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Nigeria: Crisis At Private Universities – OpEd


By Kola Ibrahim

The recent newspaper reports about a crisis in Ajayi Crowther University, Oyo, has again brought to the fore the role of privately owned educational institutions as a way out of the crises in the education sector. According to reports, the students of the institution had embarked on a violent protest to vent their anger against the mismanagement of the health condition of a fellow student by the university administration thatled to his demise. The victim had gone to the institution’s health centre to complain about a health problems, but his situation grew worse. Rather than switch on the electricity generator to give the student the treatment required, the health centre management instead preferred to preserve the generator for the vice chancellor. Worse still, attempts by the deceased’s colleagues to facilitate his transfer to a better hospital in town were frustrated by the institution’s security personnel.

All of these are serious grounds for protest by the students, as they reflect not only a high level of insensitivity but also high-handedness by those that are the supposed to assist the students. However, that the protest turned violent is a reflection of the lack of democratic space for students to air their views and peacefully seek for redress over their living and studying conditions. This is compounded by terrible living conditions of the students and the exploitation of their parents by the authorities of the institution. According to the newspaper reports, the basic living facilities needed by students for normal studies – electricity supply, water, etc – are simply unavailable, despite students paying for these facilities. Moreover, the payable fees are irregularly hiked without any regard for the economic planning and conditions of parents. It was the summation of all this that led to the violent protest.

However, what happened at Ajayi Crowther University can easily be wished away as an isolated problem of the institution’s management; but the reality is that the ACU case is a direct mirror of the rot that the private university system represents. While there may not be protests (nay, violent protests) in many private universities yet, it does not, however, imply that those other institutions are not operating with the same system as ACU. For instance, none of the private universities allows student unionism, even workers’ unionism, which is flagrant violation of the principle of academic freedom and the constitutional right of association that are fundamental ingredients for the proper development of intellectualism. According to the 1994 Lima (Peru) Declaration on Academic Freedom, right to dissent and alternative views and opinions not only on intellectual activities but also on societal and collective issues is fundamental to academic freedom, especially in an intellectual factory like university.

That these private institutions do not allow democratic engagement in their domain is not accidental; it is itself a product of attempts at protecting their exploitative system. Had vibrant unionism been allowed for students and staff, the various private institutions’ owners, including the faith groups, would have been exposed for their dubious and exploitative activities. Most of the private schools, in an attempt to rake in profits, had to cut funding for facilities available to students while also underpaying the lecturers. In fact, there are several reports of unqualified lecturers employed in order to reduce cost of running the institutions. Furthermore, as a result of the business orientation of these institutions, standards are compromised with a view to present the institutions as being success stories of private efforts. A story was once related of a senior academic who went to a private university for sabbatical, but hurriedly left as he was asked to compromise standards for all the students to pass! This is aside from the entrenched admission racket, which bypasses the admission requirements set by government’s agencies. For instance, while students from poor and working class backgrounds struggle to overcome the various roadblocks of national exams and admission cut off marks in order to gain admission to public universities, students from rich backgrounds only need to show any indication of undertaking admission examination to gain entrance into private universities.

Surely, this cannot happen where there is academic freedom. While not advocating for a sadistic policy of failing students in order to show fake quality, evaluating students should not be compromised on the altar of patronage. Ironically, the aim of the private universities’ managements is not real quality or bringing out the students’ best, but gaining more patronage and resources through dubious whitewashing and public relations. It is thus not accidental that these institutions spend more money on media spin. In fact, a sizable proportion of private universities that are portrayed as being of high quality in the newspapers are nothing more than glorified secondary schools.

That all of this is allowed by the government and its supervising agencies like the National Universities Commission (NUC) is a reflection of the pro-big business character of government and its officials. In the real sense, it is the children of the rich few and the upper middle class who mostly patronize these private institutions. Moreover, private education is an excuse for government and politicians in power to shirk their responsibility towards public education. The government is deliberately propping up these private educational institutions, many of which are owned and run by government officials (present and past) and their cronies. For instance, the present head of NUC was a former vice chancellor of a private university (Bells University) while the immediate past head of the same agency is a pro-chancellor of Osun State University (UNIOSUN) where exorbitant fees are charged despite exceptionally poor facilities. Therefore, it is no accident that supervising agencies in the education sector such as NUC and the ministry blind themselves to the rot in the private institutions.

The general excuse for denying unionism is that unionism breeds long academic calendars. What is not said is that it is government neglect and irresponsibility – coupled with high-handedness of university administrators who see their roles as those of conduit pipes for their principals’ retrogressive policies – that have turned our public tertiary institutions to citadels of crises. Interestingly, the same insensitivity is now the fad in these private institutions as exemplified by arbitrary hikes in fees, lack of democratic rights for students and staff and worse living and working conditions. What distinguishes the two is the presence of unionism in public institutions, which makes managing the students’ reactions to the retrogressive policies of the government and university officials better organised. It is worth mentioning, however, that majority of public university administrations are now vigorously adopting the anti-democratic approach of private institutions to curtail the rights of students and even staff; it is part of the holistic plan of the government to completely privatise and commercialise (out of common man’s reach) public education. The private institutions have denied this right outright with the spectre of unplanned and violent outbursts of bottled up angers at the manner of running these institutions as manifested in the ACU case.

