Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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The burden of university funding shifts to students 16 Oct 2023

The last quarter century of higher education in Nigeria has been a tale of incredible nominal growth. From 41 universities in 1998, Nigeria has 260 universities as of September 2023. 51 are federal government-owned institutions, including the defence and police academies. The 36 state governments control 62. 147 are private universities, which have grown from just three in 1999 when the government liberalised tertiary education, enabling the National Universities Commission (NUC) to start issuing licences to private entities.  

While Nigeria has offered profoundly attractive opportunities for new entrants into its higher education market, public tertiary institutions, including universities, have experienced gross underfunding. Most of these institutions are understaffed, they lack modern classrooms and learning facilities, and hostel amenities for students are insufficient and mostly in poor conditions.

Every year, more than 1.7 million applicants write the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations (UTME) conducted by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) and an average of 400,000 gain admission into the universities. This leaves out over one million young people who want admission each year but are denied access.

The gross total enrolment rate in Nigerian universities of 12% is lower than the world average of 47.06%. Per a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report, tertiary enrolment rate in Malaysia is 45%, Singapore is 90%, and the average across OECD countries is 75%. There is an obvious gulf between demand and supply in Nigeria’s tertiary education market.

Basically, Nigeria's higher education system has been operating below its carrying capacity for decades. Carrying or absorption capacity refers to the maximum number of students that the universities can accommodate sustainably, considering the available human and material resources. The existing public universities can optimise their carrying capacity by being adequately staffed and having the necessary physical infrastructure to achieve better learning outcomes. Therefore, expanding the number of the institutions is not a panacea.

Liberalising the tertiary education market has enabled the rapid expansion of private universities in Nigeria. But given the pervasive poverty and inequality in the country, many families cannot afford to send their children to private universities. According to NUC – which regulates university education in Nigeria – over 90% of the 2.1 million students who were studying across the 260 universities in 2022 were enrolled in public universities, with the share of enrolment by the private universities less than 7%.  
Students who scale the barrier to entry into public tertiary institutions in Nigeria get to enjoy the benefit of tuition-free tertiary education. The country has been operating a tuition-free higher education system to enhance access for socio-economically disadvantaged citizens. Untold number of Nigerians have benefitted from this system.

But despite this advantage, students still have to pay varying amounts of money for registration and supplementary services offered by the universities, from hostel accommodation to laboratory and other facilities, depending on the course of study. Public funding of education does not entirely cover the cost for rendering these services. The funding is so inadequate that students have to grapple with deplorable classrooms, poor quality of learning materials, and an academic system that is simply overburdened.

A report by the NUC shows the academic staff strength of the universities is about 100,000. This gives the system a student-teacher ratio of 21:1. In some universities, there can be over 30 students for every one lecturer – the figures are in multiples of this for some 100 and 200 level courses. Student-teacher ratios have been found to be among the strongest determinants of academic performance around the world. One of the top-ranked higher institutions in the world, Harvard University, has a student-teacher ratio of 7:1.

In Nigeria, some students hardly have any personal interactions with their lecturers who are often unavailable because they have to undertake academic moonlighting, teaching courses in other tertiary institutions to augment their poor salaries. It is no surprise that no Nigerian university is among the top 800 in the world, based on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2024 – which measures an institution’s performance across five areas, namely teaching, research environment, research quality, industry, and international outlook. Only two – Covenant University (848th) and University of Ibadan (874th) – feature among the best 1,000.

Rising cost of higher education

Over the last nine months, Nigerians have faced various economic challenges. Earlier in the year, there was scarcity of petrol and naira banknotes. Following President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s decision on 29 May to remove the subsidy on petrol and float the exchange rate of the naira, effectively devaluing the local currency, prices of petrol rose sharply. These events have caused an uptrend in the overall price level of goods and services in the economy.

The latest items to be hit by inflation are charges payable by students in public universities. While tuition remains free, charges for registration, laboratory, hostel accommodation, among other items, have jumped in some cases by as much as 300%.  

The universities have predicated the increases on meagre government funding amid an overall rise in operating cost. Average energy prices have increased by over 200% since the president made his policy pronouncements. Other challenges the schools are tackling include electricity and manpower shortages, and insecurity, which has emerged as a new frontier of challenge in Nigerian tertiary education. Schools, including universities, are in the cross hairs of Islamic jihadists and armed bandits who have gone on sprees of kidnaping-for-ransom in different parts of the country. The latest incident as of September 2023 was the abduction of 30 people, including 24 female students of Federal University Gusau, Zamfara State. The university’s management, in a statement, said the attack had caused tension at the institution and students were worried about their safety. To protect their students and staff, universities have to invest in effective security solutions.

