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We should stop establishing more universities – Prof Jibril

Professor Munzali Jibril, an emeritus professor of English at the Bayero University Kano (BUK), is a notable education administrator. He had served as the Executive…

Professor Munzali Jibril, an emeritus professor of English at the Bayero University Kano (BUK), is a notable education administrator. He had served as the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), among other positions. In this interview, he provides a prognosis of the implication of opening of more universities, Nigeria’s education policies and how the country can get it right. 

With all the cries over time over university funding, don’t you think that at the rate we are having more universities, almost all the colleges and polytechnics are going to convert to degree institutions. Is this the right thing to do? 

If my advice was sought, I would say rather than increase the number of universities, why don’t you develop the present ones to their optimum capacity. 

Even the large first-generation universities like ABU, Ibadan and so on, they have massive problems, decaying infrastructure that is difficult to maintain. They have very good staff because they are old and so on. There is prestige in being in ABU rather than being in some new university, and they have large expanses of land, they are actually municipalities in their own. Some of them are bigger than some local governments, and maintaining the road network in ABU alone is not a joke. 

So, I would rather pump money into improving the quality of the learning environment in these universities than in rushing to open new ones. 

Yes, we need to expand the system to absorb more. Like I told you, we are only absorbing about 12-15 percent of the age cut when in fact for us to be meaningful participants in the knowledge economy, it has to be 65 percent and above, the proportion of people of that age cut participating in tertiary education. 

But we don’t have to establish institutions; there are other ways of expanding access. For example, the universities that have so much land should build more faculties or expand the existing ones but instead you see there are political undertones in this because a university is also an economic unit that offers employment and those people employed are economically empowered to spend money. So, if you go to a rural location and establish a university, you have brought opportunities. Many people will be employed by the university or by the staffs of the university or will be patronised for their services whether it is frying akara by the road side or selling kunu or whatever or providing janitorial services as the university cleaners, gardeners and whatever. So, there are lots of benefits but I think we are overdoing it. 

You see states that cannot even fund one university, establishing three because the previous one or two were established by some governors from those senatorial districts and now you are the first governor from your own, you think you must also establish one in your own district to balance the equation without regard to the capacity of the state to support that institution. 

A lot of state governments, especially down South, struggle to support themselves. There is one particular state in the North Central zone where it is an official policy not to give a kobo to the university, they have a state university and the VC was told: ‘go and find your money’ and so they charge fees. So, what is the difference between that and a private university? I think maybe the only thing the state government does is probably funding of capital projects and they don’t give a kobo to the university but they are very good at awarding contracts. 

So, in a nutshell, what would you prescribe to get our acts right, especially in managing tertiary education in Nigeria? 

As I said: stop establishing new institutions, fund the ones you have properly because they are grossly underfunded, fund them properly. 

And for us to have industrial peace in the tertiary education centre, funding has to improve, accountability of what is funded also has to improve and government has to be alive to its commitments. If you sign an agreement with any union, just like the gentlemen are bound by their commitments, you should also be bound by your commitments. 

Stop proliferating the landscape with too many institutions, concentrate on fully developing and funding the ones you have. Align education policy and output with demands of the economy and ensure that no product of a tertiary institution stays without a job because like I hinted, the rise in crime rate is probably directly traceable to the unemployment status of highly trained people.  

There seems to be a neglect of technical education in favour of university education in Nigeria. What are the implications of this for the country and how do we get it right? 

The issue of technical education and how it has been neglected in Nigeria is a very serious issue in Nigerian education and I think it has its origin in our colonial history. When we were colonised, the policy in Britain was that the children of the elite should have a liberal education; go to Cambridge and Oxford. Then they should take a path that will lead them to leadership in the various sectors of the economy, whether in administration, politics and other professions. Then the children of the working class should be given the type of education that will prepare them to succeed their parents as working-class people. 

So, this policy was continued in Nigeria because when they came, you would remember we had craft schools, leading to technical schools, then we had teacher training colleges, then we had secondary schools and even in the secondary schools there were provincial secondary schools and there were government colleges. 

