Wednesday, August 19, 2015

For Nigerian private universities to succeed

“In the 2015 admissions applications, while UNILORIN recorded 107,491 candidates to come tops, UNILAG had 62,473 applications. It can admit just 9,000 candidates. But private universities like Obong University, Ntak, had 16, Southwestern University, Okun-Owa, received two, Wellspring University, Ogbaneki, had seven and Kwarafa University, Wukari, had five. The highest number of applications among private universities was the 3,042 received by Covenant University, Ota. Clearly, something is wrong here”
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– The PUNCH editorial, August 5, 2015
It costs a fortune to establish higher institutions of learning in Nigeria. According to the National Universities Commission’s guidelines for the establishment of higher education in the country, there is a litany of requirements to be met. Among several other things, the applicant has to supply a concrete and guaranteed source of financial support for the university to the tune of N200m, N100m for Polytechnic or Monotechnic, and N50m for a College of Education, over a period of five years.   Also, a proposed institution shall have clearly spelt out a master plan for infrastructural and programme development for at least 20 to 25 years which shall make adequate provision for: – (b)   Minimum land area of 100 hectares for a university, 50 hectares for a polytechnic or monotechnic and 25 hectares for a college of education, in a salutary site. The library, laboratory and workshop facilities including instructional tools and consumables shall be adequate and there shall be long-range plans for sustaining them.
For the establishment of private universities, stringent measures are put in place by the NUC. Apart from the initial 11 things the promoters of the enterprises have to submit to the NUC which is inclusive of a bank guarantee to the tune of N200m, there are other 14 steps which includes interviewing the promoters, verification of the documents, security screening of the owners and board members, two rounds of verification visits and ultimately approval by the Federal Executive Council.
A former Executive Secretary of the NUC, Prof. Peter Okebukola, in an interview published in this newspaper on November 8, 2014, opined that though there was no minimum amount specified in the NUC guidelines for setting up a standard university, there are minimum facilities and human resources that should be available before a university is licensed. According to him, the minimum amount to set up a university can be estimated from the cost of such facilities and resources. He said the amount was N3bn in 2003, but it is about N5.5bn now. He, however, said Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, Landmark University, Omu-Aran, Kwara State, American University of Nigeria, Yola, Adamawa State, and Afe Babalola University had a cost range of between N7bn and N12bn at take-off.
According to the NUC, there are 61 licensed private universities in Nigeria at present while there are 40 state and 46 federal universities. The crux of my argument here is that the private universities which are majorly owned by religious institutions and individuals, due to the poor patronage being received, need to be encouraged to survive and succeed. There is no gainsaying that many of these private universities cannot compete favourably in terms of facilities and personnel with their government-owned counterparts.
In spite of the huge capital outlay needed to establish higher institutions in Nigeria, the few individuals and corporate bodies who have ventured to help bridge the admission gap of aspiring undergraduates would need to be assisted to survive. While it is true that they are in private business and can charge fees that will enable them to break even and make profit in the long run, without incentivising the existing private institutions, our educational system may collapse.
At present, the 86 government-owned universities have low carrying capacity even though the bulk of university admission seekers make them their preferred choice. According to The PUNCH editorial quoted above, “For the second year in a row, 98 per cent of the 1,436,837 school-leavers that sat for the UTME (in 2015) applied to federal and state-owned public schools, while only 15,000 (or two per cent), applied to 48 of the 62 private universities.”
It has been said that high tuition fees charged by private universities make them unattractive to admission seekers. However, the universities have no choice but to charge “cost-recovery” fees given the high start-up capital as well as recurrent expenditure the business owners incur. Much of the funds used in setting up these private universities are borrowed from banks and other financial houses with interest. On top of that, they have to provide their own electricity, water, roads, security, hostel accommodation for staff and students, pay taxes and other sundry expenses.
Considering the social service these entrepreneurs provide which includes expanding the carrying capacity of Nigerian universities, it won’t be out of place to solicit among others a 20-year moratorium on tax for them. This will ensure that they are made to pay tax when they must have started making profits. They should also be included on the beneficiaries of Tertiary Education Trust Fund. Right now, TETFund only gives intervention grants to government-owned universities, polytechnics and colleges of education. Even if the grants will not be at par with those of academic institutions owned by government, whatever financial support they are able to get from government will help improve their facilities and capabilities.
Provision of good road network, electricity, water and security by government for these private universities will reduce their cost of operations and as such make them to charge affordable tuitions. Government may also wish to subsidise the tuition of students attending private universities to make it affordable and attractive for them as schools of choice. In the alternative, students’ loan board and scholarship schemes should be set up for those attending private universities. These will make indigent but brilliant students to get financial succour that will see them through their studies at such high paying tertiary institutions. There is also the possibility of making soft loans or interest-free loans available to proprietors of private universities to enable them procure needful facilities for their institutions thus making it easier for them to provide quality education.
These proposed incentives for private universities, if accepted and implemented by government, will help reverse the current frustrations of over a million students who annually sit for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination but cannot get admitted to the more affordable public-owned universities and neither could afford the expensive private universities where they could easily get admission. I also use this opportunity to implore many parents sending their children to sub-standard foreign universities and other tertiary institutions to reconsider their stance and patronise our private universities in as much as they are able to provide quality education, far higher than what obtains in some ivory towers abroad.