• Saturday, June 22, 2024
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How infrastructure deficit in federal, state varsities boosting Open University’s fortunes

How infrastructure deficit in federal, state varsities boosting Open University’s fortunes

In recent years, enrollment figures of students at the National Open University (NOUN) have increased significantly in Nigeria.

Many Nigerians are now seeking admission into the distance learning institution due to the admission crisis in the country and the lack of capacity by many of the federal and state universities, BusinessDay Sunday observation has shown.

For many students, especially those seeking to combine working and schooling, it is an opportunity to further their education and at the same time pursue their career.

“After writing JAMB three times I was simply tried, I am a lady, there is no need continuing to waste my time, I wanted to further my education and when I realised I can also do it here, I embraced the NOUN route, Esther Okon, a NOUN student said.

Okon’s story is just one of many NOUN students who were frustrated due to inability to secure admission in the conventional universities.

For many, it is a sigh of relief, considering that it is an alternative system away from the conventional institutions, and the hybrid nature of learning makes it further attractive.

Since part time programmes have been banned by the Federal Government in the conventional universities, and with the current high fees charged especially by private universities, many say their dreams of higher education could have been dashed if not for NOUN, since they are sponsoring themselves.

“I work and school because there is no one to sponsor my education; I stay with my senior sister and she is not ready to sponsor me. My mummy and daddy are late.

“I had to pursue my academic dreams through NOUN because; it is easy and straightforward. We receive lectures online and at the centre, for some of us that work, we can join the class anywhere we are.

“I don’t have the time to write JAMB, but with them, I just bought a form and applied. Although there needs to be adjustment in the lecture procedure, but in all, I like it,” Tayo Odunayo, a NOUN student, said.

Although Nigerians did not fully embrace the idea of Open University when it was established by Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration more than twenty years ago, many admission seekers now see it as a last resort.

The recent Federal Government’s decision to allow law graduates of the institution to attend law schools, while also approving graduands to be part of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme have also attracted more admission seekers to the distance learning institution.

In Nigeria, many federal universities are lacking the necessary infrastructure for more intakes as lecture halls are filled; hostel accommodation has become very problematic to the extent that “squatting” has become the order of the day.

Over the decades, each year about two million candidates sat for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), but less than quarter of that number ends up securing admission.

Experts say about 10 percent of this number are also able to secure admission to study their preferred course at the end of the day.

Although the problems of tertiary education in Nigeria are multifaceted, stakeholders have identified infrastructure deficit, inconsistent policies as parts of the reasons why it is increasingly difficult for many youths to realise their dream of higher education.

Rise in enrollment figures

According to reports, currently the institution has over 250, 000 students across its study centres in the country.

Within the last ten years, admission numbers have increased significantly in NOUN; for instance, in 2022, 16,000 new students were matriculated into its study centres across the country. The new entrants, comprising 11, 851 undergraduates and 4, 808 postgraduate students in various faculties, will join the over 150,000 returning students of the university.

Similarly, in 2021, 14, 953 fresh students were matriculated at the 21st ceremony of the institution.

While, at the 26th matriculation ceremony in 2024, the Vice-Chancellor of the institution, Olufemi Peters, a professor, revealed that the total number of new intakes is 21,026 students for undergraduate programmes and 7,460 are postgraduate students. This figure shows a significant rise in enrollment in recent years.

Michael Ohia, a graduating student of NOUN, who studied Mass Communication, said he had to embrace the institution after writing JAMB about three times and was unable to get admission in conventional institutions across the country because of the admission process that was not transparent.

According to him, “It is sad the way the admission process could be, if one is not lucky or does not know anyone, one may not get admission in the universities these days.

“After spending four years at home after writing JAMB three times, I had to enroll at the Open University, it came after much pressure.

“I yielded to my sister’s suggestion and went to the Lokoja study centre of the University to make enquiry about the school.

“I was convinced about the University system of operation and applied for admission, and to the glory of God, I was given admission to study Mass Communication.

“Out of over 53 Courses, I didn’t record carryover in any of those courses. My first GPA was 3.68 and in second semester year 1, my CGPA stood at 3.8.

“When I started, many thought that I won’t graduate from the University but to the glory of God, I have graduated; in fact; with 2.1.”

