Friday Discourse 231
The Ten Commandments of University Admissions
The gates of opportunity that enabled Nigerians from rural areas, like me, to attain university education are closing at an alarming rate. This is not a false alarm. It is real. The sad thing is that the Vice Chancellors may not be aware of this, for some of the universities have become so large, in both estate and management, that it is difficult for its administrators to ensure that every policy is diligently implemented. I am not offering excuses on behalf of the VCs, but I am simply saying that our bent towards selective treatment and corruption is responsible for what is turning out to be a very ugly situation.
I came to know about problems regarding university admissions recently after participating deeply in improving secondary education in Bauchi State for six years now. In the past five years, we have been producing students who are qualified for admission into any Nigerian university both by the standards of the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB) and by my judgement as a lecturer for almost ten years (1983-92). However, only few of these students gained admission into universities. I did not know that things have changed so much since 1992.
What opened my eyes more was the suffering I underwent in gaining the admission of my daughter into one of the universities in 2003 despite my position as a former colleague to many lecturers there. When we finally, finally, got the admission, I asked myself this simple question: How many parents from rural Nigeria can undergo this gruesome experience to secure the admission of their wards?
The answer was obvious, and it led to the decision by the Bauchi State Government to officially pursue admissions in universities for its indigenes. I made the first round, successfully. I will get the printout of all our students from Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board's office in Abuja, and face a VC in our catchment area. "Mr. VC," I will say, looking straight into his eyes, "this is the total qualified candidates from Bauchi State who applied to your university. Now, if you intend to admit say 5,000 students this year, admitting every candidate on this list won't be out of order for we are entitled to at least so and so quota, being from your catchment area." I was glad that it worked, perfectly, in most cases.
Apart from Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), Bauchi, which has remained generous to Bauchi State, I must also admit the cooperation of the Vice Chancellors of University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) and Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto (UDUS) during my first round in 2005/06 academic session. Maiduguri admitted the whole list; the young VC encouraged us to continue with the effort. My meeting with the VC of ABU that year did not take ten minutes. Drawing my attention to a statistics he compiled on application figures of various northern states, he said, "Aliyu, we can absorb all candidates from Bauchi who have scored 160 in science, and 180 in arts. You have only 267 such applicants. Our problem is with those states with more than 2,500 qualified candidates. Is it ok?" I gladly responded, saying, "Yes sir, yes sir." UDUS received us in the same manner that year.
The year 2005/06 came and we relaxed, as a result, that year, a nephew of mine with 245 could not be admitted into history in a nearby university, for example. So I returned this year (2006/07 academic session) and the story remained very discouraging, once more. A university that admitted more than 4,400 students in its first list had only 50 students from Bauchi. Another, also within our catchment area, admitted at total of 2,400 students on its merit list, and only 28 were from Bauchi State, not even a student with 260 UME scores who applied for medicine was admitted. The third, though not from our catchment area, did not admit more than a total of 8 students on both its first and final lists. As a result we are now left with hundreds of candidates with scores of more than 200 and above who are not admitted. Clearly, the universities did not work with statistics in both this year.
All the VCs complained that we were late in our follow up. Agreed. But I thought the statistics will speak on our behalf. In any case, ab initio, the students deserve to fill their quota. And as they did not, it is clear that there are problems, as one of the VCs admitted. Meanwhile, we continue to ponder on what to do with these students on whose face the gates of the universities were slammed? What effect will it have on their juniors who are now preparing for the UME exams?
We will, as result, suffer from what is called product accumulation in chemical kinetics or economics. If what is produced is not exhausted but allowed to accumulate, the rate of reaction in the forward direction will become slow. Secondary school students, in this case, will be discouraged from working hard. Not only the students, even those of us who are exerting effort to improve education at the primary and secondary levels in educationally less developed states will be demoralised.
The above is the story of Bauchi State, but the same applies, I believe, to other educationally disadvantaged states. A lecturer friend from Gombe State, for example, failed to gain admission for his daughter who scored 245 this year; she was not admitted into the Medicine she applied for, nor was she offered another course. He called me, desperately, thinking that I can press some buttons. I said, "Sorry, I can do nothing. The VC told me that the admissions are closed."
In the remaining part of this essay, I intend to highlight eight ways of getting out of this quagmire.
