My Plans for Nigeria’s First University - Professor Abel Olayinka
The Interview Magazine
Interview with Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan (UI), Professor Abel Olayinka
Why did it take 67 years for UI’s Faculty of Science to produce a Vice Chancellor (VC) for the university, which happens to be you?
I was appointed on 9th September 2015 by the Governing Council of the University of Ibadan as the 12th vice chancellor of the university. The university was established as a College of the University of London. Under that old template, we had three principals of the university college. Three plus 12 makes me the 15th chief executive of the university. It has turned out that I am the first from the Faculty of Science. It was not a deliberate policy to exclude the Faculty of Science from the vice-chancellorship all those years. Granted, the faculty was one of the three foundation faculties of the university. We had then the Faculties of Arts, Science and Medicine, all of which had been established since 1948. But the way it has turned out has been that none of the Vice Chancellors came from the Faculty of Science, until now. But I am sure the Faculty of Science was not deliberately excluded. In fact we have a particular academic department in the University of Ibadan that has produced three vice chancellors. Meanwhile, the faculty of science with 12 departments has
never produced one up until now. I think it is just a matter of coincidence, not that one particular faculty was shut out.
Universities have gained considerable autonomy in the appointment of their VCs. Do you think this autonomy has helped to make the process of selecting VCs more transparent and meaningful?
I think so. Up until the time of the Vice Chancellor that was appointed in 2005, the university’s governing council went through the same process: they send the names of the three candidates deemed most qualified to the president of the country or the Visitor to the university. Prior to 2005, the top three candidates that emerged from the process had their names sent to Abuja. But it could take quite a while before the presidency appointed a Vice Chancellor. The president could appoint the top candidate, he could appoint the person who came second or appoint the person who came third. He could even reject the entire list.
Now, in the spirit of autonomy that was fought for largely by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), it is the Governing Council of each university that formally appoints the vice chancellor. That was what we did five years ago, under which the outgoing chancellor, Professor Isaac Adewole, emerged. It was our then Registrar who issued him the letter of appointment. That was the first time we would enjoy the autonomy. This is about the second time that process will play out. But I believe it is the best for the universities. With it, you can appoint somebody from the system rather than have an outside body impose someone on the university. The person appointed would have evolved from the system. In terms of democratization, if you go ahead and appoint the wrong candidate, then you have to live with the consequences for the next five years.
But do you think the competition for the job is healthy for the university?
The competition is basically the same. The only difference is that with the old template, you send the best three names to the Visitor who happens to be the president. So, a lot of politicking could have gone on but like I mentioned, the president was not duty bound to pick anyone from the list.
Nigerian universities are not listed among the world's top 500. UI is at #601 of the top 800 on a list that was just released. What do Nigerian universities need to do to improve their global ranking?
One of our most respected professor emeriti, Prof. Oladipo Akinkugbe, gave a convocation lecture at Ibadan in 1998 where he addressed the issue of funding positively and aggressively. There is not likely to be any quick improvement in the lot of the Nigerian university system. More worrisome, he gave that lecture 17 years ago and I am afraid not much has changed. The fundamental issue is funding. If we want to attract the best professor from Harvard to Ibadan, he or she will be here if you are ready to pay the bill and provide the enabling environment. Funding is central to whatever we do and the Nigerian university system is not well-funded. Those of us who are in the system are not really surprised none of our institutions is listed among the best 500 universities in the world.
Do you also blame funding for why there are no appreciable numbers of professors from different parts of the globe, from Ghana, South Africa or other places, teaching in Nigerian university?
Everything is interlinked. If you look at it now, at the University of Ibadan, we have about 26,000 students and we have about 1,600 academic staff. So when you look at the ratio, we have about 17 students to one lecturer. At Harvard, it is about four students to a lecturer. It means we need to juggle or stretch the capacity of our academic staff. But someone has to pick up the bill. But sadly, very few are from other countries. If someone is earning $20,000 a month in South Africa and you want to give him $2,000 in Ibadan, people will say he should go and have his head examined. Why should such a person leave South Africa to come to Ibadan where he is going to earn less than 10 percent of what he was earning, not to talk of someone else from Harvard or Yale or Imperial College? So the issue of funding is central and added to that, you have to provide the enabling environment. Someone from another country does not want to go into a system where there is power outage for 20 hours a day. There is also the issue of functioning or well-equipped laboratories, and regular attendance at conferences and seminars, especially those abroad.
