• Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Nigeria’s education system needs complete overhaul – Onwualu

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Professor Azikiwe Peter Onwualu is the acting president of the African University of Science and Technology, Abuja. He obtained a B.Eng. degree in Agricultural Engineering with first-class honours in 1982 from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), and a later M.Eng. degree in the same field and discipline in 1986. He also has a PhD degree obtained from the Technical University of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Canada, in 1991. Onwualu joined the University of Nigeria as a graduate assistant in 1983 and rose through the ranks to professor in 1999. Over the years, he has worked in the areas of agricultural power and machinery, agro-processing machinery, biomass engineering and processing of industrial raw materials, and science, technology, and innovation policy. Onwualu has also worked in various government institutions at various times until his current appointment. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS) network in Nairobi and Chairman of the Technical Board of the Engineering Materials Development Institute (EMDI) in Akure. In this interview with the BusinessDay team of John Osadolor (Managing Editor), Tony Ailemen, and Joy Jimoh, Onwualu speaks passionately on many issues concerning the Pan African University as well as Nigeria’s education sector, which he insists needs a complete overhaul.

Talk us through what the African University of Science and Technology (AUST) is about.

The African University of Science and Technology was established in 2007 by a group called the Nelson Mandela Institution (NMI), an NGO registered in the United States. It was actually formed by a group of Africans in the Diaspora, mostly with backgrounds from the World Bank. A number of them had done one thing or another with the World Bank, ably led by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (current Director-General, World Trade Organization), alongside others with like minds from different countries in Africa who have some kind of affiliation with the World Bank. They approached Nelson Mandela during one of his birthdays and asked him what he would want them to do for him. His request was that they should help establish world-class institutions in the area of science to train high-level manpower that will help the next generation of Africans to lead in science and technology. That was the origin, and they went ahead and then approached the African Union and a number of countries. The model was that any country that would be a host to any of the universities would provide some kind of support. In the case of Nigeria at the time, our President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, offered to give the land free, and so Nigeria had the first shot at having one of the three universities. That is why, today, we have the Africa University of Science and Technology here. There is another one called the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Tanzania, and then another one in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, called the 2IE University. These three universities are focused on different areas of science and technology. So, when Africa University started, it started differently from most universities in Nigeria, in the sense that the university was given a licence to start with postgraduate studies; from 2007, the university was only awarding degrees at the PhD and Master’s levels.

After 10 years of operation, the university took stock in 2017 and discovered it had graduated over 500 PhD and Master’s degree holders in different areas of science and engineering. According to the strategic plan, it was now time to introduce courses at lower levels for undergraduate study. So, in 2017, the university added undergraduate studies in other areas that it had excelled in. By 2022, we went back to the National Universities Commission (NUC) to ask to be given permission to start undergraduate programs. And of course, that also led to a change in our curriculum, what you call the academic brief, and the laws of the university to accommodate the program. With the approval of the NUC, the undergraduate programme was approved in 2022, but the programme started effectively in 2023. On April 6 this year, we had our second matriculation for the underground studies. We started small because the original concept of the university was focused on specific areas. You don’t have the kind of things you find in public universities, where you find as many as 500 students in a class. Today, we have moved from the five programmes that we started with in 2007, including computer science, mathematics, physics, materials, material science and engineering, and petroleum, that we ran for almost 10 years, too close to over 20 postgraduate programmes today. Somewhere along the line, we saw the need for space research and training in the area of space sciences and engineering. In collaboration with the National Space Research and Development Agency, we now have four programmes in space sciences and engineering, including aerospace engineering, systems engineering, and space physics. These are at the Masters and PhD levels, and then we moved further to expand the programme to include computer science, GIS, and geoinformatics.

