Nigeria currently has 171 universities, according to National Universities Commission (NUC) records.
Of the figure, 91 are public institutions with 44 owned by the federal government while 48 are owned by state governments. The remaining 79 are private.
But with the doubtful quality of most universities, and the rising number of candidates competing for the very limited admission slots – an annual average of two million, according to JAMB figures – the debate over whether the proliferation of universities is a blessing, or even a curse, has continued to rage.
While some Nigerians believe that the nation’s 200 million people deserve even more universities, others have argued that more attention should be paid to strengthening existing ones to meet required standards and boost the quality of graduates.
Stakeholders opposed to more universities have often pointed out that Nigerian universities are finding it extremely difficult to break into the top 600 varsities in global ratings.
They often recall the galling claims by employers that Nigerian graduates are unemployable and will, thus, suggest more attention to existing universities to shore up quality so that graduates of Nigerian universities can compete favourably with their counterparts the world over.
Prof. Sylvestre Usman, a university lecturer and consistent critic of the proliferation of universities in the country, recently cited two states – Edo and Kogi – to buttress his claims that NUC was too liberal to people seeking licences to own universities.
“The Edo government has not given much attention to its Ambrose Alli University, Epkoma, but the state government has established another university, the Edo University, Iyamho.
“Workers in both institutions are owed salaries. Some for 24 months! Last week, protesting workers of the Edo varsity accused the government of `forgetting’ them. Running a university is capital intensive. Why NUC granted a license for an additional university to Edo is difficult to understand,’’ he said.
He said that the same scenario was already brewing in Kogi.
“Kogi has one state university at Anyigba, which is very poorly funded, but Gov. Yahaya Bello has announced plans to establish Confluence University of Science and Technology to be cited in Osara, Adavi Local Government Area.
“Very soon, government will erect some structures there and call it a university. Some states, like Ondo, even have up to three universities. If we don’t check situations like this, we shall be ridiculing ourselves and embarrassing the education sector,’’ he said.
Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, President, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), shares Usman’s views and accuses the federal and state governments of using universities to curry political favour instead of promoting quality education targeted at development and growth.
“The federal and state governments establish universities without adequate plans for their funding and growth. In most cases, there is no need for these institutions.
“The proliferation of universities is not good for Nigeria. We create more universities than we can handle. Universities are established after a mass of ground work. There must be need assessment and a clear programme for it.
“Many of the universities established in the last 10 to 15 years were just `creations of our political action’; they have turned universities to mere constituency projects. We cannot expect the best from the schools because we have no plan for the academic staff and the infrastructure.
“Before creating any university, there must be concrete blueprint for the take off of the institutions, but we create them and leave them to suffer.’’
He accused former President Goodluck Jonathan of creating 11 universities “by mere pronouncements’’ because he wanted a federal university in every state.
Noting that some states had three universities, he said that others merely wanted to copy them by establishing more state-owned universities.
“This is not what we need. Why will a state have more than one university when it cannot successfully fund the one it has? My take is that proliferation is not something that should be encouraged because when we proliferate, we sacrifice quality.’’
He alleged that political leaders hardly care about the quality of the universities because their children don’t go to “such mushroom universities’’.
Dr Lazarus Maigoro, ASUU Chairman, University of Jos, agrees with his president.
“Federal and state governments establish universities without any plan for them. For instance, why do we need a university of transportation, or that of Information and Communication Technology?
“All these courses can be taken care of by existing public universities.
“Clearly, the proliferation of university education will not help us; it is grossly affecting the quality of education in the country,” he fumed.
Maigoro expressed the fear that many universities might soon “collapse and go under, like the public primary and secondary schools’’, if adequate care was not taken.
He claimed that the fear of such collapse was at the heart of ASUU’s fight with government over the years.
Dr Williams Wodi of the University of Port Harcourt has also cautioned against the proliferation of universities and argued that the situation was “hurting and ridiculing’’ the education sector.
“Proliferation of universities cannot be a good thing, especially as the authorities have not addressed the main problems affecting growth of university education in the country.
