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    Friday, March 28, 2014

    A road map for resuscitating our public universities

    For our public universities to compete, we must promote undergraduate teaching to a global standard, produce research that solves problems, encourage faculty to be part of a global academy where research and productivity are measured in qualitative ways.”

    - Prof. Toyin Falola, Convocation lecture, University of the State of Osun, March 27, 2014

     Each week, a columnist is confronted with a harvest of riveting issues and events to comment upon, more so in a country like ours where reality not only mimics fiction, but now and again, overtakes it in sheer, fascinating absurdity.

    The chilling discovery of a horror chamber on the outskirts of Ibadan replete with decapitated human bodies, as well as men and women who have survived extreme torture make Yoruba novelist, D. O. Fagunwa’s “Forest Of A Thousand Demons” read like a nursery rhyme.  There was yet another tragic candidate for commentary, namely, the report that a catastrophic drop in power supply had necessitated the decision of government to import electricity from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that still bears the scars of a decade long, savage bloodletting.  The question to ask is: How did Nigeria get to this sorry pass?

    But let us reserve that question and the topic of the evil forest for another day and come imaginatively with this writer to the University of the State of Osun where Toyin Falola, Distinguished Professor of African History and the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mosiker Chair in the Humanities, at the University of Texas, Austin addressed the topic, “Public Universities: Vision and Knowledge Economies”.  The initial part of the lecture traverses a familiar ground by putting on the table the woes of the Nigerian university system. But it goes beyond familiar explanations such as underfunding, dishevelled infrastructure, the low morale of teachers to zero in on the internal dysfunctions of the system itself. The scholar laments, for example, a situation where there are more administrative staff in some universities than there are academic staff. He then asks acidly: “What are they doing? Carrying files? These are areas of gross wastage of resources.” That is not all. He tackles the Academic Staff Union of Universities over what he called their proclivity for strike actions urging the need for attitudinal change in our academics and a shift in their strategies and tactics. This, of course, is a sore point which has been much debated namely, has ASUU through incessant and protracted strikes, admittedly waged for edifying reasons, become part of the problem of the regression of our universities? Other issues of internal decay that come in for mention include the enormous amount of time devoted to committee meetings, signing files and routine matters by vice-chancellors whose time should have been freed up for strategic planning and issues touching on the long-term enhancement of quality.

        Obviously, Falola insists, we cannot separate the diminution of our public universities from the degradation of the public sector and the recycling of inept and visionless leaders especially at the centre. To quote him: “If the quality of leadership is mediocre, its vision and instructions will be severely limiting. If elite behaviour is morally bankrupt, its value will affect everything the institutions do.”

    One area in which this point comes home is the contrasting perspective of leaders of the developmental states of Asia who devoted a substantial share of national revenue to funding education and the gross underfunding way below the 26 per cent stipulated by UNESCO

    of the same by Nigerian leaders. According to the famed scholar, this has produced a situation where many Nigerian graduates are not just unemployed but are unemployable to the extent that employers are frustrated in many cases because they can hardly find fresh graduates with the right skill sets and work ethics that will add value to their organisation.

    If our public universities are to be repositioned and take their place in the knowledge economy especial attention, Falola says, must be paid to the training and remuneration of teachers. To buttress the point, he alludes to the Japanese example where graduate teachers are the best paid public servants. Of course, as he recognises, there was a time in Nigeria when the salaries of professors was in tandem with that of a federal permanent secretary.  Today however, and despite the increased workload of professors, a distinct pay differential has emerged between apex positions in the civil service and those of senior academics.  Ironically, it is this sense of unfair disparity that has turned our academics into perpetual agitators with destructive consequences for the academic calendar.

    One other pitfall identified is the bland and unimaginative uniformity noticeable in our public universities with every university offering more or less the same blend of courses and where salaries and emoluments are not graduated to reflect productivity. As Falola puts it: “Most public universities pay the same salaries to academics more on the basis of their designation regardless of whether or not one is more productive than the other.  The practice of paying everyone without measuring their productivity encourages lethargy, idleness, useless politicking and redundancy.” The point made here must be qualified by the fact that unproductive academics are likely to stagnate given that promotion is mainly tied to academic output. It is true, nonetheless, that there are incentive structures which the system can introduce to distinguish outstandingly productive academics.  For example, the practice in South African universities of paying the equivalent in Rands of N1m to academics who publish in top journals can be usefully copied but not under the current over-centralised and over-directed public university system.

    Again, to cast a backward glance, our universities were not always so rigid and drab. If they were, former Vice-Chancellor of the then University of Ife, Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade, would not have been able to appoint Wole Soyinka to a chair of comparative literature in the late 1970s. Nor would, to cite an example mentioned in the lecture, Prof. Wande Abimbola, a former Vice-Chancellor of the same university, have been able to incorporate indigenous Yoruba poets, historians and herbal experts into the Ife university system with remarkable cross-fertilisation impact.

    Perhaps, the most rewarding aspect of the lecture is the tool kit for re-imagining and repositioning our public universities. As the opening quote suggests, raising our prostrate universities to global standards while they remain locally appropriate should be the objective of any meaningful reform.  Here, the lecturer advocates a blending of indigenous knowledge with cutting edge global science to produce an innovate mix. In this connection, he refers to the Osun State Government’s Opon Imo project which as it is developed could be used, in Falola’s words, “as evidence that indigenous concepts  may be interposed with Western technology and made to generate an effective, consumable intellectually vibrant end product.”  In other words, an innovative and marketable knowledge industry, an ICT infrastructure-based revamping, education for self-reliance and for self-employment are critical ingredients of the paradigm shifts that the lecture espouses.

    A sumptuous intellectual menu laced with several courses no doubt; the question remains, however, to what extent the policy suggestions and insights will become a part and parcel of the fabric of policymaking in the country.

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