Friday, November 16, 2018 2:01 pm
Behind every successful man, there is a woman; so says the maxim. On the evening of Sunday 4 November 2018, when our newsman, Gbenro Adesina went to interview the Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan, UI, Professor Abel Idowu Olayinka, on the 70th anniversary of the institution, that maxim played out as his wife, Dr. Eyiwumi Bolutito Olayinka, a lecturer in the Department of European Studies, hovered around to ensure that her husband looked presentable. Whereas most people know Olayinka, a geologist, as a workaholic, and always wearing a ‘strong’ face, that evening, the VC showed a different side as he was all smiles and was in a relaxed mood. Spotting a simple purple lace attire, he led our man to a well mown garden within the VC lodge, where the interview took place under a beautiful atmosphere, but heavy distractions from birds and the noise of thousands of bats freely flying around. As the interview was about to commence, the amiable ebony complexioned VC’s wife brought a purple cap from within the house to complete the helmsman’s dressing. She further helped him to adjust the cap to the left to ensure that her husband’s appearance was gorgeous. The VC, a humility personified, was just blushing throughout. When Gbenro jokingly warned the institution’s first lady against making her Ijesa born husband overly handsome so as to avoid husband snatchers, she replied in Yoruba Language, “Ko seni to le gba oko mi lowo mi”, meaning, no lady in the whole wide world can snatch away my husband from me. After these preliminaries, the VC had a one hour, twenty-nine minutes interaction with our magazine on the state of the Premier University.
Q: How has the journey been since the establishment of Nigeria’s Premier University?
A: The Nigerian Premier University has been here over the past 70 or 71 years. Indeed, I still wonder why we put the university’s birthday at November 17, 1948 because from the records, the first set of 104 students actually started their lecture January 18, 1948. To me, the university was established in January 18, 1948. How can you have the students enrolling under the University College Ibadan before the establishment of the university? It turns out that the students resumed January 18, 1948 at the Eleyele Campus, which was a temporary site and the ground breaking ceremony of this permanent site was laid on 17 November, 1948. I think that is why we celebrate our Founders’ Day on the 17th of November.
In reality, over the last 70/71 years, the university has lived up to the expectation of its founding fathers as a centre of excellence. At the last count, we have produced 232,000 graduates. For us, as an institution of higher learning, the best way you can measure what we do, whether we are doing well or not is what our graduates are doing after leaving the institution. If our graduates are successful, then we don’t need to be making a lot of noise before people will compliment us. You know that Wole Soyinka, Oladapo Akinkugbe, Chinua Achebe, Bola Ige, Ransome Kuti and some other notable Africans of international repute were here as students one time or the other. Today, I feel satisfied. You are talking about what started 70/71 years ago, even up till the most recent times like about three weeks ago, the council of legal education released the results of the students who took part in the final bar examination at the Nigeria Law School. Our quota is very small, 150. Out of the 150 students that we sent to the law school, 12 of them obtained first class honours. When I look at the percentage, our performance is the best. 10 per cent of our quota gets first class. Since we started, we’ve not compromised standard and quality. The records are there. It is important for us not to rest on our oars. We always claim that if it is from UI, it must be of outstanding quality. We are building on good legacy and we’ll not stop at raising the bar.
I was in London recently and people there were saying UI has a good reputation. Our staff, alumni and students are our pride. Whatever they do, they always trace it to UI. Admission to UI has always been very competitive and nothing has changed. For instance, the minimum of performance to enter Law now is 76 per cent in both JAMB and post JAMB. The same thing with the MBBS. The reason is that the quota for law is 150, out of the 150, 15 per cent must be reserved for direct entry. So, it is only 135 spaces that are available for candidates that want to come in through O/L. You don’t have to know anybody before you are given admission in UI. This is a public university that belongs to all of us. The whole country is our catchment. The quality of the input is very good. We attract the best of students coming out of secondary school. Our process is also very good. Our 70 years of existence will give us the opportunity to reappraise ourselves so as to know areas that need improvements.
We can’t be compared with some universities in the West like Cambridge and Oxford that have been in existence for 300 and 700 years respectively but in Africa, UI is a university to be reckoned with as a grade one university. For improvement, we need resources, more importantly, to be able to compete very well with the private universities, which is currently more strategic. Government alone cannot adequately fund education, particularly universities, and that is why we are looking inward.
Some private universities like Covenant, which started not quite long ago are now competing with UI in terms of quality and delivery. UI and Covenant are now in the same ranking category. What do you have to say?
