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Poor Funding, Low Criteria Awareness Hampering Global Ranking of Nigerian Universities

The maiden edition of the Cap & Gown Series hosted by BusinessDay was held on October 12, 2021. The online conference drew attention to the impediments causing perennially low global rankings of tertiary institutions in Nigeria, identify ways to make them more competitive and to influence the long-term development of higher education in Nigeria. The webinar was also intended to help prospective students wade through the confusion of overwhelming choice when choosing the best institutions and courses for study. Over 250 participants joined the interactive webinar.

The theme of the event “First of the Best: Building Consensus on Ranking Criteria for Nigerian Universities,” was chosen to reach a broad agreement on which factors ought to weigh the most when assessing excellence at institutions. Most rankings rate universities on the quality of education, quality of teaching staff, results of research, average academic productivity of the university per lecturer, student body diversity, and industry networks, and physical infrastructure. The theme was also a nod to yearnings for the domestication of university rankings that accommodate internationally accepted standards, and also build in recognition of national peculiarities in the Nigerian university system.

The theme was also a nod to yearnings for the domestication of university rankings that accommodate internationally accepted standards, and also build in recognition of national peculiarities in the Nigerian university system.

In his welcome address, Dr Ogho Okiti, Managing Director, BusinessDay expressed that university rankings have thrived in a vacuum about comparative data on higher education. “Universities today have emerged as complex organizational systems. Due to demand pressures, we have seen the massification of the higher education market. In turn, this has led to the development of global ranking systems, which fill a vacuum in comparative data on higher education.” The speakers on the discussion were Professor Emeka Oguzie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, Development & Innovation, and Director, The Africa Centre of Excellence for Future Energies and Electrochemical Systems (ACE FUELS), Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO); Mr. Lanre Fatimilehin, MRICS, President, The Oxford and Cambridge Club of Nigeria; Dr. Oluwaseun Ebiesuwa, Computer Science Department, Babcock University; Professor Sunday Adebisi, Professor of Business Administration and Director, African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence in Unemployment and Skills Development, University of Lagos; Professor Ochefu Yakubu, Secretary-General, Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Universities in Nigeria and Mr. Nte Bisong, Chief Academic Planning Officer and Assistant Director, Academic Planning at the National Universities Commission (NUC). Speaking on the relevance of university rankings, Professor Oguzie, who stood in for Professor Nnenna Oti, Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, dismissed the suggestion that rankings are unwelcome. He admitted that while the rankings may have a tint of subjective bias, the pros outweigh the cons by a wide margin because they spur universities to pay attention to what their peers are doing right. Some areas where he called for urgent attention were in science communication, as a lot of the research that goes on at universities does not get enough visibility, and industry collaboration to transfer innovation into real-world use cases.

