Who will save Nigerian universities?

“We don’t need more public universities,” was the title of my column in this newspaper, on February 9, 2024. As I was brainstorming on what topical issue should be 

Titled, “Nigerian varsities missing in global universities ranking,” the report reads in part: “Release of the lastest Qaucquarelli Symonds World University Rankings 2025, featuring over 1,500 universities across 105 higher education systems, have shown that no Nigerian university is ranked among the top 1,000.

“QS is a leading higher education analytics firm that publishes annual world university rankings, evaluating institutions based on academic excellence, reputation and diversity.

“According to the rankings, African universities in QS world university rankings 2025 are University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa (ranked 171); University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa (ranked 267); Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa (ranked 296); University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa (ranked 312); and Cairo University, Giza, Egypt (ranked 350).

“Others include University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa (ranked 354); the American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt (ranked 410); University of Kwazu-Natal, Pinetown, South Africa (ranked 587); Ains Shams University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt (ranked 592); and Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ranked 771)”.

Sequel to the worrisome development relayed above, that my previous article on Nigerian universities earlier published on this space, is hereby re-shared, with slight editing. Enjoy!

I never set out to discuss anything about our university system, or the state of our Ivory Towers, this week. A report I came across a few days ago, though published on the January 3, 2024 edition of a national daily, however, had a different plan for me.

It compelled me to devote today’s column for our universities, especially those owned by the federal government. The newspaper report, titled, “Bill to Establish 47 new varsities scales second reading”, observed that the number of federal-owned universities in Nigeria may hit 99 in the coming months.

This is because a bill to establish 47 new others has scaled through the second reading, at the National Assembly. “Some of the bills were either passed in the 9th Assembly but did not get the required concurrence at the Senate to scale through or were not signed by Mr President.

“When established, some of the institutions will include universities of science and technology, agriculture, aviation, medicals, and engineering, among others,” part the report stated.

Another news story noted that, “Between 2020 and 2023, a number of federal and state universities were created. In 2020, the federal government approved the take-off of two federal universities. In 2021, four federal universities were approved by the Muhammadu Buhari administration. In 2022, just one federal university was approved, according to data obtained from the National Universities Commission, NUC.

“In 2023, shortly before the handover, Buhari approved the take-off of two federal universities. However, the administration of President Bola Tinubu announced the take-off of six new federal universities”.

It is disturbing that our lawmakers are not in tune with the reality. Otherwise, they should have known better that despite our population boom, the country has more than enough public universities, complemented by hundreds of its private counterparts, to cater for the educational needs of citizens.

The problem with our public universities has to do with its dwindling fortunes, or better still, declining academic standards. The President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, at a function last year, said the establishment of universities without a template for funding was one of the factors responsible for the falling standard of tertiary education in the country.

Stakeholders have also observed that poor infrastructure, inconsistent funding, restrictive rules, lack of research and brain drain, are factors hindering Nigerian universities from becoming globally competitive.

While Nigeria’s university system is not yet in the league of its western counterpart, it is also not the ‘mate’ of several others in Africa, frankly speaking. The still much-talked-about undercover report by a Daily Nigerian investigative journalist, which exposed the decay in some African countries’ university systems, somewhat ‘upgraded’ the status of our university education.

In the aftermath of the investigation, it was gathered that several higher institutions in Benin Republic and Togo in particular, are nothing but degree mills, dishing out ‘fake degree certificates’ to those who wish to procure them fraudulently.

Let us now return to the issue of the NASS-induced proliferation of public universities in the country. It is imperative that we caution our NASS members, with penchant for individually sponsor bills, seeking the establishments of federal universities in their senatorial districts, federal constituencies and states.

Our federal legislators should start worrying over the declining standards of existing public universities across the country. In recent years, most of them find it difficult breaking into the league of the world’s best 1,000 universities, in global tertiary institutions’ rankings.

There is also an acute deficit of functional learning and research infrastructure in most public universities in the country. Adequate numbers of lecture halls and theatres, science laboratories, halls of residence and staff offices, among others, can only be found in our public universities established two, three and four decades ago, not those floated within the last decade.

Even at that, most of them have long seen better days. Our public universities, again, have also not been lucky with getting massive budgetary allocations to adequately fund their routine operations, hence, the dearth of critical facilities in our campuses and the lingering menace of industrial actions by lecturers.

Another consequence of the degeneration of our public universities is the churning out of half-baked graduates, with little or zero employability skills. Gone are the years Nigerian graduates can stand and rob shoulders with their peers across the world. Nowadays, our labour market is saturated with degree holders, who cannot prove their mettle when offered job opportunities.

I have almost forgotten about brain drain, another cankerworm threatening the progress of our university system. With poor salaries and absence of basic welfare packages, Nigerian lecturers, particularly those in public tertiary institutions, have deserted the country for greener pasture abroad.

Besides, the funds needed for the take off of any tertiary institution is colossal, and the Nigerian government cannot guarantee that for the 47 proposed universities.

Therefore, it is only wise for the federal government to invest part of the country’s limited financial resources to upgrading our existing public universities, instead of funding the ones our lawmakers are making a case for. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, particularly, and the NASS should take assiduous steps to better the fortunes of public universities in the country.

Through improved funding to enhance their academic standards, our universities will compete favourably with their peers across the world. Increasing their numbers, however, is not the way to go. It won’t solve anything. Rather, it will only compound the existing problems affecting our public university system.

Mahmud, Deputy Editor of PRNigeria, writes via [email protected]