One was not too surprised that both UI and Covenant universities are both in the category of 601-800 going by the recently released universities’ ranking by the Time Higher Education. For us, we have even improved. In the ranking before this one, UI was 801-1000. I also have the idea of what they do in Covenant. Maybe they are more strategic than us. There are some programmes we have here, which they don’t even have. Fund is our major problem. For instance, now, I need to employ a minimum of 500 academic staff more. There is hardly any day that I don’t get request from HODs that they need additional staff. The most recent one was from the Department of Animal Science, which is requesting for additional 13 academic staff. I tell my HODs that if I give them additional academic staff, I am not doing them any favour because I know that students/staff ratio is one of the factors that is used in ranking universities. I know that we need at least 500 academic staff. If you employ one academic staff, it translates to your wage bill. Go and bring 500 people now, who will pay them?
Right now, it is difficult to pay the salaries of 1500 academic staff that this university has. I over work the academic staff and under pay them. I know that people do say that Nigerian universities are not well ranked. How many Nigerian banks are ranked among the topmost in the world? Even the National Assembly. If Nigeria’s National Assembly is to be ranked in the world, I doubt if it will be among the first eleven. All these things must be looked at holistically. What quantum of electricity do we generate in Nigeria? How much do they generate in South Africa, with a population that is less than South West Nigeria, South Africa is probably about 55 million, which is just about the population of South West. So you can’t take UI in isolation. About 20 years ago, when the university turned 50, there was a publication, which our then VC, Professor Omoniyi Adewoyi, a notable historian contributed a chapter there. I still remember vividly what he said, “the fortune of UI is always tied to the fortune of the government of Nigeria since the 2nd World War”. So, when the federal government is doing very well, directly or indirectly, UI will also do well. It is not rocket science. Those are some of the issues.
As I speak, our labouratory facilities need to be upgraded. We need a few more lecture theatres here and there. We have a challenge with office space in faculties of Arts and Education. Currently, we’re solving the issue of lack of lecture theatres and office spaces in Arts. We have made the federal government to use the whole of our 2016 Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) grant to build five storey building at the Faculty of Arts. My only consolation is that we have very good and high quality students that are coming in, so with little extra efforts, they are going to excel. We have been in a position to cater for more students because this is a federal government school. You know there is a policy of federal government to the effect that we should not charge tuition fees. It is a fantastic idea because if we are to be charging tuition fees, many Nigerians will not be able to afford it, but again, someone has to pick up the bill. If you say don’t charge fee and I want more 500 academic staff, how do I do that? Am I going to pay them from my purse?
From the picture you have painted, and what we know, universities are being grossly underfunded. For UI to be well ranked among its contemporary, it must be well funded. Objectively, without being political, how do we get over this funding problem?
It is a political decision. I attended a workshop recently, hosted by Redeemer’s University. It is the annual conference of vice chancellors. There was a keynote address delivered by Professor Olufemi Bamiro. He gave a particular graph. In one of the slides, he presented University of Western Michigan in America. Over the last 50 years, the government funding to the university has been dropping but as the government funding was dropping, the fees paid by the students was increasing. As one was dropping, the other is increasing. In our case, both are dropping. The funding from the federal government is decreasing and you cannot charge fees. Even the fee paid by the students is flat. If there is gross underfunding, your laboratory, e-facilities in terms of digital library, everything will be adversely affected. For us, we are not supposed to rest on our oars. We still look inward. The thing is that to run a university is tough. You have many publics: students, alumni, even those who have retired. You have to strike a balance. You want your students to have a good experience.
In developed nations, schools charge fees, which I think is responsible for qualitative and high standard of education over there compared to what we have here. Are we not running away from the reality?
Nations in the western world have different models of funding universities. In America and United Kingdom, students pay fees but they have access to loan, which they will pay back for as long as 20 years once they start working. In places like Germany, government technically picks all the bills. University education in Germany is free. It is now depend on the model we want to adopt. All of us have to agree that university education must be well funded. If UI needs N100m to run proper programmes, the question is that how will the money come in and you can’t transfer all the burden to the students, that will be most unfair. If this happens, you will find out that the rich is getting richer. So, we need to accept that UI needs to be well funded. The question is for you to have a full complement of what you need to run a descent university, let us say to train a student of Economics will cost N700, 000, how do will distribute that money? What percentage can government offer and what percentage should go to the students. Again, if many of the students are from poor background, then do you have education bank? The ideal, for me, is for both the government and students to pick up the bill. In addition, the private sector should also be willing to collaborate on education. First thing first, we need a model. First, we need to determine the unit cost, how much does it cost to train a medical student in a year? Out of that what can government provide? What proportion can you transfer to students without making life difficult, which will result to indigent students dropping out? We don’t want that because we want equitable system. Another good source of fund is foreign students.
