By Mary Ogar
Three years after five private universities received their provisional licenses from the National Universities Commission (NUC), it was the turn of another set of nine to receive theirs, at an elaborate ceremony held in Abuja on March 5.
But mixed feelings pervaded the atmosphere in the NUC’s auditorium, where the event took place, against the background of the loss of five staff members of the commission to the ill-fated Dana air crash back in 2012. The team was on an inspection tour of the same private universities that received their licenses.
The new nine include: Augustine University, Ilara, Lagos; Chrisland University, Owode; Christopher University, Mowe; Hallmark University, Ijebu-Itele and Mountain Top University, Makogi/Oba, all in Ogun State.
Others were King’s University, Ode-Omu, Osun state; Michael & Cecilia Ibru University, Owhrode, Delta State; Ritman University, Ikot Expene, Akwa Ibom State; and Summit University, Offa, Kwara State.
But while the visibly happy proprietors celebrated the success of having scaled through the rigorous process up to the final stage, it was a difficult moment for the Minister of State for Education, Prof. Viola Onwuliri, whose husband, Prof Celestine Onwuliri lost his life in the Dana air crash. The other four members of his team were: Mr. Mahmud Dukawa, a Deputy Director (Treasury); Mrs. Maimuna Shuaibu (Deputy Director, Open Distance Education); Mr. Sonnu Ehioghae (Deputy Director, Establishment and Staff Matters), and Mrs. Chinwe Obi (Deputy Director, Facilities & Infrastructure).
Indeed, all eyes were on the Minister of State as she stepped on the podium to deliver her address amid complete silence. “This is a difficult moment for me,” she admitted calmly, “and when I was invited to come here, I wondered what I was expected to say.” She recalled that when the crash happened, she did not expect her husband to be on board because “he normally flew Aero Contractors.” But when the news was finally broken to her, she was shocked. She asked for a full minute of silence in honour of her husband and other members of his team.
Onwuliri implored the newly licensed universities to ensure the maintenance of high standards in their respective campuses. She regretted that many unwary Nigerian students were going to sub-standard universities abroad, just because “going abroad has become the vogue.”
Underscoring the quality of degrees being awarded by Nigerian Universities, Onwuliri, who had also served as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, affirmed that with her degrees obtained from Nigerian Universities, she chaired a United Nations Security Council session in 2011 and performed other impressive tasks to the admiration of non – Nigerians.
She said: “There was an international meeting I attended and at the end of it, they were asking me where I studied, and I said – Nigeria. With my Nigerian degrees, I’ve gone places. My children were told to do their first degree programmes in Nigeria and we’re happy for it. We told them, no visa lottery. Some of these universities abroad are not worth it.”
She continued: “We need more universities. We pray that quality will not go down. The federal government will continue to support staff training and development. We urge the new universities to ensure that quality teaching takes place.”
Education Minister, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau also disagreed with critics who often assert that the country has too many universities. “Prior to this approval,” he said, “Nigeria had 129 universities servicing a population of over 170 million people. In comparison to countries like Brazil and Mexico, which have 1,648 and 1,250 universities to service populations of 203 million and 120 million respectively, the gross inadequacy of this figure, in relation to population size becomes glaring.”
The Minister observed that inadequate access to university education and enrolment of students in excess of the carrying capacity of the universities had remained an albatross.
His words: “In 2013, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) announced that over 1.7 million candidates registered for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME); an increase of 13.35 per cent over the 2012 figure. Despite this, there is only space for one third of these applicants, and the remaining candidates, who may even pass the admission cut off mark, may never get admitted.”
Shekarau said private universities had contributed to the opening up of the admission space, while their growth had also created an environment for healthy competition. According to him, reports from the Africa Centres of Excellence award, conducted by the World Bank and released in July 2014 showed that, 19 universities from West and Central Africa, including 10 from Nigeria, were successful.
“The first and third-ranked of the 19 universities are two of Nigeria’s private universities,” the Minister explained. “Furthermore, in the selection exercise for the Presidential Special Scholarship Scheme for Innovation and Development (PRESSID), a good number of graduates from our private universities performed well and are currently studying in the top 25 universities in the world. One of these private universities has so far produced the highest number of successful PRESSID candidates.”
PRESSID is a scheme for Nigerian First Class graduates in science and technology-based disciplines, put in place by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011.
The provisional approval however came with certain conditions. All the nine universities must be mentored in academic and administrative terms by the older universities they are affiliated to, in their first five years of existence. The idea is part of NUC’s initiative for early warning signals, to detect compromises in quality, for the application of corrective and remedial measures to redress such situations.
Shekarau told the new universities that substantive licenses could only be issued to well-managed institutions, after the three years of probation, following their respective performance and growth within the guidelines stipulated by the commission.
But the Minister also warned: “While the government appreciates the courage of the proprietors to partner with it on a project of this nature, which is not expected to be for profit, it will not tolerate any breach of the conditions of the approval. Any unwholesome practice or operations outside the provisions of the NUC guidelines is unacceptable and will attract appropriate sanctions.”
He enjoined the new institutions to maintain their respective hostels, cafeteria, toilets and other facilities, to enable students cultivate good behaviour. He also advised them to sustain proper funding of their infrastructure, equipment for teaching and learning, and human resources.
Shekarau also revealed some of the worries expressed by members of the Federal Executive Council on February 25 when the approval was granted, over where the new universities would get qualified faculty for their programmes.
He said: “NUC has redoubled its efforts at responding to the inadequacy of university teachers in the right quality and quantity. In addition to the modest achievements by the Nigerian Universities Teacher Improvement Project (NUTIP) at increasing doctoral training in first generation universities and creating a database for retired-but-active professors, among others, the Linkage with Experts and Academics in the Diaspora Scheme (LEADS) has brought to the fore, the desire of many Nigerian academics abroad to return and teach at home.”
The Minister praised the NUC for its steadfastness and insistence on due process and ensuring the maintenance and sustenance of quality. “As new realities emerge, NUC has continued to update appropriate monitoring mechanisms to ensure that certain basic quality assurance standards are compiled with for the establishment and operation of private universities.”
He said the government was committed to continually strengthen the commission’s quality assurance operations to ensure that quality and relevance are not compromised, despite efforts to improve access to university education.
“A random poll of public opinion has revealed some concern that private universities had become too many,” he said. “I (have) provided some comparative figures of the universities in other countries attesting to the fact that this is not the case. Government will not, however, risk erosion of quality by a hurried licensing of more universities. What we shall do is to encourage NUC to keep strengthening its quality assurance operations, so that as the number increases, quality and relevance to national needs are not compromised.”
Executive Secretary of the commission, Prof Julius Okojie, assured that the NUC had done its job diligently before recommending the nine universities to the Federal Executive Council for operational licenses. He also underscored government’s efforts in the last five years to develop capacity by making it attractive for university academics to enroll for doctorate progammes and attend international conferences.
He urged the new universities to take staff development seriously, in order to sustain their programmes and gradual expansion plans.