“It is good that the Federal Government wants to create access to tertiary education, but it is bad that quality of education is usually not looked into.
“The argument that close to two million Nigerians apply to write JAMB yearly shouldn’t be the basis for which government must decide to create more universities,’’ he said.
Wodi said that some of the private universities operating in the country were “glorified secondary schools’’ because they lacked the required infrastructure and manpower.
He said that universities across Europe and North America were properly thought out before they are established.
Dr Abdulmalik Jamal of Tatari Ali Polytechnic, Bauchi has also decried the proliferation of universities and regretted that most of them were meant to serve political reasons and are grossly ill-equipped to serve their purposes.
“The situation is unhealthy and has been a major factor responsible for the falling quality of university graduates,’’ he argued.
He called for the streamlining of the process of establishing new universities while existing ones should be re-structured and repositioned to achieve desired mandates.
“The country is not in need of more universities for now,’’ he declared, urging strict monitoring and supervision of private universities as most of them were operating like commercial ventures.
Lending his voice to the debate, Dr Kabir Hassan of the Department of MicroBiology, Bauchi State University, said that it was disheartening that more universities were springing up, yet the narrative of research and development in the country had remained unchanged.
“Daily, you see universities springing up without really trying to find out what impact the existing ones have made in the political, social and economic development of Nigeria.
“Most of the universities do not even have enough personnel, auditorium, lecture theatre, hostels, libraries because they are under-funded,” he said.
Prof. Aminu Chiroma of Modibbo Adama University of Technology, Yola, on his part, opined that majority of the new generation universities in Nigeria were set up purely for political reasons and looked ‘adhoc’ in nature.
Chiroma, Head of Department, Environmental and Life Sciences Education, equally said that most of the universities were established without plans.
“These new generation universities are creating problems and worsening the already precarious situation in the education sector,’’ he lamented.
Prof. Muhammed Usman of Federal College of Education, Yola, said that the proliferation of universities in the country was having a negative effect on the old generation universities.
He said that the newly established universities lacked academic manpower and had continued to short-change the old universities by taking away their qualified lecturers.
Dr Nigel Bachama, Head of Economics Department, Gombe State University, advised government to focus on improving infrastructures of the existing universities, instead of establishing new ones.
He lamented that some of the new universities relied ‘solely’ on “Visiting Lecturers” to operate, a development unhealthy for the education sector.
He advised government to watch out for private universities established without the requisite staffing, who often employed all sorts of characters to lecture their students.
Dr Langa Hassan, Provost, College of Education, Billiri in Gombe State, also feels that the proliferation of universities is gradually reducing the quality of education in older institutions.
He observed that lecturers in older institutions engaged as Visiting Lecturers often ‘shuttle’ between one university and the other, instead of concentrating in the schools they were employed.
But, in spite of the criticisms trailing the proliferation of the universities, some key stakeholders in the education sector say it is a necessity and a blessing to the country. Prof. Abubakar Rasheed, the Executive Secretary of NUC, is one of them.
“The university system is growing and there is the need for more universities to come on board,’’ he told managements of federal universities recently.
He said that there was the need for more universities as the existing ones could no longer cope with the large number of yearly applications for admission.
Prof. Chukwuma Ozumba, former Vice Chancellor, University of Nigeria, Nsukka shares his opinion.
“Many young Nigerians who desire education cannot get because of the shortage of universities to absorb candidates,’’ Ozumba, who is currently the Chief Executive Officer, Lion Science Park, University of Nigeria, said.
He bemoaned the lack of adequate manpower to solve many challenging problems of the country due to lack of adequate university system.
“The number of tertiary institutions, when compared to the number of students who require them, is not enough because so many candidates apply to JAMB but how many get admission?
“The critical element is trained manpower and we don’t have it. China and South Korea concentrated on qualitative education focusing on sciences. We don’t have enough quality hands, so when we talk of proliferation of universities, we may not be right because we need more training institutions.
“We need a science-based economy that can thrive through the establishment of science-based universities,’’ he said.
