Professor Femi Mimiko is the Vice Chancellor of Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, and a delegate to the ongoing National Conference. He speaks with CLEMENT IDOKO on the abduction of 200 Chibok Schoolgirls, HND, First Degree dichotomy and sundry issues in education sector. Excerpts:
Would you support the call by some Nigerians that the Federal Government enters into negotiation for prisoner swap for the kidnapped Chibok girls as being demanded by members of Boko Haram?
It is a difficult question. Ordinarily, the government should not contemplate negotiation with terrorists because the nature of terrorism is too complex to understand. That is why I pity those who are filing up to the street to say that they are demonstrating and all of that. The question I ask myself is: What do they expect? Are they saying that the president should order that the Sambisa forest where the young girls are supposedly being kept be bombed? What is the purpose of the demonstration? Inadvertently, they are strengthening the cause of terrorist because that is exactly what terrorists want, to call attention to themselves and that is why they go for a very brutal and unreasonable acts. Now that everybody is on the street, they are happy, they are in the news, they are everywhere and that is the tonic that terrorists need. The people that are supposed to be enlightening Nigerians are on the streets, demonstrating. Are they saying that the President should order that the Nigeria Air Force should go and bomb the forest where they are keeping our girls? That is the context in which I look at this issue of negotiation; I don’t support any negotiation with terrorists. From my own intellectual background, terrorists are fought. It is when you fight the terrorists and get them so weakened that you now begin to talk to them. Don’t negotiate with terrorists at all, certainly, not from that point of view but then you must look at the fact that more than 200 innocent girls are in the hands of these very brutal elements and you must ask yourself very sincerely that if you need to bend over backward to secure these young girls alive, should anything be too much to give? That is a very big question. Leaders are called upon once in a while to take such decisions.
As a Vice Chancellor, do you subscribe to the general perception that there is a fall in standard of education in Nigeria?
I don’t believe that. People have asked me this question repeatedly and my position has always been very clear. I don’t believe that there is a fall in the standard of education in Nigeria. When we talk of education, we must talk of the parameters. Number one, what is the quantum of information that is available to trainees? Number two, what is the nature of the curriculum? Number three, what is the nature of the environment? If you look at all the parameters, yes I don’t in any way dispute the fact that there is still lot of room for improvement. The quality of information that is available to the average undergraduate today, 20 years ago it could not be imagined. What the average high school student now is capable of doing on the computer today, you couldn’t have fathomed it 20, 30 years ago. So, in terms of the quality of information that are available, these students are not doing badly. There is the tendency that when people find those who have difficulty in using the English language; people who don’t have high proficiency in English language, they assume that it is a factor that implies that there is a fallen standard in education. For me, that is not correct, because I know several jurisdictions that don’t speak English at all. I lived in Korea for six months as a researcher. Several of the institutions in Korea do their businesses in Korean, yet Korea is one of the leading economies in the world today. So you cannot tell me that unless a person speaks English like the Queen of England, the person does not know anything. And my experience as a Vice Chancellor these past years and as an education administrator for the past 20 years tells me that when a student comes in, a student that did a school certificate himself or herself and gets into the university, goes to class at the nick of time, goes to the laboratory, works in the library, goes to class when you expect him to, when such a person spends four years and leaves at the end of the day, it’s adequate to compare shoulder to shoulder with graduate anywhere in the world. And that is why for instance, graduates from Nigerian universities when they go abroad for their Masters, they come on top of their classes. That, for me is an indication that there is quality in what we do. It is when you see people who came into the university in the first instance with certificates that are questionable and instead of going to libraries, they go to some other things and exploring the system, the corruption in the larger society that has also has percolated to an extent in the university system. If they manage to find a way to get through, at the end of the day, they get something close to a certificate. My argument is that this set of persons does not represent the average Nigerian graduate. For me, the Nigerian graduate is that person that came in, took instruction, does what he needed to do and graduates at the end of the day. When you find such people, they stand shoulder to shoulder and they are comparable to graduates from anywhere in the world. Mind you, this is not to say that we don’t have room for improvement but I do not believe that generally, there is a fall in the standard of education in the country.
What do you make of the quality of products of some the private universities in the country today?
