I had just received through the kind consideration of a Nigerian academic based in South Africa, a report on the state of South African research and was busy with it when the British Broadcasting Corporation. (BBC) aired its report on sex-for-grades in higher institutions in Nigeria and Ghana. It’s difficult to say which is more depressing – the fact that Nigeria is seriously lagging behind South Africa, Egypt, and Tunisia in research output and publication or the fact that when people complain about sexual harassment on campuses, things are actually much worse than we previously thought.
The two unrelated events, taken together with the consistently poor ranking of Nigerian universities on the most respected assessment of higher education in the world, all tell the same story: our ivory towers stink way beyond what the authorities are willing to admit, and only a radical restructuring can save them.
For anyone who still doubts the extent of decay in our higher institutions, I encourage you to visit the so-called first-generation universities, those schools which used to be the pride of Nigeria. I had a first-hand experience a little over a year ago when I visited the University of Ibadan while exploring the possibility of starting a Ph.D. programme there. I had been on the campus numerous occasions for other things, but this particular visit was an eye-opener. It was the first time in a long while that I was entering the Faculty of Arts, where I studied English from 1984-1988. I call it an eye-opener because I have been on the campuses of Covenant and Babcock universities, and I know they have invested in reasonably good facilities.
So, it was shocking to see immediately that the Faculty was looking worse than the last time I was there in the late 1990s. Students in a departmental library were sitting in darkness as I passed; the departmental office was filled with files screaming for space; this, in addition to infrastructure within the entire campus, begging for a facelift. I don’t know whether it was my disappointment with the sorry state of things or the fact that I was unconvinced with the quality of supervision available that brought me to the conclusion that it was a good idea, after all, to look elsewhere; but a pending offer at the University of the Witwatersrand made more sense to me then and still does.
Each passing day and every moment I have spent at Wits have convinced me that the decision was inspired. For to say there is a gulf in the quality of education is to state the obvious, but unpacking the problem is not only revealing but painful if you are a Nigerian.
First, South African universities offer excellent infrastructure, which makes what obtains in UI and the other so-called first-generation universities in Nigeria look like ‘pre-historic,’ relics of visionless leadership. Let me state upfront, I have not been everywhere but I see what they have in Wits and the University of Johannesburg, and can say they compare with what I have seen in other universities I have been privileged to visit including the University of Cambridge, Oxford University, Columbia University, University of Maryland, London School of Economics and the University of Westminster where I studied in 2013-2014. The physical infrastructure is just a part of the story, though, as no effort is spared to provide the best learning experience for students.
I have had the privilege to teach a Year 2 Class this Semester, and while it is a large class of over 160 students, the support system is there to make it a painless experience. One particular week, when there was a problem with the projector in the Lecture Hall, the Audio-Visual Department provided a backup that ensured the lecture was delivered as should. This is like a standard in all serious institutions where they have the mindset of giving value for money. While at Westminster in 2013-2014, one lecture was delivered remotely because a Tube strike made it impossible for the lecturer to make it to campus, and every student attended that class from the comfort of their rooms.
Second and I think far more important than the issue of infrastructure is the overall quality of teaching. All students taking each course at Wits receive at the beginning a course pack, which is actually a bound booklet containing printouts of all recommended reading for each topic; details of class activities for all tutorial meetings as well as other relevant information to help students get the best out of the course. This, for me, is impressive given what I went through in my undergraduate days, and what I hear still happens in most universities. In my time, lecturers dictated notes which we struggled to write, and we sometimes had to buy handouts, those specially cyclostyled materials prepared for students. Others simply came to class with textbooks from which they dictated notes. That system has not changed in most universities and it might actually be getting worse in some cases. I am told some lecturers now lift materials from Wikipedia word-for-word and pass it to their students as lecture notes.
If like me, you’re struggling to figure out why university lecturers, some of them in line to become professors, will lift materials off Wikipedia and pass them on to students as lecture notes, then you probably don’t know what’s going on in those ivory towers. As teaching at that level is enhanced by conducting research and publishing academic articles, I can understand why Nigerian lecturers are struggling, for the country is way behind other countries on the continent in this area. Truth is others are doing what we are failing to do and therefore getting better results.