Looking from the outside, the impression is that Nigerian universities are making a lot of money, considering the large number of students in the country seeking higher education. Does this not mean they make money or at least have the capacity to do so?
No it does not. The way things work now, all the federal universities are not allowed to charge tuition fees for undergraduate courses, which is a political decision. There is no free lunch anywhere so the government has to be prepared to make available the quantum of money that otherwise would have been paid. That is part of the problem. If you like, admit 10,000 students to your undergraduate programme, it is not going to translate to additional funding. For a long time the allocation we were getting from the government was not enough to pay our personnel costs or staff emolument. Happily now, government is giving us enough to pay salaries. But it may not be enough to pay the electricity bill, buy diesel or to upgrade our laboratories to world class standards. These are things we need to contend with.
According to a 2013 report by Businessday newspaper, Nigerians spend N30billion every year on foreign education, 95% of which comes from private funds. How can we reverse this trend?
It is a vicious cycle. If the universities in this country, whether federal government-owned, state government-owned or private, are mediocre, then people will go abroad. But if we upgrade the quality of our university education system, many of our nationals will be willing to get educated here. But if you have a system where you are shut down most of the time due to strikes, where a student comes for a four-year programme and spends six years, then there is a problem. If you look at a country like Great Britain, they are going to attract many foreign students because people think that once you graduate from Imperial College or you graduate from Birmingham, it is like you have a meal ticket for life. We have to first invest substantial sums of money in our university system to upgrade the standard. A university that is always among the top 20 in the world, say like Cambridge, can afford to increase tuition fees.
I met a professor from the London School of Oriental and African Studies in Abuja about three years ago. He told me how the London School of Economics operates. Any time they increased their tuition fees, more students would still apply. People appear to link the cost of university study to quality because the London School of Economics and Political Science attracts students from all over the world. If you now relate that to our country, if the standard is good, many of our country men and women who send their wards to Ghana or South Africa will stay at home and our universities will even attract more foreign students who are also going to pay in hard currency. But we also have to make sure our calendar is stable. When you say you will resume in September, it has to be September and you are going to close the academic session in July, it has to be July.
We have to go back to the basics and invest in our university system, to ensure it meets world-class standards. Now in some of our universities, we have students from various African countries, for example under the auspices of the Pan African University Life and Earth Science Institute. Students come from Ethiopia. Some tell us they are surprised that power outage is so rampant in Nigeria. That is from Ethiopia!
There is also the issue of credibility of certificates issued by Nigerian institutions of higher learning. Many countries do not recognize such certificates from Nigeria. Why is that?
That is not true. If you look at universities in Nigeria, at the last count we have about 140 universities. There is still a kind of differentiation among those universities. If someone graduates from the University of Ibadan, it is a place that has global recognition. I finished my first degree from Ibadan and went to the UK just on the strength of recommendations given to me by my professors at Ibadan. I did not have to do any qualifying examination. At times, when you talk of quality of education, we have to qualify that. It is not so much that the quality here is mediocre. Most of us graduated from the Nigerian university system and we were able to go outside the country and compete with our colleagues who finished from outstanding universities in other parts of the world, and we still excelled.
There have been newspaper reports that your election to the position of vice chancellor was not impartial, that the outgoing VC favoured you. Are those reports true?
That is far from the truth. 13 of us competed. When you look at our profiles, I happen to be the only one who had been head of department and Dean of the postgraduate school, which has the status of a faculty, and also deputy vice chancellor. I was the only one to have occupied all those three positions. I was Head, Department of Geology for a total of 5 years; I was Dean of the Graduate Cchool for 4 years and Deputy Vice Chancellor for two terms. No other candidate among the other 12 could lay claim to that record. I mean, that was the base line. If there is anyone with such a record among the other 12, they should let us know. I could not have been favoured. We all applied. All 13 of us faced the council. The council comprises 16 members. That is the chairman and 15 others. We faced the panel that came up with the current template. I happened to have been ranked the first person. The outgoing vice chancellor was just one out of the 16 members of the Council. I came first out of the 13. Then the best six were sent to the selection board. The vice chancellor was not part of the Selection Board, a five-member selection board headed by the chairman of the Governing Council. I came first with a total average of 90.2. Two other colleagues, eminent professors in their own rights, came joint second with 71.1. So, the records are there and there is no dispute unless we go back to the formula of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and say 71.1 is greater than 90.2.