When I was a student, we used to have students from neighbouring countries but the population of the students dwindled. Now, in UI, we have almost 400 foreign students. Ten years ago, I am sure we had less than 50. Things are improving slightly. But it can be better. The foreign students can easily pay in hard currency such that it can be used to subsidise a Nigerian student. Most of the top universities in UK, about 25 per cent of their students are foreigners and they have to pay a lot of money because people perceive their education to be of good quality. If your university is perceived to be mediocre, even your own nationals will run away from it. So, how can you expect foreigners to come? But if the quality is good, people will come. Americans can even come for one or two semesters in exchange programme even when they will not end up having UI degree. You can imagine if an American student pays $1000 to us, that is like N360, 000. But they will not come because our system is unstable: strike every now and then. If your own academic calendar is unstable, your own nationals will not come here, they will either emigrate to Ghana or Benin Republic because of stable calendar. If we inject more money here, then our calendar will be more stable, the quality will be nice and more foreigners will come.
Is the structure that produced the previous generations still there?
It is still there. Even some of the lecturers that taught me are still in UI. I was in the Department of Geology between 1977 and 1981. Those students now in that department are not receiving inferior education to what I received. I know the curriculum I went through as a student and I know the one that is being used now, which is not inferior. Recently, 17 students who finished from the department in 1990 came here. They told me that the department is a lot better than what they left. One of them is a senior lecturer at Ajayi Crowther University. They said that what they saw in the department in terms of ICT and better environment is a lot better than what they passed through in 1986-90 when they finished. That is the only way you can have civilisation of progress. The alumni of that department have been supportive to the department. Maybe that is why it is marginally better. There is still a room for improvement. Academic staff of the department is about 19 or so compared to when we were only four. So, it is not as bad as we think.
As an undergraduate student, I never saw one computer not to talk of using one until I went abroad for my postgraduate but today, our students are exposed to computer right from the undergraduate. It is very cheap to think that the quality is dropping. You can’t look at it in one dimension. There was a needs assessment report carried out by Professor Peter Okebukola, an alumnus of UI, when he was executive secretary of National University Commission, NUC. One of the findings in the report is to the effect that graduates of the Nigeria university system have problem with communication generally. So, when some of them go for interview, they may not be able to express themselves very well. So, people think some of them are dull and inferior. Not necessarily so. Maybe it is also part of the socialisation process. These are some of the issues. I will not just agree that the quality of our education has dropped. Our students go abroad and they do very well.
In the early years, there used to be a lot of expatriates as teaching staff in the university. What has changed and what is the university doing to attract hands from offshore?
When I was an undergraduate student, quite a number of our lecturers, not many, at least a few of them were foreigners. Unfortunately, it also boiled down to the issue of funding. If you want to bring somebody from Australia to come and teach, you have to be ready to pay him or her. There is a colleague of mine who was a vice chancellor of University of Pretoria in South Africa. She completed her second term of five years in December. She has been appointed Vice Chancellor in New Zealand. They used to hunt her. She used to be a deputy vice chancellor at University of Cape Town and after that a vice chancellor in Pretoria. What I am saying is that we can also bring somebody from New Zealand but if you bring a professor from New Zealand and you are now paying him less than $1000, do you think he will accept it? The major problem why we can’t bring foreign scholars into our university is money, facilities and enabling environment.
I have seen a lot of Nigerian private universities that have made it a matter of deliberate policy to attract foreign faculty members. With good conditions of service, good laboratory facilities, good accommodation facility, internet facilities, a few of them will come. At worst, they will come for sabbatical. But we don’t have the resources. Most of the issues have to do with funding. Computing what needs to pay for foreign faculties, our budget can’t support it but that is the best way to go. For instance, when lecturers publish in Hi-impact journal, they are compensated. We also experimented with it under Professor Adewole. We were giving N25, 000 to any of our colleagues who has publication in any reasonable journal. It was a token but it turned out that we couldn’t sustain it. You can see this environment, I mean this VC lodge looks nice but it is also causing federal government some money to maintain.
Can you highlight the achievements of the Premier University since 1948?