One. Fight for your right. I think it is important for state governments in educationally less developed areas to copy the Bauchi example, pursuing admissions for their indigenes. They should be the voice of the helpless fathers before the Vice Chancellors, every year. Rights are not given, they are fought for. It takes little effort. Purchase a printout of all your state indigenes from JAMB, arranged according to the universities and courses they applied for. Then make a list of those whose scores you can defend before any VC. Then approach the universities, and follow up. Simple. I will here, based on experience, implore government officials responsible for this task to please know that they are handling the future of thousands of Nigerians. They must be diligent, fair, and committed. Admissions are seasonal. Once they abandon them for something else and it is late, they will have themselves to blame.
Two. Minister, conversion pays. And this is directed at the Ministers of Education, who has shown sufficient interest in improving education. There is too much demand for admissions into these universities. This year alone, over 1.5million Nigerians applied for admissions, while there is a space for 175,000 only. Whenever demand outgrows supply, man is known to recruit all his selfish survival instincts, and a loophole is thus created for corruption and injustice. There is the need, therefore, to stem up supply, using a combination of measures to increase the absorption capacity of our universities. We may never meet all the demand, but we can improve on the present substantially.
In this line, the federal government should facilitate the idea of converting many polytechnics into universities, though I believe we must retain some of the polytechnics to run specialised courses that universities may find cumbersome to undertake. The statistics are clear in proving that Nigerians, as students and employers, attach too much sentiment to university degrees.
Three. Minister, make all animals are equal. Universities of technology, such as ATBU, should have a conventional brief, not the restricted one they are now operating. In the whole Northeast zone, for example, only UNIMAID offers medicine, and it cannot allocate more than 10 spaces for Bauchi State students. It means that, except for the few others that are admitted into ABU, it will take Bauchi state 10 years to train 100 medical doctors, most of whom will run away ultimately, as their predecessors did, to greener pastures overseas. If both ATBU and FUTY would offer medicine and other 'non-technological courses', Bauchi State will have the capacity to train 100 medical doctors in just one year.
Four. Governors, Build more universities. States on their part must increase their participation in university education. They should award more fellowships for students to study abroad, in Ghana, India, Malaysia, Greece, etc. In this way, Bauchi State can train many IT experts, engineers and medical doctors within a short time in line with its demand. States MUST also establish their universities. I wonder why states like mine are stubbornly failing to do so despite numerous advices. Gone are the days when few students qualified for university admission from such states; we have many now, over 1,500 in Bauchi State alone whom we cannot place anywhere, except, of course, in the job of political thuggery and delinquency. There are institutions ready for conversion, the resources are there, but the will is lacking. Perhaps, a word from the Minister of Education will help these unwilling states to take up the challenge.
Five. Universities, be liberal, not literal. Within the present capacity of the universities, a revision of the existing regulations will go a long way in instituting justice. Admissions need to be properly allocated to states based on their quota. When every list is compiled and before it is submitted to JAMB for approval, I will be very happy if every VC will go through the list himself and find out how many students he admitted from each state. If that was done this year, some of them would not have been surprised by the awful statistics I faced them with.
Also, there is the need for universities to adopt a liberal interpretation of JAMB or NUC guidelines. Will they continue to draft their merit list simply by drawing a line on the JAMB list of every course, as they do now, or will they come up with a merit list of every state, such that the best from every state stands a good chance of being admitted? The present emphasis on overall national scores is simplistic, unjust, and, worse of all, exacerbates examination malpractice. At one of the far-Northern universities, the first seven admissions on their merit list of medicine were from Bayelsa. Bayelsa! Yes. Bayelsa. If the students were so good, why did not they apply to University of Calabar? Often, such students hardly make it in the faculties because the results are fake. But they have blocked the chance of a student from Borno or Bauchi with a genuine UME score of 260.
The universities will often claim to have quotas for their catchment states. My brother, forget it, once your son has applied for medicine or business administration and his name has not appeared on the merit list. The second and third lists are for those who have long legs to reach the Registrar or VC. I will be very glad if the three criteria – merit, catchment and educationally disadvantage quotas – are merged together. Let's agree on a quota for each state and let merit determine the suitability of each student within his state. Period. Ezekwesili, I carry my hands beg you again. Bikoo.
Six. Be kind-hearted, universities. There is the need for admission officers to develop be kind-hearted. If an applicant with 245 from Gombe could not make it on MBBS list, please let her be given an alternative course. Imagine the hardship she went through to get those high marks from an educationally disadvantaged state like Gombe. Do not send her away, please. Do not abandon her and make her shed tears throughout the year.
