I always prefer not to dabble into the never-ending debate about ASUU strikes. This in part because I still feel myself a sympathetic member, but also because I have come to that point in my thinking that about ASUU—the Academic Staff Union of Universities, as an organisation, rather than as individual members – is not in full grasp of the problems with the Nigerian university system that it seeks to reform. And having misdiagnosed the problem, ASUU has consistently prescribed the wrong solutions, at least since 2009 to date. What is this misdiagnosis and why is it so?
ASUU’s long-drawn “struggle” against the federal government since 2009—during which there have been 10 strikes for a combined period of 35 months, according to a BBC News webpage—is essentially about two issues: university autonomy and inadequate funding for our universities. The autonomy issue is now generally mute because, for all intents and purposes, Nigerian universities are among the most autonomous in the world. Lecturers get to elect their own leaders, from Heads of Department (HODs) all the way up to vice-chancellors, a practice that is almost unique in the world. This is a good thing, but its downsides probably outweigh the advantages, among them crude cronyism and nepotism. But the point is that the lack of autonomy is no longer much of an issue in our universities.
The real issue between government and ASUU is funding. ASUU is entirely right to argue that our universities are grossly under-funded, even criminally so. ASUU is also certainly correct that the welfare of lecturers, in terms of net pay packages and other opportunities for career growth and development, is simply too low as to attract the best brains into the system or allow any meaningful teaching, learning and research. If the federal government is serious about revitalizing our universities, and it should be, or be pressured to be, then the monthly pay of an assistant lecturer, the entry point for the job these days, cannot be less than N500,000.
So, I am in broad agreement with ASUU for better funding for universities, for better welfare for academic and non-academic staff, for better learning facilities and equipment, and above all, for more and better books and journals. I am not convinced, however, that inadequate funding is the real problem with our so-called public universities, nor am I convinced that more funding will necessarily make things better. As I understand them at this point, the real problems with our universities are three, and almost all of them have little to do with funding, at least not directly.
The first is the system of enrolment of students into universities. There are two crucial issues here: the low standards for university enrolment and the lack of integrity of the qualifying exams that determine the standards in the first place. Nigeria has probably the most unambitious university entrance standards in the whole world. For a student to merit a place in a university, the minimum requirement is five credit passes in any one of WAEC, NECO, and NABTEB, including English Language and General Mathematics. This is fine. A university entrance candidate will also need a minimum score of 180 out of 400 in JAMB. This is not.
By setting the bar of entrance exams so low—180 is less than half of the total score of 400 in JAMB—many students and their parents feel entitled to a place in the university, which they would otherwise not be, and know it too, with a more serious and ambitious enrolment system in place. Moreover, because the bar for the qualifying exams is set so low, both the federal and state governments feel themselves perpetually under pressure to erect more and more universities they cannot adequately fund in order to accommodate the yearly turnout of averagely qualified applicants who believe themselves suitable for places.
Given the rising population in the country, the result is not just higher number of inadequately funded universities, but also overcrowded classrooms, lecture theatres, laboratories, hostels and sporting facilities, where these exist at all. This is the original sin in our universities. It is what stretches not just government funding but other resources available to individual universities, even where they are judiciously and effectively used, which is not the case in most universities. It is what keeps both government and the universities in a perpetual need for more resources that are not only scarce but also have other equally important opportunity costs, such as basic education or public health, in a developing country like Nigeria.
But if you flip the rules, and set the minimum JAMB scores for admission at 260 say—or an average of 65 per subject—everything changes. The number of applicants who feel themselves qualified to look for places will decrease significantly, and those who earned their places into the university will not only value it more but will make the most of available resources. Classrooms, hostels and other university facilities would not need to be stretched. The point should be clear by now. University admissions are tightly controlled systems everywhere. I understand the ideal of making university open for everyone, but as a society, we must accept that the university is not a place for a student with less than half the total of the qualifying exam.
But higher standards for university entrance are useless if the qualifying exams lack integrity. WAEC, NECO, NABTEB, and even the primary school leaving Common Entrance exams have no more than limited integrity in Nigeria. Students, or their parents, or both, frequently connive with teachers, school administrators, exam officials and other “mercenaries” to buy or otherwise obtain the highest grades in those exams. I don’t know the situation of those exams today. But it was common to find students enrolled in classes who had near 300 scores in JAMB and a string of A’s in WAEC or NECO, but who, nonetheless you are sure do not even have half of their glittering grades in an exam system with higher levels of integrity.
The combined effects of low entrance standards and compromised qualifying exams conspire to fill up university facilities with students probably more than half of whom are barely teachable to the expected standards of a serious higher education system. These are clearly not problems money can solve, because they are problems of rules and politics, and of the standards of merit a society sets for itself. Once you raise university entrance standards for everyone and improve the quality and integrity of the qualifying exams to near 100 per cent, the entire outlook of our universities in terms of the perpetual need for more funding will change, and with it several other things.
First, parents will be compelled to take parenting and the education of their children more seriously. Any parent who wants his child to attend university, either for the opportunities it can provide or for other reasons, will begin to prepare for the long journey since the day the child is born, as many parents do elsewhere. The society itself will become more disciplined as merit and hard work, rather than money and long-legs, become the entrenched culture in society. Why, it might even help lower population growth in the long run. The quality of degrees offered and received will also broadly improve, while the perpetual pressure for more and more funding to keep barely qualified and unteachable students in place will decrease significantly.
And yet, all of these can only happen if two other problems with our university system are addressed simultaneously with this. My point, however, is that all of ASUU’s noble struggle will be misplaced if it doesn’t feature these issues in its thinking, as it currently does not.