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Why our varsities produce half-baked graduates, Asobie, ex-ASUU President
Daily Sun: Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Former President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Professor Assisi Asobie, has explained why Nigerian universities produce half-baked graduates and how to restore the old glory of the university system.

Professor Asobie, in an interview with Daily Sun, spoke on private varsities, academic freedom, indictment of VCs and principal officers, ASUUís two longest strikes and how to tackle brain drain.

Chinazo Okoli


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Nigeria versus foreign varsities
A way to determine the level of competitiveness of Nigerian universities system today is the publication that is usually done once in a year about the month of June. That is a publication of world ranking of universities. That of this year shows that no Nigerian universities was chosen among the 500 topmost universities in the world. Not one was chosen. Most of the universities from Africa that featured are either from South Africa or Eastern Africa.
Now, among the 100 topmost universities in Africa itself, only four Nigerian universities featured. These are Obafemi Awolowo University which was number 44, University of Ibadan 65, University of Benin 73 and University of Lagos.
You would recall that no state or private universities was ranked, although last year, the Lagos Business School featured. So, the situation is that we are not competitive at all. And the major reason is that we are not doing research. Many people donít realize that a university is not a school for teaching but basically an institution for research. That is why we are not making it. We are not published in international journals or participating in international conferences because the money is not there. Worst still, because the way the VCs and academic staff are now appointed have become corrupted, the university system in Nigeria is actually in serious crisis.

Private varsities no threat to public varsities
Certainly not. The academics in private universities sometimes interact with us. We know that they themselves are in serious difficulties. Most academics in private universities are burdened with far more teaching than they ought to carry. Secondly, they are poorly built. Thirdly, they hardly have facilities for research. They even have much less than that we have in the public sector. The only thing is that people are confusing the issue of no strike in private universities as an evidence that they are doing well. No, they may be teaching continuously but as I said earlier on, the most important function of a university is not teaching; what we ought to be doing really is helping to solve national problem through research. The government is not even challenging us in that area. For example, have they commissioned any department of Political Science or Social Science to provide solution to the issue of conducting free and fair elections? That has not been done. It is done in University of London where I schooled. My own professor was always consulted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Britain. This is not happening in Nigeria.

Half-baked graduates
We, teachers regret that we are bringing out students who are not properly groomed. Students, these days, do projects only in the library. In my time, that wasnít the situation. You had to go out to the field and find out what was happening in the world and use that as an empirical evidence to support your theory. No such thing is going on whether in the federal, state or private universities today. We are producing half-baked product. That is correct. But it is much worse in private universities than in federal and state universities.
And I think the major reason is that the Federal Government have not frankly sat itself down and asked itself what is the place of universities in nation development. If they asked that question, we would not be quarrelling about funding. So, when ASUU says give us 26 per cent of the national budget, they wonít quarrel about it. They would now see the relevance of the university to solving all kinds of problems, whether it is economy, energy problems, or even the problem in the Niger Delta. It is because they have not realized the importance of well-funded education, that there is this apparent conflict between government and ASUU. And it is important to stress that ASUU is fighting for everybody Ė councils, chancellors, academic and non-academic staff - in order to ensure that the university system doesnít collapse. As a matter of fact, if ASUU does not exist, it has to be invented because without ASUU, university system would have collapsed a long time ago.

Academic freedom
You know that there is this rather simplistic interpretation of relationship of funding and autonomy. When they say that he who pays the piper dictates the tune, that is a misunderstanding of what we are really looking for. What are we looking for? We are not saying that government should hands up universities in terms of funding. No, what we are saying is that there are conditions under which academic can strive. If, for example, you have breach the ability of the academics to speak freely, then, obviously, the academic will stop research, because what research actually means is that you can make findings that go contrary to the general belief of the country and yet you are bold enough to declare it. That requires academic freedom.
Weíre not even saying that government alone should bear the burden of funding. Not at all. What we are saying is that it should be a joint venture between parents, Federal Government and the private sector. That was why we initiated the whole thing about Education Tax Fund (ETF) in 1992, although they dragged on until 1994/95 before implementing it. We donít believe that the Federal Government or state government for that matter should carry 100 per cent or 90 per cent of funding.

Indictment of some VCs and others
That was part of the tragedy of the government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. You know when the result of the transparency panel was released in 1999/2000, we struggled to make the Federal Government to agree to distribute the white paper to universities. But they developed cold feet. That particular white paper had two things. One was ordinary directives from the government. The other was document that was in council. I knew it was called Action Point; thing that must be done in the directive. Unfortunately, government played a lot of politics with it. Let me give you example of University of Ilorin; government decided that because the content of the white paper on University of Ilorin was influenced mainly by the presentation of ASUU, that the report never existed any longer. They hid the report and the white paper. But we got it because we had gone to Abuja, and they asked us to go and get the white paper. I have it here in my study.
They forgot all that and now wanted to sweep the report under the carpet because council and Vice chancellor were indicted for financial mismanagement and they didnít want to implement it. That was one of the reasons the University of Ilorin councils and VC never wanted the 49 academy staff back because they thought they would continue to insist that the white paper be implemented. And unfortunately, a whole Obasanjo who was once on the advisory body of the Transparency International played along. But it was not just about University of Ilorin. Many of the directives in many of the white papers were not implemented. And the government did not ask questions. So, what happened is that visitation panel is part of the law. Every five years, there must be a visitation to every federal universities. Federal Government never takes this serious, because it has been playing politics with the fight against corruption.

ASUUís longest strikes
Well, I led two long strikes. The first one was actually in August 1994, which was called off January 1995. Let me be very frank, that strike was partly about our colleagues sacked in University of Abuja. That was one of the major problems. There was also the fact that we didnít think it was right for Abachaís government to just wake up and implement the annulment of June 12, 1993 election. That was what he did actually by replacing the democratic system that was beginning to emerge with a military regime. We called off that strike because we found out that many civil society organizations were tired of fighting. They couldnít sustain it any longer. Some people had gone to jail while others had disappeared. So, we could not have the coalition we wanted to build of NLC and civil society to continue the struggle. Second reason we called it off was that we were able to get the ETF. The implementation of the ETF increased funding in the educational system generally. I think to some extent, it was a principled fight. Therefore, it was justified. It would have been wrong for academics to see what was happening to the nation and kept quiet. That particular strike together with that of 1992 raised the stature of ASUU very much. If we have behaved otherwise, I donít think ASUU would have the reputation it has today.

How to check brain drain
Those who made first class, genuine first class, very high second class upper are not satisfied with the improvement of salaries alone. They are never. They want to prove their mettle. They want to do something significant in terms of research. They want to solve problems Ė local problems, community problems within their area of specialisation. They find no fulfilment, no matter how you improve the salary, if they cannot carry out the projects they are having in mind.
If you go to international conferences twice and find out that the things you say are obselete, then you wonder what you are doing with your life. Some people go abroad and find fulfilment there. There is no challenge to us. Federal Government ought to begin to challenge universities to find solutions to national problems and let them stop giving these challenges to outsider and external consultants. We too interact with these external consultants and know their abilities.
I was once hired by UNDP, not just as an academic staff but as somebody who is in the civil society to help prepare the ground for the take off of ICPC. But they also brought an international consultant to work with me. I was called the national consultant, he was called the international consultant. Eventually, I did the work and UNDP immediately realized I was the one who did the work.
That is a typical example of what happens. After all, many of us in the university could compete with them. That is the truth. In my own class in 1973, MUC class, University of London, London School of Economic, there were about 30 of us. I was the only black. The other came from either America or Britain or Asia and yet I donít think I was far behind them.


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