He said that at FUTO progress was being made in linkages with industry. So far, the university has received financial support from the World Bank, and the Nigerian Content Development & Monitoring Board, to name a few. However, he said that there is still a lot of work to be done in winning support for these types of collaborations by decision-makers in the public and private sectors. Professor Yakubu provided an alternative view on the low interest in rankings by university vice-chancellors. VCs of publicly funded universities in Nigeria are kept so busy juggling concerns around power supply, inadequate infrastructure, salaries, and industrial harmony among others that they have little time left for much else. On the correlation between high rankings and a school’s ability to charge higher tuition, this meant little to administrators of government-owned universities because the decision to raise fees could lead to student unrest. He said that a lot of progress is being made in raising the quality of research produced at universities. The introduction of software applications that can spot plagiarism has also been helpful. He agreed that rankings do not feature very highly for most students when selecting where to study abroad as they were motivated by other factors. In his view, rankings are an eye-opener because they show that yesterday’s glory is not today’s reality. Some first-generation universities that rested on their oars have slipped down in rankings, while newer, private universities have risen because of their grasp of what makes a great university. He embraced the spread of specialised universities in Nigeria, which offer more choice to students but also the prospect of a better-targeted research focus. Olu Fatimilehin, who studied at Imperial College and Cambridge University, brought the perspective of an employer and former student at world-class institutions to the discussion. He said that the most successful universities abroad tap funding from foundations, endowments, alumni networks, grants, corporations, and the government. This gives them a big advantage in attracting the best teachers, providing the right research environment, and giving students the most conducive learning conditions. It would be hard to achieve the same for Nigerian universities that rely mainly on government funding, student tuition, and foreign grants alone. Asked how he would rate the chances of two outstanding graduates, one from a first-class local university like Unilag, and the other from a leading university like Harvard, he responded that it depended on what function they were to be hired for. The advantage of a degree from a renowned university brand from overseas is that it commands a second look from employers, and gives the candidate the benefit of doubt. A few big considerations for many people picking Oxbridge and Ivy League colleges are the small class sizes, international diversity, global networks, post-graduation employability, earnings potential, and the quality of teaching. These take decades of single-minded planning by universities to achieve, he concluded. In explaining the role of the universities in the global economy, Prof. Sunday Adebisi said that a university is a manufacturing centre that takes in youths, prepares them for a life of gainful employment, and eject them back to the society to practice what they were taught. To give a sense of the scale of the research budget at a top 5 American university like Stanford University, he revealed that it was more than the total budget of the 52 countries in Africa. Therefore, it should come as no surprise why these universities rank so highly. He stressed a number of innovative steps that Unilag is taking to climb up rankings. First, the university appointed a senior professor to drive the process by ensuring that every lecturer understands the metrics such as quality and number of publications in respected journals. Second, the university is fostering a culture that encourages students to pursue careers in entrepreneurship, which can help to create jobs. The university’s vision is that as more foreign companies come to Africa; these start-ups would become their local partners plugging into their supply chains. The university had taken a bold step by taking on the cost of registering businesses at the Corporate Affairs Commission for the students. It has also started an entrepreneurship finishing school in association with Jobberman. Third, the university was actively identifying the problems of businesses in Lagos, then directing its research to solving them. Currently, Unilag is the only tertiary institution in Nigeria with an innovation lab. The university is thinking global and acting local. Finally, the university saw the connection between higher ranking and its capacity to attract foreign funding. He revealed that Unilag leads Nigerian institutions in terms of foreign funding, which stood at N14 billion last year. Dr. Oluwaseun Ebiesuwa, who represented Professor Ademola S. Tayo, President and Vice-Chancellor of Babcock University, highlighted a number of success factors that have positioned it in the top rank of tertiary institutions in Nigeria. First was its foundational relationship with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The school received institutional and program accreditation from the global Accrediting Association of Seventh-day Adventist Schools, Colleges, and Universities (AAA). According to Dr. Ebiesuwa, its reviews can even be considered more stringent than those of the National Universities Commission (NUC). The next important factor is the international relationships that Babcock maintains with several leading universities around the world. This allows students from Babcock to spend time at other universities abroad, broadening their exposure, and expanding their networks. A third factor is the collaborations it has established with professional certification granting bodies like the Medical & Dental Council of Nigeria, Council of Legal Education in Nigeria, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, and Nursing & Midwifery Council of Nigeria, among others. On the professional front, Babcock has also built strong links with companies like KPMG, which train its students. Fourth, Babcock has always strived to attract international students, even reserving a quota for them. This has helped to broaden its appeal to students of other countries. In contrast, many publicly owned universities do not have a policy in place to attract foreign students. Fifth, Babcock aggressively promotes research among its lecturers. In fact, he said that it is a requirement for promotion and failure to do so can lead to the stoppage of salaries. He concluded by saying that rankings are serious business, which universities ignore at their peril. The last speaker, Nte Bisong, who represented Professor Abubakar Adamu Rasheed, the NUC’s Executive Secretary, observed that universities can do a far better job in raising the visibility of their research as this had a big weighting in rankings. Technology, he said, had made it a lot easier and practically free to share research online. Since 2005 when the NUC performed its last rankings, nothing had been done in this area. The Commission may consider launching a new ranking that takes into account local realities that make the Nigerian university system unique. On the subject of university linkages with industry, he explained that the National Universities Commission started the Nigerian Universities Research and Development Fair (NURESDEF) to promote these collaborations. However, it was up to the universities to seize the opportunity. One exciting project currently going on at the NUC was a curriculum review, which is being led by Professor Peter Okebukola, a former Executive Secretary of the Commission. The final report would aid in assessing the standards of the various programs running in universities today to bring them up to the latest global standards. He said that the NUC had launched several initiatives in the past for the benefit of Nigerian universities but that they rarely take these up. Their poor response had affected their global rankings in some cases. The conference ended with the participants thanking BusinessDay for providing a platform to hold the discussion. RECAP ON HIGHLIGHTS 1). Rankings are here to stay, so Nigerian universities must adapt to this reality. 2). University rankings are dynamic. No position on the league tables is permanent. 3). Welcome as rankings are, most Universities in Nigeria are faced with managing on limited financial and human resources, as well as the challenges of insecurity which can suck up significant amount of time; and 4). Nigerian institutions need to do a lot better in the area of publicising their research. 5). The linkages between universities and industry leaves much to be desired. More effort is needed here as it impacts directly on knowledge generation, privately-funded research sources, patents, and fostering of innovation communities. 6). Government needs to put in place a policy stipulating that ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) and private companies must utilize research and innovative technologies produced by Nigerian universities where available over foreign-sourced solutions. This is the only way to fast-track university-industry collaboration and drive funding for more innovation. 7). A university is a brand. This encompasses everything from the learning environment to student experience to diversity on campus and so on. 8). Entrepreneurship elements need to be infused into the curriculum at universities. 9). Universities need a deliberate ranking-climbing strategy and should assign a senior academic in the university community to own the process. 10). Universities should be more proactive in taking advantage of some of the opportunities that the National Universities Commission is opening. 11). International partnerships with accreditation bodies and foreign universities as well as affiliations with professional certification bodies can raise standards. 12). Research is the foundation stone of a university’s rankings, followed closely by teaching. 13). Students and their sponsors must be willing to shoulder a greater part of the financial cost of achieving excellence at public Nigerian universities. Reliance primarily on government funding is not sustainable, and stunts rankings. 14). The main concern of an academic is promotion and reputation. Anything else is a distraction. What this means is that while they will invest significant effort in publishing research, which leads to promotion, they pay far less attention to publicising their research, which impacts rankings. 15). To strengthen the linkages between industry and the universities and to grow innovation communities, researchers must first understand the needs of business around their regions.