Of course, the best adjudged – not on account of parental background – but possibly on account of their performance in the examination or even their size; because if you were tall, even at 12 you would look 14, they will say this one is too big for secondary school, let him go to a teachers’ college where there was a little hope of becoming a graduate. So, you just go to a teachers’ college after Grade 3 or Grade 2 and then stop there. 

But the children who are smallish in size and performed well will be taken to secondary schools or government colleges. In the old North, the best rated college was Government College Keffi, so the best students from all the North went to Keffi, followed by Barewa College and then Government College Kaduna in that order. Then the others went to provincial secondary schools. 

So, if a child went to a craft school and from there to a technical school, the best he could hope for was to go to a polytechnic and have a diploma in the field that he studied in the craft school and the technical school and of course, the future would not be very bright for that kind of person. 

You see, the UK has moved away from that to some extent. Of course, it is very unlikely for the child of a minister or Member of Parliament or chief executive of a company to go the vocational way, it is still very much an elitist system. But the compartmentalization is not so strong there as it is here; and in any case, it depends on what people want. Like some people finish secondary schools in the UK and they want a job that can guarantee them a certain standard of living and they see the university route as too long, so they opt to go for a vocational training in plumbing, in carpentry or whatever and they are quite happy with. And their remuneration tends to be better than for white collar jobs and it is okay. 

But here in Nigeria, we are still stuck in that colonial mode. That is why there is still this dichotomy between HND and Degree. As far as I can remember, for over 20 years, many governments have been issuing policy statements abolishing the dichotomy but the dichotomy is still there with us.   

But why do you think the dichotomy is still there? 

Well, because the people to implement it believe in it. The officials of the ministries, the bureaucracy, who are they? The leaders! If you do a survey of the permanent secretaries, how many of them came from the technical root? 

Civil servants are very smart people. If you bring a policy they don’t like, they won’t oppose it but they will make sure it is never implemented, because ministers who make the policies come and go but they stay. They know how to embark on a slow process of implementation that will scuttle it. So, they will just be going in circles without any movement. 

You really need to shape people out or some economic tsunami could happen whereby all the values are transformed overnight because what happens in other countries is different. If you go to Taiwan, people don’t have this craze for degrees because what matters is what you can do with your hands. A lot of the products of the Asian Tigers – Taiwan, Korea are not university graduates, they are just people who have the equivalent of our secondary school but specialised in a technical field and are able to be entrepreneurs at the same time to set up their own businesses and produce their own products. 

A lot of the wristwatches and telephones are assembled in cottage industries. You can just see the boys’ quarters of homes of ordinary people turned into factories. The father, mother and children all participate in producing and packaging, and you will think it was from some big factories. 

There is also a lot to learn from the German education vocation systems which is unique in the world. People pay pilgrimages to Germany but nobody can copy the system because it is engrained in their social setup and that is a unique social setup because the people we call Julius Berger engineers are not engineers, they are just technicians and their level of education is senior secondary school plus one more year. After primary school of six years and junior secondary school of three years, they now go into vocational training. You either choose to be a car mechanic, a plumber, a carpenter and so on. If you want to be a carpenter, you won’t be a general carpenter, you will choose; ‘I want to specialize in making roofs’, so you go to a narrow area of specialization and study that in-depth. You spend three days in school every week, two days attached to a factory that is into that area. The factory gives you an allowance every month without obligation; they don’t tie you down to work for them and you don’t expect that you must be employed by them when you finish. So, that is why I said it is unique and it is only in Germany because they have this socialist system. 

They contribute because they think this is a national obligation for them to contribute to the manpower development of the nation. But the state government also makes contribution to the stipend of the students and the federal government also makes small contribution. So, there are three sources but the unique thing about it is, three days academic training, two days technical training and so you will spend four years doing that; that is why I said senior secondary school plus one year. 

At the end, he goes through a practical examination to be certified by somebody they call master craftsman in that area who had gone through the same system maybe with 20, 30 years’ experience. He is not just a craftsman but a master craftsman qualified to certify another master craftsman and once you are certified, then you are specialist in that area. 

In all these countries – the Asian Tigers, Germany and others, the role of the technical, vocational people in the economy is unquantifiable because without them the economy will collapse and there is no emphasis on paper qualifications.   

