even Cambridge. That is my hope and prayer, and as much as I have to contribute to it, I will do it with funds now and in the future.
The Federal Government is planning a loan scheme for students. What’s your take on that?
I am in full support of it. The truth is that in most of the civilised countries of the world today, practically every government has a loan facility for students. Sometimes it is abused, sometimes it comes with terms and conditions. But it is in existence in practically every university. Come to think of it, yes many parents are getting wealthier but the truth is that education is costly. And if you want to distribute the cost of imparting education on students, you will make their institutions weaker if there are no supports coming from other sources. That is why they introduced that loan facility and it is thriving very well for all that I know, in France, in Britain, in Germany, and particularly in America. For instance, if you come out of the university in England, and America, they know when you are starting a job and your employers are under obligation to make deductions, like when you are making deductions from income to pay income tax. The initial capital, with which they started it, is as if it does not diminish at all and it has become a basic fund from year to year, generations of students can access loans. In three, four, five years’ time when they graduate, they begin to pay back. And in most cases they don’t default, I think the incidence of default is not more than 4 or 5 per cent. So, it is one of the greatest supports that the student can have everywhere.
The danger of introducing that kind of thing into African countries, especially in Nigeria, is that either people are not efficient, particularly in the management and administration of the fund, or people are getting poorer and poorer, sometimes unemployed and are not able to pay back. How many of our fresh graduates actually do get employed? And if you don’t get employment, from where will they deduct the loans that you have taken that you have to repay? That is the disadvantage in our environment but in other environments, especially where they are honest, and they are not too much inclined to fraud and things like that, it works well and it is very desirable. Sooner or later we must get it right here too.