RECKLESSLY, the Senate again advertised its penchant for mediocre interventions with its passage of a bill authorising the establishment of a Federal University of Medical Sciences and Biomedical Technology in each of the country’s six geopolitical zones. How thoughtless! Coming at a time the country is close to bankruptcy and the government borrows to pay salaries, the approval is baffling.
The passage of the bill followed the consideration and adoption of the report by the Senate Committee on Health on the proposal. It requested three in each of the six geopolitical zones. Chairman of the committee, Yahaya Oloriegbe, said that the establishment of the universities would address the shortage in admission spaces for candidates aspiring to study medicine and allied sciences. He was confident that the institutions would also supply the much-needed manpower in the healthcare sector, boost income generation and ensure economic growth.
Senators defended the action with the claim of the deficiency of universities to accommodate substantial admission seekers. This does not suggest critical thinking. Law-making bodies in other countries purposely seek to ensure world-class quality in university education; not just numbers. They cooperate with the government to create an environment conducive for learning, advance scholarship and promote inclusive research and adequate manpower in critical areas.
For one, universities have to be funded. The latest ongoing lecturers’ strike now two months old, throws up the funding crisis in public universities. The federal and most state governments do not have the resources or commitment to fund their current 49 and 57 universities respectively. Funding agreement reached with lecturers in 2010 to provide the federal universities with N200 billion annually has failed. The Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajuiba, just publicly declared that the government does not have the money. Yet, in 2021, four additional federal universities were approved with combined derisory take-off grants of N18 billion. Conversely, in 2021, American businessman, Phil Knight, donated $1 billion (N415 billion) to his alma mater, the University of Oregon’s new research campus.
Funding for education has been poor in Nigeria. In 2020, N671.07 billion of the N10.33 trillion national budget went to the sector, translating to 6.7 per cent; in 2021, it got N742.5 billion of the N13.6 trillion budget, representing 5.6 per cent. In 2022 budget of the N17 trillion, education got 7.2 per cent.
State governments that can barely pay salaries or fund basic amenities have also established multiple universities. Poorly funded and equipped, no Nigerian university makes the top 500 universities worldwide unlike South Africa that had nine in the 2022 QS World University Rankings.
Indeed, the Federal Government has no business having its finger in every pie. It can encourage private-sector investments in higher education through favourable policies. Ideally, it could aid public institutions through grants and play regulatory roles in higher education.
Public universities in advanced countries are well run, not because they fall under state ownership, but largely for the autonomy they enjoy; their activities are not tied to the apron strings of the state. Indeed, they independently source additional funding in addition to ample funding from the state. This is the situation in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, among others.
The Federal Government does not need to run universities just because education is on the concurrent list. In a federal system, the states, charities, faith-based organisations and individuals should be encouraged to establish and run universities. The Federal Government should share regulation with the states and provide funding support for higher institutions under diverse funding programmes in accordance with national education policies and objectives. The US has about 5,300 degree-awarding universities and colleges; of these, 1,626 are public (overwhelmingly state-owned), 1,687 are private non-profit and 985 are private for-profit. The Federal Government restricts itself to running only the military universities and charters a handful in the federal territory, Washington DC.
Imprudently, Nigeria’s federal lawmakers and the executive create universities, or upgrade institutions to universities like business centres! Every arm of the military – Army, Navy and Air Force –now has one; the police have followed suit, and every paramilitary agency wants one. Mono-varsities – transport, maritime, petroleum, medical – are mushrooming, created at legislative or executive whim with no thought to funding, need and availability of personnel.
The alarming meddlesomeness of the central government in lower education and higher education, in particular, has created more problems for the sector; unending strikes by university lecturers, largely due to poor funding and squabbles over the appointment of vice-chancellors amid other politically-motivated gyrations.
It is shameful that the Senate and the National Assembly have turned tertiary institutions into political projects.
This nonsense must stop. The Federal Government should rationalise its universities; it cannot fund them all. All the new ones created since 1999 should be rationalised, some merged and the staff and students absorbed by older ones. The retained ones should be well funded. The multiple military universities should be scrapped; the Nigerian Defence Academy and pre-existing higher military training institutions are adequate.
Mushrooming mono-varsities are unnecessary; those specialised courses should be introduced in older universities.
Instead, there should be moratorium on approving new universities. With federal and state support, the National Universities Commission and professional bodies should undertake a thorough needs assessment of all universities. States, charities, faith-based organisations and philanthropists should be encouraged to establish universities under strict regulation.
The Federal Government should provide robust funding support and pull out of secondary education entirely. At best, the NASS, prompting the Federal Government, can encourage state governments to be fully involved in university education and fund established ones to engender outstanding delivery in scholarship and research. Generous scholarships, bursaries and loans should be provided by the federal, states and local governments to as many qualified candidates as possible in local and foreign institutions.
The NASS should push for the fixing of existing varsities, drastically cutting down their number and readjust its unscientific posture in tandem with the universal concept of university education.
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