Policy makers yet to appreciate value of university system, says Faborode

By Rotimi Lawrence Oyekanmi

Secretary General of the Committee of Vice Chancellors (CVC), Prof Michael Faborode, has linked Nigeria’s low level of development to the policy makers’ failure to appreciate the real value of the country’s university system.

He also advised proprietors of private universities not to see their institutions as profit-making ventures, but as providers of service for national development.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with The Intellectual in Lagos, Faborode, a Professor of Agricultural Engineering, who achieved tremendous feats as Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) between 2006 and 2011, said all the world’s advanced countries, like the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany and the merging ones like China and Singapore, had reached their current individual heights because their respective governments placed the university system at the core of their national development plans.

“Every country will get the sort of universities that it deserves or works for,” he said. “It’s a pity that the value of the university system has not been very well appreciated among policy makers in Nigeria. In fact, the entire national consciousness is not there. In other climes, universities are seen as the centrepiece of national development, not just for training the workforce or leaders; not just for doing the research that would transform the society, but very critical to national transformation.

“And we can see the differences between us and countries that have made it and those that are making it. Countries that have made it like the USA, UK (United Kingdom), Germany, Australia, Canada; countries that are making it like China, Korea, Singapore; you will see that their universities are the centrepiece of whatever they are doing.

“Recently, the United States announced the flying very close to Pluto, a space vehicle that had been travelling since 2006. But the (vehicle’s) control centre was at the Department of Physics of John Hopkins University.

“So, you see the integration of the university into the national development system. That is very inspiring. Very ennobling. That entire operation is being controlled by a department in a university!

“That is what we have not realized here: to locate the structural transformation of the society in the university system. Saddle the universities with responsibilities, provide the resources and challenge them to solve problems. And they will.

“Look at our problems – poverty, lack of water, lack of power. Nothing stops you (federal government) from saying, look, one, two, three universities; we give you between three and five years, you must find a solution.”
He continued: “There is this mystery about research. You can never predict what is going to come out of research. So, you don’t monetize research and say look, I am going to give you N100 for research, in 10 years’ time, you must bring back N1million. It doesn’t work that way.

“Look at the transformation that has taken place because of the Internet. How much money was invested in that research? But look at the effect, the way it has changed everything.

“We need to understand that function of the university and to believe that our universities can also be directed along that line. It takes all of us, not just those who are in the system alone, it takes everybody to realize that universities should not be located just because you want a university in a community. Universities are much more than just physical entities in a community.”

When Faborode was reminded that the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) had complained in the past that universities were not coming forward to take advantage of the Research Fund put in place by the federal government, he said the situation was no longer the same. “Things have changed now,” he affirmed. “When that situation lasted, we agonized. But it’s (rot) historical, not just something that happened overnight.

“You know, when universities started in Nigeria, it was a glorious era – University of Ibadan, University of Ife, University of Lagos, I mean, there was a lot of international reputation and that was reflected in the composition of the universities then. Lecturers from diverse places were among the faculty; students from diverse places were there too.

“When we were in Ife, it was a truly international community of scholars, students and staff. But from the late 70s, there was this crash and this lasted for over 20 to 25 years. Now, if somebody has been ill for 25 years, you can imagine the structural damage that would have set it. So, universities suffered very fatally. But now, we are in the era of revitalization, however, it is very, very difficult. We had fallen from that height to this level, in terms of reputation and all.

“Some Nigerian universities don’t even have their certificates accepted overseas because of a number of things that have gone wrong. We are trying to rebuild and it takes somebody who knows the value of universities to know that you really have to do something dramatic to get universities back to where they will have international relevance. What happened damaged the morale of staff and students. There was a time that nobody wanted to go and do post graduate studies. Those who made First Class or Second Class Upper would rather go to the banks. So, the brains that would have been retained in the universities were taken by other sectors of the economy. We are still battling with the backlash. Somebody who does not have the natural flair for the university system cannot be committed to research. They don’t even know the meaning of research. So, it is a complicated problem and we need very good understanding to begin to address it. But the effort is on. In the last exercise,  (TETFUND’s Research Fund) there was over subscription.”

On what vice chancellors talk about these days as their most daunting challenges, Faborode offered an insight. He said: “We say without funds, nothing can be done. Generally, people would talk about funds, but we’ve tried, in the last few years, to stay away from funding as a limiting condition.

“We want people to be able to say, look, you can have very good plans and then you try to get the funds. We want people to say, how do I take my university to a particular level? And then, what are the resources, the financial materials I need and how can I get them? We now identify different sources of support that we can get and you can work towards it.

“So most universities have applied the techniques of university advancement, where you adopt different ways of soliciting support – from the alumni, well-to-do people. The vice chancellor that wants to succeed should not be complaining that money is what is holding him down. Of course, money is very important. That is not to say that we will stop telling government that they must provide the necessary funds for the university system.

