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Challenging the way we deliver tertiary education in a changing world

Nigerian universities, like their counterparts elsewhere globally, perform certain vital functions within society.

Universities are the engine rooms where we mould ideas that shape society. They are places where knowledge is produced, bought, and sold; people’s minds are developed and shaped to influence their environment. Universities are mirrors of societies. The greater the university, the greater the society. The better the university, the better the society. The inverse is also applicable.

Little wonder the great universities of the world are in the world’s most thriving societies. Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, and Oxford universities are in the US and UK. These universities are the gold standards and have enormous powers in influencing national and global ideas and have produced knowledge and people that have greatly influenced our world. Therefore, there is nothing wrong in modelling our local universities after these great universities and situating our universities’ souls within the context of our local environment, values and the broader milieu of national and global outreach.

Our universities unfortunately are struggling to define their purpose and make the desired impact. In this piece, I will use a tripartite cognitive framework to dissect higher education in Nigeria and try to reimagine higher education in Nigeria through the lenses of its many challenges. This cognitive map involves identifying core features of the array of problems with university education in Nigeria, contextualising these problems vis-a-vis local and global dichotomy and proffering innovative solutions given the realities of the Nigeria situation.

Nigerian universities, like their counterparts elsewhere globally, perform certain vital functions within society. These functions include the training of the professional workforce, production of knowledge and innovations for development, and creating a hotbed for novel transformational ideas in socio-political, economic, and religious spheres.

Most Nigerian universities perform these functions at least to some extent, notwithstanding the avalanche of problems bedevilling them. However, the popular view ( though without empirical evidence) is that most of our universities are glorified secondary schools and are far from performing their mandates. This assertion is backed by the fact that no Nigerian university is ranked among the first 1000 universities globally by the three major world universities ranking bodies . I tend to disagree (albeit not entirely) with those who say Nigerian universities are glorified secondary schools and are not adding value to society.

Despite our universities’ tortuous history and inadequate resources, they have produced some of the best minds worldwide. With enormous intellectual and academic abilities, some Nigerian students and researchers command the respect of lecturers and students in top global universities and workmates are in awe of our products’ professionalism and expertise in top companies in the world. These feats are not just flukes. They happen because of a rigorous and painstaking academic training that these students received from their ‘alma mata’ at home.

However, I gave the proviso earlier that I do not disagree completely. I argue that most of our graduates are not like these high-flying ones mentioned above. Many of our graduates are either half-baked or completely ill-equipped in both knowledge and skills expected of university graduates. Little wonder, many are considered by the employers of labour as mostly unemployable.

The reasons for these two extreme results is open to further debate. The extent a university fulfils their primary functions indicates the level of its success. Success is a measure of the quality of the products – in this case, graduates, and research output. The quality of graduates depends on the quality of teaching, mentoring, and academic rigour inherent in the school’s culture and ethos and the level of academic engagement by students themselves. The quality of research depends on the quality of research staff, collaboration with the private sector, and the university research priority.

Although influenced by both internal and external factors, graduates and research output’s quality is the primary measure of universities’ success. The pertinent questions to ask are: to what extent are Nigerian universities creating these quality products? How can we improve the quality of university products despite many problems they face? How can we harness our universities’ great potential to create great centres of ideas, excellence and activism on campus and society?

Before we answer these questions, let us first x-ray the features of the enormous challenges  Nigerian universities face. I will not dwell much on this, because everyone knows these problems even more than I do. Nevertheless, for clarity, I will explore a few. This list is not exhaustive and does not represent a sequencing based on the order of the severity of the problems.

The challenges include inadequate funding and insufficient resources, low-quality standardisation, intractable strike actions by academic and non-academic staff of our universities, poor university-private sector partnership and difficulty attracting and retaining the best minds.

Other challenges include low knowledge production, emphasis on memory-based learning and assessment,  poor or  inadequate infrastructure and academic resources, low-quality students from secondary schools, theoretical approach than skill-based or practical approach inherited from the colonial system, poor leadership and governance, and undue political interference.

The second aspect of our conceptual framework is the contextualisation of university education, both locally and globally. I argue that a part of the process to improve university education in Nigeria must involve understanding the dialectics between the global context of university education and the local context. The ideology of ‘glocalisation’ must underpin this understanding. Nigerian universities should think ‘global but act local’.

They should understudy global trends affecting university education and adapt and adjust them to improve our universities’ local content. Some of these global trends are forcing a rethink of the whole essence of university education. We see globally a move towards reimagining and reshaping of university education using technology.

Virtual learning, online learning and distance learning are becoming a mainstay of university education. This trend is even driven more by some restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is growing democratisation of knowledge digitally (thousands of courses are run online by top universities that anyone anywhere with a smartphone and internet connection can access, mostly for free).

Universities create courses that provide people with skills for present and future jobs and are pushing away from yesteryears’ traditional courses. Top universities are competing as centres for innovative, cutting edge research with lots of patents and budding businesses springing from these innovations to impact the world (for example, Oxford University partnered with AstraZeneca to produce a COVID-19 vaccine).

Finally, the collaboration between the private sector and universities are more significant than ever in history. Universities are incubation centres for large private organisations funding several cutting-edge researches to create new products, improve existing products, or better understand an increasingly competitive market. I must argue that there is a mismatch between these global trends and our local context.

Dakuku Peterside, PhD delivered this at the Honour’s Day Lecture of Federal University Otuoke, Bayelsa State recently