The Need for State Universities in the North
At least seven states in the North have gone ahead to establish their universities: Benue , Kano , Nassarawa, Adamawa, Taraba, Gombe, and now Kaduna . There may be others to follow, and it will be a matter of time, political expedience, or both, before others follow suit.
The reaction from the public and especially from the academia has been negative. People think, and rightly in their own way, that our governors should start by laying emphasis on improving the standard of primary and secondary schools. It is such schools that will serve the universities with competent intakes. Secondly, the tertiary institutions in these states – polytechnics and colleges of education – are neglected. Hardly are funds allocated to them to maintain their existing structures or to meet the accreditation demands for the courses they offer. Thirdly, these states are not filling their quota presently in the federal tertiary institutions to which they serve as ‘catchment’ areas. Finally, there may not be enough funds for each state to maintain a university when some of them cannot even pay salaries.
I have not been part of the decision of any state government to establish a university, so I cannot hold brief for them. However, the above reasons, though widely accepted as true at first instance, would appear shallow at a critical look. And if a reason may be valid in the case of some states, it may not be valid for others.
I agree with the general perception that our primary and secondary schools are weak and that for purposes of mass literacy they ought to attract government’s attention most. More importantly, I also agree that even in the past five years, state governments have shown bizarre disregard and lack of initiative to improve the standard of our public schools. But the negative impact of this weakness is greater on our general literacy level than on university admissions, for universities by their nature cannot be the final destiny of every primary school child, though they are always his ultimate hope. The weak performance of our graduates could be partially attributed to this factor and to others as well, like the severe poverty level of campus life.
For admission into universities and going by the pyramidal structure of education, only a fraction of secondary school leavers are expected in any society to be absorbed into tertiary institutions, and fewer still into universities. In evaluating the way universities achieve this admission targets, we often forget the contributions of Federal Government Colleges that are located nationwide – two in every state, of private schools that are increasingly becoming commonplace, and of community schools including those run by religious organizations. Something interesting here is the fast rate at which private and community schools are increasing in number.
The products of these schools combined with the few that could miraculously make it from our public schools have yearly met the admission demand of our universities. Lecture theatres and classrooms in our universities today overflow with students, unlike in the 1970s. What is astonishing is how the contributions of these schools have, despite the collapse of standard of education in state schools, outrun the capacity of the universities to admit. Entry points and cut-off marks have to be raised in many cases to curtail the number of eligible applicants.
To this extent, therefore, the poor standard of our primary and secondary schools cannot be used as a reason to suppress the ambition of establishing state universities in the North. Secondly, the argument that there will be no enough competent students to admit in such universities has been knocked down by the evident scramble for admissions into the existing federal universities. There will be further explosion in demand once we succeed in our on-going effort to partially secularise the curriculum of most Islamiyya schools in the North.
In any case, we can look back and see how our present universities started. Ahmadu Bello University is a good example. When the decision to establish the university was taken by the Premier of Northern Nigeria, his colleague and principal opponent from the South, Chief Awolowo, sarcastically asked: “Is Sardauna going to admit donkeys into the university?” Sardauna went ahead and started the university with about 400 students in 1962, majority of whom came from former Kwara and Benue Provinces . That was a humble beginning. Today, after forty years, the university can boast of over 30,000 students, among them are many southerners, including the sons of Obasanjo – not donkeys! There is nothing that stops our state universities taking the same long way.
For fear of being misunderstood, I will repeat my stand that improving the standard of primary and secondary education should remain the highest priority of any reasonable state government. However, a priority ranked as highest does not deny the importance of other priorities, especially, as in education, where the highest priority does not stand alone but require the support of lesser priorities. How can we, for example, improve the standard of primary education without providing enough competent graduate teachers at secondary schools, teachers’ colleges and colleges of education? How do we, in turn, get enough of these graduate teachers without establishing enough universities to breed them?
The two should run concurrently. Right now we cannot find enough graduate teachers in Physics, Chemistry, English, Mathematics, History and many other subjects. We are still lagging in professional subjects: Medicine, Law, Architecture, etc. Last year, while every state in the South sent hundreds of candidates to the law school, Plateau sent about 80, Bauchi 15, and, hold on, I was told, Kebbi sent only 2, though I cannot believe it!
This strongly indicates that there is a compelling need for additional universities. The present federal universities are not meeting our manpower demands. And their structure is not helping matters. Take the Northeast zone for example. Of the three universities located here, only University of Maiduguri has a medical school. It annually admits 100 students, which is enough for a university. Anything more will be disastrous. The 100 is shared annually among the six states in the region this way: Borno 30, Adamawa 20, Yobe 15, Bauchi 10, Gombe 10, Taraba 10, other states 5, or something close this ratio. This means that Gombe, Taraba and Bauchi states, even if they would be lucky to be given their quota annually, each would take ten years before it can train 100 medical doctors. This is not because there are no qualified candidates from Bauchi, for example. There are plenty. But they cannot be admitted in Bayero University because they are not from its catchment area; they cannot be admitted in University of Jos because of religion; other universities in the zone offer only technology courses, and, impliedly, medicine, by the thought of our higher education administrators, is not a technique! For how long should we continue to rely on the federal government, only to perpetuate this backwardness? How many doctors graduate from Lagos State University annually, if I may ask?