“But apart from that, the system is dynamic. As the  socio-economic condition of the society changes, so do the challenges facing the universities. At a time, anti-social behavior, like cultism was a major threat. We have been able to weather that storm. It is not as serious as it used to be. It is no longer as fashionable as it used to be. You won’t find people complaining seriously about cultism.
“Now, security is a top issue, because of the general condition of the country. You (Vice Chancellors) are like parents to the children when they are in your care, and you must worry about their security and that of your staff. So, security has taken a very great dimension in the reckoning of universities.
“And of course, how do we enhance the quality? This is where international collaboration comes in. What can we learn from different places? How can we bring modern methods to bear on our teaching and research? These are the things that, in the last two years, have been engaging the attention of the universities more and more.

“We try to expose some vice chancellors to capacity building workshops and trainings both at home and abroad. When we go out for conferences for example, we try to learn a lot of things. And then, you look at the international conferences – what is the world focusing on? Are they addressing our own challenges? Universities in many parts of the world don’t worry about utilities like electricity, water or infrastructure. They are concerned about quality – how do you grant patents and so on. We learn from what they are doing and we also let them understand where we are coming from and how we need to jump over the fence of obstacles.”

Faborode also underscored the relevance of the Committee of Vice Chancellors. “The functions of the committee go beyond the local system,” he explained. “It deals with the international community: the Association of African Universities (AAU), Association of West African Universities (AWAU), International Association of Universities (IAU), Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and so on. This gives us a platform to interact with these other bodies, in a fairly organized basis. When we go for the AAU meetings for instance, we go as a group with a common focus.

“Having said that, the best the association (CVC) can do is to share experiences among the various universities, the best practices and even practices that are inimical to the growth of the system, so that people can remove such things from the system. The idea is not to create uniformity.

“In fact, we advocate strongly against this (uniformity) because universities must have their own uniqueness. Every university must have something that it can refer to as its brand, something it is known for.  We cannot go for a common purpose for all universities. We can say universities are for teaching, learning and research, but every university must create its own niche. If it is research, it will be in a particular area. You may want to be known for teaching, or for moral, character building. The faith-based universities, for example, pride themselves with creating people with great character.

“So what we do, essentially, is to share good practices. Not just best practices; good and best practices from within the system and from the international community. We see the trend of how things are going. When we talk about university ranking, what are those (high ranking) universities doing that we are not doing here? Or what are the structural and cultural differences that we need to get people to appreciate? And then, what can we borrow from what they are doing that can make our system better? We provide that platform, but we don’t drive for absolute uniformity.”

On the differences in his experiences between his former role as Vice Chancellor of OAU and his current duty as the CVC’s Secretary General, Faborode said: “It has been very, very interesting, working with Vice Chancellors, as a former vice chancellor. Of course, to deal with such colleagues, they must recognize and have a lot of respect for you and they must believe in whatever judgment that you’re trying to bring on the table.

“I find it quite interesting that a lot of them would look at me with some air of respect, as somebody they could confide in; somebody they could share experiences with. And that gives a lot of confidence, mileage to want to be in that position.

“It is a very interesting position. I remember that when I started, people asked me, ooh, how is it now? You are not running after students, you’re dealing with matured people. But it is also a lot of work because there are a lot of challenges in the education sector.     The number of universities is increasing everyday.  You talk of federal, state and private universities – different proprietorship, different management systems. We have different types of universities – universities of science and technology; universities of education, and so on.
“And you want to be able to look at them, using a common template. It’s another experience entirely. It’s a learning curve. I would have been foolish to think that I understand the entire university system, having just been in a federal university.

But this position enables me to interact more closely than ever before with vice chancellors, not just in the federal system, but also in the state universities and these are different kettles of fish, because the state governments, unfortunately, are not as committed to developing the university system as one would have thought. And some of them still go on to have two, three or four universities, when they have not really excelled in one.

“And then, you want to appreciate the difference that private universities are making today. We have about 61 of them. CVC started originally with five universities. Then, as universities were established, we started adding them. State universities started in the 90s, after the decree of 1993 and the first state university started in the 80s. The first was Rivers State University of Science and Technology, and with the decree of 1999, private universities also started.

“The impression that people have is that private universities are just there for profit. Some proprietors see it as a means of making money. But a lot of them have now realized that it is more of service to national development. The university is not a system for making money. What it takes to run a university is much bigger than what you can imagine.

“You can’t have five billion naira and say you have enough money to run a university.  Maybe after 20 to 25 years, they (proprietors) can begin to reap some benefits, but at least, what private universities should try to do is to break even, to have funds to run the system, but not for profit or to make money.
“Those who came with such intentions are having challenges in running their private universities and I will not be surprised if one, two or three of them fall by the way side, unless they can change their conception.

“But some of them are coming up very well. Babcock, Covenant, Bowen, Afe Babalola Universities and even the new one at Ilara that started almost as a solidly built university from the outset.
“So, understanding the dynamics of the management of these universities has been very, very interesting to me.”

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