Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Abuse of Autonomy In Nigerian Universities

Abuse of autonomy in universities

Tuesday, 28 February 2012 00:00 Editor Opinion - Editorial

A REPORT submitted to the government by a visitation panel to federal universities, which detailed vice-chancellors’ abuses of the autonomy granted the institutions, is quite revealing. It has clearly confirmed fears in many quarters of a systemic decay, and a lowering of values and standards in the citadel of learning over the years. The report is not a compliment to the culture of excellence associated with the academic community in the country. At the same time, government cannot be totally absolved of blame over the rot.

However, whatever transformation the government desires for the universities in its white paper must be total and comprehensive enough to free the institutions from the shackles that have held them back and embarrassingly edged them out of reckoning in continental and global rankings in recent years.

Government accused the administrators of, among others, politicizing processes and turning the institutions into private estates. The vice chancellors (VCs) had been embarking on projects that were bringing the institutions down, the findings said. A more weighty observation perhaps is that they have breached all known norms that had made the schools centres of universal learning. The university heads were also found to be creating unnecessary positions for friends as aides, manipulating the running of the ivory towers and unwittingly sacrificing merit for mediocrity in key official appointments.

Some of the schools veered into areas that are clearly outside their competence – for instance, a university of agriculture running programmes in Law and Management. Now, part of the reform process outlines that universities should henceforth refrain from running diploma and certificate courses and stop conferment of honourary degrees on questionable characters in the society. Again, universities should not exceed their carrying capacities to ensure standards. The Education Minister, Professor Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufai had observed that lack of transparency in the deployment of resources, especially funds, engendered most of the rancour and bitterness within the university sector.

One relevant question in revisiting the systemic decay is: why is Nigeria blessed with a better yesterday? In the not-too-distant past, some of the country’s first generation universities occupied enviable positions among higher institutions in Africa. Sadly, that is now history. The fact that currently, none of them is found worthy of a place in the first 500 global rankings, has underscored how low standards have sunk.

The degeneration can be well situated in the continuous slide of the nation itself by whatever indices are used to measure growth. The embattled ivory towers are not any different. But universities ought to be the leading lights in situations like these because academics should, by calling, be intellectually equipped to push reform processes through learning and research. They should be in a position to rise above common societal challenges.

The decaying structures cannot convey a sense of pride in almost all the federal universities today. The visitation panel aptly captured a better part of it but the problems go beyond the vice-chancellors. As a stakeholder, the government should share the blame as some acts of officials clearly undermine efficiency and autonomy of the institutions, besides starving them of due funds.

Granting autonomy should not translate to a lowering of standard. The National Universities Commission (NUC) should, for example, set standards for feedback on investments. It is an open secret that many academic staff teach in up to four universities for purely monetary gains, and without checks and balances thus compromising standard. This should not be.

Many vice-chancellors and their registrars still regularly violate the law by establishing satellite campuses in the bid to shore up their revenue profiles. While this may be tailored to meeting the challenges of inadequate funds from the government to run the institutions, it nevertheless offends the spirit of the law against indiscriminate establishment of satellite campuses.

Always putting the wrong step forward for political reasons, government is also content with establishing more universities without corresponding teaching capacity or adequate infrastructure in line with statutory educational objectives. Instead of setting up more universities in which standards invariably suffer, government could easily have enhanced the capacity of existing schools to boost students’ intake and by extension the international image of the universities and their products.

Some of the appointees to Councils are not worthy of the positions, as such appointments are politically inspired. The selection process was corrupted until the recent reforms. The in-house mechanisms should be improved to correct the faults, including finding acceptable solutions to government’s underfunding without compromising the ideals. The NUC has also not discharged itself properly in its oversight functions, which include dealing appropriately with infractions by both the VCs and their institutions.

Vice chancellorship should not be seen as a position of power but rather as a means of fostering academic excellence. In other academic cultures, many VCs are eager to return to teaching and research at the earliest opportunity as a commitment to excellence. The government may need a re-definition of the autonomy issue. The universities are overdue for a move to the next level. No doubt, the current reform can set targets for a return to glory days in the ivory towers.

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