Looking at our strategic plans, we saw the need to bring in the management sciences. In addition to computer engineering and so on, we introduced the School of Management, Administration, and Business. That school is gradually coming on board. Today, we have a master’s programme in public policy and then a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business. Looking at the computer side, we also saw that, in terms of demand, this is where we are heading. So, we also found that computer applications, or computer science, is also becoming multidisciplinary. In addition to the core Masters and PhD in computer science, we created a new programme called Management of Information Technology. So, anybody who is interested in how to manage information technology can come and take a professional master’s degree, and that programme has been really successful. The university is expanding gradually from the Masters and PhD in core science studies to undergraduate studies. Today, in our undergraduate studies, we have added mechanical engineering. We started with petroleum and materials studies, and today we also have mechanical engineering and civil engineering. Then, of course, within the computer science and information technology cluster, we have software engineering and computer science. This is where the world is going. In fact, half of the students we had last year, even this year, are in that cluster of computer information technology, and in trying to make sure that we go with the tides and give what the industry wants, we have even had to tweak our curriculum such that no matter the course you’re taking here, you have to be very good at ICT.

The National Universities Commission (NUC) has a new curriculum called the CCM (Core Curriculum and Minimum Academic Standards), which allows every university to be unique by allowing them to have 30 percent of the curriculum localised to what they want. And then for the other 70 percent, you have to conform to national standards. So, for us, we’ve chosen two areas: the area of ICT—everybody here must be very good at ICT—and then the other area is what we call project-based learning. This is an approach that is deviating from the kind of curriculum that some of us, or all of us, went through—that is, where you just come to class, whatever the teacher says you absorb, and then be able to prepare you to sit for the exam. The project-based learning approach is different. You teach using real-life projects. So, if you are going to teach students about fluid mechanics, for example, you don’t just go and pour all those equations; you go to water, go and learn how to pump petrol, pump diesel, etc. You learn how to produce water. How do you move water from one point to another? So, you go from those real-life problems, which you give to students as projects. Of course, you still give them the knowledge, the theories, and so on. They will see how that concept of fluid mechanics is used for pumping water from the ground to a tank top and then being discharged by gravity, and so on. That way, students are made to solve problems as they’re proceeding.

And then we also introduced the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation. Every student will have to go through all these in addition to the core hard skills that you need. You need to learn the soft skills that will enable you to survive in today’s world. And in order to really get this going, we know that there is a challenge with collaboration with industry. While we are working on industry collaboration, we decided to now establish a university-based innovation hub. We thank the Africa Development Bank and the World Bank, who are the first funders or first people—a group of people that supported us. Today, that innovation hub is running, and the first set of beneficiaries are students, then, of course, staff, and then people from outside.

What is the university-based innovation hub all about?

In that place, you can learn what you need to do to start a business in any area of your choice, and then you can actually start your own business because part of it is to promote startups. Whether you are a student, staff member, or outsider who wants to incubate a business, you can actually come here. Of course, when we say business, we mean technology-driven business. They go through boot camps. We do hackathons there and so on, and more importantly, every student learns to form a team of two or three people that complement each other. Somebody from computer science can team up with somebody in engineering, and somebody studying accounting or business administration and they form a team and form their startup and begin to do business, or learn what they need to do, as long as everybody is bringing something to the table and we are taking them to pitching. Some of them have won as much as $10,000 or $5,000 pitching either within the campus or outside the campus for innovation competitions. We teach them how to do business, how to form partnerships, and how to manage themselves. This, we believe, would be the next level of things, so that as people leave the university, they are equipped with the kind of skills, tools, or network that they will need even if they get a paid job. You will see that they will perform better because they are ready for the industry. But more importantly, they can also now start their own businesses, which they would have already started before they graduated. We are taking the university from purely a research environment to a place of innovation and business, and we want this to happen to every student, and then even those of us who are lecturers are gradually changing our own sight and the way we do things in such a way that there is no more research for research’s sake. That is how to take the university from where it was to an environment that, we believe, will create the next generation of Africans that can operate both locally and globally.

