Globally, higher education policies have long been limited to assumptions and loose projections with little research-based evidence for policy. However, higher education has a key role to play in nation building through the provision of research-based evidence on which to base policy.
Despite the debate as to whether higher education is a specialised field of research or a professional academic discipline, it is undoubtedly clear that its relevance to policy is now supported by several universities and higher education institutions around the globe. Higher education expertise gives research-based support to policy-makers where such universities and institutes exist.
Several Asian and European universities have already adopted or are adopting higher education research by establishing departments, centres and institutes specifically on higher education matters to address both policy and academic demands for sustainable development.
Through higher education research, universities and higher education institutions are becoming globally competitive. The widespread adoption of higher education research is part of a move to increase universities’ global knowledge, global competence and visibility.
Since the Nigerian government is striving to improve the quality of higher education in order to build a skilled and competitive workforce, the need for the institutionalisation of higher education research has become crucial. This is to ensure the promotion of quality research-based evidence to help tackle the country’s socio-economic challenges through academic approaches.
What better way for this to be achieved than by focusing on the enactment and implementation of evidence-based policies?
Evidence-based policies derived from the findings of higher education research help to strengthen teaching institutions and increase innovation that will fuel Nigeria’s education sector with its multiplier socio-economic effects.
It is worth noting that many other developing countries are already in the process of promoting higher education as a tool for achieving greater transformation.
There’s no doubt the Federal Ministry of Education and other relevant agencies have high ambitions to rejuvenate the higher education sector. However, higher education challenges remain.
Nigeria does not have any policy for promoting higher education research as a field of study. That means there is no existing body established by the government to provide research-based evidence to guide higher education policy implementation. At best, ad hoc committee recommendations form the basis for policy enactments.
However, many countries have developed visionary higher education strategic plans and blueprints linking higher education and development.
For example, the National Higher Education Strategic Plan of Malaysia (2007-2020) and now Higher Education Blueprint (2015-2025), the National Plan for Higher Education in South Africa and the Eight-Year Egyptian Plan for Higher Education are among the products of developing a conscious policy direction for national development, with higher education as the main driver.
Nigeria has all it takes to achieve greatness in higher education if it can spell out its needs and prioritise its higher education challenges in relation to its developmental challenges.
Despite Nigeria having numerous state-owned universities and other higher education institutions, very few states have clear higher education policies that identify their institutions’ priorities. Few too have used their higher education institutions to give a sense of direction to the state, the region and the country as a whole. Nigeria is late to adopt evidence-based policy recommendations which makes it less competitive globally.
Lessons from Malaysia
Across the globe, in countries where higher education has been recognised as a field of academic endeavour, it provides key support to ministries of education and other major stakeholders in the education sector and industry.
For instance, the key objectives of the Malaysian National Higher Education Research Institute include identifying issues and critical challenges related to higher education; helping develop higher education institutions in Malaysia; and becoming a reference and resource centre pertaining to higher education issues and policies nationally and globally.
The Malaysian National Higher Education Research Institute also runs academic programmes for masters and PhD students in the field of higher education. Besides this research institute, the Malaysian government, under the Ministry of Education, has the Higher Education Leadership Academy that trains and develops leaders who can bring their professional expertise to local higher education institutions and elevate their standing in the global community.
A clarion call for stakeholders
As a scholar with a specific interest in higher education, I am calling on the Nigerian government to consider the establishment of a ‘National Institute of Higher Education Research and Policy Development’. This would accelerate advancements in research, innovation, teaching and learning in our universities and other higher education institutions.
The body would also facilitate the global visibility of Nigeria and its achievements in the field of higher education and international academic excellence and standardisation.
There are, of course, constraints on Nigeria’s education development. These include inadequate funding, inconsistent policy changes, lack of infrastructure and the constant disruption of the school system.
But with higher education research, inconsistency in policy changes could be addressed because policy implementations would be critically researched and articulated, thus ensuring they are not only effective, but they target long-term improvement in higher education.
Moreover, higher education institutions would be guided by clear development plans. Policy planning and implementation would be properly administered. The National Universities Commission, which regulates the activities of federal, state and private universities, would continue to work on developing evidence-based policies that enable quality improvement of university programmes.
There have been significant improvements and changes recently in the Nigerian higher education sector. This has strengthened my belief in the need to introduce higher education as a field of study in Nigeria. I firmly believe that focusing and adopting higher education research as a field of study in Nigeria will be a major leap towards the improvement of higher education in Nigeria and the attainment of Nigeria’s development goals and objectives.
Dr Muhammad Muftahu is a Nigerian who works as a senior lecturer and coordinator of the Global Higher Education Network, National Higher Education Research Institute, Universiti Sains Malaysia. His research interests are in the areas of sustainable institutional development, micro-institutional policies, institutional leadership and management, comparative higher education and qualitative research methodology. This content is part of the keynote address presented by the author at the International Capacity Building Workshop on Higher Education Governance, Leadership and Management at Kaduna State University, Nigeria, in collaboration with Universiti Sains Malaysia and the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Facility at Kaduna State University in February.