An online publication recently alleged you were complicit in the loss of your official car and benefitted unduly when the insurance company paid the claim.
The news item was brought to my notice, I think, on Friday last week when I was in New York. I just dismissed it. It said the car was stolen under suspicious circumstances. Maybe the anonymous petitioners would have been happier if I had lost my life or the driver had lost his life in that unfortunate incident of November 15 2014. It happens that there is a police report and the insurance company dealt with the university and the university in turn dealt with me on the issue. So, I was not personally involved.
At a recent public lecture, Bishop Mathew Kukah said government should make it a policy for ministers/government officials to enrol their children in universities in Nigeria. Do you support that idea?
Well, there is nothing wrong with that idea, even though there should always be freedom of choice. My parents were never government officials. Even my going to a Nigerian university was a privilege for us and I thank God that I was able to go to a university here in Nigeria and I was able to do well. About 30 years ago I met an Australian when I was doing fieldwork for my PhD in the then Kwara State. I asked the gentleman whether he had the opportunity to do his postgraduate studies outside of Australia. He said that was not necessary because Australia had many first class universities. Why should he bother himself going to the UK or Canada unless it is just for a change of environment?
Is any of your children attending UI or any public/private university in Nigeria? If they are not, do you think some people might take issue with that considering your position as Vice Chancellor of a university in Nigeria, especially the premier university?
They are not. I have only two children. The first one just finished her first degree but she is coming home to serve. But I was not vice chancellor when they were entering the universities abroad. One of started from (the University of) Ibadan before he went to the United States. But the understanding is that they will come home and serve and come and work in Nigeria.
Do you think you might fully win over those opposed to your election?
No one really opposed my election. It is just that all the 13 of us were competing for the same position. Those that protested after the election were anonymous. It is all very funny. But we are all one family. All of us are friends and I must also confess that between September 9th (when he was unveiled as UI’s new Vice Chancellor) and now, not less than four or five of the co-contestants have either sent text messages to me or called me to congratulate me. It shows that they are large-hearted. We also need to run an inclusive administration. Some of those who contested with me are heads of departments and some are deans. So they still have to serve the university; not necessarily myself as a person but our common heritage, the University of Ibadan. Most of us are also alumni of the university. So we have every reason to make sure that UI grows from strength to strength. At the end of the day five years will pass by like five days and there will be another vacancy.
Are Nigeria universities sufficiently responsive to the needs of their publics or the markets where they are located?
Yes, partly. But it depends on the way you look at it. If you want to be responsive to the needs of society, there ought to be incentives for that. I was discussing with one of our heads of departments over the weekend. He told me that almost 700 candidates scored over 50 percent in the post-UTME test into his department. The university minimum mark for entry is 50 percent but the admission quota for his department is 56. His department is allowed to admit only 56 candidates out of 700 qualified candidates. So what can he do? There is no incentive for him to admit more. What he was suggesting was for the department to become a faculty. I said fine but it does not mean you will get more funding. The same number of lecturers that are dealing with 300 students will now be asked to deal with 3000 students. So what is the incentive to respond to the needs of society? We have a programme like the medical programme. Last session, the cut off point for our post UTME for the
Medical programme at Ibadan was 79 percent. A candidate who got 78 percent does not have a chance to be admitted because the quota is about 150 and you reserve 10 percent of that, which translates to 15 students, for direct entry candidates. So we are only able to admit 135 students into our medical school. The competition for admission is very keen. We would have loved to expand the opportunity for admission but what do we do when the number of lecturers or facilities available for us to offer quality education is limited?
What's the point in keeping the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), when each university ultimately determines the number of candidates it can admit through its own post-JAMB test?
I think that with the law establishing JAMB, the body has the prerogative to continue setting the admissions test for entrance into Nigerian universities. What each individual university is doing is basically quality control. They still write the JAMB exam then we subject them to another screening, which we use as a basis for admitting them. I think the first JAMB exam was written in 1978. For the next 20 years, the quality was okay. But after some time, we started to observe that students who scored like 300 out of 400 in the JAMB exam were not doing well in the university. After the first year, they were being asked to withdraw. Each university now felt there was no correlation between performance in JAMB and performance in the university. That was how the idea of the post-UTME started. I give the example of UI. We started the post-JAMB screening in 2005. Before then we used to ask about 12 percent of students who came to Ibadan to withdraw. That was like one out of every eight which we felt was a big waste for everyone involved. But over the last few years when I was deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) we improved it from 12 percent to only 2 percent. It’s now between 1 and 2 percent, which is a lot of improvement compared to where we were before we started the post-UTME tests.
