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Challenging the way we deliver tertiary education in a changing world

Universities are the engine rooms where we mould ideas that shape society. They are places where knowledge is produced, bought, and sold; people’s minds are developed and shaped to influence their environment. Universities are mirrors of societies. The greater the university, the greater the society. The better the university, the better the society. The inverse is also applicable.

Little wonder the great universities of the world are in the world’s most thriving societies. Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, and Oxford universities are in the US and UK. These universities are the gold standards and have enormous powers in influencing national and global ideas and have produced knowledge and people that have greatly influenced our world. Therefore, there is nothing wrong in modelling our local universities after these great universities and situating our universities’ souls within the context of our local environment, values and the broader milieu of national and global outreach.

Our universities unfortunately are struggling to define their purpose and make the desired impact. I will use a tripartite cognitive framework to dissect higher education in Nigeria and try to reimagine higher education in Nigeria through the lenses of its many challenges. This cognitive map involves identifying core features of the array of problems with university education in Nigeria, contextualising these problems vis-a-vis local and global dichotomy and proffering innovative solutions given the realities of the Nigeria situation.

Nigerian universities, like their counterparts elsewhere globally, perform certain vital functions within society. These functions include the training of the professional workforce, the production of knowledge and innovations for development, and creating a hotbed for novel transformational ideas in socio-political, economic, and religious spheres.

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Most Nigerian universities perform these functions at least to some extent, notwithstanding the avalanche of problems bedevilling them. However, the popular view (though without empirical evidence) is that most of our universities are glorified secondary schools and are far from performing their mandates. This assertion is backed by the fact that no Nigerian university is ranked among the first 1,000 universities globally by the three major world universities ranking bodies. I tend to disagree (albeit not entirely) with those who say Nigerian universities are glorified secondary schools and are not adding value to society.

Despite our universities’ tortuous history and inadequate resources, they have produced some of the best minds worldwide. With enormous intellectual and academic abilities, some Nigerian students and researchers command the respect of lecturers and students in top global universities and workmates are in awe of our products’ professionalism and expertise in top companies in the world. These feats are not just flukes. They happen because of the rigorous and painstaking academic training that these students received from their ‘alma mater’ at home.

However, I gave the proviso earlier that I do not disagree completely. I argue that most of our graduates are not like these high-flying ones mentioned above. Many of our graduates are either half-baked or completely ill-equipped in both knowledge and skills expected of university graduates. Little wonder, many are considered by the employers of labour as mostly unemployable.

The reasons for these two extreme results are open to further debate. The extent a university fulfils their primary functions indicates the level of its success. Success is a measure of the quality of the products – in this case, graduates, and research output. The quality of graduates depends on the quality of teaching, mentoring, and academic rigour inherent in the school’s culture and ethos and the level of academic engagement by students themselves. The quality of research depends on the quality of research staff, collaboration with the private sector, and the university research priority.

Although influenced by both internal and external factors, graduates and research output’s quality is the primary measure of universities’ success. The pertinent questions to ask are: To what extent are Nigerian universities fulfilling creating these quality products? How can we improve the quality of university products despite many problems they face? How can we harness our universities’ great potential to create great centres of ideas, excellence and activism on campus and society?

Before we answer these questions, let us first x-ray the features of the enormous challenges Nigerian universities face. I will not dwell much on this, because everyone in the audience knows these problems even more than I do. Nevertheless, for clarity, I will explore a few. This list is not exhaustive and does not represent a sequencing based on the order of the severity of the problems.

The challenges include inadequate funding and insufficient resources, low-quality standardisation, intractable strike actions by academic and non-academic staff of our universities, poor university-private sector partnership and difficulty attracting and retaining the best minds.

Other challenges include low knowledge production, emphasis on memory-based learning and assessment, poor or inadequate infrastructure and academic resources, low-quality students from secondary schools, theoretical approach than skill-based or practical approach inherited from the colonial system, poor leadership and governance, and undue political interference. Our public universities have been stuck on the Soviet-era ethos in which universities are part of an unproductive state system even in the face of existential threat.

