Opinion: Universities Without Money

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Our National Assembly wants UTME results to be valid for three years. Our Minister of Education wants Post UTME scrapped. He also does not want, anymore, computer-based admission examinations into Nigerian universities. There is also the insistence that 180 should be the magic mark for admission into some categories of universities in the country. A commentator summed up all these and suggested cynically that we should simply open the gates of our universities to all candidates who knock.

On Tuesday last week, I had an unplanned parking lot discussion with some senior lecturers of the University of Ibadan. The school has been closed to students now for several weeks because students protested lack of electricity and water in their hostels. I listened as the lecturers informally reviewed the state of things in their place of work. The revealing discussion moved back and forth, typical of an academic environment: students complained of lack of regular electricity on campus and would not be pacified. The school was closed down but some of these vociferous students have not left the campus because there is no electricity at home. Interesting. I listened as discussions shifted to the fees payable by students. I asked whether they did not think the existing fee regime in public universities in Nigeria could not provide efficient service delivery anywhere. They agreed. I told them of a first generation federal university in the South West where students pay N19,000 as tuition and N2,000 per session for accommodation. It did not shock any of them.

One of my hosts told a personal story: his uncle wanted to properly plan for his son’s admission into a federal university and so asked him for the financial implications. He asked him to hold on, not to worry but the uncle said he wanted the information that moment because he needed to plan within his means. When he insisted, the discussant continued, he told the uncle that “considering the various dues the boy would need to pay — departmental, faculty, health, sports,etc, — the dad should prepare about N15,000.”

“Fifteen thousand dollars.”
“No. Naira.” He laughed. But it wasn’t funny. The uncle has a child abroad. He also has friends who have children in private universities in Nigeria. He knows how much he pays on his child abroad and how much his friends pay into the coffers of private universities. He also remembers, in particular, how much he paid, every session, for this particular boy’s nursery/ primary and secondary education. It wasn’t difficult to figure out what was raging in the mind of this dad. How would that school, at that price, offer what he wanted for his kid? At what point should parents realise that paying N15,000 per session for a university degree in today’s Nigeria hurts the system?

I told my hosts it is the duty of the state to provide education for its citizens. I also told them it is the primary duty of we parents to provide education for our children. I told my hosts we could not have a university system that would serve Nigeria and secure its future without money. How that money would come has to be decided by all the stakeholders — school authorities, parents and the government. The public university system in Nigeria cannot work when governments treat universities as cows to be milked. It is interesting that all fees payable by students of federal universities now go into President Muhammadu Buhari’s TSA. If universities are consistently poorly funded and the little revenue they manage to raise from fees is mopped up by the Federal Government, where do we want them to turn to for survival?

I am not advocating the pricing of education beyond the capacity of parents. I am particularly not qualified to say that given my own story: I left the Polytechnic Ibadan in 1986 where I was paying N75 per session when I discovered that the total fee I would pay at the then University of Ife was N20. And, for the entire four years I was in Ife, the cumulative official fees paid were not up to N100. Accommodation? Yes. We paid N90 per session. At N2 to a dollar, that was the equivalent of $45. That amount was difficult to assemble by many parents, just as it was for mine. We had very resourceful, hardworking, cheerful lecturers who were poorly paid and we saw it in the lives they lived. “Power is stable. The taps are running,” was the welcome message we got at the halls of residence on our first day in school. But we thought things were bad because, just two years earlier, the military government of General Muhammadu Buhari had stopped subsidised meals in universities. What we met in 1986 were just the receding aroma of 50k whole chickens, ice cream and free fruits in cafeterias. Every generation has its challenges and every generation must learn to wade through those challenges. We lived through ours.

Now, we tell our children our story and we see in their eyes surprise, envy and a sense of loss. We felt exactly same way in the 80s when the story of the 60s and the 70s was told. Any country where the past is always better than the present is not a place to preserve and live. We must destroy this failed temple and rebuild it for the sake of our future. Thirty years ago we felt things were not exactly as they should be and we waged wars against the Nigerian establishment. Today, our children are fighting the system because of the same problems. Do we need anyone to tell us that the system has failed us (or that we have failed the system)?Today, nothing has changed in the way we treat teachers of our children.

We pay the most senior professor about N500,000 per month and give governors’ hangers-on higher pays. With TSA mopping up internally generated funds of federal universities and shortfalls drilling holes in the schools’ accounts, lecturers and other workers in the universities are no longer sure of the figures and when the month would end. Imagine hungry teachers teaching angry students. That is the combustible stuff we have today on our hands but unfortunately what solution have we?

With a National Assembly that wants marks obtained three years ago to rule admissions this year and a 21st century minister of education who does “not like” computer-based tests, what else do we need to prove that the future is troubled already? Let no president continue to see universities as cash cows. Let no parent think N2,000 per annum hostel will give his/her children 21st century comfort. Let no country think it can poorly fund its universities and march confidently to the future.

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