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NUTM: “Africa’s MIT” taps partners to deliver world-class education

NUTM: “Africa’s MIT” taps partners to deliver world-class education

The Nigerian University of Technology and Management (NUTM), a STEM-focused university founded in 2020, aims to become the African equivalent of the prestigious US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In this interview, NUTM’s founding president, Babs Omotowa, speaks with Lolade Akinmurele, deputy editor, BusinessDay, about the school’s bold ambition and the journey so far. Excerpts:

NUTM seeks to identify and train the next generation of leaders in technology and management for Africa. When exactly did you open your doors to students, and how has the journey been so far?

We officially opened our doors to students in 2020 to deliver on our promise of building the next generation of leaders in technology and management for Africa through world-class education. We started with a pilot fellowship and postgraduate certificate programme focused on technology, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

Our plan was to be a fully on-site institution. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, though, our plans changed for our first cohort. We were able to bring students and staff into our facility in-person. For visiting adjunct faculty, who came from a variety of Ivy League universities like Stanford, MIT, and Oxford, we had them deliver their classes virtually, which worked very well. After this successful start, we have continued to grow from strength to strength and are now on our third cohort of the pilot programme.

What would it take for you to achieve your dream of becoming the MIT of Africa, and what kind of support would you require from all stakeholders?

We have already demonstrated with our pilot program that we can attract world class faculty, deliver a top-notch curriculum that is relevant for industry, and provide a conducive learning environment that has been truly transformational for our students. These are some of the key prerequisites.

One of our major stakeholders is our regulator, the Nigerian University Commission (NUC), with whom we continue to work closely on our journey to build out a world class university. We have received maximum support from the Commission as we finalize the processes, and we remain grateful to the management and staff of the NUC for their continued guidance and support.

We are a very unique university in Nigeria in that we are independent. This means we don’t receive money from the federal government, state government, religious bodies, or bankrolled by ultra-high net-worth individuals. Our funding structure is similar to that of many world class universities, which includes philanthropic donations for scholarships, tuition that will deliver a high return on investment for students, and other financial instruments.

Our funding structure is similar to that of many world class universities, which includes philanthropic donations for scholarships, tuition that will deliver a high return on investment for students, and other financial instruments.

The institution’s focus is on areas in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and management in its academic offerings at the undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral levels. What factors informed the decision to offer STEM courses?

Science, technology, and engineering play major roles in our society and are instrumental in driving economic development, addressing societal challenges, and maintaining global competitiveness. As such, we feel it is important to keep our focus primarily on STEM education.

We do not intend to be everything to everyone, nor do we want to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Through world class academic teaching and deep research excellence in STEM, we are confident that we will help to drive the development of our continent, solve societal problems, and create employment for our youth as we see demand for technology graduates grow globally.

Are there scholarship opportunities on offer, and how does that work? What are the criteria for selecting students for scholarships?

When we started our pilot program in 2020, we provided full scholarships for all of our students, thanks to the generosity of our donors. Over time, our model has changed. Now, we offer highly subsidised school fees as we transition our financial model. While school fees now apply to the bulk of our students, we still provide need-based full scholarships to those with disabilities or who are from educationally disadvantaged regions. We hope to expand our scholarship scheme to also include merit-based programs for exceptional students from financially challenged backgrounds.

What are the main sources of funding available to the institution?

To date, our funding has come mainly from kind-hearted donations and grants from individuals, family businesses, institutions, foundations, and corporations. These have been from both local and international sources. We remain grateful to all our donors, whose support has gotten us to where we are today.

We are gradually expanding our financial model, as is typical in such a journey. For example, this academic year we introduced discounted school fees after a successful pilot phase. We would also look into other financial instruments and commercial solutions to build our permanent campus and continue to fund the institution.

What kind of partnerships do you have with world-renowned universities, and how is that helping to shape the outcome of the work you do? Can you name some of the universities that you have partnered with and the ones you are looking at for the future?

We have recently signed two collaboration agreements with leading universities.

In the area of management and leadership development, we have signed an agreement with Oxford University’s Said Business School in the UK. This will enable us to jointly deliver executive leadership training for corporations and also benefit from Oxford’s world class excellence in faculty development and student experience.

In the area of science and engineering, we have signed an agreement with the world’s leading technical university in theory and practice, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in the USA. We will be running a joint Master’s Degree Program in Business Analytics starting in September as a US degree program and one that will save students more than 50 percent of standard fees.

In the area of technology and entrepreneurship, we are working on an agreement with another world leading university that we expect to finalize this year.

These partnerships will allow us to create value for our students, partners, and corporations and support our progress in becoming a world class institution.

Read also: OAL launches ‘compendium of space treaties, policies, laws, regulations in Nigeria

How many students have graduated from NUTM so far, and what are they most likely to take up after studying at your university?

We have successfully graduated two cohorts of 117 scholars (42 percent female), who are already making an impact in their fields. 55 percent are transforming top corporations through their work as intrapreneurs. 45 percent have either set up their own ventures or are pursuing PhDs. Our graduates have also raised over $1 million through 20+ innovative ventures created during their time on our program. Some of these ventures have expanded beyond Nigeria, and several have been acquired by larger organizations, demonstrating the value our students deliver.

The Nigerian government has spent more subsidizing petrol than its combined annual budget for education and healthcare. Would you say this is a case of misplaced priorities for a country with poor education and health outcomes, and would you like to see a subsidy for education?

The UN has set a target of allocating 4-6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), or 15-20 percent of total public expenditure on education in developing countries. To achieve universal primary education and other education-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we need to meet these targets consistently. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case for the past several years. There is no doubt that as a developing country, the government has to grapple with various challenges such as poverty, security, and infrastructure that make it hard to meet its targets. This puts us in a different position than developed countries, which don’t face the same competing priorities.

However, while more government support is required in primary and secondary education, what may be more required in tertiary education are reforms to help make universities autonomous and self-sustainable. Unlike primary and secondary schools, universities have the ability to generate significant revenue through research for industries, rights to intellectual property, and innovations. This is the case at most universities in developing countries. In addition, many of the universities in Nigeria have thousands of hectares of idle land that can be utilized for mechanized farming and related processing industries to generate revenue.

Making universities autonomous takes away the need for subsidies for tertiary education and will enable the government, with its limited resources, to focus more on primary and secondary education. This autonomy will better enable universities to control their destiny and help minimize the risk of university teachers striking. It will also increase competition between universities, helping to attract more students, lecturers, and research grants.

Quality university education is not cheap, though. There is the cost of world class faculty, research facilities, equipment, and more. Autonomous universities will most likely start to charge more reflective and competitive school fees. Some argue these won’t be affordable to the majority of Nigerian children due to the level of poverty in the country. However, the solution cannot be unsustainable subsidies or fees that are too low. Rather, the answer needs to be student loan schemes. These are common in developing countries, where students borrow at low interest rates to pay for school and are not expected to begin paying back their loans until they start working.

At NUTM, we have been engaging with several banks and international development social impact funds to design a model for a student loan scheme. While we have made some progress, achieving a single digit interest rate has been hard, but we are encouraged that one or two banks are starting to look at this from a holistic perspective rather than try to fit it into their traditional credit control systems.