The recently-released report on the state of South African research shows the country is leading others in Africa with a 28.2% share of all African papers; with only Egypt (19.6%) coming close. ‘Tunisia (9.2%) and other Maghreb countries (Algeria and Morocco), together with smaller but significant contributions from Nigeria and the three Eastern African countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania),’ the report read in part. Quality research costs money, which is where I think Nigeria has been getting it wrong. South Africa spent R32.3 billion on R&D in 2015/16, and ranked 44 in the world in Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD)/Gross Domestic Product (GDP), yet the recent report was critical, describing the investment as inadequate. The country’s investment in R&D has been around 0.8%, but the aim is to boost this to 1%.
It’s National Research Foundation is the primary funding agency of government providing postgraduate student bursaries, research and equipment grants to researchers, and in the outgoing academic session planned to support 3,279 researchers and 12,373 graduate students. So, South Africa dominates academic research and publications because researchers are supported through government funding. And it shows in the African ranking of universities as well, where the country has five universities in the top ten.
Perhaps the only other thing that can be worse than not having the needed funding for conducting original research is not having access to the latest academic publications. Again, I sense because subscription for the best journals are expensive, they are unavailable; otherwise, why would university lecturers be lifting materials from Wikipedia.
All told, the conditions under which university lecturers work is anything but conducive. Coupled with the stated problem of research funding and infrastructure support mentioned, pay for academic staff makes the sector unattractive to talents. With a starting monthly salary for a Graduate Assistant at a paltry N80,000; the average salary for a Senior Lecturer at 250,000, and a Professor at 450,000, talents tend to favour other sectors like oil and gas, banking and lately, telecoms. So, the question is, why stay in a sector that offers such a bleak prospect for fulfillment?
In the absence of any study or data, this is open to conjectures, but what is sure is that the environment in some of the ivory towers will produce frustration, and that can, in turn, easily produce anger, stress, and depression. As those who register for graduate studies in some of the so-called first-generation universities will testify, the actions and attitudes of a lot of academic staff suggest they are frustrated with a system that is designed to stifle rather than allow talents to flourish. It’s normal to complete a Ph.D. in eight to ten years and stories of students being forced to abandon their studies are common. The case of Aminu Othman Zubairu, who was feared to have committed suicide after he failed to successfully complete his Ph.D. at UI’s Mathematics Department is still fresh, but even if that is an extreme case, there are numerous others I know who flourished only after they abandoned the system for opportunities outside the country.
Speak to students in graduate classes in those universities and you will be amazed by some of the stories – lecturers who come into class not to teach but to verbally abuse their students and waste time on the mundane; lecturers who request students under their supervision to run personal errands that ordinarily should be for house helps. Understanding all of this provides some context to the BBC story because it is another evidence of the decay in the ivory towers. Dr. Boniface Igbeneghu, who was secretly recorded by BBC reporters, is symptomatic of that decay, a fraction of which the report exposes.
Never mind that the story would have been better if the repoters had visited more campuses and mentioned the male lecturers who are themselves victims of girls that offer themselves for marks; the truth is sexual harassment is far more widespread than the BBC report shows, and it is by no means an African thing. The United Kingdom has its own share of predatory lecturers, but unlike Nigeria, maybe the only difference is that there is systemic support for victims who are brave enough to come forward. As a show of their commitment to dealing with sexual harrassment, universities are running preventive campaigns in addition to introducing consent training for students. The same is true of South Africa where there are concerns about sexual harassment on campuses but at least institutions are putting in place measures to tackle the problem. Wits, for instance, has a Gender Equity Office, which deals with all aspects of Gender-Based Harm (GBH) including sexism/unfair discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation; sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape; and abuse of power and conflict of interest based on sexual/romantic relationships. What makes the Nigerian experience hard to accept is that the victims have little recourse for redress. Given the already poor environment for learning in most of these universities, it’s as the late Fela would say, ‘double wahala’ for the victims of sexual harrassment.
Which is why radical measures are needed to get Nigerian universities competing with their counterparts in the world. Obviously, there must be a clear policy to fund R&D, much like what South Africa is doing, and which has made it a destination of choice for graduate and research students. The right funding may help to attract talents who are really interested in academic research rather than those who are taking academic teaching jobs because it is the only thing available. As for sexual harassment, it’s important to dismantle the ‘old school,’ patriarchal system like the one Dr. Igbeneghu alluded to in the BBC report by establishing and empowering special units to investigate and handle all allegations.
Allowing lecturers to spend time in the ‘cold room’ rather than on the research field has cost us dearly, it is time to change course and fast.