Students’ Protest Due to Communication Breakdown — Unilag VC

Following the just concluded convocation ceremony of the University of Lagos, the Vice Chancellor of the institution, Professor Rahaman Bello, speaks on the challenges bedevilling educational institutions and on funding of public tertiary institutions

What are some of the highlights of the 2012/2013 academic year?

There have been a lot of events this year. The most dramatic was the extension of the academic session because of the Academic Staff Union of Universities struggle, which lasted over six months. That is why our convocation, for example, came in June, rather than January, which the University of Lagos is known for. We thank God everything is behind us. There are many other things that happened in the year. We had many important visitors. We had programmes that we executed. A lot of laurels were won by both the students and members of staff, which put UNILAG at the forefront and proved that the quality of education here is high up.

We can boast of what our graduates have and can compare with anybody anywhere in the world. That is what we pride in ourselves and that is what UNILAG is known for. Also last year, a lot of innovations came about, in terms of administration and academics. One of the notable developments is that we are now running an electronic administration — e-administration. A lot of other changes have occurred in the administrative sector of the university. In the administration of the departments, we are now seeing a more robust organisation, with high quality manpower.

Why did the university allow the crisis over course registration to degenerate to the extent that students had to go on street protests?

Averting strikes in the university is a reflection of understanding of issues between any of the various groups in the university and the management. Sometimes, we have communication breakdown or not enough communication of issues.

This last strike should not have happened because most of the things they were asking for were already acceded to. But it didn’t get communicated to them (students) appropriately. What was the problem we were talking about? It is not that we increased school fees or any other thing at UNILAG. I am sure the students would have refuted that. The issue was that people did not register for their programmes on time. How can you be in a university and you don’t register until two weeks to the examination? That is the problem. How much are they going to pay that will make a difference in the resources of the university? The payment has been there right from time and the deterrent for those that would not register in time is a late registration fee. It is not a source of income.

We just want to discourage them from not registering and parading themselves as students around the campus. Every semester, they come and say, “Our people are not registered. Open the portal.” And there is a deadline.

We said they would have to pay a penalty. The penalty was increasing until two weeks to the exams, when we told them there would be no more registration because that is when the administration of examination is to be carried out. That is the situation. But we have allowed them (to have their way) because there are also challenges in the system, which they came up with. Some of them would not register because of problems in the departments and faculties. And we had agreed that they could do it. But then, they said those that had paid the graduation fee should be pardoned, and we agreed that those ones should pay the normal late registration fee. Even before we went on strike, it was not properly communicated to them through the normal channels. So, we’ve learnt our lessons from that and we can avert such possibilities in the future by ensuring proper communication of issues.

Considering inadequate facilities, what specifically is the institution doing, with regards to the number of students that apply and those that are eventually admitted?

We try to balance or put a halt to the increase in number (of applicants). On the other hand, we can’t just do that now because the populace will cry out, saying UNILAG is not meeting the challenges. Our duties are to teach and to carry out research and community services. Part of our responsibility is to ensure that we relate with the community and attend to their problems. Social problems within the community include access to education. But we can’t say because we don’t have the facilities, we will stop admitting. What we have done here is to balance the admission status. Unfortunately, Lagos is harsh to studentship; even to staff. It is not like universities in other cities. Here, we are boxed into a corner. To get accommodation for members of staff staff around is serious. It is not only students that have problems here. The staff accommodation problem here is even more chronic. Some people live as far away as 60 kilometres and they commute. They can’t put in their best in that situation. Our students also cannot access accommodation around the campus. There is no university that provides 100 per cent accommodation to students. There are usually houses around the university to assist. But in Lagos, it’s so high because of the cost of accommodation, and that is one of the most significant challenges. We are facing it squarely; the parents’ forum is trying to assist. For example, they are launching 1,000-bed-space female hostel, which foundation stone was laid by Mrs Patience Jonathan earlier in the session.