The second aspect of our conceptual framework is the contextualisation of university education, both locally and globally. I argue that a part of the process to improve university education in Nigeria must involve understanding the dialectics between the global context of university education and the local context. The ideology of ‘glocalisation’ must underpin this understanding. Nigerian universities should think ‘global but act local’.

They should understudy global trends affecting university education and adapt and adjust them to improve our universities’ local content. Some of these global trends are forcing a rethink of the whole essence of university education. We see globally a move towards reimagining and reshaping university education using technology.

Virtual learning, online learning and distance learning are becoming a mainstay of university education. This trend is even driven more by some restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is growing democratisation of knowledge digitally (thousands of courses are run online by top universities that anyone anywhere with a smartphone and internet connection can access, mostly for free).

Universities create courses that provide people with skills for present and future jobs and are pushing away from yesteryears’ traditional courses. Top universities are competing as centres for innovative, cutting-edge research with lots of patents and budding businesses springing from these innovations to impact the world (for example, Oxford University partnered with AstraZeneca to produce a COVID-19 vaccine).

Finally, the collaboration between the private sector and Universities are more significant than ever in history. Universities are incubation centres for large private organisations funding several cutting-edge research to create new products, improve existing products, or better understand an increasingly competitive market. I must argue that there is a mismatch between these global trends and our local context.

To sum up the local context, Nigerian universities are just returning from an almost one-year industrial strike for non-payment of appropriate remuneration and demand for universities’ proper funding. So, there is a long way to go judging by this. How do we close this gap and get the two seemingly dichotomous global/local trends to be in sync? How do we tackle these challenges and improve quality education in our universities?

The third aspect of our conceptual map is proffering solutions. Many of these problems mentioned above, I must argue, are mere symptoms of cancer in our university system. They only manifest because of the chronic, endemic, and cancerous heart of the university ecosystem. This cancer is embedded in the paucity of strong core values, ethos and university culture that focuses on academic excellence, innovation, knowledge production and moral excellence. The lack of these features of a healthy university culture allows the ecosystem to be paralysed.

Therefore, the university’s first solution is to create an organisational culture underpinned by great core values and ethos, innovation, and pursuit of excellence. This new culture will become the driving force to improve the quality and quantity of knowledge produced, and professionals trained to fulfil their core mandate. To cure literal cancer and reduce its symptoms, one must go through painful chemotherapy. Any palliative treatment will only reduce the interim symptom, but the disease is still lethal and deadly. Likewise, it may be difficult to redefine the university culture from one that thrives on mediocrity and excuses to a culture anchored on excellence and high-quality productivity. Unless this painful surgery is done, rapacious cancer destroying our university education will not be cured.

Leadership is crucial. Effective and efficient leadership is the second solution. University is like any other public or private organisation in a sense. It has a vision, mission or mandate, clear goals and expectations. Transformational leadership is required to restructure and redefine existing structures to achieve the leader’s well-articulated vision and goals in line with the organisation’s purpose.

Good leadership should promote incredible transformations in our universities. University leaders must provide clear value propositions, core moral positions and the philosophy of excellence. Like in all sectors, good leadership can achieve a lot, even in daunting challenges because it transforms challenges into opportunities. Universities should be resilient and adopt an achievement-oriented culture.

It is important to note that university leaders must be creative and develop new ways of doing things, creatively search for and solve problems within the limitations of the Nigerian context. University leaders must think outside the box and be resolute to create improvement within our universities. Good university leadership must create legacies that impact the quality of education on campus. Even if it cannot solve all the university’s problems at once, the few it focuses on must be comprehensively solved.

Corruption, nepotism, maladministration of all sorts must be eschewed at all cost. Leadership in the university ought to be and should be a model for the larger society. Transformational and visionary leadership are needed in our universities for any meaningful progress to be made. Therefore, I advocate for a leadership training programme designed specifically for university leaders and administrators to empower university leaders with the expertise and knowledge to push through the reforms needed in their universities.

