Quality higher education in Nigeria needs a comeback

13 Feb 2019, 12:00 am
Jide Akintunde, Martins Hile and Daniel Iyanda
Quality higher education in Nigeria needs a comeback

Feature Highlight

With N278.1 billion allocation in 2018, the per capita budgetary spend on Nigerian federal university students last year was N1,418 or $4.6.

Education is the bedrock of development. The state of investment in education and research will determine if a country will maintain competitiveness, fall behind or remain uncompetitive. In Nigeria’s case, there is preponderance of evidence showing that the current state of affairs in tertiary education is below the standard it was known for in the past.

Recession of Research
The 1960s, up to the mid-1980s, have been described as the period of "research boom" in Nigeria’s tertiary education. This was based on the high quality of research, and large volumes of journals and text books published by Nigerian academics. Nigeria was adjudged the leader in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA), given the country’s research output.
But research culture has since declined. Between 2001 and 2004, Nigeria ranked 5th among eight African countries in terms of number of scientific publications. The country produced 2,309 scientific publications, compared to top-ranked South Africa, which accounted for 14,809 publications.

As the decline in research started to take place, plagiarism has become a common trend in Nigerian tertiary education that is now based on rote learning and not original thinking. Both the lecturers and the students are well indulged in the vice, ironically aided by a learning tool: The Internet.

A journal article by Linda Nordling in Science magazine, narrates the story of four Nigerian researchers who falsely presented data copied from a paper by a German researcher as their own. Even worse, a study on plagiarism in Nigerian universities found that 81 percent of the students lacked awareness about plagiarism. A number of the respondents said they had never heard about plagiarism before.

The July 2018 edition of the Ranking Web of Universities or Webometrics, has University of Ibadan (UI) as the top-ranked university in Nigeria, followed by University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) and Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), among 253 ranked tertiary institutions in Nigeria.

The publication shows Covenant University as the top-ranked private university in Nigeria, followed by Landmark University (LU). However, country-wide, CU is in 4th position, while Landmark is 34th.

But out of 28,000 universities ranked globally, no Nigerian university made the top 1,000. The five best ranked Nigerian universities are: UI (1,076th), UNN (2,189th), OAU (2,232nd), CU (2,253rd) and Ahmadu Bello University (2,650th).

Compared to peer institutions in Africa, UI is 12th, UNN is 37th, OAU (39th), CU (42nd), ABU (61st) – out of 1,687 institutions on the continent.

Understanding the Failure

The reasons for low research productivity and the bottlenecks to raising standards in Nigerian universities include inadequate and irregular funding, poor motivation, poor or obsolete research infrastructure, brain drain and corruption.

In the 2016 budget, a total of N315.1 billion or approximately $1 billion (based on the official exchange rate), was allocated to the federal tertiary institutions: N216 billion for the 43 federal universities; N56 billion for the 27 federal polytechnics; and 43.1 billion for the 22 federal colleges of education. The total amount increased to N344.28 billion or $1.1 billion in 2017 and N443.54 billion or $1.4 billion in 2018.

According to the current data by the Nigerian University Commission (NUC), 1.96 million students are enrolled in the federal universities. With N278.1 billion allocation in 2018, the per capita budgetary spend on Nigerian federal university students last year was N1,418 or $4.6. The state universities are even less fortunate. There is no central data for the private universities.

Government subventions, budgetary allocations and grants account for 85-90 percent of funding received by the universities. The other sources of funding include school fees, donations and grants from international bodies like the World Bank, Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), which is funded by 2 percent education tax on the profits of all corporate organizations registered in the country. The Fund is used for research, capital projects, and the development of tertiary education generally.

A few universities are able to internally generate decent amounts of revenue through their business units and through commercialised programmes like executive MBAs.

In spite of the very limited funding, the Global Corruption Report on education shows high incidents of financial leakage in Nigeria, due mainly to misappropriation. Over $10.5 million or N3.2 billion is misappropriated in Nigerian education annually.

Benchmarks in Education Funding

The Education for All (EFA) global initiative recommends at least 15-20 percent of national budget for education. The Dakar Framework for Action, adopted in 2000 – ten years after the launch of EFA – recommends allocation of at least 20 percent of national budget, or 5 percent of the GDP, to education.