As a way of running away from the basic question of academic freedom and democratic rights, many of the private university owners hide under the guise of raising morally upright graduates with good entrepreneurial skills. However, as the popular axiom teaches, education is what is left in the student after what has been taught has gone. How then can a student develop a critical mind of self-recreation if the culture of criticism and inquisition (of seeming accepted norms) are denied? In reality, this veil of morality is merely an excuse to avoid answering the basic question of how the institutions are run in an exploitative, undemocratic and anti-intellectual manner. Consequently, various completely anti-intellectual rules are set in order to gag the students. It is thus a fashion for university authorities to treat undergraduates, who ordinarily are ripe for social/public tasks, like school pupils. Principal officials of a faith-based university in Osun State were recently reported to be flogging students, ostensibly on the order of their parents! Another faith-based university in the same state was reported to bar students from wearing jeans, while compulsory religious devotions and prep classes are organised for them! Surely, similar if not worse policies will be practiced in ACU.

But has this stopped the violent protests? In fact, private universities are increasingly becoming safe havens for gangsters, many of whom are wards of upper middle class or the rich few in the society. At private university in Ibadan, there are regular reports of anti-social activities like robbery, rape and other crimes perpetrated by the students. It could not have been otherwise, as the so-called moral values cannot be enforced on grown-up youths, nor is morality itself determined by the choice of clothes you wear, the kind of music you listen to, and the rest. Social morality is a reflection of the socio-economic and political setting of the society. A country where a few rich can have their ways and make riches without undertaking any productive activity and nobody, agency or structure, questions such cannot escape from desperation of the youths. A society where public resources meant to expand social infrastructures that will provide decent jobs for millions of youths are diverted to private pockets, thus creating generations of hopeless, desperate youths, cannot escape from disintegration of the social fabric.

It has nothing to do with self-righteous and archaic religious injunctions and morality. Interestingly, these private universities themselves are run on immoral and not-so-transparent manners as cited above – cronyism, erosion of standards (for patronage and profits), exploitation of students, gagging the students and staff from asking questions, etc. What is even the morality in feasting on the rotten carcass of public education, with a view to gaining profits? Is it accidental that a sizable proportion of the private universities are run by religious organisations, which charge pocket-tearing fees? Yet the funding of these faith-based universities is supposedly from their members’ offerings.

It can easily be argued that private universities provide choice for those who can afford them. This argument is simplistic. In the first instance, private education did not arise on the basis of choice but on the basis of collapse of public university system, occasioned by deliberate and criminal underfunding and mismanagement (of meager resources) by the capitalist governments and their stooges in university administrations. Until the mid-1980s, private education (including primary and post-primary) were not popular. This is not accidental, but a product of pressure (through bitter struggles of workers and students) on the government to commit public resources to public education. Despite government’s falling funding of public education, it is still possible to hope to be educated even if your parents are poor. Consequent upon the adoption of the poisonous pills of neo-liberalism, exemplified by the President Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP), public education was rapidly turned into commodity that has to be bought in the market by parents who want educated children, the same way health and decent jobs were made privileges.

Thus, governments subsequently did not see education as a social obligation of the society but a private affair of individuals. This is backed up by chronic and continuous underfunding of the whole education sector leading to terrible working conditions of teaching staff from primary to tertiary levels. The end results of these are: continuous crises in the sector through elongated industrial actions of teaching and non-teaching staff (who needed to protect their hard-won rights), commercialisation of education facilities and increases in fees, collapse of facilities (leading to students’ resistance), etc. With total collapse of the economy and its attendant erosion of hope in the ability of the state to raise living standards including provision of jobs, public education simply lost the compass with the rise in gangster activities on campus, declining interests in education, a drastic fall in morale of working staff, etc. It is on this rot that private education (starting with private primary and post-primary schools) started gaining echo, especially among middle class people. Today, despite the emergence of the so-called civilian rule coupled with the huge resources at the disposal of the state, the state of public education has worsened to the extent that even a pepper seller, who can afford it, sends her ward to a private school.

This, however, does not imply that the private schools provide any real quality; in the real sense, it is otherwise. More than 90 percent of private schools still lack the basic standards of public schools, even in their current debilitating conditions. The few private schools that have adequate facilities and infrastructures are simply unaffordable for majority of the population who struggle to make ends meet. That this virus of private education has crept into the life of a sick public education, has found its way to the zenith of education – university system – underlines the complete irresponsibility of the governments at all levels. Worse still, to underscore ruling class shameless backwardness, the private education system (an abnormality in itself) is now being used as the standard to run public institutions with, state universities competing with private ones in commercialisation of education.

This is not surprising, as the politicians in power are members of the rich class who do not feel what those they are supposedly representing are suffering. In fact, virtually all politicians in power are themselves members of the exploiting, big business class who see no sense in anything public; thus their negative, or at best, carefree attitude towards everything public – education, health, water, sanitation, jobs, etc. This in itself underscores the fact that revamping public education to adequate standards with unrestricted access to the majority requires a government that really believes in public education as a social responsibility of the state; a government that will not see education in isolation from other social obligations, including decent job provision for graduates and non-graduates, among others. Therefore, education workers and students and indeed the working and oppressed people in general must see the struggle to salvage public education as a collective one against the behemoth of politicians in power. The campaign of the university lecturers’ union for proper funding of education and democratisation of decision making in the university system must become the collective struggle of all education workers and students. More than this, working people must begin the process of altering the political landscape by building alternative political platforms that will put a proper funded and democratically run education system on the front burner, as part of the holistic programmes of mass investment in social and public infrastructures.

Kola Ibrahim writes from Enuwa, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.

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