Prof. Uche Ikonne, Vice Chancellor, Abia State University, Uturu, also supports more universities coming on board.
“The existing universities remain a far cry, considering the country’s population growth rate. The way the nation’s population is growing on a daily basis, I am not sure we have enough universities.’’
He said that what was of utmost importance was how to ensure standard among the existing universities through appropriate monitoring by the regulatory agencies of government, and lauded the performance of the NUC toward entrenching quality in the university system.
Ikonne said that Nigeria should place emphasis on the establishment of specialised universities that could train graduates in specialised fields.
According to him, what Nigeria needs now are specialised institutions in such fields as Medicine, Science, Technology, Agriculture, among others.
He also said that the federal government had no business funding so many universities because of the large size of the country.
Mr Enyi Harbor, the immediate past National Secretary of National Proprietors of Private Schools in Nigeria, spoke in the same vein.
“There is nothing wrong with opening more universities to meet the increasing needs of education. Every year, over two million candidates apply to enter higher institution in Nigeria and at the end only about 40 per cent are absorbed.
“This has given rise to a lot of our children seeking higher education outside the country, even in countries where standards are far below ours.
“So, we even need more universities or increase in the capacity of existing ones to take in more students.”
Mr Ike Onyechere, Founder, Exams Ethics Marshall International (EEMI)), has also said that the establishment of more universities was desirable in view of the need to create more spaces for qualified admission seekers.
Onyechere, however, said that the maintenance of standards must also be taken seriously.
He said that some private universities were doing better than most public universities, urging regulatory agencies to pay more attention to maintaining global best practices and standards.
“Many universities are established by businessmen as profit making ventures. So, efforts must be made to ensure that students are not short changed.
“Minimum academic standards must also be enforced to eliminate the danger of a private university being just a certificate mill in pursuit of profit motive.”
Onyechere expressed dissatisfaction with the classes of degrees awarded by private universities, noting that huge numbers of disproportionate first class degrees being churned out by some private universities had raised questions about the quality.
Prof. Clement Kolawole of the Faculty of Education, University of Ibadan, also believes that the nation needs more universities with close to two million qualified applicants fighting for the less than 600,000 admission slots in the universities every year.
“The almost 1.2 million applicants not admitted annually wait to join another 1.5 million applicants the following year. Thus, the vicious circle of endlessly seeking admission continues.
“We need more universities to meet the aspiration of those who seek admission every year. The argument that the government should strengthen existing universities instead of establishing more is self-defeatist.
“However, if public universities are inadequately funded as they are presently, it will be foolhardy to establish new ones. To that extent, establishing new ones without adequately funding the existing institutions tantamount to proliferation and thus, exercise in futility.
“I believe governments across the national and sub-national levels can adequately fund the existing ones as well as new ones if they summon the political will and courage to cut down on unnecessary expenditure elsewhere and channel the saved funds to financing education.’’
Prof. Zachary Gundu, Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Benue State University, Makurdi, also believes the country needs more universities to cater for the increasing demand for university education.
“ Nigeria’s population grows at an amazing rate, so we need more universities to cater for the growth. The issue with the university education is planning and not proliferation of universities.
“In spite of the numerous universities in the country, people still rush outside the country on a yearly basis for oversea studies because candidates with impressive JAMB scores do not secure admission,’’ he noted.
But as the debates rages on, Prof. Noah Oyedeji of the Department of Educational Management, Faculty of Education, University of Ilorin, has said that the solution to the proliferation of universities lies in the resuscitation of Technical Colleges
The don said that the number of students seeking university education outweighs the available spaces due to population explosion and blamed the proliferation of universities on the obsession for paper qualification.
Analysts agree with Oyedeji and blame that situation on the age-old disparity that places the university degree far above the Higher National Diploma (HND) obtained at the Polytechnics and other institutions.
They say that the desperation for university education will continue until government takes practical measures to end the discriminatory policy so as to reduce a situation where young Nigerians see the university education as the only ultimate.