Universities should focus on national agenda

Prof Abdul Ganiyu Ambali

Prof Abdul Ganiyu Ambali

Abdul Ganiyu Ambali, a Professor of Veterinary Medicine, was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), an institution famous for its stable academic calendar and favourable ranking by both local and international agencies, about two and a half years ago.
With over 30 years of teaching experience, 80 articles published in local, national and international peer reviewed journals and having graduated to date, over 17 post graduate students, it was not surprising that the good-looking academic showed more concern about research efforts in UNILORIN than anything else.
At the recently concluded Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents (COERViP) of African Universities, organized by the Association of African Universities(AAU) in Kigali, Rwanda, Ambali spoke extensively with ROTIMI LAWRENCE OYEKANMI on UNILORIN’s journey so far, as preparations for the institution’s 40th anniversary get underway. Excerpts:

Sir, what would you say, specifically, that you have gained from this conference?
To be specific, I have gained the fact that Universities in Africa should look inwards and focus on addressing problems affecting their respective communities. And when you talk of internationalisation, which is the centre point of this conference, every university must have a focus on what it wants to gain from the internationalization drive that is going on around the world, so that you don’t expose yourself to the mercy of your partner, so that when you’re partnering, when you are internationalising, you know the aims and objectives of your university in the relationship with any university. Which means we have to do in-house brainstorming.

Internationalisation is going on around the world. Where do we come in and what can we gain from it? How do we go about it without losing the focus of our immediate community benefiting from our existence?

One of the observations made at this conference is that African universities don’t collaborate enough. In Nigeria, for example, universities boast of MoUs with American and British universities, but not with other Nigerian or African Universities. What’s your take on that?
That’s true and I think we have to reassess ourselves. It all boils down to the national agenda. If universities are given the mandate of addressing problems, then you have no choice than to relate with people of the same mind, who are your colleagues across the states. I think we have a lot to gain from each other without necessarily competing, because when you’re under the pressure of ranking; the pressure of excellence, the pressure of wanting to be a unique university, you lose focus meeting the national agenda as far as education is concerned. And I think until we put aside this ego of wanting to be the first among equals, the essence of collaboration will come to reality.

Right now, it you collaborate with universities in America or Britain, the chances are that your ranking will improve, based on one or two things that you want to gain from the relationship with those people. But if the national agenda is our focus, the ranking will come in even without you pursuing it. You know where the government wants you to be and you work towards it. And unless we design our industrial take-off, you won’t be able to work towards it.

When you talk about internationalisation and the issue of employability of your graduates comes in, knowing full well what is going on around the world, nobody will spend a lot of resources and time to evolve a technology and share it with others. Nobody wants to spend a lot of money on their Research and Development (R&D) and empower their competitors with the same technology. If we are still thinking of that, then we have a long way to go.

But if we identify our community needs and we work towards it, carrying out applied research, then you know that we’ll own the technology and we’ll be able to employ our graduates in all sectors of that product; from the industry to product marketing and ultimately, transportation and consumption. And if you want to refine and improve on that technology, then you invest in R & D to continue to improve on it. By so doing, more products would come out, new technology will come in.

But if you depend on multinationals, the best they will do is to employ those of our graduates that will market their products. But the real science and technology base or discipline, there will be minimum absorption of graduates of those disciplines, and those are the core of industrial development of any country.

So, looking inwards, identifying our community needs, and focusing on addressing such needs should be the long term agenda of African countries, especially Nigeria.

Let’s go back home. The University of Ilorin will soon be celebrating its 40th anniversary. It commands a lot of respect among Nigerians and many people eulogise it as one of the institutions running a stable academic calendar. But during this celebration, what specific achievements will the university be showcasing?
Apart from the stable academic calendar, we have been able to improve on our teaching methodology in terms of embracing ICT (Information and Communication Technology). We have a very good and robost ICT facility, which cuts across all strata of the University of Ilorin community; from students, to staff, to the classroom, to the laboratories, from outside and within the campus too.

We have started empowering our students with PC tablets. We started about two, three years ago, with the hope that within the next two years, all our students will have that technology. And that would invariably improve our teaching and learning.