How does the university deal with funding, particularly for research?

Funding is key, especially if you are technology-based. Our lab was established with funding from the Africa Development Bank. There was no way we could have established such a lab, which we believe is one of the best, even though we are having challenges maintaining it in terms of power supply. And all the challenges we have in Nigeria are that having that kind of lab means that you can actually do research in almost any area of science and technology, but it is expensive to establish and maintain. There is one machine there that the manufacturers say should not be out of power even for one second. If it goes out of power for 24 hours, you have to reboot or recalibrate, and it has to be communicated back to the headquarters before the calibration, and you know how it is. We started by buying one big power pack. Of course, we have a generator, and then we have this power pack. The power backup has to be charged from the national grid. Sometimes, when the power comes, the quality is either too low or too high. So, we experience all kinds of problems, but we can’t give up. Some of these things you take for granted if you are in developed economies. So, running science and technology training is very expensive.

We have looked at different areas of funding. Of course, tuition is the most common one. You can generate enough money to pay lecturers, depending on the quality of lecturers you are using. We found that even here, their tuition cannot do that. The reason is that over 50 percent of our lecturers are from outside the country; it used to be 80 percent for the PhD programme. In fact, our PhD programmes are still run by professors in the diaspora; they teach from wherever they are. They used to come physically until COVID started. Now that they teach virtually, we have to provide the facilities. We have about five classrooms that are internet-enabled. You can teach from anywhere you are; these things are expensive. And you need to find the money to be able to get that equipment and also maintain it. Beyond that, what we are doing, which started even with the university, is that we look for donors, who, of course, will not give you money. Just like that, you have to conceive project ideas. I give you one example: we found this group called PASET (Partnership in Applied Sciences, Engineering, and Technology). Their dream is to produce 10,000 PhDs in Africa in the next 10 years. What PASET does every year is advertise continent-wide and award scholarships to PhDs, and they bring those students to us. So, with the tuition, they will pay at the international rate. That’s one good source of funding for the university.

More importantly, we thrive on projects. We scan the internet and find donor-funded projects that can bring money to the university, and we have been able to attract World Bank funding through this. We are also involved in a number of other projects, and my lecturers know that I harassed them. One of the conditions here is that you must write papers, which is basically to attract grants. There is a grant we have currently here; it’s strengthening research funding agencies in West Africa. We won the IDRC grant (International Development Research Centre grant) from Canada. It was given to us to look at how research is funded in six countries in West Africa, including Nigeria, and we are working with these agencies to strengthen them to make it more possible for researchers in higher educational institutions to be able to access grants. We are working with Tetfund on this one, but we are also doing it in six West African countries.

Funded projects are also very important to us. We just won another project from NASENI. Our group is working in the area of biomass, converting biomass for different uses. If we commercialise some of the results, we are getting you to actually produce biofuels from plants. Most of these plants you are seeing have some oils, and if you extract the oil and process it using certain conditions, you can actually get kerosene and diesel, which are renewable. There are some plants that have the kind of oil that is required. There are also animal fats that can be converted. So, from NASENI, we have a little grant to convert biomass to different uses for construction and making different things.

We are just starting that project. When we get projects like this, the university takes 10 percent, called incentive charges, of whatever grant any lecturer has. Again, that adds to what we do. So, we thrive on grants, and we encourage our staff to keep looking for grants even if our students win awards in different competitions. These are some of the areas where we try to raise funds, and of course, I just told you about the innovation hub that we started. One of the things that we have in the innovation hub is a short course that we do with industry partners, where we train their staff. These are the kinds of things that happen at Harvard, Lagos Business School, etc. A group graduated last month after finishing their course on project management. We have other courses in leadership, amongst others. It’s usually done on weekends, and industry people come here for that, and they pay. So that helps us raise a little money, and so on. So, it’s a big problem for every university, but we keep struggling. We hope to get to the point where we should be able to self-fund and generate the funds that we need to run.

