In the last few years, tertiary institutions in Nigeria have failed to meet up with the required standard, especially as the quality of the certificates they issue to graduating students are being questioned in and outside the country. Experts have continually blamed this on all stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, education administrators and government. In this interview with IFEOMA ONUOHA, the Vice Chancellor of Lagos State University (LASU), John Oladapo Obafunwa, a professor of Forensic Pathology, bares his mind on the current situation in Nigeria’s educational institutions. Excerpts:
What is your appraisal of tertiary education in Nigeria?
Certainly, the current system is not exactly what I went through as an undergraduate. There was a lot of competition, and before you gain admission into any university, you are expected to sit for exams for various universities, as there was no Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB). It was highly contentious and we knew what we had to do once we were admitted.
Then, we had the average parents who were conservative, they ensured that their children studied, not now where parents offer bribe to get admission for their children or go the extra mile with them to sit for exams, taking them to what they call ‘special centres’, or even some parents approaching teachers with bribes to influence grade for their children; there is a lot of decadence. Sadly, they are encouraged by the society.
My children went through university and I never for one day visited their school; they knew what they had to do, the only official engagement that I attended was their graduation ceremony.
Yes, we talk about students being unruly; some teachers too are cult members. We talk about parents not doing what they are supposed to do; how many of us sell handouts? How many of us engage in practices of selling marks, even issues bothering on sexual harassment? Examples abound, but the truth is that there has to be a lot of internal soul-searching on the part of everybody concerned, not just the teachers but also the parents. In the future, the students will become the lecturers, and if things continue as they are, the entire system will be worse.
There is this complain about employability of graduates from local institutions such that graduates with foreign certificates are often preferred to those with certificates from local institutions; what can be done to raise the standard in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions?
The parents must be involved; just as the teachers must change their orientation and attitude. Sadly, a lot of graduates cannot speak good English, some MSc and even PhD holders cannot write a proper sentence and you wonder how they got the certificates.
It is not just a question of not having all the necessary tools. When I came back to this country, I didn’t have all the tools, even now I still don’t have all the tools but I try to deliver, I do what I have to do with what is available. How many teachers are prepared to spend extra hours training their students? We need to change our attitudes; we need to move away from telling our children that they can have whatever they want. For instance, why should parent encourage a final year student to duplicate projects that someone has done in the past. Unfortunately, I have seen lecturers who accept such projects; it is either that they are part of it or they failed to do a thorough assessment. A lot has to be done on this in-house.
What is your take on the issue of instability as result of incessant strike by lecturers?
I don’t believe that you have to fight for everything. There should be dialogue; trying to move along and engaging with one another is the way out. It is not necessarily shutting down the school because when there is shut down, the students are not in the schools but in the streets and they are available for vices. Also, while travelling, they are exposed to road hazard, and the courses they are supposed to complete in four years, they spend seven to eight years. There is a lot of economic losses. But I’m not in any way exonerating the government; as it is expected to implement whatever it (government) has agreed on; there should be a kind of give and take on both sides.
The state institutions are facing more challenges in meeting up with the 21st Century demands more than the federal institutions, why is it so?
In 2012, Lagos State University was ranked the best state university in the country. Despite the strike last year, our students from the Faculty of Law always perform well in Law School. Interestingly too, at the Lagos State University College of Medicine where I was the provost, you cannot count five medical schools in this country without counting LASUCOM, yet it is a state university. We have potential for many things despite the fact that we do not enjoy the luxury of funding like the federal universities. But I believe we are still a force to be reckoned with.
Another problem of state universities is the civil service influence which may not necessarily augur well with the institutions. At the University of Lagos, for instance, the vice chancellor is not likely to have one eminent person in the state trying to influence policy, admission or other things. A vice chancellor in any of the federal universities is not likely to encounter this kind of restrictions.
How have you been able to improve on what you met on ground in LASU?
When I assumed office as the vice chancellor of the university, there were problems on ground including financial prudence, the issue of accreditation and school fees which I had to confront. I was also confronted with salary arrears, so I had to pay a lot of money. I introduced financial prudence by cutting down on many things and blocking some avenues of leakage. Expectedly, it did not go down well with some staff but we had to start doing the right thing. We made frantic effort to secure accreditation in many of the programmes because without it we cannot advertise for the courses which will naturally reduce the intake. At this point in time, all courses in LASU except one are accredited.
I also inherited problems of non-availability of certificates and results. I recall signing a certificate dated 1994. I had issues with missing records and transcripts, as well as backlog in the school of part time, but by 2012, we graduated about 14,000 students from the external campuses. Last year, we graduated about 7,400 students from external campuses and we are expecting to do more this year. Our target is that God-willing, those who finished from external campuses will graduate at the completion of their projects, so that they can do their convocation and collect their certificates at the same period.
Interestingly, there are infrastructural development projects going on in LASU and the government is assisting us with the necessary funding. When I assumed office as the VC, there were infrastructural challenges, but we are sorting them out, our drainages are working well now, so we are not afraid of the rainy season because government assisted us in constructing drains on the campus.
What are the challenges facing LASU in transforming to a world-class institution?
Apart from infrastructure development, we are collaborating with some centres. For example, we have students in Sweden studying Chemical and Polymer Engineering, and we have an agreement with one of the universities in the US in the field of Forensic Medicine in which I specialised. We are also in collaboration with the University of Chicago for a joint study on breast cancer in Africa – this involves lecturers in the University of Chicago, University of Ibadan and Lagos State University. We are also looking at how our students can be part of this relationship.
In the Faculty of Science, specifically the Department of Computer Science, with the assistance of the state government, we have reached an agreement with Oracle Worldwide on a training programme for about eight of our lecturers who will in turn transfer the technology to the students. And we hope that our students will be registered and sit for certain professional exams.
One of our professors is also involved in a research with the University of Edinburg. He got a grant to do some work on magnetic resonance imaging system involving the brain. He is doing this with the Department of Radiology at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH).
How has the management been able to deal with issues arising from the hike in school fees?
First, the issue came to the fore following students’ complain about infrastructure development in the school. As a result, a visitation panel came to the school and made some recommendations one of which is to increase school fees. I know that the state executive council debated on this for almost a year before a white paper was issued in September 2011.
It is noteworthy to say that the ongoing infrastructure development in LASU, is not being funded with the school fees. To cushion the effect of the hike in fees, the Lagos State government decided to pump more money into bursary and scholarship award. Other states are expected to take a cue from the Lagos State. Interestingly too, Lagos State government has decided to assist indigent students. So, if you are a Lagosian, you shouldn’t even be complaining.
Another good thing is that government is in dialogue with the students. Government Babatunde Raji Fashola recently asked them to bring their proposal for deliberation at the State Executive Council meeting. I urge the students not to disrupt academic activities, otherwise, they will discourage investors, individuals or organisations that may want to assist. Of course, nobody will like to invest in an unstable environment.