Also, through the years, we’ve encouraged our staff to focus on their research. The last TETFUND (Tertiary Education Trust Fund) Research grant awards, we won six out of about 16 awards given. That means the remaining 146 universities scrambled for the remaining awards.

We have been able to train and re-train our workforce, both academic and non-teaching. So, in terms of exposure to the international community, I think we have done very well in that, either through ICT – they can get Internet anywhere they are, in the classrooms, offices, outside the university classrooms, in their houses.

We encourage and sponsor our staff to attend conferences, both within and outside the country. Also in terms of infrastructure, we’ve done very well.
When you go the campus now, you will find more comfortable offices. We have continued to increase the number of classrooms and the facilities in those places. The environment is comparable to anywhere in the world. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to go out to enjoy what your other academic colleagues are enjoying. What we need more is funding, so that we can continue to meet the yearnings of our researchers in terms of equipment. We’ve already started, but you know, the equipment needs of researchers increase because of improved technology.

We have also encouraged the international community to enjoy the facilities that we have. We have a Centre for International Education, where we give room to our African brothers to be admitted to our programmes. We have about 450 students from other African countries studying at the University of Ilorin, and this cuts across both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

I came to this conference with our Director of the Centre for International Education and he has been bombarded with requests for post graduate studies. When they (participants) heard about the University of Ilorin, they went to their respective rooms, googled it, and by the time they saw our facilities, they became encouraged and showed interest.

Also, we have been able to reinforce our security outfit by improving the environment and developing the capacity our security officers, through opportunities to train and retrain.
We have also been able to maintain student discipline. We have shown them that we have zero tolerance for certain vices and because of that, our students are disciplined. We allow unionism and the students have been able to successfully succeed themselves. In the last three elections, they used e-voting, so there was no rigging and no third term agenda. You just go out, campaign and when it is time to vote, you don’t even need to come out and queue because of their (students’) empowerment with their PC tablets. That has brought sanity and minimum complaints.

We also give them elderly advice along the way, so as to maintain a good name. And over the years, we have been able to maintain a good relationship with our unions. We have been operating an open door policy. If there’s money, they know. If there’s no money, they also know. If they want something and they don’t get it, they know why.

We have also enjoyed the support of the community where the university resides. We have established the Centre for Ilorin Studies and this has gone a long way in bringing the community closer to the university. They are now seeing the university as their own and they are too willing to contribute in terms of ideas and other forms of assistance.

We also have the community radio, the UNILORIN FM radio station, which helps to bridge the information gap between the university and the community

What about your Faculty of Science and Technology? Any research feats or on-going research efforts?
We have quite a number of innovations to showcase. More importantly, just to help us achieve that ambition of evolving an industrial base and creating a niche for ourselves, plans are at an advanced stage to set up what we call L – P, that is, Lab to Product, because what we have identified is the gap between what is going on in the universities and what the industry is doing and how to address the community problems.

So, we are going to ask that Centre (L – P) to harvest all those things that we have been able to achieve, that are hanging in our libraries, post graduate schools and laboratories, because there has been a lot of challenges being thrown to the universities, either in the form of not being able to address community needs or questioning our relevance. This Centre is going to focus on that. It’s a sort of town and town relationship.

I see Nigeria as a virgin area and people are yearning for products that will make their lives better. And we, at the local laboratory level, have been able to evolve something. But taking it beyond the laboratory level has been our challenge and understandably so, as far as I am concerned, because I feel there should be a division of labour between scientists and end-users. There should be some people in-between.

You don’t expect a scientist to evolve something, go out to look for those that will turn it into an industrial product, and thereafter go out and market it. That will be too strenuous for an academic. But government can come in to assist. For instance, if you invent something and you call on investors to come and invest, and if they’re not listening to you, government can say, take some money, go and do it. If they give us that opportunity, that empowerment, we will get more results.

In the developed world, people in the laboratory, because that is the talent God has given them, their own to stay in the laboratory, continue thinking and evolving things. And once they do it at that level, somebody else should pick it up, and then, they are challenged again to continue to improve on that. And by the time you make the first product, and it’s in the market for a couple of years, then, you can come up with a better version.

