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When the phenomenon of private universities was emerging in the country some decades ago, it used to be thought that they would remain permanently inferior to the public ones (those of the Federal Government in particular) and would never do better than them in terms of students’ performance and quality of lecturers. Some questioned whether they would even have the facilities. Perhaps, universities outside the country would not recognise them, and a ton of other doubts. Many questioned the credibility and feasibility of those institutions. Several of these fears later proved to be false. The ugly stone that the builders rejected is now becoming the chief cornerstone!
The past is a prologue. This is 2020, more than any other year, it offers a litmus test for the determination of the extent to which these institutions are alive to their responsibilities vis-à-vis the evolving trend in teaching, research, and conducting other academic activities. Babcock University conducted its convocation ceremony in the third week of August, demonstrating that a private university can run well and successfully compete with public ones. Students sat for their examinations at the peak of COVID-19. I am not basing this view on a second-hand knowledge but the first-hand experience, including signing on to the institution’s website to participate in the viewing of the Convocation ceremony. In partnership with Arizona State University, we had a successful Zoom meeting on collaboration efforts. From my objective assessment, I can attest to the superiority of Babcock over many public universities, not only in Nigeria but across Africa. Again, in another example that transcends the present circumstance, Lead City University, Ibadan, and Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, in their infrastructural facilities, are far superior to almost all the state universities in the country. The landscape of Caleb University is far more attractive than many Federal Government universities that are fast becoming archetypes for failing institutions with outdated, broken down and overcrowded libraries, lecture facilities and hostels. Anyone with more than just a casual acquaintance with the campus and curriculum of Redeemer’s University, Nigeria, Ede, would see a superior quality programme being run. I am not judging the universities by buildings, but also by ideas and ideals. I have examined Ph.D. theses in both public and private universities. I have given lectures in both, and I can tell you authoritatively about the quality of these institutions.
Indeed, it is much easier for me to convene a conference at Lead City University than at any federal university, in terms of the quick response, organisational efficiency, immediate attention by the senior officials of the university, and the peace of mind that a strike action by any of the unions will not lead to any last-minute cancellation of plans and schedules.
If a computer fails to work, there is a contact person to deal with it. The drivers have cars to drive, unlike in some federal universities where they go to the office to talk without any work to do. They are that organised. It will take me 30 minutes to reach Professor Ademola Tayo, the humble Vice-Chancellor of Babcock, but two weeks to even know the contact person for the Vice-Chancellor of a federal university where the spirit is that of “oga ta, oga o ta, owo alaru a pe”.
The fact is that not only are some of these private universities moving forward, matching quickly, and, in some cases, outmatching the quality of facilities and teaching staff in public universities, they have also produced students that are doing well in various fields. Personally, I have placed many of their students in leading universities for graduate programmes because of their quality.
Although many of these private universities remain profit-making ventures, they, at least, provide better opportunities for their students, as contrasted with their counterparts in the government-owned institutions. On the flip side, the issue of profit may even be exaggerated. I am on the Council of one, and I can vouch for the institution that no profit has been made in the last 10 years. I regularly speak to the Vice-Chancellors of two of these institutions —they consistently lose money. Pastor Enoch Adeboye, for instance, sustains Redeemer’s University with monthly contributions. One was owing N10 billion naira at a time. The outstanding and far-sighted Professor Kayode Makinde, former Vice-Chancellor of Babcock and a global leader, created a medical school with loans that the institution is still struggling to repay. I recently had a long meeting with the Chairman of the Council of one of those universities; he was in deep agonies over where to get money to pay staff salaries. Maybe these private universities should open their financial records for the public to see. Someone is exaggerating the profits they make. Logically, if you have to build your roads, supply your electricity, your water, and provide all other services like refuse collection, recycle, and disposal, that the local and state governments should provide, where will the profits come from?
COVID-19 has once again shown the gap between these institutions and the government-owned ones. A pointed joke making its round on the social media lately mocked those students in federal universities who love glorying in the titles of their schools, with silly nicknames and exaggerated anthems that call them the “greatest”, forgetting that their mates in private universities are moving far ahead of them during this lockdown and consistently under other circumstances. Many of the students in public universities are aware of their spaces and pains. When they say “Great!” it is no more than a simple case of pride, the type that has a child insisting its mother’s gruel is superior.
The students are fully conscious of its misplacement, just like I routinely defend Nigeria in the worst circumstances, my expression of misplaced pride.
There is no question that the pandemic has widened an already huge gap between the private and public universities. And for this, it should not be surprising if these institutions remain the saving grace for the parents with the means to send their children to universities in the country, and perhaps may become the redeeming quality for the relevance of higher education in Nigeria in the post-COVID-19 new world order. There is the matter of the conspicuous absence of the children of those who now make the decisions that affect these institutions, particularly the public ones. Ironically, these opportunists were trained in these public universities in their glorious past and benefitted from the system before its decline, but now sit comfortably to supervise their funeral plans.
Already, the social class composition of students in private universities is changing from what it used to be in the past. Parents now take loans to send their children to these schools because, among other things, the number of years to complete their degrees is guaranteed. This way, attending a private university in Nigeria is no longer a measure of the wealth of a family, as striving families (especially lower-middle-class ones) now struggle to get their wards to these institutions. The market woman in Sagamu, eking out a small living from owo oniru, owo alata, has a child in Babcock. The farmer at Ado Ekiti has a son at Afe Babalola University. Even when they don’t pay in time, I know of private universities that allow such students to complete their degrees, only refusing to release their certificates until they pay.
With the current state of the education sector and the relationship between the government and university unions, most especially ASUU, an unpredictable school calendar might continue far into the future. This implies that private universities might be the future of higher education in Nigeria, the same way private primary and secondary schools have taken over these levels of the education system in innovations, infrastructure, pedagogy, and impact.
To be continued
Written by Toyin Falola.
Toyin Falola is University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair, The University of Texas at Austin