Rector, Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH), Obafemi Omokungbe, in this interview with IYABO LAWAL shared his experiences in the last three years, on challenges in the polytechnics and why technical colleges must be revived.
There are plans to upgrade YABATECH alongside some other polytechnics to degree-awarding institutions, what is the situation of things at the moment?
The Senator from Lagos-West sponsored the bill for the upgrade and at the first and public readings, we made presentations. After the third reading, it was passed and sent to the President for signing. Initially, it was only Yaba and Kaduna polytechnics, but somehow, polytechnics in Ilaro, Ogun State and Kaduna were mentioned. I can tell you now that it is awaiting the President’s assent. So, we are working at getting the university status.
Polytechnic education has been facing challenges of inappropriate placement, particularly in the workplace, how can this be tackled?
I have seen in recent times that we are talking about Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), what is missing in the area of TVET in the country is the fact that we do not have technical colleges in place anymore. Those students that are supposed to learn skills at technical colleges no longer do so; they are the ones riding motorcycles and tricycles, which is very sad.
That is why the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE), under which TVET should be, is using polytechnics to undertake TVET education along with their mandates.
They believe this will arrest the situation because we have noticed that there is skills gap in the country and we can’t go to the university, but instead come back to the polytechnic to make sure the gap is filled and unemployed youths can learn one or two skills and be able to function on their own.
You will find out that in YABATECH, we have skill acquisition centres that can be useful to communities around us. If you want to be a shoemaker or hairdresser, we have programmes for you, but that has not change our mandate.
Polytechnics were established to provide technical training, there are fears that once they imbibe the mandate of a university this objective may be defeated?
YABATECH upgrade is not going to be a conventional university. It will operate like a university of technology. Most of the universities of technology that were established are operating like conventional universities; have you been able to see what they do? We are saying that if YABATECH transforms to a university, it will not be a conventional university, it will be a university of technology and that is why the staff union too is canvassing for polytechnics to become universities of technology.
From the last JAMB report, out of the 153,243 slots allocated to polytechnics, only 79,891 spaces were filled. How can polytechnic education become attractive to candidates?
Why do we have shortage of candidates interested in going to polytechnics? It is because we have done things to the extent of marginalising polytechnic education. I am sure you don’t want your kids to go to polytechnic because of discrimination against polytechnic graduates and poor policy implementation when it comes to polytechnic education. This idea that everyone must go to university is wrong.
In Canada, those that go to technical schools earn more than Ph.D holders. It is policy implementation and we are not implementing the policy rightly; that is why we are having this problem. People see those who go to polytechnics as being inferior to their university counterparts and as a parent, you will not encourage your children to go to polytechnic.
Polytechnics are supposed to be for those who deal with inventions; sadly, government pumps money in universities than polytechnics, and in that kind of situation, you cannot expect miracles. If you go to Italy or France, those from the polytechnics are those involved in policy making, so they drive the economy. If the policy of a country is doing well, you don’t expect graduates of polytechnics in the civil service. They are supposed to be in the industry to drive economy. We must decide to do the right things.
What are these right things?
There is little those of us at the helms of affairs can do except government listens to us. If the mandate given to polytechnics and universities are followed properly, there will be no need for any polytechnic to start struggling, and employers will also get the best.
How do you describe someone with HND engineering struggling to go into civil service, what is he going there to do? Because we have bastardised the system, he will get the job there but will he fit in? If we have done the right thing, a graduate knows where to go to get a job.
In the education sector, there are defined roles for graduates of polytechnics and universities. Until we decide to adhere to that, we will not get out of this matter. And parents are not helping because they see university as superior to polytechnic.
What should be done to encourage technical education?
Bring back technical colleges. We have a policy of 6-3-3-4; that means six years primary school, three years junior secondary school, three years senior secondary school and four years higher institution. The point is that when you do JSS3 and cannot cope, you can go to technical colleges and learn skills, it doesn’t mean that one is a failure. That is where parents miss it; if at the end of JSS 3, your child is recommended for technical education, such a parent will take his ward away from the school to another secondary school and at the end of the day, he will not be able to cope in the SS1 class.
That is how we destroy the system. Until we implement the policy well, technical colleges cannot take their prime place. Once it is done, we will get artisans while polytechnics will produce technician and technologists and universities will produce engineers. That is the solution.
What are the lessons you have learnt as an institution from the COVID-19 pandemic and how is YABATECH coping with the challenges of online learning??
In the last one and half years, we have embraced online learning. We have been granted licence now to run open and distance learning. For the most part of last session, students had their lectures online. When the third wave also came, we started this session online. We don’t want to see COVID-19 as a barrier.
On the challenges of online learning, note that when you start a project, it will have teething problems and you cannot improve on anything if you don’t start it. Initially, there may be challenges, but competing with institutions that have been doing online for the past 10 years cannot work, one can only improve. Let us give online learning a chance and improve on it. When we started, it was not palatable but we sent our lecturers on training and courses and today, they are better.
YABATECH has an annex at Epe, what is happening there?
We have transformed Epe to the best of our ability in the last two years. When I came in, there were two departments in Epe but now, we have three faculties, six departments from two faculties and a whole faculty of technical education, which is the one we are running with University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka.
TETfund intervention was used in construction of the college and we have been able to make the place conducive for students. We have spent our money to develop Epe because the indigenes are thinking that we just took their land for the fun of it, but we have proven them wrong by establishing our presence there, we have a director there. The last NUC accreditation took place in Epe.
It has been three years since you came on board, what are your achievements so far?
Infrastructure was in a state of emergency when we came in and we devised a strategy to see how we can arrest the situation. There were no motorable roads within the campus and that was a great challenge.
So, we came up with four cardinal programmes, namely, academic improvement and development, infrastructural development, upgrading and refurbishment of existing structures and improved welfare for staff and students.
Before we came in, we noticed that we have been having irregular calendar, so we decided that we must have a stable academic calendar; that we must have a good relationship with staff and students and academic improvement of staff, ensuring they go for higher degrees.
When we came in, we visited the hostels and found out that they were not conducive enough for students, matresses were infected by bed bugs and we changed over 3,000 matresses and decided to renovate the hostels one after the other.
We have also looked at the classrooms, we have renovated all the faculties, and they are fully air-conditioned. In the area of funding, we had to think outside the box because if we want to bring the college to world-class standard, then there is need for us to be able to compete globally and to do this, our infrastructure must be in place, library, staff offices and of course physical infrastructure.
YABATECH is a 74-year old institution, this is a school that started with less than 300 students and as at today, we have well over 20,000 students. We have had a stable academic calendar, in the last three years; we have not had union-management conflict.