• Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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BusinessDay

Education’s changing profile

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Those who care for this country are lamenting. This is because the current season of elections is hallmarked by the absence of serious debates on issues. One of such issues is education. Meanwhile, before our very eyes, the landscape of education continues to change – with dire consequences for the weak in our society.

My specific reference here is to the fact that the monopoly of the state in the area of university ownership is being diluted. In times past, all the universities were publicly owned. Then something interesting happened. Private ownership of universities started to obtain. One major reason private universities was welcomed was that over time, the stability of university calendars was overturned.

But the new profile of university ownership has come with its own pains. Given the inherently expensive nature of education, it does not come cheap. And this may well explain why the private universities are charging fees that are deemed to be stratospheric.

A recent newspaper report implicitly showed up the problem when it revealed that fees in private universities which offer Medicine as a course of study hover around N2 million per session. By contrast, in public universities, the fees for a similar course go for much less. But in view of the breakdown given by a spokesman of one private university, it will be discovered that what is being charged is really a fair price. The issue of fairness here relates to sheer market forces. But in more elastic terms, particularly when the larger society is taken into consideration, it is evident that such astronomical fees have shut out a large portion of our populace. Clearly, some form of social justice, or better still injustice, is involved here.

And in contending thus, I wish to categorically state here that I am not putting the proprietors of private universities on the spot. For all said and done, they are not missionaries. They are in the business of education to offer service and of course to make profit.

But then, such are the high fees being charged that most applicants and their parents have given the private universities a wide-berth. This is understandable in view of the interesting interplay between demand for university education and its affordability. Indeed, given the low number of applicants to private universities, economists have drawn a distinction between demand for university education on one hand and effective demand for same on the other. It is this contrast between demand and effective demand which ensures that a public institution like, say, the University of Ilorin, attracts over 100,000 applicants while a private institution like Bells University in Otta, Ogun State, attracts only 232.

Even then, Bells appears to be looking good, since there are some private universities which attract only a total of four applicants!

From the foregoing, it is clear that we are faced with a serious problem. The problem revolves around the issue of affordability for the vast majority of our youths out there. Indeed, what the changing profile of university education has done is to show up in concrete terms the polarized structure of our society. To use an imagery from the immortal Chinua Achebe: there are too many people out there in the rain. By contrast, on a corresponding basis, only very few people have managed to take shelter. In stark terms, what is being said is that a lot of people are contending with poverty, while a tiny minority continues to wallow in affluence. One does not need to be a prophet to appreciate that this is a recipe for social explosion and instability.

Unfortunately, nobody is voicing this type of genuine concern in these electioneering times. More unfortunate is the fact that in this election period, our thoughts are frozen on the issue of private participation in education. There is this misconceived notion that the state should not participate in the funding of education in the private sphere. To say the least, this is backward thinking. This is because education, when offered even on a private platform, remains a public good and resource.

Even the United States of America, the bastion of private enterprise, has taken due notice of this oxymoronic situation. In view of this, the government at both federal and state levels in the USA continues to fund even private universities. For our own good, our own governments at various levels must also rise to the occasion.

This can be done in a number of ways. Promising but poor students who get admission into private universities could be given scholarships. Moreover, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND), the flagship institution for funding public universities, should extend its reach to private universities.

These are just some of the options for the way forward if we wish to come to terms with the changing profile of university education in Nigeria. And if I may be allowed to reiterate, much more worrying is that a critical issue like this is not being raised in this season of vote-hunting. Needless to say, the demagogues on both sides of the political divide are winning.

Postscript: As this piece was being concluded, there were newspaper reports to the effect that the Federal Government has given approval for the establishment of nine new private universities. Perhaps we spoke too soon. But then, the point remains, as stated above, that in a poor society like ours, demand for university education is not really the problem. Rather, the issue revolves around effective demand!

Kayode Soremekun