Joy Oti, an Accounting student in one of the centres in Lagos, said she embraced the institution because as an entrepreneur it allows her to have time for her business.

“I could not have gone to everyday or every morning class in the conventional institution because my business would suffer,” she said.

Oti, however, noted that the Federal Government should do more by investing in infrastructures in the study centres to aid learning especially for science courses.

Speaking on the relevance of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) at this year’s matriculation for new intakes, Vice Chancellor of the institution, Olufemi Peters, noted that it was quite different from a conventional university system where one must always attend lectures in a classroom or auditorium.

“It enables you to learn at your choice of place and pace, whatever your social or religious status and other engagements, such as a vocation or employment. It does require you to create the time and discipline for a copious amount of self-study,” he said.

He assured the new entrants that they would have access to a number of facilities necessary for their study, including physical and e-library facilities which provide over 40,000 titles of books and journals, facilitation rooms, science laboratories, halls for in-person and e-exams, and in some special centres, incubation facilities for entrepreneurship-minded students for their training and development at their study centres.

The search for new opportunities

In a country where traditional university education both at the federal and state level is often hindered by limited seats, high costs, and rigid schedules, a growing number of Nigerians are beginning to embrace an alternative path to pursue their academic dreams.

For many seeking admission in Nigerian tertiary institutions today, the contending challenge is the limited admission space in the universities, polytechnic and other higher institutions fueled by inadequate funding.

The major challenge facing Nigeria’s public universities currently is underfunding, which has resulted in insufficient infrastructure, understaffing and inadequate facilities.

Similarly, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) conducts the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations (UTME) annually, with over 1.7 million applicants, but only 400,000 get admitted into universities, leaving over one million young people without access to higher education.

Also, the National Universities Commission (NUC) regulates university education in Nigeria, and over 90 percent of students enrolled in public universities in 2022, highlighting the need for improved infrastructure to accommodate the demand.

Furthermore, Nigeria’s higher education system operates below its carrying capacity due to inadequate infrastructure, including classrooms, hostels, laboratories, and libraries. The gross total enrollment rate in Nigerian universities is 12 percent, lower than the world average of 47.06 percent.

However, some educationists posit that expanding the number of institutions alone is not a solution, as existing public universities need to optimise their carrying capacity by being adequately staffed and equipped.

Accordingly, they said that the presence of tuition-free institutions across the country has also not done enough to alleviate the challenges. It is believed that despite tuition-free higher education, students face challenges in accessing quality education due to inadequate infrastructure and facilities.

Also, the infrastructure gap across federal and state-owned tertiary institutions have resulted in staff shortages. The academic staff strength in Nigerian universities is approximately 100,000, resulting in a student-teacher ratio of 21:1, which has negatively impacted academic performance.

Similarly, it is believed that the staff strength in some universities could be weaker; resulting in a ratio that can be as high as 30 students per lecturer, affecting the quality of education.

Closely related to the student-teacher ratio is the poor research quality which is directly linked to lack of modern facilities and infrastructure that hinders research quality by academics, contributing to the absence of Nigerian universities among the top 800 globally.

According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2024, only two Nigerian universities feature among the best 1,000.

Similarly, the universities attribute the recent increment in fees to the meager government funding and rising operating costs, including energy prices and security challenges.

However, the recent increases in fees for registration, laboratory, and hostel accommodation have been met with protests by students, who may struggle to afford the new charges; resulting in the ‘chicken and egg’ situation – which comes first.

While university administrations are struggling to meet on-campus infrastructure demands on the back of the poor budgetary allocation from the government; students are also finding it extremely difficult to meet the high cost of education on the back of the dwindling economic activities.

However, while on-campus infrastructures continue to push students to accept the off-campus lifestyle, the incessant security concern across the country is making life difficult for most university students.

Currently, Nigerian universities face security threats from Islamic jihadists (Boko Haram) and armed bandits, leading to kidnappings and tensions on/off campuses. However, to ensure student and staff safety, universities must invest in effective security solutions, which are adding to their financial burdens.

In 2009, the federal government signed an agreement with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to address infrastructure deficits, staff remuneration, and autonomy. However, the government’s failure to fulfill its obligations has led to protracted industrial actions, including the eight-month-long ASUU strike in 2022.

