Nigerian higher education: birth and growth

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By Prof Kayode Sam Adekeye
Deputy Vice Chancellor
Redeemer’s University, Nigeria


The development of higher education, particularly, universities in the 20th century marked a significant road map for the establishment of the Nigerian university system. This development continued into the 21st century as the system witnessed massive expansion particularly with the increased participation of the private sector in the delivery of higher education in Nigeria. Higher education in Nigeria is divided into four segments: university, polytechnic, college of education and innovative enterprise institute. The Nigerian university system comprises of all universities in Nigeria, the inter-university centres and the National Universities Commission.

Admission into higher institutions (universities, polytechnics, monotechnics, colleges of education, and innovative enterprise institute) is controlled by a body known as Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) through the conduct of Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME). This examination is compulsory for anyone who wishes to attend higher education institutions in Nigeria, with the exception of candidates who possess the advance level certificate and are given direct entry admission at the second year. It should be noted that direct entry candidates must also be cleared by JAMB through collection and submission of entry form.

On Thursday, 2 June 2016, the 7th Combined Policy Meeting on Admissions was held at the National Universities Commission, where the Honourable Minister of Education directed immediate stoppage of post UTME test by all tertiary institutions. The Honourable Minister further directed that a meeting of all stakeholders should be convened to work out modalities for the screening of candidates duly recommended for admissions. From the meeting the following criteria were set.

Admission criteria by JAMB for 2016/2017 admission

60:40 (sciences / arts ratio)
A. Conventional institutions (universities and colleges of education)
Sciences (60): arts/social sciences (40)

B. Specialised universities
Sciences, technology, agriculture, etc (not less than 80%)
Others (not more than 20%)

C. Polytechnics, colleges of technology, etc
Science/technology related (70%)
Arts Related (30%)

For universities:
UTME / direct entry (DE) ratio is 9:1 i.e. 90% for UTME and 10% for DE.

However, if the 10% for DE is not utilised, it may be added to the UTME quota. The list of candidates that have scored above the minimum cut-off mark and are not admitted may be forwarded to other institutions that need them for consideration (

It must be noted that while JAMB has 3,168 centres in 378 examination towns for the UTME, the avenues for taking the examination outside Nigeria is limited to six countries (Ghana, Cameroon, Benin Republic, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa). This has implications for attracting international students to Nigerian universities. Admission into higher education institutions in Nigeria is very competitive as less than 50% of candidates who sit for the UTME are granted admission. This trend has made a number of Nigerian students seek admissions to higher institutions abroad. Consequently, this has resulted in a large amount of capital outflow from Nigeria for educational purposes. For instance, in 2016, 1,579,027 candidates sat for the UTME organised by JAMB ( Out of this population, 1,099,124 (70%) candidates applied to federal universities, 434,959 (28%) applied to state universities, and 9,656 (<1%) applied to private universities. Thus a total of 1,543,739 (97.8%) applied to universities while only 2.2% applied to other tertiary higher institutions (17,584 (1.1%) to polytechnics, 17,673 (1.1%) to colleges of education). However, the carrying capacity of all Nigerian universities is 389,631, which is 24.7% of the total number of applicants seeking admission into higher institution in the country. The polytechnics and monotechnics can only admit 329,540 (20.9%), colleges of education 218,755 (13.9%) and the innovative enterprise institutes’ carrying capacity is 18,610 (1.2%). The implication of the above statistics is that only 60.7% of the applicants can possibly gain admission into higher institutions while 39.3% will have to either wait till next year or seek admission to institutions outside the country.

Due to the limited spaces available in Nigerian universities through the regular admission process, many institutions are now operating distance learning education which creates opportunities for mass open course system (MOCS). Apart from the opportunities this distance education creates for students seeking admissions to higher institutions, it serves as a huge source of revenue for the institutions as the policy of free undergraduate tuition does not extend to learning through distance education. The federal-owned institutions are heavily dependent on subventions from the federal government for research work, teaching activities and general running of the institutions.

Historical perspective

The history of higher education in Nigeria dates back to the 19th century. Higher education in Nigeria commenced in the form of a technical college with the establishment of the Yaba College by the colonial government in 1932, this was propelled by the paradigm of liberal education as introduced by the early missionaries, Nigerians sought opportunities to acquire this new and exciting vista of life which was then only available overseas. The college was established to provide “well qualified assistants” in medical, engineering, and other vocations as well as teachers for secondary school then known as “higher middle schools”. With passage of time, the college offered sub-degree courses in engineering, medicine, agriculture and teacher training to fill specific vacancies in the colonial administration.

The restricted scope and vision of Yaba College generated greater pressures on the colonial administration to expand the opportunities for higher education. The British government responded by establishing the Elliot Commission in 1945. In its report, the commission suggested that “the need for educated Africans in west Africa in general far outruns the supply, present and potential” and proceeded to recommend the establishment of a university college in Nigeria. Thus, the first Nigerian university (the University of Ibadan) started in 1948 as a college campus of the University of London. The University College, Ibadan, was established as a residential and tutorial college under the tutelage of the University of London. It attained an autonomous status as a degree-awarding institution in 1962, two years after Nigeria obtained its independence from Britain in 1960.

