The just suspended industrial action of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which disrupted university education calendar for months, has again underscored a stark reality that the Federal Government alone cannot effectively fund tertiary education in the country.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who represented President Muhammadu Buhari at the convocation and 70th anniversary of Nigeria’s premier university, the University of Ibadan, confirmed this development in his remarks. Politics should not be allowed to take any steam out of this important governance issue – quality in education.
While acknowledging that ASUU does have a point in its agitation for better funding for universities, Osinbajo pointed out that an insistence on sole government funding for universities is nothing but an invitation to repeated failure. “None of the universities especially in the free world,” said the vice president, “is fully or even substantially funded by the government. The task of fundraising is precisely what the universities are established to do; to solve problems and to create solutions that uplift the society.”
The former university law teacher, Osinbajo, therefore, proposed alternative sources of financial provision for universities, including in particular, the raising of funds from the capital market and a greater reliance on alumni networks for gift donations.
It is especially refreshing that these words are coming from an influential official of the Nigerian Federal Government, which has, over the years, become so corruptibly used to controlling virtually everything to its own advantage and to the detriment of the effective management of the country’s resources.
While this debate on funding options is gaining traction, some stakeholders, including some striking university lecturers, have kicked against the deployment of the capital market option for two major reasons. The first is what has been called the “unviable” nature of the project. Experts have noted, ‘the government has in the past raised so many bonds and there is a heavy commitment on the part of the government because it has too much debt. Adding another one for the universities will further increase the already heavy debt portfolio of the government.’
It would have been easier, perhaps, if the universities were run fully on a commercial basis.The reality is that in Nigeria, university education is seen almost as a right, or at least as an extension of government charity to whosoever wishes to receive it, with people paying ridiculously low to obtain a certificate that will eventually mean very little to employers.
By no means, truly, will universities under these circumstances make profit enough to help offset the debt incurred for the purpose of their own survival through the vice president’s model.
The second reason for the rejection of the capital market solution is corruption. Embedded in this is a two-fold concern. As it has to do with the capital market itself, it is alleged that a sector as important and pivotal to the nation’s future as education is, should not be put at the mercy of the Nigerian financial system, which is widely considered to be fraught with fraud. Due to the lack of proper control and/or the deliberate retention of criminal escape valves within the regulatory system, financial dark arts such as insider trading have remained prevalent in the country’s money market. The fear is that some of these underhand fiscal practices will somehow get to influence and eventually destroy an already ailing educational sector.
Besides, what about the judicious deployment of the acquired funds? The steady decline of sagacity in the administration of universities makes this a very potent fear. And if, perhaps, there is a connivance of corrupt purposes, a corporate donor/lender can as well offer hand-out in exchange for the right of direction of research. In paying the piper, these fat purses may as well demand to dictate the tune. This is quite risky.
All of these are valid misgivings to have about the current funding suggestion(s) of the government. Moreover, distrust for government solutions, due to an almost exclusive fault of government itself, is at an unprecedented high. Nevertheless, it will be useful to point out that these well-identified threats to the successful application of alternative funding are exacerbated by the entrenched structure of education management in the country.
Another fundamental mistake is to propose these solutions while still seeking to maintain the dysfunctional system of university management. The Federal Government, it seems, wants to relieve itself of the burden of providing direct, continuous capital for tertiary education (which it should), without wanting to let go of its stranglehold on these universities. This, unfortunately, is never likely to work.
The point at issue here remains the positive clamour for a substantive and holistic autonomy for Nigerian universities. It is only when this is effected that these institutions of higher learning can begin to operate with an eye for adequate profit towards the repayment of whatever (loan) capital they have raised from wherever.
Moreover, if the Federal Government has a debt profile that is already embarrassing and debilitating enough, individual universities may still possess a greater promise and better fiscal portfolio for the purpose of attracting substantial investments from the private sector. Capitalists, therefore, may be much more favourably disposed to financing universities in several ways than lending to government, unless there is some political advantage to be gained or lost.
In a world of autonomous universities, the unviability argument also collapses because, then, as the failure of any one university will no longer be attributable to the failure of government.Then, these institutions will become more careful and rigorous in the selection of their administrators. Aspiring Vice Chancellors, Pro Chancellors, or presidents as the case may be will have to provide blueprint and visions of how they will pay the salaries of staff, fund research and innovation, and generally chart a course to greater efficiency and higher placement in the rankings during their tenures. In the same vein, lecturers will be more productive, encouraged by more buoyant incentives and checked by tighter corporate sanctions. What is more, even students will no longer take their studies for granted since university education will, in such a world, bear a respectable and non-negligible cost.
By no means do the foregoing submissions amount to an advocacy for a laissez-faire educational system with absolutely no monitoring. The point precisely is that monitoring, not active financing is the ideal job of government in higher educational affairs. It is in light of this that the Federal Government will still be encouraged, even after autonomy has been granted, to take its oversight functions seriously.
This newspaper has been calling for restructuring of the country and issues thereof. We are persuaded too that the government’s proposed solution is workable but never within this shambolic structure and organisation of university education. It is beyond even a declaration of an emergency without true autonomy – of the university system.