While not denying the reasons for the abrupt increases in various fee components, students across various universities embarked on protests last month. Several students expressed their concern that they might not be able to afford the new charges. Condemning the fee hikes, the Joint Action Front (JAF), a coalition of labour and civil society groups, warned that the situation could result in the withdrawal of a lot of students from school. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has complained about the increases and called for urgent government intervention.

The management of University of Lagos (UNILAG) announced reductions in its new charges by 5-10% after a meeting it held with representatives of the students' union. Other institutions like University of Jos in Plateau State have negotiated instalment payment arrangements with their students' unions. These and other measures would be put in place by various public universities as a means of reducing the burden of the fee hikes.

However, what is certain is that the universities will not reverse the increases. The government has given its tacit approval for the increases by not demanding that the decisions should be rescinded and also not indicating that it will address the issues the universities have been remonstrating about for ages.

One other thing that is now clear is that these increases were not just precipitated by the current inflationary environment and economic hardship in Nigeria. They have been in the making for 14 years. Parents and students are going to bear the brunt of it, marking the unravelling of an advantage Nigeria once offered its citizens from low-income families to pursue affordable higher education.  

Echoes of healthcare sector debacle

The recent increases in fees payable for tertiary education in Nigeria could trigger a similar catastrophic spending that occurs in the country’s healthcare. The World Health Organisation says catastrophic health spending takes place when the amount a household pays out of pocket (OOP) leads to its inability to meet other basic needs. In simple terms, OOP health spending has pushed millions of Nigerians into poverty.

A 2022 report by the Lancet Nigeria Commission – a multidisciplinary group of Nigerian academics in Nigeria and abroad that is collaboration with Nigerian health agencies to boost health outcomes – shows 77% of total health spending in the country is OOP. If the situation with rising cost of tertiary education spending in Nigeria is not addressed, many more Nigerians will be pushed into poverty. Those who cannot even afford the new charges will end up dropping out of school entirely, making them structurally unemployable because they would have failed to acquire the requisite skills for the job market. By all means, a situation where quality healthcare and education becomes more unaffordable for Nigerians needs to be avoided.

Botched agreement

An agreement signed between the federal government and ASUU in October 2009 aimed at improving the conditions of service of university workers, including their remuneration, addressing the infrastructural deficit in public universities, updating the governing laws of tertiary institutions, among other items that were agreed. Failure by the government to deliver according to the terms of the deal has led to protracted industrial actions by the academic and non-academic staff of universities, including the eight-month-long ASUU strike in 2022.  

According to the so-called 2009 ASUU/FGN agreement, the government would pay university workers earned academic allowances (EAA). These are compensations to the academic staff for any additional work they do outside their regular teaching duties, including supervising postgraduate students, conducting research, and serving on committees. There remains a considerable backlog of unpaid EAA reportedly approved by the government.

The federal government also agreed to set up a N1.3 trillion Revitalisation Fund from 2013 to raise the profiles of infrastructure in public federal and state universities. This fund was expected to be used to construct classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and other academic facilities to improve the quality of research and development and the general academic performance of students across the universities. Only N200 billion of this amount has been released since 2013. After the 2022 strike, the government said it budgeted N470 billion for the Revitalisation Fund in the 2023 budget.

ASUU also demanded an increase in the annual budgetary allocation to the education sector to 26%. This allocation still remains below 6%. The union has said its agreement with the government to boost the quality of education in Nigerian public universities has been neglected for 14 years. It can be argued, therefore, that the government’s inability to honour its obligations under the 2009 agreement made the current fee increases by virtually all the universities an inevitability.

While the union contends with the government over the outstanding N1.1 trillion from the Revitalisation Fund, it is unclear if this amount would address the current infrastructure challenges across the universities, whose physical assets have further depreciated since the agreement was signed. The number of public universities have also increased over this period. Chairman of the Ebonyi State University chapter of ASUU, Dr. Ikechukwu Igwenyi, alluded to this point last year when he said the union should jettison the old figure and renegotiate a N5 trillion fund for public university infrastructure development.

Regardless of the need for a revaluation of the present-day infrastructure needs of universities, the question needs to be asked why the federal government could not meet its obligations to improve the quality of public tertiary education during a period when public debt stock ballooned from N7.53 trillion in March 2013 to N87.38 trillion as of June 2023. If substantial parts of these debts were ostensibly incurred to invest in infrastructure, given what Nigerians were told; it beggars belief why the infrastructure of priority was never in the higher education sector.   
During a recent visit to the Minister of Education, Prof. Tahir Mamman, the committee of Vice-Chancellors, led by the Vice-Chancellor of University of Benin, Prof. Lilian Salami, reiterated some of these issues to the minister. During her speech, Salami mentioned some of the key challenges the universities are facing as “funding, recruitment of staff, universities’ autonomy, aspects of university laws that conflict with other laws and unending industrial disputes with university-based unions.”

