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Financing and making university education better in Africa

In this report, Olayinka Oyegbile, who recently attended an international conference on tertiary education in Africa, writes about how to make university education funding and teaching better on the continent.  



Falola addressing participants at the opening

Perhaps to demonstrate the importance of education to human endeavours, academics, founders, donors and all those concerned with higher education in Nigeria and other parts of Africa were assembled for two days from January 6- 7, 2021, at the instance of Carnegie Foundation, New York and the University of Texas at Austin.

The egg heads were assembled for a conference held at Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Ogun State to deliberate on the theme: The impact of private universities on public universities in Africa.

It was a time to deliberate on how private universities on the continent have affected the fate of education and consider how to move it further for the benefit of the society and the world in general. The convener, Prof Toyin Falola, who is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, at the University of Texas at Austin, said the regional conference was convened to study the idea of private universities in five countries viz Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa.

He said the task would involve studying and comparing African institutions with those of Asia and see where they match or need adjustments.

Falola in considering the place of Nigeria and other countries on the continent in terms of education asked, “What are you if your people are not developed? What are you using your knowledge for? This drive has been relentless. Oil is going to dry out. The Stone Age ended not because there are no more stones; the stones are still there. But new ideas, new knowledge overtook it. We have to be thinking about a knowledge economy. We can use this knowledge economy to drive the overall economy. We have many private universities; we want to assess their performance in the long run but at the same time understand the impact they are making on public universities. For instance, is Babcock affecting the University of Lagos and University of Ibadan in terms of student recruitment, performance, the efficiency of administration, personnel, student-teacher relationship? This is the first time we are bringing people together from five countries to examine the impacts and the relationships.”

The convener in his address set the ball rolling thus giving the participants what to chew and think about. This was crystallised with the keynote address by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Professor Oluwatoyin Ogundipe. In his well-articulated opener, the university administrator agreed that “Public universities in many regions of Africa have witnessed tremendous growth. However, concerns exist for the following: funding, the relevance of the curriculum to the needs of the country; the quality of programme in relation to societal and industrial needs; capacity for sustainable research; declining condition of service; inadequate infrastructural facilities; enrolment beyond carrying capacity, and alternative routes to provide higher education is the establishment of private universities.”


Tracing the history of tertiary education in the country, he observed that before independence, Nigeria had only one university in Ibadan. This was later followed by regional universities because of the demand for university education across the country. This has however in recent times increased to about 203 in the country. This, according to him, was due to increased demand for university education and the need to meet such a demand led to the demand for private universities.

Relationship between public and private varsities

Taking a cursory look at the tertiary education sector, the vice-chancellor observed that, “There is also the issue of ineffective policy support which is a very big problem in this part of the world. Generally, no formal relationship exists between private and public universities. Many universities in Nigeria prefer to have partnerships with foreign universities. Some lecturers from public universities unofficially work for hours in private institutions. There is the need to develop a new and healthy competitive relationship for improvement of standards. The standards need to be improved in the private universities and some of the public universities.”

He, however, pointed out that incessant strikes in public universities, limited admission quota as well as poor funding were part of the problems besetting public universities in the country. According to him, governments, which run public universities, always fail to provide enough funding to provide good facilities for the public universities. He, therefore, appealed to government to save public universities across the continent from decay.

That done with, the participants in various panel sessions dwelt on what in their views were responsible for the state of universities and education in general in the continent. They pointed out that the increased demand for tertiary education and the failure of public institutions to provide enough space led to the proliferation of private universities, ineffective policy support for public universities, massification and favourable legal framework, which took education away from the exclusive list and listed it on the concurrent list.

The participants agreed that private universities exist to widen access to higher education and are trying to block the loopholes that have been created by the collapse of calendar stability and quality in public universities. Another factor responsible for this phenomenon is also the need for spiritual and moral training, which are absent in public universities.

Prof Ogundipe delivery his keynote address

Diverse ownership philosophies

The establishment of private universities across Nigeria and the continent was also traced to some of the issues that constitutes a rounded education and good citizenship. It was agreed that the public universities could be said to be producing educated citizens who lack strong moral fibre, and this is where private universities come in especially those of them anchored on religious tenets.

In all, three kinds of ownership were identified. These are: Faith-Based (belonging to religious bodies); individually-owned (by philanthropists and for-profit entrepreneurs); others by corporate bodies; and by communities. It was pointed out that some of these private universities are strong and globally competitive; while some are struggling.