“To address infrastructure deficits, Nigerian universities can explore alternative funding sources, such as public-private partnerships, corporate sponsorships, research collaborations, and grants,” Badru Saleh, media specialist and proprietor, The Source Schools, Lagos, told BusinessDay Sunday.

According to him, the government can increase funding for public universities, to align with UNESCO’s recommendation of allocating at least 26 percent of the total budget to education.

The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), with its flexible and accessible model of education, is becoming an increasingly popular choice for individuals seeking to upgrade their skills, enhance their knowledge, and improve their career prospects.

As the demand for quality education continues to rise, NOUN is stepping up to fill the gap, providing a beacon of hope for many Nigerians who thought higher education was out of their reach.

In keeping to the vision of providing a world-class open and distance learning (ODL) institution, the Federal Government in 2001 established the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) to provide access to high-quality education, and its mission was to make learning accessible, flexible, and available for learners at all times, in any place, and at their pace.

NOUN was initially established on 22 July 1983 as a springboard for open and distance learning in Nigeria. It was suspended by the government on April 25, 1984. However, former President Olusegun Obasanjo resuscitated the establishment on April 12, 2001, with a pioneer student enrollment of 32,400 at the takeoff of the university.

Many more Nigerians are now seeking admission into the Open University, BusinessDay Sunday has discovered. The reason being that the Federal Universities are lacking the capacity to cater to the increasing number of candidates seeking admission on a yearly basis.

Many Federal Universities are lacking the necessary infrastructure for more intakes as lecture halls are filled; hostel accommodation has become very problematic to the extent that ‘squatting’ has become the order of the day.

“To overcome the infrastructure deficit, the government should improve funding, adopt public-private partnerships, and encourage private sector participation. Universities can explore innovative funding mechanisms, update their academic briefs, and prioritise research excellence to attract grants. By addressing these challenges, Nigeria can enhance access to quality higher education and improve its global competitiveness,” Saleh said.

According to him, Nigerians are embracing Open University due to its efficient and cost-effective means of enhancing access to education without compromising quality, flexibility, learner-centeredness, and high-quality teaching and learning interactions, all without constraints on time and space.

“Open university is flexible in terms of operations and somewhat affordable. It gives the opportunity to work and study simultaneously,” Charles Adewale, lecturer, department of Mass Communication, Caleb University, Lagos, told BusinessDay.

According to him, Open University provides an opportunity for learners to upgrade their academic qualifications without giving up their jobs or relationships, and allows working-class individuals to acquire knowledge, skills, and techniques relevant to their present work situation or future career prospects.

Corroborating Adewale’s position, another Ibadan based media specialist told BusinessDay that NOUN’s ease of admission process contributes to the main reason more Nigerians are beginning to embrace Open University.

“In August of 2022, I applied to NOUN and another private university for my masters in mass communications. NOUN offered me provisional admission within 24 hours, while it took the other university about four months to even respond to my application.”

According to him, NOUN is providing opportunities for learners to upgrade their academic qualifications and acquire knowledge, skills, and techniques relevant to their present work situation or future career prospects.

Currently, NOUN is the largest university in Nigeria by student enrollment and national spread, with 103 study centers across the country, providing flexible, open, and distance learning to learners in Nigeria.

Similarly, Iconic Open University, a privately owned open, distance, and e-Learning university approved by the NUC to provide advanced educational opportunities for prospective students hoping to get a degree in an array of courses.

Accordingly, Iconic Open University’s vision is to be a 21st-century institution focused solely on open and distance education, and its mission is to make learning accessible, flexible, and available for learners at all times, in any place, and at their pace.

In 2011, NOUN had about 57,759 students and all courses offered by the university are accredited by the NUC. By its nature as an ODL institution, NOUN does not provide lectures to students in normal classrooms except some certain study centres. The study centre in Lagos for instance provides lectures to all the law undergraduates and supplies course materials to all students after the payment of tuition fees.

Also, the Act of Parliament which established the university prohibits any form of union for staff or for students, which makes NOUN immunity to strikes. This has made the university unaffected by strikes such as the ASUU strikes (which lasted for eight months), which have the effect of extending the duration of students’ studies.