I think in a summary, whatever my humble achievements can be attributed to the system that have produced me. Like I said, the university has produced 232,000 alumni. Whatever each of them has achieved individually or collectively can’t be dissociated from UI that trained them. Most top notch in Nigeria and outside Nigeria passed through this great institution. Of course, we teach students, they will graduate, maybe few of them will come back for postgraduate studies or remain here and majority is outside and they become citizens of the world. I guess these are our major contribution nationally and internationally. We carry out outstanding researches. So, it is a success story over the last 70 years. We are proud of the good quality of what we produce here, whether national merit awards, fellow of the academy of letters, fellow of academy of science. Many of our products have been vice chancellors of many universities within and outside Nigeria.
What has been the role of alumni in the development of the institution?
The alumni has been extremely supportive whether as a body and as individuals. One of the old students of our department donated money to the department. He just worked into my office when I was the HOD and gave me a cheque of one million naira. He personally donated to support the department. There was a time some of them working in Chevron Oil Company contributed money and equally convinced their company to also contribute. We felt proud about it. Many of the alumni of the Department of Economics, have been supportive including the alumnus of College of Medicine. As a body, they built hostels. They are also building an auditorium behind the Catholic Church. They do get support from different eminent people to actualise their dream. For instance, they got support from the governor of Delta State, Senator Okowa, who is an alumnus of UI, Dr Thordore Orji who was a former governor of Abia State donated a bus to the alumni, Dr Okoh donated a bus to the Department of Religious Studies.
This is a very big university and you may not easily see the effect. We are eternally grateful to them for their support. They give their time and talent. Some just come and give lecture free to the current generation of students. Some of these lectures may have cost us like N500, 000.
What are you doing to improve the university’s world ranking? Is it possible to meet the target set by Professor Oluwafeyisola Sylvester Adegoke for UI to be a world class institution by 2028?
If we have to compete with other universities of the world, definitely, we have to do a lot more. Part of it is to bring more resources, human and materials, to education. The ranking is not just artificial. I am familiar with serious ranking from serious organisations like Times Higher Education. We can improve on our humble position or ranking. We need to improve the students/lecturers ratio. If you pack 200 students in a lecture room that can only accommodate 50 students, you are not a serious university. That will also affect lecturers/students ratio. Like I said, we need about 500 academic staff more. The process of this recruitment must be competitive and shouldn’t be like going to Dugbe Market to pick the needed staff. The issue of federal character doesn’t arise, if all the competent staff is from the east or west or north, fine, as long as they are competent. We will not say that because of federal character we have to take incompetent staff. Federal character can’t work in academics because it will affect merit.
Elsewhere, academic staff are advertised in The Economists, Time Magazine and the rest so as to be able to recruit from any part of the world. Academic applicants are subjected to rigorous interview because only the best is needed. In a nutshell, the best way you can have a world class university is to have high concentration of talents, both staff and students, then you support them with a lot of resources that will make it easier for them to conveniently engage in academic exercise at all time. Then grant universities autonomy. Just leave these universities to operate freely.
Grant them academic freedom and institutional autonomy, because right now, the process of recruitment is cumbersome. You have to first go to accountant general office and budget office in Abuja. These agencies will first of all put all sorts of stumbling blocks. Do you know that staff can’t change from one bank to the other here in Ibadan? The Bursar has to travel to Abuja to do it. Elsewhere it is not as complicated as that not to talk of you wanting to engage one staff. To recruit, you are forced to observe federal character because you are a federal government institution. Again, it is not right and moral for those that are not making the university system to be effective to turn round and say that you are not ranked well. In essence, I am saying that if the federal government want Nigerian universities to be ranked well and be world class institutions, they must grant autonomy to the universities and abolish federal character in Nigerian universities.
How is federal character affecting the progress of the Nigerian universities?
The federal character commission will say when you want to engage new staff, you need to contact them so that the available jobs are distributed among the geo-political zones of the nation at the detriment of merit and competency. You don’t need to restrict us. You don’t say that if you have this position, you must give it to somebody from a particular place when more qualified candidates exist in another region of the country. Yes, this is a federal university but we also want to internationalise. We want to bring foreign staff. If you want to attract foreign staff, then it can’t be federal character but international character. Can top universities in UK or America be talking about UK or America character when their foreign students are about 25 per cent? In fact, the percentage of foreign students in UI is just one per cent, about 378 foreign students. Cambridge has like 25 per cent foreign students. So you can see that we have a long way to go. When other countries are talking about international character, Nigerians government is talking about federal character. You can’t eat your cake and have it.
The PG school has recently transformed into a college, what does that translate to? Is it just a change in nomenclature?