Collaboration between private and public universities

The public and private universities were lauded for initiating relationships in the areas of staff exchanges, researches, sabbatical, visiting and part-time staff especially at the senior cadre, which ensures that private universities benefit more because of the pool of resources in public universities. Unfortunately, the malaise which is common in the society where people prefer foreign over local things has also crept into the university system as many of them prefer to enter into partnerships with foreign counterparts even when such resources are available within the country.

University administration

The area where there were fundamental division among most of the participants was in the area of administration of private universities. Some of the participants, especially from public universities are of the opinion that some of the private universities were not been run according to the best global practices. While it was agreed that founders and funders of private universities have different expectations and perspectives, they deplored what they described as “overbearing management” of some funders on issues as fundamental as recruitment of personnel and how to run academic programmes.

It was observed that private universities fundings are diverse as they get these from tuition fees, proprietors’ donation/grants, bank loans/facilities, philanthropists, as well as from religious organizations (for faith-based universities), as well as from research grants.

These private universities have affected the public ones in the areas of access to university education, although they account for less than 10% of total admissions (in Nigeria) because of what is considered as the prohibitive cost of paying school fees and thereby widening the already visible class structure on the continent.

It was noted that in terms of governance, although most private universities have Boards of Trustees, some proprietors still have overbearing influence on administrative matters. They deny workers the right to unionize, though it is efficient in resource management and service delivery. They also asked that the power of the National Universities Commission (NUC) in determining minimum standards was too much and should be left to individual universities to respond to the local needs of the community where they are located.

One of the most contentious issues tackled during the two-day conference was unionism, while the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was commended for its positive contributions to the development of the university system; it was agreed that it must find better ways to demand for its rights other than incessant strikes. However, the union argued for the establishment of trade unions in private universities as a fundamental right of workers to unionize under the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention. But private universities resisted this; arguing that it was not in their best interest because of incessant strikes which have crippled public universities.

Access to TET Fund

The issue of access of private universities to Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) was also strongly debated as the Union through its former President, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi strongly argued that private universities should not be allowed to benefit from this fund because their proprietors got their licenses based on their argument that they have the wherewithal to run such an outfit. So, why should they now want to benefit from such a fund when they have no part in its creation, especially since TET Fund was created as a result of ASUU agitation. If they don’t allow unionism in their institutions, why should they benefit from a fund created out of union agitations?  The ASUU leadership asked the private financiers to wait for another time when a new model of funding assistance could be open to them in the areas of research.


The audience

Policy recommendations

In the final analysis, the participants came out with recommendations such as the review of archaic and often disjointed laws in relation to the constitution of Councils, selection of Vice-Chancellors, staff discipline and promotion in public universities. They called for the professionalization of academic leadership positions (HoDs, Deans while Vice-Chancellors should come from people that have gone through leadership orientation). This they believe would make room for healthy competition and create room for academic excellence.

There is also the need for academic reform in all facets of university education – public or private -. They counselled that universities should respond to local contexts, and should not be too controlled by NUC because some curriculum needs might be restricted to local environments where universities are located.  University administrators were also charged to ensure that the vast gulf between the town and gown is bridged; by avoiding the ivory tower phenomena in their structure. There should also be efficient utilization of resources and avoid having white elephant structures they can’t maintain.

On the issue of unionism, it was unanimously observed that ASUU should reinvent itself and ensure that members increase their teaching and research presence while the union said government should always honour any agreements made or else take its leadership along if for any reason any agreement cannot be honoured.   

It was not however all about complaints and demands; it was a time to exchange knowledge and best practices as a way to make both arms of the university education to grow and get better. For instance, public universities were advised to borrow the efficiency-business-like model of private universities in fundraising, utilization of resources, and service delivery, while private universities should borrow the democratic governance structures of public universities.

That was not all, funding should be prioritized by government and private proprietors so as to ensure quality delivery of students and researches. Since education is a public good, policies affecting it should command priority and be easily accessed by a greater percentage of candidates/students at affordable costs. Education policy implementers should also possess the political will and executive capacity to deliver.

The issue of recruitment of academic personnel did not go unnoticed as it was agreed that universities (both public and private) need to engage talented and experienced professionals who may not necessarily have PhDs in the teaching and mentoring of students, while teaching and training should include skill sets beyond disciplinary training for independence and employability of graduates.

Finally, it was observed that there should be a feedback system within academic and other departments in universities to take care of students and other stakeholders’ concerns, while the media because of their importance in today’s world need to be taken along for strategic communication between both.

If the recommendations and what was agreed on at the conference are tabled and looked at by education administrators and policy formulators, it means tertiary education in the country and the continent are on their sure way to regaining their glories. But would the political will be summoned by those concerned? That is the question waiting for an answer.




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