Francis Egbokhare is a professor of Linguistics, University of Ibadan. He is also the Chair of Council of Dominion University and immediate past president of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. In this interview with GRACE EDEMA, he emphasises the need for improved university education in the country
Government and private individuals have been setting up universities and other higher institutions. Is it a good development?
Well, it depends on how we look at it. If we look at the creation of public universities, I will say it is not a good development because the universities that are owned by government, government is hardly able to fund them. Running of higher education is not on the exclusive list. State governments can decide whether they want to set up universities. The NUC (National Universities Commission) has no right to stop them. The establishment of these institutions has been for political reasons in many cases because the states that have multiple higher institutions are barely able to fund them. So, basically, I think the idea is that the institutions are political dividends that you allocate to constituencies.
But most of the existing higher institutions do not have very strong capacity to admit all qualified students.
Yes, even the ones that are established can’t admit all students.
That means we need more then…
No, what it means is that there is a capacity gap. There is a capacity utilisation problem. We still have excess capacity. Now, let’s even look at the other side: the private universities. I don’t have a problem, for instance, if somebody with some resources says he wants to establish a university. I think with the number of private universities now; this is one sector of the economy that has boomed in terms of the investment. So in a sense, you cannot stop people from investing. What you can do is to regulate and ensure that quality services are rendered. Then of course, there is the argument that we don’t have enough PhD hands and so on. It’s still the same issue of regulation. I think you don’t have to constrain the appointment of lecturers you have to your country because labour is now very global. People can move to any part of the world to seek employment. I think the primary problem that we have – why we have not been able to attract staff from other parts of the world – is the fact that our incomes are abysmally low. Otherwise, we should not be arguing that we have a capacity deficit of about 40,000 lecturers and so on and so forth. I think what people do basically is to open up their borders and allow people to fill in where there’s a labour shortage. But nobody is going to come to Nigeria to have a professorial position at a rate of less than $500 and so on and so forth. So this is the issue I think we need to address.
What should the government do in terms of abysmally low payment of lecturers?
Let me be frank with you. Sometimes doing comparisons, we often forget that the comparisons are done not necessarily because we want to replicate what is done in other areas but simply to avoid brain drain. Because if you do not bring the income to where you can retain the capacity, what will happen is that you will experience what you are seeing today. Look at the health sector for instance. It is a disaster. Now, after a period of stability, you’re seeing the movement of academic staff out of the university after COVID. The COVID-19 era has minimised the ability of people to move, but you have seen massive movement. Now people don’t see the implication of this brain drain. It’s no longer brain rain that’s happening in the world now; it is brain mining. What basically happens is that, like what happened during slavery, you would be mining labour during slavery but now, you would be mining brains. And these are the same people that would have been paid in this country to contribute to the development of this country. So we have a problem of capacity really on ground. And there is a level of equilibrium for development to be able to take place, and I think we are below that level of equilibrium.
What’s the implication of these – labour loss, brain mining, to the system?
It’s a primary political and economic problem. For instance, if there’s a magical improvement in the Nigerian economy of today, and wages go up, it’s going to correct some of the symptoms you’re seeing today. And if you have a political leadership that understands how these things are done, then you are going to have laws and regulations that are put in place to encourage movement to places like Nigeria. This is the best time for instance in the world today for a country like Nigeria to encourage the movement of labour to Nigeria because there are crises all over the world. You have competences and capacities all over the world. You can have a direct-movement of labour back to Nigeria. And that’s what we should do – we open up the country to labour – I’m talking about experts’ knowledge – not just bringing any kind of person. People like lecturers who have resources to invest, and so on and so forth and this is what developed countries are doing. They come in here. They go all over the world; they get the best hands from all over the world. They are not bothered about training their own people. While you train with your own tax payers’ money, they come and collect them. That’s basically what’s happening all over the world now, and that’s why Nigeria will continue to train for developed countries. What we are doing is train for other countries: training for the US and European countries. And I don’t know there’s anywhere in the world where a country would do this kind of thing without getting nothing back. Increase salaries in a volatile and unstable economy with inflation, in another three months we are back to square one because of the instability of Naira. So we need a more creative approach that will ensure that there’s a level of guarantee for incomes and wages in critical sectors in Nigeria. I think it can be done. People in the economic sector should go and sit down and see exactly how things are done. You can then decide to tie wages to the dollar for some of these critical sectors but make it in such a way that you can cushion the devastating effect of currency instability and inflation. In that way, you can maximise the outflow of experts’ knowledge and you can also encourage the inflow of expert knowledge.
Is proliferation of tertiary institutions a problem with respect to Nigeria’s population figure?
The word is a misnomer. When you look at the economics of it, that’s when you can talk about proliferation. By 2050, Nigeria will be the third most populous country in the world. And there’s no way we can match up if we continue to focus on higher education. It’s one of two things: we may decide that higher education is not that central to us and make it an elitist offer. Leave the universities at the level where they are, and it becomes more competitive and redirect … to other tiers of the educational system. Or you go away from formal education. There’s another option, which is distance education, that is, open-distance learning. You don’t need to create universities as rapidly as your population increases because if Nigeria were to create America-size universities, for this population, probably we will be dealing with about 18,000 universities. We will not be talking about hundred – let’s put it conservatively, we will be dealing with about 5,000 universities and so on. But you see, some of these things will depend on resources to finance and the capacity of the economy to that number of higher educational institutions. Nigeria’s economy doesn’t have the capacity to absorb the intellectual cost that we are creating. So you are producing the graduates, you are piling them up because you cannot employ them and because the economy is not sophisticated enough to absorb the products of those courses. When you look at the finance sector, people are saying it’s job creator, but where do you get the funding to create the jobs? I have worked in the system for many years, I can’t even get an overdraft from my bank. What of individuals who have got out of the system? The only option left for them is to seek opportunities outside the country. So that’s why you find out that people in highly skilled and technical areas are moving to Canada, the United States and to the UK. So I need to qualify that proliferation is not a factor of population. If we are looking at population, you would say we all have enough universities, but if we are looking at our resources we say there’s proliferation. If we are also looking at the capacity of our economy to absorb the outcomes of the universities, you would say that there’s proliferation. So it’s a balancing game. Are you going to use the higher educational system to catalyse the development of the Nigerian schools? If you are going to do that, then there are other factors that are involved. You will have to get involved also the business sector; how to finance. Then of course the informal sector of the Nigerian economy, which is the largest sector, which we are ignoring because even the graduates, we are not training them to be able to participate in the informal sector. So if I were to be in a position, it is the formalisation of the informal sector by the higher education that would be a priority. Because when we have been able to do that, then it will also modernize our economy, it will bring many people into the tax net.
What advice do you have for the government and other stakeholders concerning this proliferation issue?
We should continue to allow the private sector; private individuals who want to set up institutions because the NUC has a parameter for licensing. Then you have to put in some bonds of about N500m. Then the second issue basically is that the government must stop setting up new universities. We can use funding to achieve what we are trying to do. ,,
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