I attended a scientific gathering where the theme was social innovations. How are you able to use whatever you’re doing, whatever discipline you are in, to influence the society where you belong positively? And the issue of drones came up, that drones should not be restricted to war purposes alone. You can also use them to deliver goods and services. The issue of cost was raised and we were convinced that look, it’s just like cell phones. When the thing first came, it was for who’s who. I Nigeria, it was like a fashion of the big men. But now, because of technology and the fact that the market is there, it has become what anybody, with minimum literacy could use. Drones will come to that level eventually, where medical supplies can be delivered in remote areas, where they have challenges. Things like delivery of mails, drones could be used instead of planes.

So, continuous research by our scientists to address local challenges cannot be over-emphasised. And when you have between 160 and 170 million people, you can imagine the potential market for whatever you’re able to come up with.

I think if we refocus on applied research, of course, the exploratory research is still welcome because that’s where you have crazy ideas that could be useful in the next 20 years; but let’s address the immediate needs of our people, in terms of food, power supply, water supply.

Prof Ambali (3rd from left) with other participants of the Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents (COREViP) of African Universities, as they honour the victims of the 1994 genocide, at the Rwanda Memorial, Kigali.

Prof Ambali (3rd from left) with other participants of the Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents (COREViP) of African Universities, as they honour the victims of the 1994 genocide, at the Rwanda Memorial, Kigali.

When you applied for the post of vice chancellor, you must have unveiled an agenda of what you want to achieve from the first to the fifth year during your interview. How far have you gone on that?
First, I should thank God for the opportunity given to me to realize my dream. When I came in, I said I wanted to make the University of Ilorin comparable to any university around the world. Our vision was to be the best in terms of academic excellence. Our mission is to create a conducive environment for teaching and learning, for community service.

When you come to the University of Ilorin today, things have changed. Having moved around, I’ve seen what other universities around the world have, both outside and within the classrooms, as well as in the laboratories. If you go to the university today, in those areas, there have been positive changes. The environment is serene. When you come in, there is an area close to the university, by the time you leave that place and enter the campus, the difference is clear in terms of the environment, discipline, mode of conduct of the people. There’s no question about it.

And then when you enter our classrooms, we have started, in the last year or so, to improve the teaching method. And when you enter our laboratory, you’ll feel like sleeping there, due to the overall improvement we have carried out because the environment is very conducive just like you have elsewhere in the world. If you like the environment in which you operate, then without you being forced, you’ll find yourself spending more time than planned.

Infrastructure-wise, I think we have also come a long way. You can come to the University of Ilorin and see for yourself. We will continue to expand not only our academic programmes, but also the conditions under which people operate, especially in terms of power supply, because that’s a challenge we have identified. You cannot carry out meaningful research if you don’t have constant power supply. We have been spending a lot on diesel to power our generators. Recently, we found a way of improving our power supply.

In addition to that, we’re entering into a partnership with a private organization to establish a solar power factory, where we will not only be producing solar power for ourselves, but also for our immediate community. It’s a partnership between the University of Ilorin, a Nigerian company and a Hungarian firm. We are talking with the Kwara State government to also come in play their part, so that solar panels, batteries can now be produced within the university.

You can imagine the ripple effects and the advantages. Our students will be well exposed to that technology; our researchers will see what is happening and improve on it. The community will also benefit from it.

What about accreditation of your programmes?
Only few of our academic programmes have interim accreditation and we’re working on them. We split some programmes and we’ve also started some new ones and they trying to find their footing.

Finally sir, what are the major challenges you face?
Funding, especially research funding. The work of a vice chancellor is 24 hours, seven days a week. If I mention one challenge now, tomorrow, another one will come. So, we just continue to address them as they come.

But what I feel is more of my challenge is getting my researchers connected to research funding agencies. Since I came in about two and a half years ago, I saw that the number of people securing research grants has not been very encouraging. But over the period, we’ve refocused our attention that, look, we have to bridge the gap between our researchers and funding agencies.

Sometimes, it is just a matter of information. If they (researchers) know where to apply to, then they will be encouraged to do that. And the more people key into that, the better our chances of attracting research funding.

I must say that this has been yielding results. This is partly the reasons for our coming to this conference with three directors (of Centres), because it is not enough for me as vice chancellor to have a vision. If I don’t have enough people to dream with me, the journey will take me longer time. But by the time I come with these various sectional heads, when we go back, these sectional heads will brief their sections and focus their attention on where the university is going.

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