By Azuka Onwuka
If you have any reason to go back to the public primary school and secondary school you attended, you would notice that only the children of the lowest parts of the social classes attend such schools now. They allow their children to still attend public schools because they find the school fees of private schools out of reach. The moment their earning power changes, they move their children out of the public schools.
This was not how it was in 1970s and 1980s when we attended primary and secondary schools. Children of all social classes attended the same public schools. Even the children of state governors, federal ministers, and top chief executive officers attended the same public schools with other children. Those who did not want to attend secondary schools within their neighbourhoods sought admission into some prestigious schools or Federal Government colleges. These schools usually had good boarding facilities. Old boys and old girls of such schools proudly talked about their alma mater.
There were few private schools then, but they were seen as not having the same high standard as the public schools. Government had taken over all schools built and run by missionaries.
In the 1970s, Nigerians who got admission into a Nigerian university and an American university would choose the Nigerian university over the American one. Students from other countries came to Nigerian universities to study. Lecturers from different countries came to Nigerian universities to lecture. Nigeria was seen as a hub of education and intellectualism in Africa.
By the time we went into university in the early 1990s, private secondary schools were gaining currency. Public secondary schools had lost much of their quality. There were no private universities then. Government had not allowed private universities to operate. Public universities were degenerating but still of good enough quality to be accorded some respect.
In 1999, Igbinedion University, Okada, Edo State was established as the first private university followed the same year by Madonna University, Okija, Anambra State. Even though the existing public universities had lost so much of their glory and prestige, the new private universities were still viewed with suspicion. Many believed that in addition to having unnecessarily high tuition fees, they did not have high enough standard for students and would not provide students the needed well-rounded life.
As the new century progressed, the attitude towards private universities began to change. The first reason was the certainty that within every four years, there must be a long strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, which has lecturers of public universities as members. (This does not include the strike of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities). This would ensure that studies at all public universities are suspended for as many months as the strike lasts. Currently, there is a strike by ASUU since March 23, 2020 (nine months). The global COVID-19 lockdown that occurred from March to July did not allow many people to notice the strike. But now that the lockdown has been lifted in all parts of Nigeria, most people have become aware of the strike. The regular strikes in public universities ensure that the graduation time of students is uncertain. People know when their children start their university education, but cannot predict when they will graduate.
Another issue that changed the attitude to private universities was the dwindling quality of education in public universities. This became obvious as the ranking of Nigerian universities continued to drop. Just as government neglected the primary and secondary schools, it also neglected the universities. The hostels and classrooms became dilapidated. A hostel room that housed two students in the 1970s began to house four students in the 1990s, then six students, then eight students and then countless number of students, both those who were officially assigned the room and those who were not. The laboratories and libraries had only obsolete materials.
There was also the issue of university cults. Societies that were formed as university fraternities in the 1950s metamorphosed into dangerous gangs that intimidate, extort, attack, rape and sometimes even kill those who have issues with them. Sending a child to a public university became a risk: the child could be lured into one of the cults and become a monster or he could be maimed or killed for not being in the good books of cult members.
Then, there was also the issue of sexual molestation, especially of girls, by lecturers. It is an underground problem that everybody knows but prefers not to talk about. Many female students have been the victims of lecturers who would demand sex for marks. Some would blackmail mediocre students because of their vulnerability, while some would do it to even bright students, including married students, denying them graduation unless they succumb to their sexual advances.
As Nigeria’s public universities were losing their attraction, more and more parents began to embrace private university education for their children. Many parents with the wherewithal preferred foreign universities. Even universities in neighbouring African countries like Benin Republic, Togo, and Cameroon, which were not considered by many Nigerians as possible choices, became acceptable. Many parents and guardians just wanted their children and wards to have a reliable timetable for the completion of university education and also to complete it in safety and some measure of quality. The difference between the public universities and the private or foreign universities is the cost of tuition. Many parents have learnt to save for it.
The loser in all this is Nigeria. The money that should remain in the country is sent out to other countries to pay for university education. The country is lucky that the money paid to private universities is still within the country. While students are going abroad to study, lecturers are also moving to other countries to teach. This is in addition to other professionals from all other fields who migrate to other countries every year to settle, because of the uncertain condition of things in Nigeria.
In university education, just like in almost everything, the Nigerian government has proved that it is incapable of managing anything successfully. As opposed to Midas, whatever the Nigerian government touches turns to dust. This has happened in railway, telecoms, broadcasting, newspapering, hospitals, roads, electricity, water, airports, seaports, museums, zoos, sports, manufacturing, security, economy, governance – everything. The only sector that gives a ray of hope whenever government fails is the private sector.
The only thing that can save Nigerian universities is if they are taken over by private organisations. As long as they are under the management of government, they will continue to degenerate. The only challenge is that once private organisations take over the universities, their fees will skyrocket, so they can be profitable. One wonders if there is a special arrangement that can be made between government and private organisations to take over the running of universities without increasing the fees beyond a certain level. But dictating to a private organisation how to run a business is a recipe for failure.
In the final analysis, the fate of Nigerian universities is bleak. Year after year, ASUU will go on strike to force the government to take some actions concerning the welfare of universities and lecturers, but whatever government eventually does will remain a drop in the ocean when compared to what the needs of the public universities are.
As the Nigerian university system dies
By Azuka Onwuka