Last week, I attended a Convening on Higher Education in Africa, organised by Professor Toyin Falola of the University of Texas. The conference held at Babcock University, and focused on the theme of the impact of private universities on public universities in Africa. Participants were drawn from university faculty, Academic Staff Union of Universities, regulators, founders, donors, students, and independent researchers from Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and Nigeria. It was an exciting debate on the complex relationship between the public and private sectors in higher education.
The original argument for the establishment of private universities was to create more access for students but the reality today is that the private sector has not substantially increased access. In addition, private universities have not really recruited and trained its own faculty, it poaches from the public sector for staff and is dependent of moon lighting. The terrible story that emerged is that many public university lecturers that are rarely seen by their students teach the students in the private sector with assiduity and devotion for the extra money. The raison d’etre of private universities, at least in Nigeria, is that public universities are perpetually on strike and parents need universities where their children can study, covering fully the syllabus and not spending more than the required number of years before graduation. This is being achieved and already the age of graduands of private universities is significantly lower than that of the public sector.
Nigeria currently has a total of 198 universities, half of which, 99, are private. The private universities however host only about 10% of the total students in the country. The breakdown of the universities is as follows:
45 Federal Universities with 1,310,825 students = 62.4 per cent.
54 State Universities with 578,936 students = 27.5 per cent.
55 Private (Christian) Universities with 98, 358 students = 4.68 per cent.
5 Private (Muslim) Universities with 29,984 students = 1.4 per cent.
39 Private (Secular) Universities with 81,908 students = 3.9 per cent.
A couple of years ago, we carried out research with the Institute of Education of the University of London on universities as a public good in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. Our findings showed a deep commitment by the governments and people of these countries to higher education as a public good that the State should bear responsibility for. The system worked as an elite model up till the 1980s when the demand for access grew and in the process of rapid and significant expansion, massification developed. The governing elites in these countries responded with their feet, taking their children out of public sector on the grounds that quality has fallen and sending them abroad. Those who could not afford foreign universities demanded for the establishment of private universities in their countries and the outcome is a two-tier system essentially separating the children of the elite and the people.
At the Babcock Conference, Dr. Hannah Muzee of the University of Capetown described this era we are in as one of academic capitalism because many of the proprietors of private universities conceive of their organisations as enterprises that provide a service but should also produce profit. The consensus at the conference is that in Nigeria, not all private universities see their mission as profit making. Nonetheless, they are seen as enterprises, that should at least break even. So far, that is not happening. Most private universities are making heavy losses. The reason is simple. I discussed with a number of proprietors and Vice Chancellors of private universities and their story is that the student base they have is too small to support the huge land acquisition, infrastructure development, security, construction and bank loan costs that they have incurred. In the coming years, many will collapse as bankrupt businesses because although they charge high fees, the fees are too low to support their costs.
The real problematic they face is not with public universities in Nigeria. The Nigerian University system is complex and class based and operates in an international environment in which many within the elite send their children abroad for their education. According to the United Kingdom’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), Nigeria was the third non-European Union country sending the highest number of students to the United Kingdom. In 2009/10, it had 16,680 students in UK Higher Institutions and in 2010/11; there were 17,585 Nigerian students in those institutions, ranking only behind India and China. The United Kingdom has been actively soliciting for Nigerian fee-paying students for decades with each student paying on average £12,000 per student just for tuition. It was the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Muhammadu Sanusi II, who first drew attention to the cost of education of elite children abroad. He said there were around 71,000 Nigerian students in Ghana’s tertiary institutions and they spent about US$1 billion on tuition and upkeep at that time: “The tuition paid by Nigerian students studying in Ghana with a better organised education system is more than the annual budget of all federal universities in the country.”
A fraction of the amount spent by elite on their children abroad would be enough to adequately fund higher education. This is what led us to the current paradox in which progressive Nigerians insist that the Government must fully fund public universities but as the elite know that the university system is broken, they vote with their feet and send their children abroad for university education. According to the International Educational Exchange data released by the Institute of International Education (IIE), there were 11,710 Nigerian students pursuing their educational goals in the United States in 2017. When you add the numbers of Nigerian students in Malaysia, Canada, South Africa, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary, India, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Cyprus and Germany, it is easy to see why private universities in Nigeria have been squeezed out of resources. There is a political economy crisis generated by the fact that the Nigerian elite place massive amounts of money in foreign universities undermining both public and private universities in Nigeria.
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Essentially, our elite has made nonsense of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which provides:
Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels
Government shall promote science and technology
Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end, Government shall as and when practicable provide:
Free, Compulsory and Universal Primary Education;
Free University Education; and
Free Adult Literacy Programme.
As a Nation, we have decided to divert the resources for these to foreign institutions.
The Babcock Convening had drawn out battles between ASUU activists who see the private universities as the problem and the private university warriors who see ASUU as the ogre that has killed the public universities with their strikes, forcing the need to go private. I think it would be useful to orient the discussion towards establishing the cost Nigerians pay to fund and support foreign university budgets. Consciousness of the vastness of the expenditure might push us towards reflecting on how some of the said resources can be used to revive the Nigerian university system. Academic capitalism is not local, it is global. The university as enterprise is not in Nigeria, it is abroad.
A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.