Can you share with us your view on the Nigerian education sector?

The best way to deal with education in Nigeria is to declare a state of emergency in the education sector. The sector is bedevilled with so many challenges, right from primary school. Even from preschool to the university level. We have many challenges, and we said, Let’s liberalise so that we have private universities, but you can also see that even that is not really working. Today, private universities, in terms of numbers, have almost double the number of public universities. But in terms of enrollment, the private universities are about 25 percent, and yet they are more in number, and you ask yourself why? The reason is that they have to charge fees in order to make ends meet. And because of those high fees, you find it unaffordable. Of course, in the cities where you have very rich people, they are able to pay N1 million, or even N2 million, and sometimes even more than that, to get an education. But an average Nigerian will be unable to pay that type of money. And those who even have that kind of money will prefer to send their children abroad. The other issue is funding. You find that if I go back to the university where I did my first degree, which I had in 1982, the lab that was used to train me is still the same lab being used today. Now, that lab was probably very good at that time. But using the same lab now to teach somebody will be doing a disservice to that person. At that time, there were no mobile phones.

In fact, life has changed, the economy has changed, and the global economy has changed. So, people need to see things working; you need to have good laboratories, good libraries, and all the compliments. Today, people stay in their homes and take lectures. In fact, the National Universities Commission has approved online learning, but of course you have to get approval for that. Before, people thought that e-learning was a scam, but the reality is that you can take any course at your own pace online; all these things require money. So, the education system in Nigeria needs funding, and we need to manage the funds very well so that we can provide the facilities that people require to excel and learn. We have to change our curriculum from what it used to be. One of the major problems in the university system or higher education system is that we are producing graduates that industry people are saying are not fit. Well, the National Universities Commission is trying. They are changing the curriculum. They are even unbundling things today. For example, before now, you could only study mass communication. Today, mass communication has been unbundled into five programmes. You can even do a BSc. in New Media or something like that. So, things are changing. And in doing this, we also now have to grapple with technology. Therefore, the education system needs to be dynamic in such a way that it can adapt to the times. As things are changing, lecturers should adapt to the changing environment. This will ensure that the people you are training have relevance to the industry. One of the challenges is this problem of poor industry-academic collaboration, and what that means is that most industries are not involved in what is happening in our educational system and vice versa. In some programmes, you have SIWES, which enables a student to have work experience. But just like the National Service Youth Corps, if you put these students in industries, they will reject them for whatever reason. They have many reasons why they are not accepted, but it can be done in such a way that there is collaboration between universities and industries in such a way that students can get placement and then industries can also get involved.

In fact, one of the reforms in our system is that we have introduced what is called the Industry Advisory Board, which meets every quarter. The Board is populated by people from the industry, and then the professors meet even if it is virtual, so industries can make their input into our curriculum. This way, you are face-to-face with industrialists. You can actually get buy-in for your projects. They can even fund projects. We need to look into the education system, including the skills. We must de-emphasise degree certificates. I don’t know who has reformatted our brains in Nigeria to believe that you must have a degree. Every parent wants the child to have a university degree, whether he knows anything or not. Today, the educational system should be changed to be skills-based. I am glad that there is a National Skills Programme, which I think is driven by the Vice President’s office.

One of the things we’ll be introducing in our innovation hub is what is called the skill-up programme, which means that whether you are studying accounting, engineering, etc., you must learn a skill, even if it’s public speaking. By this skill, I mean, how to do things, how to design things, how to produce things and so on, such that wherever you find yourself, you should be able to survive. Even if you are doing a paid job, you should have a secondary source of income. I know people who are civil servants and have businesses that they’re running by the side. That’s what I think the education system should do. We should begin to de-emphasise certificates, which are good, by the way, but in getting those certificates, you need skills, because that is what will eventually lead you to success. We need to restructure our educational system in such a way that it will produce graduates that can be self-sufficient, graduates that have skills, graduates that can fit into the industry.