Is this a model you think Nigeria should imitate? 

You know in Nigeria we are yet to get our acts together because you cannot implement anything in isolation, we have to have a package. You can see we have education policies; we produce people of all grades, categories and qualifications but there is no alignment with the economy. 

Are we producing in accordance with the needs of the economy? Are we ensuring that those produced last year and the year before have been absorbed into the labour market? We just pump in people into the labour market and thereby creating social issues and social problems.   

We cannot make progress until we sit down and align our policies. The Ministry of Finance and National Planning, the Ministry of Education have to synchronize their policies and there has to be a continuous monitoring and evaluation to make sure that we are on the right path. 

This is how other countries do their things but we want to do it differently and expect a different result, it won’t work that way.   

 

The craze for university degrees seems to be somehow fuelled by social expectations 

Well, I gave you a background. Under that original template, you wouldn’t be a leader in whichever sector you choose to operate if you didn’t have a degree because it was designed that the leader of the society or the country will go through that path and to a large extent that is still the mindset, that is still the template we are operating. 

In the developed countries, as I said, you might actually earn more being a technical person than somebody with higher qualifications because he is doing a white-collar job, while you are doing blue collar job where you get your hands dirty and those people don’t want to do that, therefore you earn more than them. Until our remuneration catches up with that, there will continue to be a craze for degrees. 

Degrees are good yes and one of the indices by which you measure the level of development of a country is what percentage of its people aged 18-25 acquire tertiary education. Our own is very low. It is still between 12 and 15 percent. But if you go to the US, it is about 89 or 90 per cent. If you go to all the OECD’s countries, none has less than 60 or 70 percent. So, it is important that there must be something at the end of the degree. 

Now, if you look at the sophistication of crime, the desperation of criminals has something to do with high level of education without employment at the end of it. You have trained somebody to think and he has come out of the university with high expectations of a certain quality of life and he now graduates and stays for years without realizing that aspiration. They come out and are disappointed and therefore go into crime because, as they say, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.

That is why crime is increasing and sophisticated, people are more daring, people are more willing to take risks and evade detection and arrest. 

Even these kidnappings; the people you see on the roads kidnapping people are not the real masterminds. The masterminds are sitting in some air-conditioned room communicating not only with the operatives in the field but with other people that are mediating between them, and those are the people who really benefit. When the proceeds come, they might take like 70 per cent and those people just get the crumbs. 

That is why I said we need a package to address not only what type of education we should give our people, but how we should subdivide between subject areas, different levels like diploma, higher diploma, degree and so on, and how to synchronize and align that with the needs of the wider world. If the economy is not absorbing people at the right pace, the economists will advise us on how to open it up, how to expand employment and how to increase productivity. 

A number of polytechnics and colleges of education are rushing to convert themselves into degree awarding institutions; do you think this is healthy for the system? 

Well, the problem is what we said at the beginning: every type of education is disregarded except university education. A lot of the polytechnics and colleges of education/agriculture aspiring to become degree awarding institutions do not have what it takes. 

For example, if you have a third-class degree, nobody in the university will look at you as a lecturer, graduate assistant or lecturer in training but they are there in the polytechnics. 

There was a study done by NBTE some years ago and I think they found that less than 10 percent of the lecturers in the whole polytechnic system have PhD and probably maybe less than 20 percent have master degrees. 

So, how can an institution like that aspire to be the same as another that has different criteria for recruitment? A lot of them don’t have what it takes because even the career progression criteria are not the same as in the universities. 

Different countries make different choices. The UK, in the 1980s to early 1990s decided that they didn’t need polytechnics. So, all their polytechnics were converted into degree awarding institutions, they were called the new universities, though now they are not so new. Some of them have beaten some of the old universities in all the important indices like research output, quality of teaching and so on and so forth. So, that is their choice. 

But I don’t think that in Nigeria, we should also convert all polytechnics and colleges of education into universities. 

Yes, we need more graduates but importantly we need to make sure that the graduates that we produce are absorbed into productive sectors of the economy so that we are not just producing for the sake of producing or producing for the external market, like what is happening with medical doctors now.

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