Again, we have been trying with what we call Build, Operate and Transfer’ hostels. Only one BOT hostel is successful so far; others are lined up. We are trying to see how many hostels can come up to reduce the pressure on the students around here. We have also got support from government in the last few months to build a new hostel. We’re rebuilding one of our oldest hostels. That will make more bed spaces available for students. We’ve been tackling the issue; we can’t solve it overnight. Our population is balanced. We have the mature population (adults) and the younger population (adolescents). You can see from the graduation list that it is almost 50:50 — the graduate and undergraduate. It has balanced itself out. Most of the post-graduate students have facilities where they can stay around; their demand for accommodation is not as bad as that of undergraduates.

Looking at the hardship students and staff experience over accommodation, what would be your message to the community?

When I say it is harsh, I’m not talking about the people. It is the environmental conditions that are harsh. It is not the fault of the government. It is simply the way Lagos is. Usually, there are private hostels around but they are expensive. You know that before you buy land in Lagos to develop, you spend so much money. That’s what I meant by harsh.

Universities in Nigeria are ranked low and unattractive to international students, what are factors responsible for this?

When we talk about ranking, the parameters for ranking are what we need to look at. Most of the parameters are not issues that universities can directly lay hands on. But in terms of the actual classification, what we find is that most of these rankings are radiometric in nature; what is on your website is what they see. That shows the importance of information technology in the current administration of and facilities for institutions. Where we don’t have enough IT facilities and literates or we are not IT-cultured, we cannot be ranked properly; that is the bottom line. Most of them (foreign universities) are not as good in terms of what we have in facilities or resources for teaching and research. But because their IT facilities are top-class, they can be ranked higher. What is considered is how many times people go to your website to do things; we must be teaching through the website; we must be passing questions and answers through the website. We are not there yet.

Most institutions in Nigeria are not there yet. (Obafemi Awolowo University) Ife is ranked high because it is moving in that direction; they have a good IT infrastructure. Thanks to the World Bank’s Centre of Excellence grant which they received a few years ago and that has helped them. That is why their ranking is slightly higher. In terms of the academic content, we have it. We are now pushing to improve our IT sector, so we can get a better ranking. We know our class but we need money to be able to achieve the ranking we desire. Once we have that and everybody has access to hotspots and Wi-Fi, then we will have an IT-literate community. We’ve been training everyone on the use of IT. We are emphasising that; even a driver must be IT-literate to be able to use tools like electronic mail. At the end of the day, we are reducing the consumption of papers. All of our meetings now are on the electronic platform; from management meetings to Senate to Council, we are now moving.

One of the other challenges that we have in the area of ranking has to do with internationalisation, because that is part of the ranking parameters. Due to the social problems in Nigeria and the problem of security, it is difficult to attract students from outside Nigeria to come and be students here. We used to have all kinds of people from Europe, America, Asia, and so on, studying here side by side with Nigerians. But things have changed. If you tell them to come to Nigeria, they read and watch the negative news about the country, and nobody will want to sponsor them to come. But we go to them; that is the reversal that goes with ranking. Many of these parameters are things that we can’t control but that we have to contend with.

Funding universities has continued to be a major challenge in Nigeria. How best do you think public universities can be funded?

What I see is that the funding pattern itself is the problem. The money may not be enough but if the little the government is giving is efficient, we will make a better use of it. For instance, the government remunerates all members of staff of universities. After that, the little left is used for overhead. What is left for overhead is almost nothing. We have to look for money. All the money that we generate towards research and improving the system has to be used for overhead. We spend an average of N40m every month on electricity on this campus, apart from diesel (to power generators). Government gives us about N2m per month for power. For overhead, UNILAG gets about N11m to maintain offices, cars, etc. We are a local government by right. These are the challenges of inadequate funding.

With the way we spend the money UNILAG gets (from government), if you look at how private universities are run, they use the school fees to run the school. But because government will pay for personnel, the efficiency of the use of personnel may not be there, because consideration of fund management, in terms of how much we have to spend on personnel, resources, etc., is not there. Therefore, whatever we present to government on personnel, once we can justify it, they’ll pay it. That is what I mean when I say the efficiency of what is coming in is not there. Most students believe government is taking care of them, whereas it is spending all this money on payment of salaries in lieu of the students. But they don’t believe it and they don’t live it. That is why we have a lot of them not serious in the system. Whether they fail or not, they are still in the university. But if they are paying along with government, and they know that if they fail, nobody will pay for them any longer, I’m sure there’ll be more seriousness in the system and we’ll have a better atmosphere for learning.

