Funding the University after ASUU Strike

After the ASUU strike, university administration will be one of the hardest jobs to do in Nigeria as the country struggles with the current global economic crisis and the adverse consequences of its dysfunctional political economy. The difficulty of university administration will be more than the usual challenge of managing the dynamics of learning and research and the intractability of leading academics and professionals to do productive work. These usual challenges will be added to a new challenge of developing world-class academic environment with less and less of public funding. This is the new challenge of university administration in Nigeria: how to do more with less public sector funding for university education.

The necessity of doing more stems from the fact that Nigeria’s hope of escaping underdevelopment requires more and more investment in human capital. But the country is bankrupt; or almost bankrupt. A country that uses almost all of its revenue to service debts (I need to add that sometimes it borrows) will find it difficult to finance critical social services, especially education, as required. This is more so as the present government and most governments in Nigeria wrongly believe that what the nation requires more urgently is physical infrastructure rather than social infrastructure.

This wrong understanding of the dialectics of transformative development informs the huge borrowings to finance physical infrastructural development by the present government and less for human and social infrastructure. But Bill Gates’ criticism of Nigeria’s economic development model is relevant here. Bill Gates argues rightly that Nigeria needs more investment in human capital than in physical infrastructure. The World Bank corroborates this position in its Human Development Reports in Nigeria. The Bank admits it erred in not emphasizing the importance of human capital in poverty reduction and general economic development in the economic reform policy of the last two decades. As the Nobel Laureate Michael Spence and his team of economists observed in the Growth Report, 2008, high grade investment in physical infrastructure and in human capital is a notable feature of the successful Asian economies. 

It is ironic that whilst the nation needs to boost its human capital it is investing less in education. The 2022 budget provides for only N1.29 trillion out of a total N20 trillion, about 7.9%. for education, whereas it provides N2.41 trillion for defence and security. It is true that, in relative terms, there is an attitudinal aspect to the problem of low priority attached to budgetary support for education in Nigeria. But a major contributor to poor funding for education is the lack of adequate funding for general infrastructural development in Nigeria. The effect of the mismanagement of the oil windfall and the current harsh economic condition is that, with all the good intention, there is little finance available for university education. So, Nigeria’s public sector support for education will remain inadequate. In fact, it could be reducing in relative terms. This inadequacy is dangerous because of the overriding urgency of increasing the support that the university provides to social and economic development through teaching and research. Inadequate funding will delay or probably abort industrial development in Nigeria. Without a functional university administration supporting world class research and teaching and linking town and gown in an ambitious development agenda, Nigeria will not easily exit its state of underdevelopment. One lesson we can take home from the economic development of Indo-European and East Asian countries is that a functional university education is a critical driver of sustainable economic development.

Therefore, the most urgent and significant development challenge for Nigeria today could be reinvigorating university scholarship to support economic and social development initiatives. This reinvigoration is necessary to provide first-rate human and social capitals to support optimization of natural resources and technology in Nigeria’s economy. Right from Alfred Marshall who stated that “although nature is subject to diminishing returns… knowledge is the most powerful engine of production, it enables us to subdue nature and satisfy our wants” to Paul Romer who turned this insight into the ‘new growth theory’ that “Nations are poor because their citizens do not have access to the ideas that are used in industrial nations to generate economic value”, human capital has been identified as perhaps the most important factor of production in a knowledge economy.

Formal education may not make very high returns to household income in the short term but considered in terms of how education helps to diffuse and assimilate technological innovation, increased investment in tertiary education becomes one of the crucial steps for a country like Nigeria trapped in low productivity. In our context of underdevelopment, the university can be a generator of innovative ideas that create enormous economic value.

The new growth theory finds credence in Nigeria’s economic history. We know from history that when Nigeria posted some of its most astounding economic performances in the 1960s and 1970s was the period when Nigerian universities were globally competitive and reputed. It also marked the establishment of such important and university annexed think-tanks like the Nigerian Institute of Economic and Social Research (NISER), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS). These think-tanks and similar ones are nowhere close to the innovative levels they operated during the halcyon days.

The Nigerian university is no longer a strategic partner to economic and social development in the country. The brain-drain arising from economic crisis of the 1980s and the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) has led to diminution of intellectual capital in the universities. Lack of funding further weakens the capacity of university administrators to recruit the best and the brightest as academics and researchers and to finance cutting-edge research. Reinvigorating university scholarship starts with sustainable funding and smart management of human and financial resources. This sort of funding cannot come fully from a bankrupt public sector at the federal and state levels. Much of it should come from the private and non-profit sectors. But the challenge is how to activate the enormous potentials in non-public sector funding of universities and tertiary institutions in Nigeria.