But why should students still write the post-UTME? What is the point of the test administered by JAMB?
The thing is that when you try to solve a problem, it creates another problem. Up till the time I attended Ibadan in 1977, each university had the right to admit students with a test it administers. But you then find some students who were admitted to UNILAG, admitted to Ife and admitted to Ibadan; the same student. He will not take up more than one slot and others are not admitted to any. It created a problem. At the time I entered Ibadan in 1977, maybe we had 13 universities. But now we have about 140 universities in the country. It means if we deregulate everything, a student will sit for an entrance examination into UNILAG; the same candidate will sit for one at UI, and another at Ife. It becomes messy, which means we still need an institution like JAMB as a clearinghouse. But each university should still have an opportunity to admit those students they would want to bring in, and who they are sure will be able to cope with the rigours of the programmes such universities offer.
With students doing well in the JAMB test but performing poorly when they enrol in the university, what does this say about JAMB and its testing system and methods? Is JAMB poorly administered?
For the University of Ibadan and most other universities in Nigeria, we use about four criteria to admit students now. They must have had 6 credits in English and Mathematics and other prominent subjects. We look at their WAEC or NECO as the case may be. We look at their JAMB score and their post-UTME scores. But studies have shown there is a better correlation between the performance in the WAEC examinations and the performance after they come to the university, compared to their performance in JAMB. Again, part of the problem is the quality of our public examinations. The quality is suspect. But even the WAEC examination is not fool-proof. If a university cannot conduct its own entrance examination of sorts, then why is it in the business of graduating students? It has always been very tough to enter university in Nigeria, even during my own time. It is not everybody that can always enter the university. In the UK, it is the same thing. It is not so easy to get into Oxford or Cambridge, especially for some particular courses. University admission is supposed to be for the best.
In 2012, Nigerian universities had a shortfall of 5,000 academic staff, with more than 400 professors reaching the retirement age of 65. How can the schools guarantee quality with such a huge deficit in the number of academics available to teach?
I think that was one of the major reasons why the federal government increased the retirement age from 65 to 70, especially for those in the professorial cadre. But even if you increased the retirement age to 80, some people will still get to 80 and will have to retire! I think you need a mix of the old and the new. But it has been very difficult to attract new blood into the university system. I must also confess things are better now than when I came to Ibadan in 1988, especially since May 2000 when President Olusegun Obasanjo increased our take-home pay. It is now much easier than it used to be. It can still be a lot better, because if it does not improve, people will be back to questioning a system where they spend 20 years, 30 years and yet cannot have a good roof over their heads, talkless of sending their own children to good schools. It was so difficult at Ibadan back then, and it was about the same in the entire Nigerian university system. But now things are looking up. But you will still have to ask yourself, “should I go to MTN or work in a bank and earn 10 times what I can earn at Ibadan?” Young folks of 22, 23 years old coming into the university system as teachers do not want to spend 20 years before they build a house. It goes back to the issue of the reward system in society.
Let me ask a little bit about government. The contribution of those in academia appears to be very low or insignificant when it comes to policy-making inside government. There are even more contributions from international organisations, donor agencies and other countries than those within our country’s university system. Why is this so?
I agree that there is need for more synergy between the government, academia and the private sector. I mean all of us are part of the system. If you have a student in the department of Chemistry, Geology or Linguistics and he is thinking of doing his final year project or any other undergraduate project he should be able to approach a private organization and ask what the major problems are there, which can then form the basis of the research. When the student is able to come up with a brilliant idea at the end of his 6-month internship or the project, then the private sector that has supported him or her is able to benefit. So, there is a disconnect between the government, the academia and industry in this country. We need to bridge the gap.
If you are to say there is a particular sector that should take the blame between the government, academia or the private sector, which will it be?
I think all of us are to blame. So it would not be fair to blame only the private sector or the academia or government because all should be thinking outside the box.
Let me rephrase the question. Who do you think should be leading the drive for synergy?