What I am suggesting is that government should disburse all the money they are allocating to universities per student. Like I recommended, the Nigerian Universities Commission guidelines, which was laid down many years ago, can be reviewed: How much do we need to train someone in the Faculty of Arts, someone in the Faculty of Medicine, someone in the Faculty of Social Sciences? All these are parameters. Then, you look at the number. Let government pay the universities per student. The students don’t believe government is paying for them because it (government funding) is not tied (to the students individually). That’s my premise. But once government starts doing that, if there are shortfalls, they will find and address the shortfalls. Then, we can have efficient use of funds that come in. Definitely, we still need additional funding from philanthropy and other sources.

If there is financial autonomy for universities and polytechnics, we will have fewer problems. Like I said, if government should pay per capita, it is like giving universities financial autonomy. That is, (the government should say) ‘This is how many students you should have; how much does it take to train them? Here you go, train them.’ That way, they (students) will not be prying into the operations of the schools. Then, there’ll be peace. We have polytechnics that are private and they are running. We have other higher institutions that are private and they are running. They don’t close down every time. They don’t have organised labour that disrupts them every minute. Why can’t government pay for its students and then we can have a real basis for servicing these institutions. That will help government know areas that are necessary to plug into.

For example, it was mentioned (at the convocation lecture) that for this country to develop, we need to have a central federal research fund or agency; we will then be able to have academics that can realise where you want to go. If you want to get to the moon in five years, that is the way you can achieve it. If you want to develop spacecraft in the next 20 years, it is through that means. But when you don’t plan and you expect things to come, they will not come. We need to be systematic and take the bull by the horn let funds be given to the institutions and let them be financially autonomous.

What can you point to as the distinguishing factor for UNILAG among Nigerian universities?

We are a city university. We’re a first-brand university. We’re the first university set up by an act of parliament in this country. We’re there and we’ve been trying to maintain the standard. At the convocation lecture, which was given by Prof. Emeritus Ayo Banjo, UNILAG was compared to the University of Ibadan. He pointed out that UNILAG started as a complete university, with all the sections that were required. It started with Engineering, Law, Business, Education, Arts, etc., whereas the University of Ibadan started with few programmes. It took a long time before UI could start Law.

UNILAG had been positioned to service the city and the needs of the Nigerian nation. And that was what we started 52 years ago and it is still on. We have produced graduates in all sectors of the economy and they are proving themselves. Anywhere you find a graduate of UNILAG, you will see that they are doing very well. That puts UNILAG uniquely ahead of many others that are in the first set of universities. Because we’re in the city, again, the advantage is there. We have disadvantages and we have advantages. The disadvantages are that our facilities are expensive. To build anything here today will cost us almost two times what they will use in OAU, UI, or anywhere else, because of the terrain that we have. There is no more land, hence, no one builds flat structures anymore; everyone that wants to build has to go vertical. That makes it more expensive to develop. But then, because we are in the city, we are close to businesses and other facilities that they (other universities) may not be close to. That’s the advantage we have. But we have to start thinking and living as a city university, seeing that we are now choked into this corner of Lagos. It is an interesting scenario for UNILAG. We are proving ourselves, and we have to maintain that.

Conferment of honorary degrees is one sore point in universities; how does UNILAG handle this?

At University of Lagos we don’t just confer honorary degrees. We hardly do. We did last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the university. But five years before then we didn’t confer any honorary degree on anybody. This year there’ll be no conferment. There are guidelines to be adhered to. In some universities, the conferment of honorary degree is used to raise money, some use it as political patronage; but UNILAG is above that. However, I can tell you that the Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities have taken the bull by the horn; they’ve set a guideline for all universities as to how to award honorary degrees without it being cheapened. (Punch)