The underfunding of Nigerian university education sector is chronic. One piece of data will illustrate this. A state university in the United States, State University of California, has a budget of 500%, more than the budgets of all the federal and state universities in Nigeria. And it is not even one of the best funded universities in the United State. The federal government long realized the impossibility of adequate funding of universities from the budgetary allocation to the education sector hence it established the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) from the ashes of the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and the Needs Assessment Fund. These agencies, especially the TETFUND, have made significant contributions to support university education in Nigeria. These contributions have taken the forms of physical infrastructural development and sponsorship for research.

The support by the intervention agencies is not enough to make these tertiary institutions competitive even in Africa, talk less of the world. The world’s highest ranked Nigerian university, according to the Times Higher Education, the University of Ibadan, ranked 11th in the 401-500 ranked universities in the world, below some African universities. Apart from University of Lagos that ranked 24 out of 25 in that category, no other Nigerian university made the rank of 500 best universities in the world. This shows the need for drastic improvement in the quality of university education in Nigeria. Furthermore, Nigeria has the lowest enrolment rate in tertiary education in comparable least development countries (LDCs). You need good funding to improve access and quality of tertiary education in Nigeria. This raises the need for creative and strategic thinking by policymakers and managers of tertiary education in Nigeria. We seriously need a framework that helps to build the capacity of university administrators to leverage the growing private and non-profit sector in Nigeria and globally and access their huge financial resources for sustainable financing of university research and learning in Nigeria. This framework includes governance reform and administrative actions that optimize reputation and competitiveness.

One has to admit that Nigerian university administrators have not paid attention to huge financial resources available outside the public sector for the funding of research and learning. Perhaps, the oil boom of the past made such consideration not pressing. But, today, it is imperative for these administrators to consider the huge finances available in the private sector and the non-profit sector nationally and internationally. The Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation have made positive contributions to university education in Nigeria through field offices. But Nigerian universities have not been able to access the kind of funding available even through the field offices. Of course, there is much more finance available for research from their international offices and other philanthropic organizations in the world. A lot more funds can come through multilateral financial institutions committed to boosting human and social capital for Nigeria. Endowments through alumni outreaches will bridge the funding for universities administrations that are creative, entrepreneurial, and socially responsive.

But Nigerian university administrators are unable to access this enormous potential funding partly because their universities lack fundamental governance processes and mechanisms that give confidence to private sector and non-profit funders and philanthropists. The lack of accountability mechanism and the incapacity to organize and mount successful capital campaign militate against effective fundraising by these administrators. Nigerian universities are unable to access these available huge funds because they cannot compete on the criteria set by the funders.

The lack of accountability and transparency in university administration is a big challenge. Inability to build a fundraising team with expertise and network in the right places is another major problem. The skills and techniques for effective fundraising are learnable. Part of the responsibility of government is to orchestrate such learning at a large scale and socialize the costs of skills and technology transfer for university administration in Nigeria. We can enable Nigerian universities to access enormous fund for research and learning only if they can reform their administrative system and develop skills effective for fundraising. Government and other stakeholders in the education sector should pressure university administrators to move fast on this institutional reform and learning curves, as a response to the unresolved crisis of tertiary education in Nigeria.

Functional education is one of the critical drivers of development in the history of mankind. It is not a mere happenstance that all countries that have emerged as dominant in different periods of human civilization have relied on a first-rate education, whether the Greek, the British, the German, or in the future, the Chinese. Education in China may not have outclassed western education. But we are seeing incremental improvement in the quality of research and scholarship of tertiary institutions in China as the country aims to move from low-tech dominance to high-tech innovation country. China is still a low-income country, but it is outperforming in science and technology innovation. Chinese universities are attracting world class students, researchers and scholars. The policymakers in Beijing are not relenting in reforming that sector and gradually closing the gap in research and innovation between it and advanced Western societies.

As a country, Nigeria cannot even contemplate surviving in this uncertain time if it continues with its ramshackle university education. Nigeria needs to rethink the fundamentals of its tertiary education, especially its strategic objective and financing. It has to find a balance between the need for access and the imperative of quality. Whilst we need to increase enrolment in tertiary education, we need to focus on the quality of tertiary education, especially with regards to capacity for advanced research and innovation. Tertiary education must be connected to a strategic industrial policy and carefully managed to return values in productivity and citizenship. It does not matter whether it is publicly or privately funded. What really matters for sustainable economic development is that tertiary education is qualitative and functional. This requires increased funding and smart management. As a facilitator of development, the government has a responsibility to lead the transformation of tertiary education sector. This starts with helping university administrators to know how to fundraise and manage 21st century knowledge institutions.

Dr. Sam Amadi is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thought and President of Center for Public Policy & Research


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