I would say the government, on behalf of the Nigerian people and all segments of society. That is because the universities are funded by government but the universities, on the other hand, are owned by the Nigerian people and the government represents the people. I mean, policies initiated by government can change a lot of things.
What three things do you hope to achieve at the end of your tenure as Vice Chancellor?
The first is we want to run the student centre institutions. We are there primarily because of the students. Academic excellence is uppermost in what we want do. As a component of that, if we train good students, then our alumni will be doing well wherever they find themselves, and they will then be in a position to support the institution. Then we are also going to look for adequate resources. It will not ever be enough. If you have all the brilliant ideas in the world and you do not have the resources to implement these, then the idea will die with the person. I am going to look for adequate resources to run the university.
Service delivery also has to be uppermost in whatever we do. I was discussing with a former governor of Osun State a short while ago and he was praising our university. His daughter finished from our university, maybe 12 to 13 years ago. The former governor told me that it was so difficult for his daughter to get her transcript after she graduated. That was then but last year, he also had another ward who finished from here. And during the convocation in November, the ward was able to collect his degree certificate. I was surprised that the former governor was interested in and even impacted by the little things that we do. So, if a student finishes from our university, he or she should be able to get the degree certificate at the convocation, which was what we did last year for about 15,000 candidates that finished first degrees, Masters and PhD programmes at Ibadan. Both the Vice Chancellor and Registrar were bold enough to publicly announce that students should go to their faculties and pick up their degree certificates last year, after our convocation ceremonies that November. It was the first time we did that in a long while. It is part of service delivery. There is no point running a university stuck in the 19th century, when the rest of the world is marching to the beats of the 21st century.
Can you figure out the point when things started going wrong with the Nigerian university system? If you could you do one thing to reverse the trend, what would it be?
From the historical data available, it started in 1975 when the federal government took over the regional universities located at Ife, Nsukka and Zaria, then also created six more universities, such that the country now had 13 universities. Before then, the only federal universities were Ibadan and Lagos, and Ibadan preceded Lagos by many years. The federal government now took over (the-then University of ) Ife, took over (University of) Benin, (the Ahmadu Bello University), ABU and (the University of Nigeria) Nsukka. So going from only two federal universities to 13 universities in 1975 was when and why the crisis of funding started in Nigerian universities, 40 years ago. We need to reverse that.
Do you think the government commits enough resources to institutions of higher learning?
According to recommendations prescribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the government should commit at least 26 percent of its resources or budget to education. But we all know there are competing demands like health.
Is that formula prescribed by UNESCO a myth?
It is not, but I think some countries are doing far better than Nigeria. But maybe not many countries are committing as much as 26 percent. The funding does not have to come directly from government alone. It could come from government agencies or from scholarship grants and awards made by non-governmental organizations. But in our own case, I think government has to do more. I think government is probably right in saying universities that are owned by the federal government should not charge tuition fees for undergraduate courses. But again, they then have to calculate how much it costs to produce a graduate with a BSc degree in Economics. If it costs N800,000 and if you have 100 students graduating with that degree, you have to multiply N800,000 by 100 and make it available to the university to run a proper BSc programme in that course. If you look at what the private universities charge, N800,000 is about the minimum for them to offer quality education.
One major criticism of the Nigerian university system is that it does not encourage critical thinking, both at the faculty and student levels. What's your opinion?
I am not sure whether that accusation is right. It depends on how you define “critical thinking”. As academics in the university, we are paid to think. We are not principally paid to teach. Thinking is our primary vocation. It would not be correct to say we are not engaged in critical thinking. But I agree that we need to do more.
How will you spend your retirement when that day arrives?
I must confess that I have not thought of it. I am 57 years old. Since the retirement age is 70, I still have about 13 years in the system. If I am lucky enough to live up to the age of 70, then maybe two to three years to that time, I will decide on what to do after retirement. Maybe in another 10 years, I will start thinking of how to retire to the village and take a chieftaincy title or something.
What do your children think of your appointment?
Naturally, they are excited. I am always out of the house and maybe this just a reward for all the hardwork. They are naturally excited.
We understand you turned down offers to work in at least two major oil companies abroad. Why?
When I was doing my graduate studies in the UK, my mother was interested in me coming back home. Even before I completed the oral exam for my PhD at the end of March 1988, the University of Ibadan given me a job as a lecturer. I literally returned to Nigeria on the next available flight, if only to get close to my mother. And I felt teaching at my alma mater was the best thing that could happen to me, even though my siblings did not think much of my choice. They felt I was eccentric.