On its part, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, a collection of some advanced and emerging economies, spent an average of 5 percent of GDP on education in 2015. Tertiary-education is mainly public-funded in most OECD countries. In New Zealand – a country of 4.79 million people in 2017 – government’s total expenditure on tertiary education rose to $4.56 billion in 2018.

In Nigeria, however, the N605.8 billion budgetary allocation by the federal government for education in fiscal 2018, was 0.5 percent of the GDP. Capital expenditure in the same year for education was a paltry N61.73 billion. Yet, going by historical trends, less than 70 percent of this would have been released by the end of that budget cycle.

There are now 79 private universities in Nigeria, compared to the total of 90 federal and state universities in the country. According to the NUC, it processed over 200 applications for new private universities last year. This indicates that private sector investment has recently changed the narrative of investment in Nigerian tertiary education. Among OECD countries, the share of private sector spending on education rose by 11 percent from 2010 to 2015. In the United States, almost two-thirds of spending is accounted for by households and private institutions.

But in the welfarist states, or even some poor countries that have prioritised education as a development strategy, government remains overwhelmingly the major source of funding for education. In Norway, 1 percent of total tertiary-education spending, or under 0.1 percent of GDP, comes from private sources. Tertiary education is almost completely subsidized in Malawi.

This suggests Nigeria needs a clear economic ideology or policy strategy for development to raise government spending on education for the country to start to reverse the funding inadequacy. In the absence of an economic ideology, the country had often relapsed into political promise of free access to education that does not guarantee quality.

21st Century Challenge

After starting well when it attained independence in 1960, Nigeria lost focus of the impacts that quality education was supposed to deliver for the economy in the last two decades of the 20th century. The impacts would have included an industrial manufacturing base, skilled workforce and linkage to the global value chain.

Although the country has yet to refocus, and the performance gap of the last decades remain, new challenges of education have emerged in the 21st century. Some of the challenges include new or derivative technologies of the last five decades, such as robotics and machine learning, which will keep the global economic landscape uneven.

The place of science, technology and innovation has become so accentuated that the biggest companies in the world are relatively young technology firms, including Amazon, Apple Inc., Microsoft, Alphabet – parent company of Google, and Facebook. The tech firms are driving the global economy through innovation and are virtually creating global demand for their irresistible solutions and products.

One of the education policy questions Nigeria needs to answer is whether it would leapfrog to technological education to meet the demand of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Tempting, or urgent as this may be, it may amount to a baby wanting to run when he or she has yet to be able to crawl.

Some analyses point to the ubiquitous mobile phones as the tool for leapfrogging. According to Enhancing Financial Innovation & Access (EFInA), a financial sector development organization that promotes financial inclusion in Nigeria, 68.9 percent of the 99.6 million Nigerian adult population (18 years and above), own a mobile phone. Total number of active mobile phone subscribers, according to the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) is over 169 million, as of November  2018.

No doubt, Nigeria can leverage on the mobile technologies to provide access to education through hybrid online and on-campus programmes. Coursera, a U.S.-based online learning platform, is reported to have enrolled over 1.4 million students.

But there is a big difference between being able to buy bread and owning the bakery that baked it. It is even very important to be able to build the bakery. A superficial engagement of the mobile technology can easily create its own dysfunction, much as the internet is facilitating plagiarism. With the mobile phone is the new distraction of social media.

Nigeria needs to accelerate on establishing an industrial and broad technological base for the economy. This should necessitate a lot of emphasis on teaching science and technology and fostering acquisition of skills. This is the basis of the movement to Industry 4.0 in the advanced economies.

According to Brookings Institution, it will take the average student in SSA almost 100 years to catch up with the average student in high-income countries in terms of how many years of school he will attend and how much he will learn. In Nigeria, 8.2 years of schooling equates to just 4.2 years of learning, when adjusted for quality of learning. This is according to the 2018 Human Capital Index of the World Bank. This suggests that it is with regard to matching years of schooling with learning attained that Nigeria needs to leapfrog. As this happens, the private sector will more intricately link education to industry and commerce.

