General Opinions

The Nigerian academia in 2050: Looking backwards today to see tomorrow

Tobi Oshodi, University of Leuven, Belgium

The multidimensional challenges facing the academia in Nigeria are not new and neither are efforts at engaging and/or improving them novel. Moreover, these challenges are not disconnected from those facing the Nigerian state. To, therefore, grasp the challenges facing the academia is to understand the history and nature of problems facing the Nigerian state itself. And by now, scholars and students of Nigerian history know that the country’s history is marked by episodes of missed opportunities and failed ‘developmental’ plans among other let-downs.

While these episodes have been documented – from differing perspectives – by Nigerian academics, they have sometimes gained expression in many negatives titles ranging from Eghosa Osaghae’s “Crippled Giant” to Sylvester Fajonyomi’s “Sleeping Giant” and Ike Okonta’s “Dying State.” But the history is not one of total hopelessness; there have been positive forecasts.

There have been forecasts that imagined bright future for the most populous country in Africa. Given its pivotal status, for instance, not only has Nigeria’s leadership been projected within the West African sub-region in peacekeeping but its technical aid corps was a tool to assist sister countries with its home-trained professional. There were imaginations of higher expectations within and outside Africa. Images of these expectations – and in some cases manifestations – was what Professor Bolaji Akinyemi grappled with and conceptualised as Pax Nigeriana as a student at Oxford in the 1960s; a term that also became popular with distinguished but late Professor Ali Mazrui. So, just as the history of let-downs are known, so also are there positive imageries about Nigeria.

This brings me to one of the latest of such positive expectations: the year 2050. Why 2050? What could happen in 2050? Based on contemporary realities, what (in)capacities characterise the academia vis-à-vis the 2050 expectations?

Looking into the future without some kind of crystal ball is obviously a tricky business. Even renowned futurologist often let their audience know about the difficulty of prediction. As Jim Dator, who is sometimes credited to be the first to introduce an undergraduate course on futures in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1967, notes while introducing essays of 25 futurologists in a special issue in 1998: “Everyone agrees that futures studies does not try to predict the future, in the sense of saying precisely what will happen to an individual, organisation, or country before it actually happens.” Futurologists thus while not specifically making a prediction only attempt to forecast the future. Yet attempting to predict the future ranges from trivial guesses (i.e. ‘I think this will happen but I don’t have any serious scientific explanations’) to more rigorous and in-depth forecasts (i.e. ‘I think this will happen based on these methodologies and given these conditions).

Enter “the trivial” and “the scientific” foresight for 2050. On a personal and mostly unscientific note, I became addicted to the year 2050 in 2014. Typifying the trivial guess, I felt that by 2050 I should have retired from teaching at a Nigerian university and should (hopefully) be able to tell my grandkids and anyone that wish to listen about how a “Crippled Giant” on the African continent rose like an Asian dragon. Thinking of the possibilities of a “Lagos Consensus” in the light of (post)Washington and Beijing consensus, I was uncritically optimistic to say the least and this comes out in the first piece I wrote, not in a scientific journal but in a Facebook entitled “October 1, 2050: Thinking of a Different Future…” In that 2014 post, I concluded thus: “I pray that I should have retired from the academia but be proud that I am leaving the stage for a younger crop of scholars that will be more brilliant and more committed than I can ever hope to be… This is very possible.”

As an afterthought, my optimism was probably motivated by the fact that I was celebrating Nigeria’s independence in a foreign land; and thinking about a befitting birthday gift I could give my beloved country, a Facebook post seems my cheapest gift. A year later, however, on October 1, 2015, I repeated my addiction with a sequel entitled: “2015: Road to greatness… The countdown still continues to 2050!” For me, I fear that my 2050 addiction will carry on as some sort of annual October 1 ritual!

But on a more serious note, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the four largest multinational professional services companies in the world, published a document entitled “The world in 2050: Will the shift in global economic power continue?” In the report released in February 2015, PWC – in its first page – noted thus: “We project new emerging economies like Mexico and Indonesia to be larger than the UK and France by 2030 (in PPP terms) while Turkey could become larger than Italy. Nigeria and Vietnam could be the fast growing large economies over the period to 2050.” The document continues that: “The rise of Indonesia and Nigeria through the world rankings throughout the period to 2050 is very striking: Indonesia rises from 9th in 2014 to 4th in 2050, and Nigeria rises from 20th in 2014 to 9th in 2050.”