I must here recount the story of an orphan girl from Adamawa State who scored 199 in UME. This year she applied to a university this year to read International Relations and was offered admission. At the department she was told she needed a credit in mathematics, which, unfortunately, was not among the nine credits that she has. The department advised her to go for law. A former VC intervened at the faculty of law on her behalf for a change of course, not a fresh admission, mind you. The dean admitted that she is qualified but said he needed an order from above. The Samaritan former VC approached the Registrar, but oga Registrar flatly refused, claiming that it is too late. What is too late when students have not even been screened? If the girl were the kind that will approach oga with a seductive appearance, wallahi, the story would have been different. Oga would salivate immediately and, in the hope of satiating his libido, grant her request and that of all her brothers, sisters and friends. He would have even worked out her accommodation or maintained her in his guest house. We have seen it many times. Haba. The poor girl returned to Yola, dejected. People like oga Registrar, must not, after leaving office, come to Arewa House to lecture us on the deplorable state of education in the North because he is among the culprits. Abi?
Seven. JAMB, Do not overburden candidates. I think JAMB should abandon its syllabus and examine students only on the certificate syllabus of WAEC and NECO. Doing the contrary, as it does presently, is injustice because, by our national education policy, our secondary school students are required to master only the certificate curriculum. The total scores of JAMB is 400, yet, even last year that appeared to be a bonanza of a sort, the average of the best 1000 students, and despite all the 'ECOMOG', is around 240. It should not be so. If a student has mastered his Ababio in Chemistry, Anyakoha in Physics, Modern Biology, and has a reasonably good command of oral and written English, he should score something around 350 and 380. Faced with this intrigue, I decided to study past JAMB UME exam questions. Suddenly, I was stunned to find out that they included many topics of advanced level, topics like taxonomy in biology. I believe the over-expectation of JAMB has contributed in breeding malpractice at its examination centres.
Eight. Go for the best. There is the need to urgently ban all remedial programs. Though they fetch the universities funds, they compound admission problems because they block the chance of students who do not need to remedy anything. Thus, a weaker student is favoured because the university is earlier committed to his admission; and a strong one abandoned. Gone are the days that states like Bauchi and Taraba cannot fill their quota. Those requiring remedies should do that at home, in schools designed for that. Thereafter, they should join others in writing the UME and get admitted regularly.
Nine. Don’t abuse privilege. There is the need for some elite to reduce the way they abuse privileges. I presented to one of the VCs a list of over 400 students who were given multiple admissions. A renowned person from my state living in Kaduna secured admission for his son in three different departments, on the same list, blocking the chances of two other students from Bauchi State. This abuse of privilege is unwarranted. This can easily be avoided if the VCs will call for the final electronic copy of the admission list, sort them out by names, then identify and strike out the multiple admissions.
Ten. Tame your ambition. An advice to students and their parents. They must apply for courses and universities in which they stand the best chance of securing admissions. Over eighty percent of science students, for example, apply for medicine; none applies for less competitive course even if he knows he is below average. He should, like I were 27 years ago, content himself with reading single honours courses which are themselves excellent and productive, though less competitive. The most important thing for the chap is to be admitted into the university such that he will have the privilege of the university passing through him. Parents must shoulder this responsibility.
In the same vein, applicants must also try to restrict themselves to their catchment areas. As I was concluding this article, one of them knocked at my door to check whether he was admitted for Islamic Studies at UDUS in far away Sokoto. I checked the few names and told him no. Looking at his face, I added salt to injury, saying, "How many times have we told you not to apply to universities outside your catchment area? We can't raise our voice there on your behalf. I am sorry. I can't help you." He left disappointed. Had he applied to UNIMAID, his name would have been on the merit list.
By any measure, this article has been long, admittedly. About 3,000 words! But it had to be so because I did not want to offend my university colleagues in any way, unlike my encounter with Saddam. Diplomacy takes a lot of space and time. They have stayed on a cause from which I fled thirteen years ago; so I have no locus whatsoever to accuse them of any wrong. My intention, as it is whenever I pick my pen, was only to raise the voice of justice and common sense (which, sad to note, is no longer common). But if the different parties I called upon in this article will heed to the ten commandments of admission I cited above, the frustration that we suffer from in our effort to improve education at lower levels will be lightened. The VCs' headache will also be lighter. As for the students, I will say, "Aluta continua!"