It is yet to be seen to what extent President Tinubu, whom the education minister has described as "business-like," will comprehensively and effectively tackle these challenges. In June, the president signed the Student Loan Bill into law. The law provides Nigerian students from low-income homes access to interest-free loans, which are repayable two years after completing the mandatory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme. The loan repayment window has been panned by critics for being short.  

It's funding, stupid

Access to financial aid will certainly help in lowering the financial barrier for indigent students. But funding for public universities remains critical to enable the institutions to maximise their capacity, acquire modern teaching and learning facilities, hire more lecturers and other staff, secure students' safety, and improve academic performance.

The government has given universities the latitude to find alternative funding sources. But there needs to be concerted efforts by the education minister, National Council on Education (NCE), and other stakeholders to find practical and sustainable frameworks for diversifying the funding sources of the tertiary institutions.

On their parts, Nigerian universities need to either create new academic briefs or update the antiquated ones. Some key components of top-notch academic briefs include bold strategic focus that targets long-term academic output, strong performance indicators that are measurable and reported, and innovative funding mechanisms that can attract financing from individuals, donor organisations, philanthropies, private sector companies, and other institutions. Each Nigerian public university will adopt the funding mechanisms that align with its strategic focus, objectives, and by all means the national development agenda to achieve global competitiveness.

There are several proven university funding models across developing countries, a number of which some Nigerian universities are already adopting but need to be scaled up. Suffice to highlight a few of them.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs): PPPs offer an opportunity for public universities to partner with private investors to develop much-needed infrastructure and other services to students. Utilising various PPP models that suit the needs of individual institutions, this will enable public universities to be more competitive with private universities in terms of the availability of human and material resources and other indicators.

Some Nigerian public universities like UNILAG, Lagos State University, Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Anambra State, University of Ibadan in Oyo State, and Fountain University in Osun State, have successfully utilised PPPs to build appreciable infrastructure on their campuses. Among their numerous PPP projects, UNILAG and University of Benin both have PPPs with Bionomics Nigeria Limited, a technology company, to install CCTV cameras across the universities' campuses.

Besides physical infrastructure, PPPs can also be leveraged to develop new academic programmes and provide scholarships.

Corporate sponsorships: This model provides manifold opportunities for companies to sponsor university programmes and facilities on a short- to long-term basis, while maximising the campus population of the universities for optimal brand exposure. The universities then use the sponsorship funds to finance their operations and development activities. Several Nigerian tertiary institutions have received corporate sponsorship funding from banks, oil companies, and telecommunications companies, among others.

Research collaborations and grants: Research grants provide valuable funding for universities. For example, Brazilian universities receive significant funding for research from public and private sector institutions and foundations. The value of the grants, however, depends on the specific research projects and the grant-awarding body. The São Paulo Research Foundation, FAPESP, provides grants of up to US$300,000 to US$2 million.

A reputation in research excellence has to be established in Nigerian universities for the country’s public universities to start attracting significant grant funding. This process can be fostered by establishing research collaborations with foreign universities, an idea the NUC encourages among Nigerian universities. This will not only help in increasing the impact of scientific work by Nigerian scholars and universities, but also expand opportunities for research grants.

High-quality continuous education programmes: It is commonplace for Nigerian elites to strut professional certifications obtained from American and British universities. While the quality and prestige of the certifications earned abroad are not comparable with those from Nigeria, the foreign exchange that is paid to the foreign universities can be retained in the country if there are a wide range of high-quality executive education and other professional development programmes for the public and private sectors. The existing business schools in the country can be better positioned to become more globally competitive.

The need for organisations to adequately keep pace with a rapidly changing world and for workers to stay up-to-date, develop new skills, and advance in their careers means there will always be a continuous education market. Nigerian tertiary institutions can generate significant funding by capturing a large share of this market, including by offering bite-sized learning programmes that are accredited for enhanced professional recognition.

To make the programmes further attractive, they can be delivered via flexible and convenient arrangements like virtual, in-person, evenings, and weekends. The programmes can be further tailored to the specific needs of organisations to boost efficiency, service delivery, and other strategic objectives of organisations.

Work-study programmes: Universities can set up work-study programmes in partnership with private institutions. This model entails the employment of students by the companies who need the students’ services for critical research and product development purposes. In addition to paying the students, the companies can also provide various items, including laboratory equipment, and some other needs of the universities. Addition benefit for the companies would be brand recognition.

Martins Hile is a sustainability strategist and editorial consultant.