The rocky road to world-class higher education in Nigeria

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Professor Abel Idowu Olayinka has set an ambitious agenda at his country’s leading university. As the University of Ibadan’s Vice-Chancellor, he outlines some of the challenges facing academics and administrators in an interview with John O’Leary.

Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, with more than 180 million people, and has the largest GDP, at US$367 billion in 2017. Yet the country has yet to have a university in the QS World University Rankings® of 1,000 institutions (QSWUR). Disputes over university budgets and staff pay that have recurred for eight years, have not helped, seeming no nearer to a conclusion in the latter part of 2018.

Ibadan, the oldest and most prestigious university in Nigeria, is the closest to featuring in the QSWUR. It ranks within the top 800 in the Times Higher Education ranking and generally features as the country’s leading university in domestic comparisons.

Professor Abel Idowu Olayinka,  Ibadan’s Vice-Chancellor, has been considering what it would take to make the university internationally competitive as it celebrates its 70th anniversary. He believes that 30 billion Nigerian Naira will be needed over the next 10 years for the necessary investments in infrastructure and to make key appointments.

Interviewed for Showcase at the 2018 QS In Conversation meeting in London, Professor Olayinka said: “We would be doing better without the disputes. Apart from our other problems, there have been many strikes.” One of them caused the last academic year to overrun, so that the 2017-18 session did not start until April 2018. Professor Olayinka told members of the university convocation: “I must tell you that one of the major problems hindering our progress in respect of the realisation of our institutional vision, and which also impedes our intellectual productivity, global visibility and global ranking, is our unstable academic calendar. Indeed, as an institution, we lose a lot more than many of us can possibly imagine.”

The university has had its own disputes in 2018, over increased fees for some subjects and higher charges for hostels. But continuing uncertainty over government funding has plagued all the public universities. Professor Olayinka said: “Academic activities have continued as far as possible, but at independent institutional level, we can’t do much.”

The government released some of the funding it had promised the universities in 2017 and appeared to propose higher tuition fees at public universities in 2018 before denying that this was planned. It has discussed the establishment of an Education Bank to make low-cost loans to students who cannot afford even the current relatively modest fees.

Professor Olayinka said: “Access to higher education is always a problem for Nigerians – there are two million candidates a year, and 95 per cent want to go to universities.” There are three tiers of institution – universities, polytechnics and colleges of education. The polytechnics grant diplomas and are generally undersubscribed. There are also three types of university: federal (of which there are 42), state and private. The federal universities are the most affordable because their fees are subsidised.

Although many of the private universities are undersubscribed, the government is considering the establishment of up to 40 more federal universities. Each of the 109 senators wants a university established in their district, and some have argued that all states are entitled to one under Nigeria’s federal constitution. They insist that more universities are needed because fewer than 500,000 out of the two million applicants currently secure a higher education place.

“Cost and quality are constantly debated,” Professor Olayinka said. “Admission requirements are variable, but the majority cannot afford the fees to become students in any case. It is difficult to attract good quality academic staff, although a few universities are doing well.” He added: “These are universal problems in Nigeria. We are sharing practices to try to reach the best solutions we can.”

Admission to The University of Ibadan is extremely competitive and only one in 15 wins a place. The university now has more than 35,000 students, almost half of them undergraduates, with 11,000 postgraduates and 9,000 distance learning students. Professor Olayinka said: “Ibadan certainly has enough students with up to 7,500 a year admitted at undergraduate level, and at postgraduate level the university is allowed to admit more. And, for the last three or four years, Ibadan has been expanding its international student portfolio.”

Ibadan is experimenting with distance learning as one approach to the access problem. “Courses are mostly taken by people who are working such as 19 or 20 year-olds who couldn’t get in to do a degree a different way,” Professor Olayinka said. “We are seeking parity of esteem for them, but students and employers still prefer face-to-face teaching. So far, the courses are mostly in the Arts and Humanities, rather than in Science and Technology.”

Established in 1948, the university started out as a college of the University of London with faculties of Arts, Science and Medicine. It became independent in 1962 and now has 16 faculties, including Agriculture and Forestry, Veterinary Medicine, Technology and Public Health. The Postgraduate School is the largest in Africa and the university has more fellows of the Nigerian Academy of Science and Laureates of the Nigerian National Order of Merit than any other university in the country.

A new Business School is on the way and the university has established an Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies in response to threats to peace in Africa. The institution also hosts the Pan African University Life and Earth Sciences Institute on behalf of the West African sub-region. The university is a leading player in initiatives such as the African Research Universities Alliance, founded in 2015 to promote research across the continent to combat poverty, disease, illiteracy, gender inequality and environmental disasters.

But Professor Olayinka is under no illusions about the challenges Ibadan and other universities in Nigeria face to upgrade their teaching and focus more on research. He told convocation members that in 2017 the university had around eight million Naira per month to spend on overheads such as utilities, repairs and maintenance and other services, when in reality it was spending over 80 million Naira a month to run its operations. The university’s activities had continued to expand while its finances were dwindling.

“For us to be a world-class university, we need to invest heavily in physical and infrastructural facilities, to address the acute shortage of office space for staff, classrooms and laboratories,” he said at a press conference to mark the university’s 70th anniversary. “We are adopting a two-pronged approach involving a resource mobilisation plan with a prudent management of the available resources.”

Professor Olayinka believes that a step change in quality would require financial support from a variety of sources, not just government. These would include regular income from commercial activities and increasing the university’s endowment fund, research grants and strategic funds.

Ibadan already has a number of external ventures, including a microfinance bank, and departments are being encouraged to engage in consultancies and support collaboration with industry.

Yet Professor Olayinka remains optimistic that Ibadan can meet the target he has set to rise up the rankings, as well as fulfilling its broader mission. “By our collective will and efforts, notwithstanding the obvious challenges besetting us, we can surely achieve our vision to be a world-class institution for academic excellence geared towards meeting societal needs,” he said.

Professor Abel Idowu Olayinka is vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan and president of the West African Research and Innovation Management Association. He was elected as a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science in 2012 and became The University of Ibadan’s 12th substantive vice chancellor three years later. Born in 1958, Professor Olayinka grew up in south western Nigeria and received a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Ibadan. He worked briefly at Deptol Consultants as geologist before taking a master’s degree in geophysics at Imperial College London in 1984. He went on to earn a doctorate in applied geophysics from the University of Birmingham. He was also a postdoctoral research fellow at  the Technical University, Braunschweig, and Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the Technical University of Berlin. He began his academic career in 1988 at the University of Ibadan and became Professor of Applied Geophysics within six years. He served as head of the geology department and, from 2002 to 2006, was dean of the postgraduate school. Prior to his appointment as vice chancellor, Professor Olayinka served as Ibadan’s deputy vice chancellor for four years.