As a geologist, which research on energy use interests you and why?
I have not been doing much research on energy. My major area of research has been ground water prospection, which I also applied to oil exploration because I teach geophysics. My area of specialization is geophysics. I have taught many students in seismic methods, well logging, even electrical methods. In the course of the last 27 years, I have contributed much to the training of many students who are now doing very well in various oil companies, both here in Nigeria and abroad. That is a source of joy to me.
Some think that student unions have become brazenly partisan. Does that bother you?
Ironically, when I was an undergraduate, it was under the military. So, challenges are different. Happily, over the last 16 years, we have transited to democratic civilian rule. When we were there as students, we were thinking of fighting the military. I was a freshman at Ibadan when we had the Ali-Must-Go crisis and riots. But now we have a civilian regime so I guess the emphasis will be different. But I think students are still committed, though they are much younger people now, 16 to 17 year- olds. What will interest them now will be different from what will interest them 10 years down the line.
Some countries, including Nigeria have begun to leverage Distance Learning programmes as a means of enhancing access to higher education. Do you think this can solve the problems of thousands of youth seeking admission into universities annually in Nigeria? How about quality issues? Can qualitative education be acquired through Distance Learning methods?
Perhaps this is the only way to go because if you look at the University of Ibadan, for example, the 1962 Act that formalized the setting up of the university says that the general function of the university is to encourage the advancement of learning throughout Nigeria. So we are in a peculiar position to the extent that the whole country, with the 36 states and the FCT, is our catchment area. Every year, about 1.5 million candidates write the entrance exams to the various universities. The current capacity of the entire Nigerian university system, maybe at best, is 300,000. What about the rest of the candidates? So it is only by leveraging on distance learning that we can provide opportunities for many of our youths who desire a university education. Right now we have about 16,000 students at Ibadan registered under the Open Distance Learning programme. But we think we can still increase the number because the National Universities Commission (NUC) accredits only about six Distance Learning programmes at this time.
Many say higher education in Nigeria is challenged with the inability to develop needs-driven curricula. What do you think of our national needs and the role of the universities in meeting these? As a leading university in Nigeria, how is your institution leading the pathway in developing and delivering needs-driven curricula in all its course offerings? How do you intend to improve on the existing systems?
Needs at a national level cannot be static. They are dynamic. What is a major problem today may not be a problem five years down the road. The respective Ministries of Employment, Labour and Productivity ought to come up with a strategic plan. They need to identify areas of interest over the next five years. Information Technology is the in-thing now. When I was an undergraduate at Ibadan, I never had access to a computer until I went for my postgraduate studies abroad. But now, 30 years down the line, even kids in primary school have iPads, iPods, and so on, which means things are changing. We do not know what the next five years will look like. As for the university, anytime we want to revise our curricula, we often go back to our alumni. Say you graduated from the Geology Department at UI five years ago; we’ll then ask you which courses you thought were not beneficial to you now and which ones you believe need to be modified. We also go to the employers of labour to find out from them.
One thing you should also note is that many graduates of the Nigerian university system have problems with communication. When I was an undergraduate, there was no Use of English course for us; however, due to the Needs assessment that was carried out by the National Universities Commission (NUC) a few years ago, it was realized there were some gaps in the way students comprehended what they were taught. That is something the universities are trying to improve upon at this time.
How would you assess the capacity of the academics themselves in terms of the three core functions of a university - teaching, research and community service? In what ways do you think Nigerian academics have been able to measure up to their counterparts in developed countries in these three areas? What are your suggestions for improving their capacity in the areas?
Every now and then, even when I was Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academics) here, we organized major workshops for our staff. We always examine and improve on the way we teach, the way we prepare our curricula; I mean we still need to improve on the capacity of our academic and non-academic staff; to look at the challenges the face in discharging their responsibilities. Most of the lecturers at Ibadan are what we could refer to as “BBC”, which is “born before computer”. Thus, they have all had to become computer-literate. The younger generation is versed in IT matters. I know the example of an emeritus Professor in UI, Professor (Ayo) Banjo, who is 81 this year. He uses the computer and sends e-mails to me. If an 81-year-old emeritus professor can be internet-savvy, then those still active in the system have no excuse. So we have to live with the times and catch up with our students. That is, in terms of teaching. When it comes to research, we cannot do much research now without being IT-compliant and having constant access to the Internet.
