Universities as constituency projects?

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Nigeria is unfortunately a more surreal environment than real.  Nothing appears to hurt the Nigerian people especially the elite who are always ready and willing to defend the traducers and mid-managers of their lives. Ordinarily, you would wish that they would react to the debilitating conditions imposed on them by their misbegotten rulers.

But the reverse is the case such that if they are pushed and pinned to the wall, they begin to ferociously blame and antagonize their fellow victims who they could have aligned with to fight their cause as a collective. Nigerians are such a forgiving lot hence they are treated with ignominy and deliberate condescension.  This is the study of Nigeria writ large!

The ideological war between the federal government led by Muhammadu Buhari and his supporters across the country and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has got to a decisive stage that members of the public who stand to benefit from ASUU’s stance that the public universities should be adequately funded for the benefit of the country especially the poor are beginning to distance themselves from the union. 

They have started to show signs of weariness and disapproval of the ongoing strike. A section of the media has begun to question ASUU’s position regarding the need for the government to fund education adequately.  This can be understood given the nature of most parents who see the universities and other higher institutions as kindergartens where their children and wards should be kept. 

Some of these parents do not seem to understand that their children and wards live in hovels and study under excruciating circumstances that do not guarantee a deserving future. The deliberate underfunding of the universities has done a lot of incalculable damage to the university system and undermined the latter’s historic capacity of guaranteeing the realization of a well-ordered and rounded production of knowledge.

It is strange but not surprising that even as the strike has entered its seventh month, the federal government is not making any sincere efforts to resolve the issues in contention, but is busy establishing new universities. Like President Goodluck Jonathan and his advisers who established 11 universities in a fell swoop without caring a hoot about how they could be funded, the Buhari regime has also gone ahead to establish more universities at Ila-Orangun in Osun State; another university at Azare in Bauchi State; and Akwa Ibom State.

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Bills proposing the establishment of over 72 federal universities are at various stages in the National Assembly. There are no Bills before the National Assembly to fund and redirect the existing universities to fulfill their manifest destinies as centers of global excellence, and nor do the legislators have grand ideas on how to make laws that could turn the fortunes of the country in the areas of establishing factories, industries, technical hubs, industrial parks, artisanal centers of excellence and other productive engagement capacities that could give the country qualitative leap within the comity of nations.

All that the various layers of the government in cahoots with their business counterparts think about is the establishment of universities in every nook and cranny of the country without any genuine concern for their funding and the quality staff to drive the schools.

It is not the federal government alone that is involved in this jamboree as the state governments have joined the suit. Some of the states even with the parlous state of their economies have as many as three or four different universities.  The outgoing Osun State governor, Gboyega Oyetola recently announced the upgrading of the Ilesa College of Education to a university with his supporters’ taffy in their ululations. 

Already, the state has its university with six satellite campuses spread across the various political constituencies of the state. A trip to the main campus in Osogbo with its fantastic landscape shows that had the planners of the university been altruistic and development-minded, there would not have been any need to spread the campuses despite the politics of the state. Had all the campuses been brought to the main campus in Osogbo, the university would have been one of the best universities in the country given the solid character and content of its faculty.

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The former governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, before leaving office announced the establishment of three more universities even when the existing Imo State University has suffered a lack of funds to operate fully as a university worthy of its name. Kano State has two existing state universities and is planning to set up two more.

Lagos State has, as of today, three universities; Oyo State has two, two in Ogun State and Delta State has four. In Bayelsa, as small as the state is and not minding that there is a federal university established by President Jonathan, the state has established three universities. In Rivers State, there are two state universities and the state governor is currently establishing satellite campuses in different parts of the state. 

The Kogi State government has also another new university in its kitty. Not long ago, the outgoing governor of Enugu State, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi announced the coming into being of another state university, obviously in his senatorial zone.  David Umahi, the governor of Ebonyi State has recently inaugurated King David University of Medical Sciences in his natal environment.

Curiously, most of these states establishing new universities are not funding the existing ones nor are they paying salaries as and when due as can be noticed in states like Imo and Abia states where university workers are owed as much as 10 months in salaries and allowances. Before Adams Oshomohle left office as the governor of Edo State, he established another university at Iyamho-Uzairue in Etsako West LGA where he comes from.

From the foregoing disclosures, it is obvious that Nigeria’s new ruling class in its warped conception of governance sees the establishment of universities as a vocation that serves its political frolicking. Some have also argued that in this business of establishing universities, more multi-millionaires and billionaires are being created.  It is also suggested that a racket is at play between and amongst state officials, private business actors, the National Universities Commission (NUC), and some consultants, leading to the flurry of licenses awarded to all sorts of individuals and organizations to establish and own universities.

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These new universities are poorly conceived, a parody of universities, and unwisely structured. Universities are complex knowledge production centers with their deep philosophical foundations, objects, values, norms, virtues, and fundamental organizing principles that speak to higher ideals and high-mindedness in every conception and praxis. 

In many well-organized societies, apart from the established roles, universities are expected to play in the production and sustenance of high-level manpower for their countries, the universities are profound sounding boards for the leaders as the latter always rush to their universities for informed advice on all matters of policy and national development.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the avatar and rigorous thinker effectively embraced the then the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) as the lynchpin of his development agenda and governance dynamics when he administered the former Western Region before the reactionary forces within and without did him in. 

The crisis in the university system is occasioned by poor funding and the cavalier manner governments at all levels treat the system. We can wager that these new universities being sited and inaugurated will not be funded and therefore, become another source of friction and national embarrassment as currently being witnessed in the face-off between the government and the union of academics and other campus-based workers.

Universities cannot and should not be treated as constituency projects by our politicians who are only thinking of how to win the next election cycle without thorough evaluations of sustainability. Universities by every definition are not money-making ventures even though they may offer ancillary opportunities for small-scale services for the survival of the poor in our society. 

Governments and private individuals and organizations establishing universities should give serious thought and engage in background checks before embarking on this idea to save our society from the unintended consequence of their actions.

Uwasomba writes from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

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Chila Andrew Aondofa

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