#ThoughtivityOpinion: On Nigerian Universities And The Need For Skill Learning Institutions

When I was growing up, if you asked me what my father did, I would tell you that he is a lecturer without hesitation. However, until I was a bit older if you asked me what being a lecturer meant, I would tell you that it was just like being a teacher except that you “lecture” university “students” (instead of “teaching” primary and secondary school “pupils”)

 As I grew older, though, I realized that even when students were on vacation, Dad still went to his office every day. So one day while helping to carry his bags to the car, I asked him “Why do you still have to go to work, when the students you teach have all gone home on vacation?” He laughed and said, “teaching is like 30 percent of what I do, the core of what I really do is research.” Of course at the time “research” sounded like a big word out of one of those large books he was always reading, so I did not pursue the matter further.

Last year my sister- in-law and I were taking the piss out of my brother, a graduate of mechanical engineering,  because he called a mechanic to repair his own car, he said something “It is only in an underdeveloped country like Nigeria, that a mechanical engineer is supposed to know how to repair machines.  In developed countries, the work of repairing machines is left to technicians who have been trained for that purpose. University engineering graduates are supposed to be theorists, manufacturers, and researchers; they are not technicians or repairers. They should be the ideas people, not the technical people. Even though we still laughed at him for his defensiveness, we couldn’t but agree with him.

It was recently when I was listening to a presentation at a youth conference about how  Nigerian Universities have failed that the import of the two incidents above dawned on me. That was when I realized that we have a major problem with our Universities and unless we take urgent steps to address those problems, our universities will continue to be like glorified secondary schools and will continue to churn out graduates who do not have the skill to survive in the current Nigerian labour market.

I had always felt that the reason that our universities run far above their capacities is because of the increase in the population of the country generally. Of course if Nigeria’s population today is not as it was in 1980 for example, then it stands to reason that the number of people who want to enter Nigerian universities will have increased as well. However, I have come to realize that that view is too simplistic to be the cause of the problem.  There is no way an increase in population could cause that much of a drop in standards.

The frank and brutal truth is this, University education, at least in the Harvard, or Oxford, or Princeton sense is not meant for everybody. That is why the early policy makers in Nigerian education made provisions for Polytechnics, and Monotechnics, Colleges of Education, Technical Colleges, Teacher Training Colleges. However since around the mid-nineties till date, Nigeria has been cursed with lazy, corrupt and spineless governments lacking in vision. As a result almost all of these institutions have either been scrapped or have their roles minimized, most of their functions have been added to the workload of universities, yet these universities have not been adequately empowered to cope with the demand.

I am not old enough have all the memories, but I have heard the opportunity to listen to older people talk and to read up on stuff. I have found that the reason why the Nigerians who went to school between the 60s and the 80s are able to gloat about the elite treatment they got back then in school was that Nigerian Universities back then were elitist institutions. For instance, at the time, it was almost unthinkable to go university from secondary school. Most of the people in the University at the time were those who had already gone to some other institution, learned a skill, and had a source of income. Their training was such that a number of them could actually pay their own tuition. if you were among the few who went to university straight from  secondary school, you were either brilliant enough to get a scholarship (which meant you were part of the academic elite) or you had the double luck of being brilliant enough and also having parents rich/educated enough to send you (I don’t think any further comment is needed).  Thus for example a person who is good (and who loves to work)with his hands, but who does not have a rich parent to pay their University fees, and is not geared towards book learning enough to win a scholarship can attend a training school, get a diploma and  earn enough money to make a living. Most people did not care about going to University back then, because Universities were almost purely research institutions. So unless you were willing and able to do the heavy academic research involved, you really didn’t need to go to a University. That gives us a clearer understanding of what my Dad meant with his statement about the core of his work being research as opposed to teaching. It also help us sympathize with people like my brother when they say that in an ideal situation, a mechanical engineer should not have to repair cars.

Let us look at another example, Faculties of Education in Nigerian Universities versus Colleges of Education/ Teacher Training Colleges. In a sensible country, there should be high standard training institutions where hands on learning on the practical aspects of education/teaching should be taught and the faculties of education should be left to do research on education theory and policy instead of being bogged down with having to train people and not having time to research new ideas and update on current trends. What you have instead is government scrapping teacher training colleges and turning Colleges of Education into Universities of Education and perpetuating the problem. The same goes for faculties of technology. The tragic reality in Nigeria, which can either be due to a calculated attempt of governments to keep people oppressed by destroying their educational system (if you are a conspiracy theorist), or  successively corrupt and weak willed governments trying to reduce the number of educational institutions they have to fund, so that the money can be embezzled and diverted elsewhere, are universities which  have been given more duties to do, yet have not been empowered enough in terms of manpower or infrastructure to do those duties. The result is the chronic overcrowding of the schools and the resultant collapse of infrastructure, as well as the huge drop in educational standards.

Is it  surprising then that Nigerian universities graduates are unemployable when a large chunk of our graduates and undergraduates do not have any business going to a University in the first place? I talk to businesspeople, so  I meet people who tell me “Well I have always loved working with my hands, but I went to University to do Law or Pharmacy.” That makes me think “if only there were a standard skill acquisition and training institution where this person could have been properly guided to use the talents and skills they have, they would have used the five or six years  they wasted in  university on a certificate they will never use, for something more productive.”  Some people are lucky, they quickly find their passion after they graduate, but for some others it could mean the difference between being a productive member of the society and being a permanent castoff.  Let us say, for example, an electrician who is very good working with electrical appliances, but who isn’t academically gifted. What you can do for him is to send him to a skill acquisition institution (note institution, not centre) where the focus will be on the practical work and less on theory and research. If he goes a University instead, he will be unable to cope with the academic rigour there and will get low grades. Because of that he will believe that he is useless. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy so that when he graduates with the inevitable terrible grade, society will dismiss him as an unemployable castoff in spite of his skills.  If our governments learn to set proper educational priorities, fewer lives would be ruined this way. To make matters worse, Nigerian Universities have had to dumb down their curricula to cater for students who shouldn’t  be within 100 yards of a University to start with. The terrible state of our Universities today is a testament to what happens why successive Nigerian governments continue to believe their own lie that every student and parent want university education and university education only as if it wasn’t a Hobson’s choice forced on them by myopic and indecisive government policies.

The Nigerian Government may throw trillions of dollars at creating jobs and supporting business initiatives, but unless it goes back to the drawing board to fix the issue of standardized practical training institutions, and to restore Universities back to their status as research and academic institutes, we will continue to have graduates who don’t know what they did or what they are even supposed to do. Graduates who made wrong decisions at critical points of their lives due to being forced to believe that the University way is the only way, by visionless, corrupt governments

There are green shoots of course, such as the recent decision of the Oyo State government to create its own technical university, the first (I stand to be corrected of course) of its kind in Nigeria. If they are able to bring the dream to reality, it would be a great move, but it is surprising that the federal government and other state governments are not trying to replicate this. The thing is that private enterprises are realizing this need and are cashing on it. It is time for the government to be looking at creating its own standardized skill based institution(s) or at least creating standards for such institutions that follow the best practices by skill acquisition Institutions in developed nations. If we want to reposition our Universities as the frontrunners in our quest for development, we must allow them to totally focus on academic research and development theories as opposed to making them part time skill acquisition centres. Nigerian universities are not Skill Acquisition centres and that is a simple truth that the Nigerian government present and future must learn.


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