Dr. Salisu Umar is the rector of Auchi Polytechnic in Edo State. In this interview with Daily Trust, he spoke on how technical education can move the nation forward, and his efforts to make the institution world class, among other issues.
What can the government do to strengthen the educational sector?
We got it wrong right from the beginning by allowing a system of education that only guarantees white-collar jobs. As a developing nation, we don’t need the education system we are currently running, what we need is technical vocational education. Our education system now can’t take us anywhere; we are only going to be producing graduates that will later become a problem for the country.
If you look at the statistics every year, every stream that is going for youth service cannot be less than 25,000 and we have four streams; so you are now talking about 100,000 yearly. You have that kind of figure of graduates, and for the past 12 years, and I have not seen where the government says this is a space for youths to apply for jobs. Most of the jobs we are getting are through the paramilitary and the number is quite minimal.
So, for us to grow, we need to change our educational system, instead of even building more universities, we should think about building more polytechnics and vocational schools so that right from secondary school, the youths can be useful to themselves and the nation.
But right now, most of us believe so much in white-collar jobs and it is not helping us because you have millions of youth without jobs, and how do you solve that problem that is actually a time bomb.
For Nigeria to move forward, we should think about technical and vocational education, let youths have the skills and not just the degrees; technical and vocational education is the way out.
Research and innovation is the bedrock of any educational system. What is your administration doing in this area?
We are doing well. I was once the director of research and innovation in the school, so I know the importance of research before I became the rector. I have organised and chaired over 22 conferences, from 2008 when I was made the director of research and innovation. We trained over 300 staff in the skill acquisition programme and that means this staff have been certified and they can also go and teach other staff and students because I have the mission that from this session onward, none of our students will graduate without having a skill.
All our final year students, both National Diploma and Higher National Diploma, are going to be enrolled to have skills because we are in a situation where white-collar jobs are no longer available, the only way we can help our children is to change the direction of our research towards the acquisition of skills.
We have also sponsored about 48 people for PhD and MSc programmes. We have trained about 150 staff members and about 200 students on skills, the records are there. We don’t want to base our research now on paper research, we want to move from a paper research institution to a skilled acquisition research institution.
Cultism and extortion of students by lecturers are prevalent in our institutions, how are you addressing these?
The late rector, Sunny Jimah’s administration did well in that area, and I must sustain it. In cultism, we have been able to reduce it to the barest minimum. For almost three semesters now, there has been no incident of cultism on campus.
In the area of extortion, I employ a different approach; my predecessor’s approach was like killing mosquitoes with a hammer, and at the end of the day, it failed because almost all the people that were sacked at that time won their cases in court, and we had no alternative but to bring them back.
I have decided to form the ethics and transparency committee. This committee is independent and charged with the power to try any person, either staff or students, that is found wanting, and it has been yielding results.
We have demoted three lecturers as a measure because sometimes if you are too much in a hurry to punish people, you give them a little leeway. This measure is really working for us. We have zero tolerance for corruption or any form of misconduct.
What challenges did you face at Auchi Polytechnic in the last one year as rector?
When you are leading a population of 45,000 people, you should expect challenges. One of the challenges is curtailing the students because you get calls at midnight that students are not well, students are attacked or fighting in the hostel. But, I already have a direction and a pathway that I follow without being derailed. The pathway is to make Auchi Polytechnic a world-class institution. To fulfill this, from the government, individuals and corporate bodies, I make sure that we get enough to make the polytechnic a world-class institution.
When you talk about making an institution that has suffered infrastructure decay world-class, it becomes a problem because those infrastructures must be brought up to standard and other technological improvements must be done, and human capital development and ICT level must be attained and before you can achieve them, you must have adequate finance.
You talk about infrastructure deficit, how have you tackled that in the last one year?
There are some TETFUND projects that were initiated before I assumed office. They were left at foundation level. The lecture theatre that I met at foundation level, I have raised it to roofing level. I met the modern central stores built from our Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) also at foundation level and I have moved it to decking and roofing levels.
Also, I met 40 staff room offices in the school of Agricultural Science that were just awarded, they have been roofed. There were two twin theatres, 27 classrooms and 48 staff offices on campus 2, which were about 70, 80 and 72 per cent complete. They have been completed, furnished, and staff have moved in.
All these have helped us to achieve our accreditation status as one of the best polytechnics in the country.
How has your IGR helped in carrying out projects and innovations in the institution?
Our IGR over the years has really suffered because of the debt I met on the ground. When I came on board, I met over N1.3 billion in debt but we have settled over 90 per cent of it. But that doesn’t stop us from doing the little things that we can.
I have over 700 part-time lecturers and staff in this school, and we pay them over N24 million monthly, and that doesn’t include electricity and diesel bills that we also pay from our IGR.
But I will not want to use them as an excuse not to develop the school. We have 17 new departments added to the existing ones, and they must have offices, classrooms and furniture. So money is a problem but we will try to manage the little resources we have without wastage to make sure that we achieve what we intend to achieve within the stipulated time.
Considering the high cost of electricity and diesel, are you looking at other alternative sources?
We have been able to reduce the cost of energy consumption. In the area of power, we have been able to use some of our students’ projects to develop solar panels that we are using to power our ICT centres. Before the end of this session, almost all our ICT centres will be powered by solar panels to reduce the cost.
When I came on board, we used over 30,000 litres of diesel monthly; it was quite massive, especially now that the diesel price has doubled. To reduce cost, we made sure that all the pumping stations were converted to higher-level stabilisers so that we can reduce the use of generators.
We have been able to connect almost all the pumping stations with high-level stabilisers and that has helped us greatly in reducing the cost of diesel. But we are looking in the area of solar power so that we can drastically reduce the high cost of diesel and electricity consumption in the institution.
What other plans do you have for the polytechnic?
My vision is to make Auchi Polytechnic a world-class institution. I started by giving the polytechnic the highest number of accreditation any polytechnic in Nigeria has ever acquired. We have 64 programmes to its carrying capacity earlier. We have added 17 new programmes such as welding and fabrication, mechatronics, petroleum and gas processing, computer engineering, website design, pharmaceutical technology, agric crop production among others.
We are laying fibre optic for broadband in the school so that our students will no longer suffer to buy data for their research. We want to make research easier for students, they will use their laptops anywhere in the polytechnic and connect to the server and do their work.
What is your take on the planned upgrade of Auchi Polytechnic to a university of technology?
It would be a good development if the polytechnic is upgraded to a university of technology in my time. It will give us the required progress. My only prayer is that they should still allow programmes like ND to continue because there are some people that really want to have that ND and terminate at that point. So if converting Auchi Polytechnic to a university of technology is for the progress of the country, I key into it.