In 1959, another commission, the Ashby commission, was established to ascertain Nigeria’s post-independence educational needs. In 1960, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka was established as the first indigenous university in Nigeria. The findings of the Ashby commission regarding balance in the structure and geographical distribution of university education led to the establishment of universities of Lagos and Ife in 1962. Most probably propelled by the increased income from oil and the increased demand for higher education in the country, in 1975 the federal government decided to take over the regional universities at Zaria, Ile-Ife, and Nsukka as well as establish new ones – the universities of Calabar, Jos and Maiduguri, with University Colleges at Ilorin, Port-Harcourt and Kano, all of which became fully fledged universities in 1977.

Table 1. Higher Education Institutions in Nigeria (2016)

Federal State Private Total
Monotechnics and specialised institutions 33 2 12 47
Colleges of health technology and allied institutions 9 40 1 50
Technical colleges 19 110 3 132
Approved VEIs/IEIs 100 100
Colleges of education 18 46 36 100a
Polytechnics 22 38 16 76
Universities 40 43 69 152
TOTAL 147 277 237 657

As the federal universities grew in number and students enrolment increased, state universities started emerging in 1979 with the Rivers State University of Science and Technology taking the lead. In the same vein, the emergence of private providers of university education in Nigeria became a reality when the first three private universities, namely, Igbinedion University, Okada, Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo and Madonna University, Okija, were licensed to operate in 1999 after an earlier failed attempt. Currently, Nigeria has 144 universities comprising 40 federal universities, 43 state universities and 61 private universities. Since 1948, the Nigerian higher education system has witnessed tremendous growth as there has been a significant increase in the number of higher educational institutions, thereby creating a wider access to the ever-increasing population of young Nigerians.

The Nigerian university system has 30 specialised universities as follows: 16 universities of technology, three universities of agriculture; one defence academy/military university and one police university, one open university, one university of petroleum resources, and two universities of education.

Figure 1: Growth of universities in Nigeria

The growth of private universities

Private higher education institutions (universities) are the most dynamic and rapidly grown segments of the Nigerian university system in this 21st century. The unprecedented demand for access to university education combined with the inability of governments both at federal and state level to provide the necessary support in terms of adequate funding of the existing institutions and establishment of more tertiary institutions to meet up with ever increasing demand has brought private universities to the fore-front. Private universities, with a long history in many countries in America and Europe, are expanding in scope and number and are becoming increasingly important in Nigeria and other countries in Africa and Asia.

With the private higher education in the country undergoing a long-term expansion, it is essential to look at the specific problems facing private universities. While public and private universities share some common attributes and some similar functions, private universities do have specific characteristics. Most important among these is the financial base of the private universities. Private universities in the country are largely responsible for their own funding, along with internal governance and management.

The problem of student enrolment into private universities in the country is also of concern. While more private universities are being licenced, more than 80% of prospective students in the country still prefer enrolment into the public (federal and state) universities due to financial constraints of their parents and sponsors. For the private universities, however, more student enrolment is required for sustainability because a large number of them depend on student tuition fees for survival. There are many avenues for funding private universities but in the largely majority cases, universities are financed by tuition payments from students. In this regards, tuition levels must be high enough to provide sufficient funds for institutional survival, which requires careful planning relating to student numbers, the cost per student, and expenditure levels. Therefore, the survival of a private university depends on meeting its enrolment goals and avoiding unanticipated expenses that can wreak havoc on its budgets.

Private universities have started providing the dividends of their establishment in terms of breakthrough researches, technology transfer, and solving economic problems and challenges facing the country. For example, Redeemer’s University, a private University established by the Redeemed Christian Church of God, is one of the World Bank African Centres of Excellence in the area of genomics of infectious diseases. The centre played a prominent role in fighting and curtailing of Ebola virus in 2014 and Lassa Fever in 2016.

Professor Kayode Sam Adekeye is a professor of statistics and the deputy vice chancellor at Redeemer’s University, Ede, Nigeria. He received BSc and MSc degrees in statistics (hons) from the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, in 1990 and 2001, respectively, and obtained his PhD in statistics as well, from the University of Dortmund, Germany in 2004. He has carried out a commendable amount of high quality research work in statistical quality control evidently through his publications in both national and international peer-reviewed scientific journals. His research areas are statistical quality control, statistical process control, process capability analysis, design of screening experiment with special emphasis on analysis of unreplicated screening experiments, exploratory data analysis, and total quality management. Professor Adekeye has served as external examiner to a number of Nigerian and foreign universities. He is a chartered statistician and a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, London, as well as member of the following professional bodies: American Statistical Association, Nigerian Institute of Industrial Statistician, and Nigeria Statistical Association.