The third solution is using technology to drive the change. We cannot continue to impart knowledge today as we did 100 years ago. Everything around us has changed. Technology has made possible new ways of knowledge accessibility. Millennials are tech-savvy and must be allowed to assess the knowledge that way. From online exercises, online videos, interactive virtual laboratories, online grading, online interaction, and discussion boards, to online peer learning and reviews, opportunities for fun learning abound.

Technology encourages active learning, self-pacing (record, rewind, stop, pause lectures), instant feedback, gamification, computer grading, and peer interaction through social media.

Universities should adopt a blended learning model where traditional didactic classroom learning is combined with technology-driven online interactive exercises, activities, and discussions. Imagine your students watching a video of you explaining some theoretical concept and setting out online activities to do before coming to class later for in-depth analysis and practical application of the concepts covered in the video.

We look forward to a time when we will move from lecture halls to e-spaces; from books to tablets; from bricks and mortar to digital dormitories. The future can be bright.

Technology is the only tool that will allow the scaling of quality and access to university education to make the impact we need in our society. With online classes and distance learning capabilities, our universities can admit more students who may not have the circumstances to live on campus whilst doing their studies. They can join classes online while the lecturer is teaching students directly in class. Imagine the revenue this can afford the institutions.

Furthermore, technology can be used to improve the quality of the student experience. Data management can be utilised to monitor participation, attendance, and involvement in course activities. Technology helps in effectively utilising resources, such as classrooms, lecture theatres, libraries by monitoring usage and allocating resources to blend with need.

We can imagine a university ecosystem where everything is linked together by technology, and things work smoothly for all making life easier for staff and students for academic exercises.

The fourth solution I will postulate here is changing the doctrine of learning from ‘certificate-centric’ to ‘lifelong’ learning. University education aims to create independent lifelong learners that will continue to learn and evolve and add significant value to society. Continuous self-development is the key to career resilience and progression. Therefore, although research is fundamental, I will advocate that emphasis should shift a little more to quality teaching and mentoring of students to prepare them for life in a complex society and dynamic world.

To achieve this, universities must attract and retain the best minds and teachers, enrich the curriculum, and incorporate financial independence, mental well-being, and some entrepreneurship elements into students’ educational experience.

The fifth solution is collaborative working among Nigerian universities and with other institutions globally. Collaboration at the university and interpersonal levels has never been more needed than it is today. Excellent and innovative practices that bring about improvement are freely shared and adopted by all universities. Universities with models of excellent research, teaching and private sector partnership are celebrated, rewarded and emulated.

The sixth solution is to improve finance and funding of universities. The universities must come up with creative ways of funding university education. Standford University has an endowment of USD27.7bn and Harvard University USD41.9bn by 2019. Note that Harvard University endowment is more than the entire budget of Nigeria for 2021. None of these funds came from the government. They attracted this fund for three main reasons, their reputation, quality of research and their alumni network. It is evident that government funding is inadequate and will not be adequate going forward. There is no indication that the situation will change soon.

These questions merit consideration: Are there innovative ways to raise funds that can be explored? What of creating enterprises based on our products? What of going into partnerships with private sector organisations to create value through enterprise? Investing heavily in research that raises the money? What of creating a fund-raising body to search for governmental and non-governmental funding, endowments, and other means of raising funds? What about using the alumni and other such associations as a springboard for raising funds? What of charging market-derived school fees with some aspect covered by a loan that students will pay back when they start working? What of teachers being paid according to research relevance and market demand for their expertise? What of licensing of online materials and contents for revenue?

I am just thinking out loud. If enough brain power is put to it, there may be a way out to increase university resources to cater to some of its needs.

So far, I have identified that the university’s sole aim is to produce knowledge and train a professional workforce. I have also covered some of the core functions that help it to achieve this sole aim. I have explored the significant challenges Nigerian universities face, compared the local trends with the global trends and identified a mismatch. I have proffered a six-factor solution which is not exhaustive but which I think is pungent and germane for any meaningful progress to be made given the limitations of the Nigeria context.

Being a text of a lecture delivered at Honour’s Day Lecture of the Federal University Otuoke, Bayelsa State, on February 12, 2021.

*Dr. Peterside is a former director-general of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency.

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