The truth is that a country of over 170 million people is unimaginable that we have less than 200 universities. The city of Seoul in Korea alone as at almost 20 years ago, had more than a hundred higher institutions, several of them are universities. So, a situation in which we need more space to take in the thousands and thousands of students leaving the high school that cannot be accommodated by public universities goes without saying that we must do something to allow our private universities to operate. Every year, JAMB administers exams to close to two million people and only about 20 per cent of them get admitted every year. So we need the private universities. My own quarrel is that indiscriminate licensing of people to open private universities, for me, I am not comfortable with that. I believe very strongly that before we allow you to set up a private university, you must be coming with a track record of your involvement in education and not just for somebody to bring a form and you just allocate a license to him to open a university. For me, I don’t think it is proper and that is the area that I think we need to tinker with. I am not bothered about the huge cost of education at that level because it is a question of choice. Nobody forces you to take your child to a private university. But I think we have a duty to ensure that only those who have the requisite qualifications to operate private universities are allowed to operate such. For instance, if a Catholic is asking for license to run a university, you know the history of the involvement of the Catholic Church in education in this country and not somebody who just come up with money and then you just issue license and then you start seeing billboards all over the place. I think that we have to look more closely.
How do you think this issue of dichotomy between the First Degree and HND holders can be resolved, because as we are talking, public Polytechnics have been on strike for almost 11 months now over issues of discrimination in remuneration and whole lot of others?
I don’t think it’s a problem. I don’t think it is. Again, it is part of, the inanity is that we bandied around in Nigeria. Why should we expect the university and the polytechnic education to be the same? Number one, if you look at the national policy on education, the objectives are different. The objectives are well clearly laid out and different. One is to train middle level manpower; the other is to train high level manpower. Even as a Vice Chancellor, I recruit lecturers everyday and the appointment criteria for a lecturer into the university system is quite different from that of the people who go into the colleges of education and polytechnics. The criteria for promotion and advancement are completely different. For me, it is the wrong way of posing the question by saying shouldn’t they be equal, which is more important. My argument has always been that both of them are critical and very important to an economy like this. Perhaps, the polytechnic graduate is actually more important to a new economy like ours. And I have said this on several occasions that I have seen in jurisdictions where graduates of polytechnics earned much more than graduates of universities. I was in a University in Malaysia and the head of food technology was so happy to introduce to me the chief chef that was helping with the training of students. The man proudly came in his regalia to the office where I was being hosted and they told me that this man you are looking at earns more than the President of this university and that when they got him to join the university, the university celebrated because they had to porch him from a five-star hotel in town and they said since he joined them, every year before the students have their final exams, hotels all over are already queuing to pick their students because they know that these students that pass through this man must be first class. In the United States, I knew people who were fixing cables, who in the morning would come with all the tools around their waist, would climb the poles, fix the cables that and were earning more than professors. So, for me, it’s not a question of which is more important. What we should do is to put more funds, put more attention to technical and vocational education because if you don’t have that, the country will not develop. In the United States, not many people aspire to go to the university system, most Americans graduate from the community college system, that is two years after high school and they begin to work. They constitute the bedrock of the American economy and that for me, is the way to address the thing and not to begin to ask which is more important. Both are important. But I think we must pose the question appropriately.
So, in essence the supremacy battle between the universities and the polytechnics…….(Cuts in)
It’s uncalled for, it’s unnecessary, it’s misdirected.
Going by your explanation, can one therefore, say that the problem has been that we lack industries to engage these technical and vocational skilled people?
It is. If we were doing the right thing over the years in terms of employment opportunities and all of that; we have no business saying that graduates of polytechnics have no jobs. That is if we give them the right training; the right technical training. In fact, in the US, if your transistor radio is faulty, you have two options, either to fix it or to buy a new one and most Americans will take a decision to buy a new one because what you will pay to the person who will come to fix it, the guy who graduated from community college is going to be almost much more than what you use to buy a new one. So, that guy is not inferior. He has a service to provide, he is remunerated appropriately. So, for him, there is no need to talk about the competition between himself and the graduate of a college or university as the case may be. That is the direction in which I think we should go. (Tribune)