Another interesting 2050 forecast is the United Nations population prediction. Of a global figure of over nine billion, the UN predicts that Nigeria’s population will reach 413 million by 2050 making it the third most populous country in the world. This increase in population, when (or if) it happens, is estimated to make Nigeria the third largest – hitherto the seventh in 2015 – country in the world; following India and China as the most populated states respectively.

Now, a prediction that sees Nigeria as the ninth biggest economies and third most populous country in the world naturally raises numerous questions. While it is crucial to interrogate the methodologies for these predictions, it is also essential to raise questions about contemporary structures that will have implications for the 2050 forecasts. One of such crucial structure is educational, especially as represented in the academia. Since it would be naïve and unrealistic to assume that foreign educational systems will train Nigerians for 2050, what are the contemporary (in)capacities of the Nigerian academia that gives one the hope that it could (not) produce the necessary workforce to power a world-class economy? Can the academia play an epochal role in transforming the majority of Nigeria’s forecasted 413 million citizens in 2050 to a “quality population” that seamlessly fits into a global knowledge economy rather than a crude “quantity population” that is more of a burden? My point is simple, given that 2050 is merely 34 years from today, the time to solidify the Nigerian academia is yesterday. But what has been happening to the academia yesterday? I will return to this shortly.

If the Nigerian economy will be the ninth biggest in the world by 2050, it is logical to expect that Nigerian universities, polytechnics and colleges of education will be among the best in the world. Now, the 2050 PWC forecast means a lot of things. It implies that Nigerian universities will have to become some of the leading centres of excellence in the world; it means that rather than only the University of Ibadan being ranked 601st in the world, numerous Nigerian universities will, at least, move into the top 800. It means that the Nigerian political class will be confident enough to go into a local teaching hospital for treatment. It also means that rather than run to South Africa, Europe or the United States for education, Nigeria’s educational institutions will become (more) valuable and reliable again.

Given the 2050 forecast, it means we will, at that time, host numerous international students from within and outside Africa. This means that research centres will begin to live up to their names. Given that the availability of facilities, funding, remuneration, and prestige among other issues varyingly account for brain-drain in Nigeria, it means that by 2050, brain drain will be reversed because every Nigerian scholar will compare favourably with their colleagues in some of the best systems. Our conferences will attract scholars from far and wide; and “far and wide” does not mean a scholar from Kano attending a conference in Lagos.

Unquestionably, the imageries mentioned above are quite enormous expectations. But if they are to come to fruition, many issues need to be addressed outside and within the Nigerian academia. Things will have to change at the individual, group, system, and national levels. For the PWC’s 2050 forecast to become a reality, the necessary foundation for advancement needs to be laid today. But while there is enough reason to argue that the academia holds a crucial role, it is necessary to understand the context and challenges within which it is expected to function. What has been happening to the Nigerian academia?

Unfortunately, few days and months after the PWC’s 2050 forecast document release in February 2015, there followed series of bad news from Nigeria’s ivory towers such as, for instance, “University workers threaten strike” in March, “University lecturers threaten strike over Nigerian govt.’s move to stop primary school teachers’ pay“ in June, “11 Nigerian universities are substandard – NUC” in August, and “SSANU to embark on indefinite strike over FG’s plan to sack 2,000 members” in December among many others. For an honest observer, this is more a sign of chaos than advancement.

The truth is that the Nigerian academia in a number of cases is a microcosm of the Nigerian state. Ethnicity, corruption, victimisation, intellectual laziness, sexual harassment, and gangsterism/cultism are among vices that have been reported. While some “scholars” pay little attention to publishing in scientific journals, they (still) manage to put together writings they call “handouts” for sale to their students some of whom grudgingly buy them!

A survey on experience with hand-out-selling-scholars could shed light on the dimension, thinking and ratings of the academia among their ultimate ‘product’ (i.e. their graduates). Meanwhile, other scholars having been pressured by their universities to get an international publication at all cost, are forced to sadly publish their articles in “International Journals” that are poorly reviewed than even some of the worst local journals. Unfortunately, if the university is by nature an international entity to the extent that its outputs do serve not only the local but also the international, the fact that Nigerian universities require some international publication from their scholars in itself hides two interrelated levels of failures!

