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Nigeria’s private universities: so far, so good

After its emergence in 1999, the Obasanjo government realised the great extent of decay in all the sectors of the state including the economy, which warranted its decision to embark on a series of reforms.

In the first part of the administration, efforts were primarily directed towards stabilising the polity and laundering the already battered image of the nation to the outside world. Beginning from 2003, at the emergence of the second part of the administration, the government launched a reform package, the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), to address the nation’s developmental challenges.

The government saw the need to re-define the role of the state in the economy and give more priority to the market, which informed its resolve to empower the private sector. The NEEDS working document indicated that the nation failed in its development drive because of the huge roles the past governments played in the economy. Thus, Obasanjo’s economic recovery plans were anchored on the privatisation, deregulation, and liberalisation of key sectors of the economy.

In the drive towards revamping the economy, the education sector was also especially considered. This is informed by its recognition as a “vital transformational tool and formidable instrument for socio-economic empowerment” in the NEEDS framework. The government, therefore, sought to facilitate an enabling environment for the participation of the private sector, civil society organisations, communities and development partners in the development of the education sector.

At the university level, the following were the strategies highlighted for adoption: adhering to the principle of the university autonomy; diversification of funding and commercialization of facilities; updating and restructuring the curricula to meet the demands of the market; establishment of effective monitoring of public and private universities to ensure strict adherence to standards; develop innovative approaches to ensure continuing retooling; and capacity building of lecturers, and implementation of a decentralized and wage bargaining system.

Privatisation of the university system

The most prominent strategy embarked upon by the government towards addressing some of the problems in the higher education sector was the privatisation programme. Privatisation in this context implies the involvement of private individuals and corporations in the establishment and management of universities to reduce the large governmental expenditure required to run the system and to expand access to university education given its growing demands.

Although privatisation is not a new phenomenon in the nation’s university system but the zeal with which the administration pursued it under its framework of reducing the size of the state in the economy underscored its seriousness.

It should be noted that privatisation was part of the system before the military administration of General Muhammadu Buhari in 1983. There were 26 private universities whose establishment and operations were unregulated, which warranted their closure by Buhari’s military government.

Privatisation of universities was later resuscitated in the 1991 report of the Longe Commission appointed by the Babangida regime to look into the crisis that engulfed the universities then. The Babangida regime was only able to establish an institutional framework with the introduction of the Private Higher Education Bill to allow for the privatisation of the sector.

The transition government of Abdul-Salami Abubakar, whose economic agenda was also predicated upon a privatisation philosophy, approved the establishment of three private universities before the commencement of Obasanjo’s administration. The universities approved include the Igbenedion, Madonna and Babcock Universities in May 1999.

Following the emergence of democracy in 1999, full privatisation exercise was implemented which resulted in the establishment of more private universities. Today, the number of the approved universities, according to the National Universities Commission website, has soared to 68 including those that have been licensed by the Buhari government in 2016.

Access to university education

With the emergence of the private universities, increased access to university education has been recorded. Before the privatisation of the sector, the existing public universities lacked the necessary carrying capacity to enrol qualified applicants on an annual basis. Therefore, a large number of young Nigerians were denied access to university education. The private universities have been able to provide sufficient response to this growing demand.

The more the universities were licensed to operate and their admission of students at each academic session, the higher the number of students admitted. Thus, the new private universities have increased the number of universities in the country and automatically access to university education has also improved within the short period of the privatisation of the sector.

Conversely, the access to university education is also curtailed by the high cost of acquiring placement in the private institutions. Since the universities are owned and managed by private investors, the objective is certainly for profit-making. Despite the fact that some of the institutions registered with the government as a non-profit making venture, all of them irrespective of their acclaimed statuses charge fees which are exorbitant in the Nigerian context.

The university managements may not be blamed entirely for the high fees given that a university enterprise is founded, and managed, on an enormous capital. The realisation of returns on the invested capital is through high tuition fees, which may hinder easy access to the universities considering the socio-economic condition of the country.

In an economy where about 61% of the population lives in “absolute poverty,” it would be extremely tough for a significant number of parents to send their children to the private institutions, where the tuition fees are between N350, 000 and 2 million for an academic session.

In the light of the fee structures, there is a strong reason to believe that a significant number of Nigerians are still finding it difficult to gain access to the university.

Quality of education

It is safe to argue that the entrance of the private universities into the system has impacted positively on the quality of university education. The activities of the universities are gradually creating an atmosphere of competition within the system regarding regularity of academic calendar, learning environment, infrastructural development and curricula re-designation.

The highest score for the private institutions since their existence is the maintenance of a regular academic calendar which was an albatross to the progress of the system. Given that the private universities are conceptualised as a private enterprise, the proprietors deliberately outlaw labour or student unionism which has encouraged lesser campus disputes and non-interruption of their academic calendars. A survey carried out by the Guardian Newspapers on preferences for the public and private universities revealed that 80% of parents interviewed prefer to send their wards to the private universities because of the issue of the regularity of academic calendar.

