Benchmarking Nigerian universities for impact

There was a time Nigerian universities were the pride of the African continent. We had leading experts who dominated various fields. From Ibadan to Ife, to Lagos, to Nsukka, to Ahmadu Bello, our ivory towers boasted of some of the most influential thinkers and researchers who bestrode the academies as titans.

There were foremost scientists and thinkers such as Professors Oladipupo Akinkugbe, Chinua Achebe, Kayode Osuntokun, Wole Soyinka, Ade Ajayi, Jubril Aminu, Claude Ake, Ojetunji Aboyade and many others. These iconic scholars were pacesetters in their fields. They were distinguished scholars who commanded global attention because of the uniqueness of their thoughts, research excellence and vision.

At a time universities world over are jostling for relevance in the frenetically competitive global knowledge economy, one feels sad looking at the state of Nigerian universities today. This is even more telling, considering that the problem is hardly about the quality of mind of our academics, but always about decrepit infrastructure as a result of poor funding and the usual malaise of unethical corporate governance model.

Nigeria’s former Minister of Education, Oby Ezekwesili, once noted, rather poignantly: “The country is producing less leaders, managers, teachers and other professionals but mass-producing miscreants, the disaffected and the rejected, the misdirected, the unlearned, the angry, the wronged, the agitated and the hopeless.” What she said couldn’t have been better put and it should get us very disturbed.

Creating a new future, as Einstein once noted, requires a huge shift in thinking, values, and action, especially as it regards evolving world-class universities. World-class universities are so called because they are academic institutions devoted to functional knowledge production and dissemination across diverse disciplines and fields, with an obsessive commitment to serving both national and global needs. Meeting such needs entail that universities should produce transformational researches to develop the nation’s competitiveness.

The tales of dysfunction in many universities in the country are well-known. Highlighting the depth of rot here doesn’t serve much purpose. What we must now focus on is what to do to reverse the rot and serve our universities from absolute destruction.

It is important for us to open conversations on such critical areas on improving the quality of academic delivery in our universities, quality and impact research, enhancing the quality of community impact in terms of the socio-political, economic and technological developments of nations.  Advocating for useful and functional education that propels high level of employability, especially with the deafening volume of unemployment in the land should be regarded as useful conversation that must hold, going forward.

Clearly, at the heart of this conversation is how to address the perennial issue of funding. Universities certainly need strong financial base to recruit and retain leading scholars. You equally need finance to recreate an intensive teaching environment that is conducive for learning, research, and makes possible an international setting, attractive to talented expatriate students and staff. There is no doubt that this is one dialogue stakeholders in the industry need to urgently have.

For instance, we need to consider generating funds outside the usual purview of government. Undoubtedly, the current model isn’t sustainable in the face of consistently dwindling budgetary allocation to education. You only need to think of the continuous struggles of ASUU to signpost this challenge.

A look at the features of the average top 200 universities, according to the Times Higher Education ranking, should be instructive enough. The ranking has a total annual income of $751,139 per academic; has a student-to-staff ratio of 11.7:1; hires 20 per cent of its staff from abroad; has a total research income of $229,109 per academic; publishes 43 per cent of all its research papers with at least one international co-author and has a student body made up of 19 per cent international students.

To nip the decadence, universities must now look inward and adopt a disruptive model that provokes purposeful introspection and propels new thinking. For instance, it is easy to keep lamenting that government or even the town isn’t adopting research outputs from Nigerian universities. But then, why are the universities not up taking research outputs as solutions to their own internal challenges?  In this regard, we must applaud the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka for its record of electricity generation through the deployment of organic waste to install 100KVA Refuse Driven Fuel Gasification for its Nsukka campus.

To begin the journey towards societal impact, Nigeria universities must first ensure they win the battle over the provision of basic infrastructure such as conducive learning environments, regular supplies of electricity, water and internet facility. This must be followed by the entrenchment of standard university culture in academics and administration, deepen industry partnerships and refocus research endeavour for maximum societal impact.

Professor Salami is the Vice Chancellor, Technical University, Ibadan.

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