If we talk of the Internet, we also have to make sure that the enabling environment is provided in terms of the bandwidth and that the internet provided by the university is not too slow. We subscribe to 200mbps and we think we need to double that. The 200mbps we subscribe to cost us about N73 million per annum. Our lecturers should also regularly attend international courses and seminars; but I have done the calculation and discovered it is going to cost us at least N2billion every year for all of our academic staff to attend one international conference and one local conference. But these are standard activities in other climes. When they go to those conferences, the affiliation will be with the University of Ibadan. So, by doing that, we are directly or indirectly making our university more visible to the outside world of learning. When we do that, we are also not doing the rest of the world any favours.
Let’s talk about students’ welfare. Few weeks ago, students of the University of Lagos protested against accidental deaths of their colleagues on campus and invasion by bedbugs in the hostels. These are just some of the recent battles waged by students in terms of welfare and living conditions in schools across Nigeria. How do you think we can assure the welfare of students and security on our campuses?
The issue of security is important to students, staff, visitors or even anyone who has any business with us. That is why efforts are being made on a continuous basis at Ibadan to strengthen the campus security service. At the last count, we have about 600 men and women in the campus security service. We are going to continue to equip them and also for them to leverage more on technology, including the use of CCTV. On students’ welfare, we have a problem regarding our ability to only offer accommodation to 8,000 of our students, out of a student population of about 26,000. Most universities do not have resources to provide all their students with accommodation. So we have affiliate hostels and partnerships with individuals and entities outside the campus to accommodate our students. Due to such initiatives, there is now a new hall of residence on our campus, the Adebayo Akande Hall. If we continue along that line, then we will encourage the private sector to assist us the more. The alumni association is also putting up another postgraduate hall of residence, which is going to cost them almost N200 million.
Academics and academia have been inundated with the problem of “publish or perish”, to the detriment of commitment to real research. This has also led to the proliferation of ill-conceived academic journals that compromise the standard of publications expected from the universities. How do we ensure commitment to impactful research beyond publication for promotion purposes?
For the academic staff, they are expected to teach students, then carry out research and then also offer community service. Teaching happens to be one of the components but quite often there is undue emphasis on research. Maybe that is just the nature of academia. Any academic staff would be very glad to have his work published so that he is known in his field both nationally and internationally. But our reward system can be such that we need to encourage multi-disciplinary research. For example most of the advances in science and learning quite often straddle the boundaries between disciplines.
The days are long gone when someone will just sit in a corner of his office or laboratory and come up with groundbreaking research. You need to collaborate with colleagues within your department, faculty and even outside your university. We should also take another look at the reward system, so that our colleagues can do more inter-disciplinary research which are meaningful and can solve societal problems. Most of the time one individual cannot solve societal problems alone. So we are going to challenge our academic staff, even our postgraduate students, to do more research that are impactful.
The problem of “academic in-breeding” has been noted to lower standards and outputs in universities. How can universities ensure objectivity and high standards in their learning process and output, in a situation where some of their academic staff are also at the same time students pursuing higher degrees, or who completed their first degrees there?
At the University of Ibadan, there was a time I tried to find out what percentage of our postgraduate students earned their first degrees from Ibadan. It was a very low figure, maybe like 30 percent. Most of them come from other universities in Nigeria. You cannot call that in-breeding. What we like to encourage and see is someone finishing from Ibadan, and then going to Ghana for his Masters degree or the UK for his PhD. Or someone finishes his first degree in South Africa, did a Masters in the UK, a PhD in Australia and then comes to Ibadan to teach.
But uptill now, it has been difficult to attract many of our colleagues, especially Nigerians in the diaspora. I know in my department at least two of our former students who finished their first degrees at Ibadan. One went to Canada, he has finished his PhD, now he wants to come back. Then another one, she finished her BSc with us, then went to the UK for her Masters and PhD. She also wants to come back. You cannot call that in-breeding. But I must confess that the percentage of those that do both their Masters and PhD at Ibadan and then go on to teach there is high, maybe 50 or 60 percent. If those are the only ones that are qualified and available, then you cannot be reserving it for someone from Australia or New York that does not even want to come here to teach.