Networking is also one of the skills that we hope the educational system should have. Just because you are in school does not mean you will remain there until you graduate. Right there, you begin to think about how you should be able to network, and the mentoring system is also important. We need to inject it into our schools. Once in a while here, we do a webinar and bring prominent people. I remember that in one of such cases, we brought a woman who was the chairman of First Bank, I think Dr (Mrs) Awoshika. We got her online; she spoke to our female students. The women are taking over the banks in Nigeria. I think we have about six or seven MDs of banks. And you see, those mentors are important in our educational system, so that students, as they’re growing up, need to have contact with big players in industry, government, and so on. That way, they know that this is something that they should aspire to be and learn how to get there.

How do we get the youth to take pride in the teaching profession?

Well, I think we can go back and ask ourselves why people no longer take pride in becoming teachers. When we are able to answer that question, then the solution will come. I think in Nigerian parlance, and where I come from, we are accused of being everything: money, money, money, which is a story for another day. But I think, when you look at it, that is why people don’t like to teach. I use myself as an example. My father was a primary school teacher; I grew up with this man, and I was his bank. Whenever he received his salary, he gave it to me as his son to keep. So, anybody in the family that needs money, he will send them to collect from me. I saw that within one week of receiving his salary, the money was gone. This man was a community leader, and people at that time who would like to write letters came to him. They called him ‘onye nkuzi,’ which means teacher in Igbo; he was well respected. He was also a church leader, but he was poor. And so, when you go to ceremonies or so, when a teacher comes out to speak, they will say, ‘Is it not to come and blow grammar? How much do you have to give?

But teachers are respected everywhere. In some countries, like Finland, teachers are well paid and respected, so people aspire to be teachers. In some countries, I know that the highest-paid profession is teaching. And naturally, you may ask, Why do people rush to become medical doctors or lawyers? It is because you can see that the medical doctors are rich, and you can see that the lawyers are rich. So, for me, it’s about earning power. And for me as a person, I have always wanted to be a teacher. The only thing is that I told myself I didn’t want to be a teacher like my father. And that is why I told myself I must have a PhD so I can become a professor, but even with being a professor, if you don’t take time, you will also remain poor because how much are we paid? I understand that, on average, a professor at a Nigerian public university earns anywhere between N400, 000 and N500, 000 a month. How much is that? I came to this university because, at the time I joined it, they were paying professors in dollars, even though they don’t do that now. So, the point I’m trying to make is that we need to look at our compensation system. Teachers should be paid very well, whether they are in public or private schools; otherwise, you have situations where, in some schools, you see a teacher teaching but he’s selling biscuits in his or her office.

I remember the man who taught me chemistry and the man who taught me chemistry in those days. If you see him, if you are feeling sleepy, you wake up because of the aura and everything about this man. He was driving the best car on campus. I don’t know what he was doing that gave him money, but I’m sure it was not his salary alone. So, what I’m proposing is that even the teachers need to help themselves. There are so many things you can do as a teacher. You can make a lot of money by writing books and inventing things, in addition to making sure that the salary structure for teachers and their work environment are good and encouraging. If the conditions of service are available to teachers, more people will be attracted to the profession. At the moment, teachers are not well treated. Imagine if you are in Abuja and you’re a teacher, and they say a flat in Abuja now is between N2 million and even N3 million. How much is your salary? Therefore, compensation is important, as is empowering teachers to be able to make more money. I’m not talking about teachers going to do other business because when you start selling and buying, your work will suffer. I tell people about myself. The AUST pays me, but I don’t think the money is enough to run my affairs. I don’t think AUST gives me up to 50 percent of what I get from income I get through research activities, projects, organising conferences, and other things that I earn money from. So, there are combinations of things that can be done, and, more importantly, the system. The government has to look into remuneration for teachers in such a way that they can become attractive.