Failure one: the inability to acknowledge the strength that the Nigerian academia can galvanise to transform some of its current local journals scattered across faculties and departments into stronger platforms for sharing ideas. When asked what makes a foreign journal better than Nigerian journals, scholars are quick to mention rigour, peer review, consistency, impact factor, and all that. True! But what stops a Nigerian journal from having these same qualities?

Failure two: the failure of the academia to aggressively lead or, at least, support moves to make existing local journals international. Why can’t some of Nigeria’s leading scholars come together to sustain a journal that will compare with any “international” journal? While it is not debatable that some institutions are striving to make some of their local journals available to an international audience by going online, institutions could pull resources together to launch more sophisticated systems. In other words, even if a single university finds it difficult, why can’t groups of universities form Zones of Excellence to sustain new journals while also digitalizing old journal articles that might soon become forgotten and therefore invincible? Bearing in mind a tilt towards “entrepreneurial universities” in developed economies as, for instance, pointed out by Henry Etzkowitz et al. in their piece entitled “The future of the university and the university of the future,” no law bars Nigerian universities from creatively developing ideas; universities are by design arenas for creativity.

If JSTOR is a product of a Princeton president and if AJOL is a product of International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publication (INASP), why can’t Zones of Excellence launch similar platforms to put Nigerian scholarships ‘outside there’? Even where it is accepted that the gap – primarily in terms of funding – between universities in advanced countries and those in Nigeria is wide, what stops us from taking some of the simplest steps to reduce it?

Challenges of the Nigerian academics, however, goes beyond the issue of quality of publications and the attendant failures that comes with over-mystification of foreign publications, inbreeding and ethnic-compartmentalisation need to be addressed. By 2050, if the PWC positive forecasts happen, Nigeria would have produced more cosmopolitan, international and impressive megacities. Universities, polytechnics and colleges will have to reflect this cosmopolitanity.

Ironically, the history and episodes of ethnicity in Nigerian academic institutions suggest that inter-ethnic diversity remains an issue. If Nigerian scholars can head departments and faculties outside of Nigeria, why can’t/shouldn’t positions be blind to the ethnic background of academics in appointment? Why must a Vice Chancellor always come from the host state or region, in most cases? Why should priority be given to ethnic background rather than merit and actual capacities to improve the quality of institutions? Why will a university be brandished “federal” when its scholars are mainly from a particular ethnic group? Even when we can’t attract foreign scholars in 2016, why can’t federal educational institutions attract non-indigene scholars?

All in all, the year 2050 may come and go, and nothing would have changed in the socio-economic plight of Nigeria and its academia. Nothing would happen if those that are meant to produce the workforce that will propel the economy into the ninth position need to be propelled themselves. The truth is that Nigerian academic institutions cannot become centres of excellence within minutes; this happens only with positive commitment and serious investment by stakeholders. For sure, stakeholders go beyond government and its agencies. Lecturers, non-academic staff, parents, students, the media, and the international community. While each of these stakeholders plays differing and sometimes contradictory roles, each is crucial for supporting the advancement of the academia.

The fact that many Nigerian academics working outside of the country have excelled in their various disciplines holds glimmers of hope and potentials. The efforts of those distinguished academics that have remained home in their departments and managed to teach their students in spite of victimisation and “less-than-ok” funding is also a source of hope. The fact that some of the products of these group of academics leave the shores of Nigeria and compete without being disgraced by students from elsewhere who had a better education is also a source of hope.

It is the hope that Nigerian academics will/could be an active agent for a greater Nigeria in 2050 and post-2050 that motivates the founders of The Nigerian Academia magazine. It is also this hope that drives my interest to be a part of the dreams and aspirations of its founders. My subsequent write-ups among others will interrogate issues and lessons from outside Nigeria through a Nigerian lens. For sure, issues of teaching, learning environment, research, income, publication, scholarship, students, reputation, and town-gown interactions will be recurring topics in my multi-level analysis of the reality of the Nigerian academia. Welcome to my world!

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