No, it is not just a change in nomenclature. It is for improvement in service. Undergraduate will not be scraped. The point is that it has been agreed that it will be a ratio 60:40, that is postgraduate students will be 60 per cent and undergraduate will be 40 per cent. We are gradually migrating. For now, it is 50:50. Two institutions, the church and the university, in the world are the most conservative and that is why they have lived for centuries. Though, we know this is the desirable target, 60 per cent for postgraduate, 40 per cent for undergraduate, we are not so desperate and we don’t want to scrap undergraduate because students are always very loyal to the university where they pursue their first degrees. If we are able to achieve 60 per cent for postgraduate, that is fine. That is the area where we have comparative advantage. To me as a manager of the university, why do I want to expand the undergraduate programme, except that I want us to take care of more Nigerians? We don’t get additional funding for having many undergraduate students.
If you like multiply your undergraduate by 10 times, they will congest your lecture rooms, you will pack them like sardine, you will not get extra kobo but the postgraduate students pay. So, it pays us to expand the postgraduate at the expense of undergraduate. Again, I want Ibadan to produce many SANs in the years to come or many doctors or pharmacies. Let us assume that everybody is postgraduate, they will be paying fees but you can’t charge a kobo for undergraduate. Most departments use the fund they collect from the postgraduate and distance learning to subsidise the undergraduate. The idea of transforming from postgraduate school to postgraduate college has been on for about 20 years. It is an idea, which its time has come. For whatever reason we have been very slow on it. As I said earlier on, this university is very conservative. We think it will enhance the status of postgraduate school. When you look at the order of precedence, when you take the vice chancellor, the deputy vice chancellors, all the principal officers, provost comes next before the dean. We hope that it will lead to improvement in service.
How? What will college do that school wasn’t doing?
Quite a number of things. We are going to grant them some degree of autonomy because up till now as a postgraduate school, there is a finance committee at postgraduate school, which is chaired by the deputy vice chancellor academic, but now the committee will be chaired by the provost. Now, there is devolution of power. It is on our own that we said that we grant you more powers. The provost can now take decisions and improvement in service, if need be notify us. The provost will not be any signatory to any account. We still have check and balances in place.
That means that the provost doesn’t have financial autonomy?
There is financial autonomy but the provost is not going to be a signatory to any bank account of the university. The college will now have two deputy registrars as against one. The process of admission has always been a pain in the neck. As a result, we feel that admission and record can be headed by a registrar, then the exam and record and other things will be handled by the other registrar. When it was a school, there was a dean and two sub-deans. The sub-deans were not professors. If the dean of postgraduate school was away, it is the Dean of Arts that will come and act. The Dean of Arts is tightly busy and there is no reason we should add to his problems. Now we have given them two deputy provosts. Each of the provosts will be a full professor. If the provost is not around, one of the deputy provosts will act. It is just to bring efficiency. So, the dean of the school has been upgraded to the provost and his tenure will terminate in 2022.
The Distance Learning Centre, DLC of the institution is already celebrating 30 years. What has been the experience so far?
DLC has done very well, but there is a room for improvement. That arm is currently running up to 15 courses. Computer science is coming on board. For us, our prime motif is to open access. Like this year, 21,000 candidates applied to our school for first degree through JAMB. With all the best intention, we can only admit 4,000. What happens to the remaining applicants that cannot gain admission? If all applicants can’t come to conventional university, and there is an avenue for open and distance learning, so be it. For me as a person and administrator, I encourage us to have affiliation with a number of institutions like Federal College of Education, Osiele, Abeokuta, Federal College of Education, Oyo, Osun State College of Education, Ilesa, the Federal College of Education, Okene. I think we have about 14 of them. To me UI started as a college of University of London and we have made a success of it. Tai Solarin College of Education was affiliated to UI but now it is a full fledged university.
I am sure there is no way they will write their history without saying that at a time, they were part of UI. DLC is opening up access. I know of quite a few of our lecturers who passed through that DLC for their first degrees. They later did Master and PhD with the conventional mode of instruction. They are now lecturers. In fact there is a cousin of mine who did Communication and Language Art and had a First Class. She got a scholarship. She is in South Africa now running her PhD. There is parity of esteem. DLC is doing well. Right now, we are trying to restructure our DLC similar to what we have done to PG. we are aware that the demography of candidates that apply to DLC has changed. Initially, it is for those who are working but now some of them are not working. It is like majority are running it full time.
What are the challenges that UI is facing?
Funding is our major challenge. Also, it will be very good if the federal government could grant Nigerian universities autonomy they deserve and stop applying federal character to Nigerian universities.