More alarming is the class segregation that is gradually nurtured by federal monopoly over university education. Admission into professional courses has now become the preserve for the children of the rich and the ruling elite. First of all, the child of a peasant cannot leave his village and go to Jos, Maiduguri or Sokoto and spend nearly a month or two lobbying for admission. Two, when he is able to do so, he cannot not afford the N30,000.00 that some admission officers will demand. If monetary demand is not there to block his path, there will be endless obstacles to block him or a technicality to disqualify him. I cannot see, for example, why an applicant with even 2 points from two subjects in IJMB cannot be given admission into any single honours course, or why another with 6 points will be denied admission into a professional course. Why should a remedial student with a GPA of 4.6 and a UME/JAMB score of 238 and 8 credits in both WAEC and NECO from an educationally backward state like Bauchi be denied admission into a college of medicine? Why the stringent requirement on English language at University of Jos, for example, for science students today when most of us were admitted in the 1970s into these universities without it, but were given the chance to make it before graduating.
Back in the seventies many of the present professors were admitted on similar weak points without any headache whatsoever. Now many of such beneficiaries are ready to place mountains of obstacles before the students of today. In contrast, a child from a well to do family, with very much lesser grades, can receive his admission letter at home! When in school, few of his type will pay attention to their studies; and where they do and graduate, their ambition is to leave the country for a better life overseas. The poor, their conscience tells them, can go to hell with his uncountable problems.
This is not to mention the directives of JAMB for the universities in the North to admit plenty of students from the South. Candidates from Lagos or Abia are readily given admissions into both single honours and professional courses in far away places like Sokoto and Maiduguri . Reasons like this persuade us to reconsider our objections to creation of state universities in the North.
After addressing the issue of demand and intakes, it is necessary to look at the issue of finances. Existing state owned schools – polytechnics and colleges of education – are grossly under-funded. Agreed. But this becomes a point against establishing new universities only if their poor financial condition has arisen from an incapacity and not from negligence. If it is born out of negligence, as it truly is, then that does not deny the establishment of a state university. The existence of bad roads in a state, for example, does not prohibit the construction of a new one where necessary. Here, the federal government is equally guilty; it has been a hardened criminal for a long time. As far back as 1987, while I was a lecturer, I knew that my department used to receive a petty cash of N250.00 only per quarter! How many laboratories in federal universities are equipped today? How many of our lecturers attend conferences? And how many researches in the universities are funded by government?
The truth of the matter is that northern states have enough funds to cater for education at all levels. The problem of poor standard in our primary schools has more to do with poor performance of teachers and administrators than with funds. How would teachers teach when they are not compelled by inspections, reward or punishment? How could there be good standard when the challenges of promotion and common entrance examination are removed as children are told answers to objective questions in examination halls? So, reinventing education in our public schools is not money hindered; it requires governments taking harsh measures, which all the present political administrations will bluntly tell you that they are not ready for the bad blood it will generate.
Going by their allocations, northern state governments have the funds to establish universities. Right now each of them gets more than what Sardauna was spending annually in the sixties. In 1963, a year after ABU was founded, the budget of the entire Northern Region was a pound per capita, £29million pounds! I appeal to Obasanjo to sack any governor who failed to pay his workers their salaries and declare a state of emergency in the state. Ya yi!
Likewise, let us stop thinking big when we are starting a university. States today have inherited many structures from previous administrations. This will reduce the size of the take-off capital. After all, all universities started by taking over the sites of some existing colleges. Ahmadu Bello University started from the humble structures of a school of science and technology; so did Maiduguri and Bauchi.
Evidently, today each state governor stands at a better position than where the Sardauna stood in 1962. While the Sardauna had less than 30 secondary schools in the North then, today, Bauchi State alone has over 82 secondary schools and several private, community and unity schools. The difference here, we must hasten to emphasize, is that while the Sardauna was working hard to improve on his weak position, the ears of our governors have been notoriously impervious to advice on how standard of education could be improved and their hands have been very stingy in funding.
Right now, education is among their least priorities. Yet, if any of them is determined to set up a university today, from the above analysis, there is not any strong reason to discourage him. The only advice we will give them is that they should de-emphasize physical development and, instead, work hard to fund human development projects like the universities as much as possible. This must be done concurrently with taking all the practical measures necessary to improve the standard of our primary and secondary schools, no matter how unpopular they would be. Finally, there must also be legislation limiting admissions only to state indigenes or exceptions approved by the state governments. Otherwise, the universities, like the federal owned, will only be filled, as usual, by candidates from other states carrying fake results.
In conclusion, establishing state universities in the North will be a right step towards meeting our manpower demand; it will reduce our dependence on the federal government in meeting that demand and it can even serve as the sink that may trigger the improvement of state primary and secondary schools. Funding will not be a problem once the governors are determined to allocate to the universities a deserving share of their monthly revenue. Likewise, I have no doubt that each state can produce at least about 400 students to start with, the way Sardauna started the now mighty ABU. This way and God willing, each state in the North will, after forty years, have a university as big as my alma mater.