Another area of importance with regards to the operations of the private university and their competitiveness reflects in the area of curricula re-designation. For example, before the advent of the private institutions, none of the public universities had successfully integrated Information Communications Technologies (ICT) into the university’s curricula. In fact, many of the public universities operate obsolete systems that lack the capacity to withstand the demands of the contemporary world. Most of the courses offered at the university level were not grounded in ICT including courses related to the Computer Sciences. Surprisingly, many students of Computer Science could not even start a computer.

Understanding that ICT and entrepreneurial skills are necessary requirements for job security in contemporary times, most of the private universities have been able to integrate them into their curricula successfully. Many of the universities employ these training also to develop a new generation of graduates that can meaningfully contribute to national development without relying on paid jobs after graduation. Apparently, this development is revolutionising the curriculum contents of the universities as some of the public universities have also been challenged to make courses offered in their institutions ICT-based and introduce new programmes that are compliant with the present age.

Besides, the private universities also provide a variety of new and unique courses that are germane to national development which hitherto was scarcely available in the public universities. For example, in all the Nigerian universities including federal and state ones, only the OAU offered a course in International Relations at the undergraduate level. Others only offer courses in Political Science or History and International Studies. But since the beginning of the privatisation programme, there are a number of private institutions that offer the course at the undergraduate level. Novena University even advances the discipline at the Bachelor’s level with the introduction of Intelligence and Security Studies that prides itself as the only university that offers such specialisation in the whole of Africa.  Also at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), a Bachelor’s Degree programme is offered in Communications with a concentration in Telecommunications and Wireless Technology. Also, Covenant University creates new faculties to attend to disciplines such as the Entrepreneurial Development Studies, Faculty Support Programme and Wealth Creation.

In the NUC’s accreditation criteria, the following are the key indicators considered to evaluate the quality of university departments: staffing (32%), academic content (23%), physical facilities (12%), funding (5%) and employer’s rating (3%). Full accreditation status is awarded when a programme has an overall score of 70% and above. Interim accreditation status is awarded when the programme has an overall score is up to 60%, while the last status on an overall score below 60%. Upon an award of the lowest status for a programme, the department is disallowed from enrolling more students till it achieved a commendable accreditation status. In the periodic accreditation exercises conducted by the NUC, the private institutions, especially the older ones, have been able to perform competitively with the public universities. In the latest accreditation results made available by the NUC, nearly all the old private universities have a 100% accreditation status.

However, the quality of personnel into many of the private universities has been of great concern to some stakeholders. There are complaints that many of the lecturers in the private institutions are retired professors of the public universities. In an interview, a public university lecturer suggested that quality is not the watchword of the universities as the old professors are used as the backbone of the institutions. The fact that the productivity of the old professors may have massively depreciated at the period of their recruitment would affect the quality of education produced at the universities. Nevertheless, the long years of experience of those lecturers may also translate into positive development for the universities as some of them were still at their best at the point of retirement.

Furthermore, the examination procedures and academic promotion of students in the universities is suspect. It is common to read in the news that a huge number of graduating students at the institutions made a first class. In most cases, this marks a marketing strategy by the school managements to attract more students and make more money with less consideration for quality. In some informal discussions, lecturers at some of the private institutions complained of pressures by the school managements to arbitrarily award marks to students, despite significantly lowering the examination standards, with the aim of ensuring mass successes for their students. This is a clear strategy to keep students and their parents happy after paying an enormous amount of fees, thus destroying the quality of university education.

Room for improvement

Some conservative views are sceptical about the existence of private universities in Nigeria. The holders of these views are not only doubtful about the quality that can be achieved at the institutions but also complain about their growing number. The article has repudiated some of these claims by demonstrating how the universities have meaningfully contributed to the university system.

Despite the positive record, they have earned in their short time, there is still need for a lot of improvement. The issue of quality is crucial to their activities. The quality of staff they employ must correspond with the required standards of the NUC as this will contribute positively to their deliverance on university education. Quality standards should be the keyword and not the profit to make from students’ fees.

The managements of the private institutions should also take into consideration the socio-economic context of Nigeria by charging fees that are reasonably within reach of Nigerians. If one of the objectives of allowing private universities to operate is to increase access to university education, then it is counter-productive to have institutions that cannot be afforded by a significant number of Nigerians.

Also, it is not out of place for the government to extend some intervention funds such as the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETfund) or Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) to the private universities. This will give room for the government to be more involved in the activities of the schools including moderating their fee structures. The government can take clues from Mexico where public funds are also made available to private institutions to support graduate programmes, infrastructure and research projects.


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