ASUU Strikes

At the time of writing, the latest and months-old strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) remains interminable. This is not simply because the negotiations between the lecturers’ body and the federal government are being poorly conducted, and perhaps in bad faith, as in previous negotiations. The discussions have no hints of producing a lasting solution to end ASUU’s incessant strikes. The unintended consequence of these strikes is decline in the employability indices of Nigerian university students due to the dislocations in their learning cycles caused by ASUU strikes.  

The challenge the federal universities have is that they are government-owned. The service institutions owned by the government are hardly efficiently run. Outside the education sector, some of such establishments have been privatised to improve efficiency. What comes closest to privatisation of the government-owned universities is granting the institutions autonomy. In which case, the government would share responsibility with the independent managements of the schools.

Granting autonomy to the public-owned universities is not even a basis for reducing government’s funding commitments to them. But it should mean joint responsibility for the good management of the institutions and finding the mix of funding sources that would ensure the institutions are true citadels of learning. This value-driven approach, will ensure the universities think more of accountability in terms of output and not simply feel entitled.

Moreover, if the current trends in the expansion of the private universities and student enrolment continue – as it is bound to, because it is driven by demand – the government-owned institutions will no longer shape the narratives in university education in Nigeria. If the atrocious ASUU strikes continue in regular cycles, the government universities will become less relevant and unattractive. This is the light at the end of the tunnel in ending ASUU’s strikes.

Rays of Hope

There are new sparks for revival of applied research in Nigerian universities. In November 2018, 17 universities were selected to receive $70 million from the World Bank to conduct research on infectious diseases, tropical diseases and reproductive health under the Bank’s Africa Centres of Excellence project. The research is to begin from April 2019 to address the regional development challenges in West and Central Africa. Recipients include Ahmadu Bello University, Redeemers’ University, Bayero University, OAU, University of Benin, University of Port Harcourt, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Lagos State University (LASU), UNN, and Federal University of Technology, Owerri.

Last year also, LASU announced it inaugurated a directorate of research and innovations, designed to foster impactful research work with the business community. Babcock University said it trains its postgraduate students to be solution providers. This has found some exemplifications. The founders of Paystack, Shola Akinlade and Ezra Olubi, are 2006 graduates of the university. The payouts on their innovative payment platform reached $27.5 million in October 2018.

Also, recently, some students of ENACTUS Babcock, a student entrepreneurship group at the university, invented the integration of Arbusular Mycorrhiza fungi and poultry manure as alternative to fertilizer in the production of vegetable in Ogun State. The project was co-founded by Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in partnership with Babcock to the tune of $153,448.

In spite of the uninspiring learning environments, the stars of very bright Nigerian students are, nevertheless, shining. In the last five years, 17 Nigerian universities have produced a total of 3,571 First Class graduates. Ayodele Daniel Dada broke the academic records of UNILAG in 2016 by graduating with perfect CGPA of 5.0 in the Department of Psychology. Taiwo Bankole and Oyindamola Omotuyi matched this record in 2017. Omotuyi studied Systems Engineering, while Bankole studied Cells Biology and Genetics.

A system to locally absorb talents like these – either in the university system or in industry – instead of losing them to other countries, remains a challenge that the country must overcome. The mark of progress in governance would be when some of those talents are attracted to the civil services.


Government combines the roles of the primary funder of the public institutions with being the regulator of the entire education landscape. ASUU strikes tend to intimate the public with the failure to adequately fund the public universities. But the regulatory failure in the education system is more serious and widespread as it extends to the private institutions.

Looking forward, the government needs to grant autonomy to the public institutions, so that it can focus more on regulation. Without autonomy to the public institutions, the government is regulating itself in the sector. But self-regulation rarely works.

As already stated, granting autonomy to the universities does not mean that government will stop funding them. It means the management of the institutions would no longer be an extension of government’s bureaucracy. This will bring accountability to the management of the schools. Effective regulation is key to raising and maintaining standards in Nigeria’s tertiary education, as in any other sector.

Finally, apart from the funding government provides institutions generally, there should be incentive-based funds (of public and private sector origins) which would be accessible to all public and private universities. The funds would be accessed by institutions that meet some performance metrics , including in applied research. If such funds attain scale, it would be a game-changer in raising the relevance of Nigerian universities to the country’s development aspirations.

Jide Akintunde is Managing Editor, Martins Hile the Executive Editor and Daniel Iyanda a Staff Writer, all of Financial Nigeria.

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