How Nigeria can increase access to tertiary education — OOU VC

Ayodeji Agboola, a Professor of Cancer Pathology, assumed duties as vice chancellor of the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, a little over a year ago. In this interview, he shares with LAOLU HAROLDS some of the innovative programmes introduced by his administration, the uniqueness of the university he superintends over, and his take on some national issues bordering on education.

Could you give us a peek into the goals you set for yourself when you assumed duty as the vice chancellor of this university?

My goal is in line with the vision of the university-to produce some of the best graduates in the world, who can fit in, in any area of endeavour they may find themselves. I also believe that for us to be able to do that, we need to key into the plans of our fathers who established the university.

If you look at the vision of the university, three words are very key namely, knowledge, skill and value. In producing some of the best graduates in the world, such students should be able to further their education; they should be employers of labour and must be employable.

If I’m able to achieve these in the next five years, out of 5,000 or 6000 graduating every year, I’ll be able to get about 10 percent to be entrepreneurs; and at least another 30 percent of them to come to academics, while the rest are employable. If I have 10 percent of them as entrepreneurs, it will have a multiplier effect because they will employ many others, and the country will feel the impact.

Your administration is still young, but I also know that one year is long enough for belligerent unions and students to rock the boat if there are unresolved issues. What do you think you have got right so far that has made you enjoy this relative peace, and how do you hope to sustain the amity?

Well, maybe because of my past as a students’ union activist; I’ve also been a staff union activist, so I understand perfectly what the staff needs, and what the students also want. For the staff, they only need two things from you: they need their salary as and when due, and they also need their promotion. When I got here, I made sure that I addressed all the backlog of promotion issues, up to 2023. Today, salaries are paid as and when due.

In addition to that, what both the unions and students need is engagement. If you engage them well, you’ll get the best out of them. No one can perform better if they are not happy. So, for the students, what I do is that I allow all of them to have access to me. There is a WhatsApp platform where the students log their complaints which I respond to almost immediately. I have serious engagement with their leadership; they all have access to me.

Also, I provide the loco parentis that academic staff craves for. I always sit with them, to look into their issues and we find a way to resolve them before they degenerate into crises. That is why the people say, in relative terms that there is peace and we’ll continue to maintain that peace. For the unions, what they want is transparency and they see that a lot in me. I always call on them and we look at the books together to unanimously say this is how much we have and  this is what we can spare do what we need to do. We sit down together and X-ray everything together.

In terms of quality and quantity of programmes, what difference has your administration made since you took the reins, and what new grounds are you going to break?

One of the things I said when I assumed duties as the vice chancellor was to do things differently. We discovered that many people are interested in taxation lately and a lot of them want to work in the tax office, so, as a result of this we introduced Taxation as a course. We’ve also introduced Library and Information Science. We also discovered that a lot of people are interested in working in oil companies; we have introduced Applied Geophysics.

We equally introduced Laboratory Science, which is about how we can improve our health status. Nowadays, buildings are collapsing and to complement the government’s efforts in stemming this, we have introduced three new programmes in that regard namely: Building Technology, Estate Management, and Quantity Surveying. Again, we discovered that we should have high-impact research. If we have high-impact applied research, the country will be better for it, because it is the product of the research that will transform to goods and services that can be marketable.

One new thing that we’ve just introduced is to start having Faculty Research Innovation Week, where we can invite policy makers from relevant organisations. We believe that through it we can further establish an academic-industrial relation board. Through that board, it’s easier to know what the industry needs, and we will do research toward them. Another aspect we are also looking at is how we go about our entrepreneurship differently.

Every programme must have an entrepreneurship component. For instance, if I’m reading Chemistry, I should be able to know that I can produce paints. Our students are the ones producing the paints that we use in OOU. Our students in Physics are producing inverters too. With all of these going on, we have now contacted people to help us build a standard Entrepreneurship Centre. In fact, one of our products is the one building an Entrepreneurship Centre for us. We have also encouraged our students to form a ‘OOU Tech Hub.’ Some of these students can code; they are good in fintech. When such students graduate, they don’t really need to look for jobs. Apart of the entrepreneurship component, we are also trying to introduce to them how to form a board of a company. A typical example of what we are introducing is fishery.

When university education was ‘deregulated,’ so to say, and private concerns were encouraged to come on board, the overriding problem then was not lack of quality in what the existing institutions were offering but their inability to absorb the ever-increasing army of admission seekers. More than 20 years of private universities, the problem of access is still not substantially addressed. What else do we need to do?

First, that policy was not well thought of. The private sector is not a social organisation, and academics is very expensive. To train an average medical student costs millions of naira. In OOU for instance, we have three faculties, 15 departments and there is a teaching hospital. Without a teaching hospital you can’t produce any doctor, meanwhile, there are nurses and other components of the health sector on ground too – to produce a doctor. When you then ask a private university to produce a doctor, you know we are deceiving ourselves. It’s not going to be easy for them to do so.

How are they going to have money? That is why most of the universities are charging as high as N6 million per student. How many people can afford N6 million in this country? That is the challenge. What is your minimum wage to be able to pay N6 million in a year?

So, what is the way forward?

We need to change the policy of having everybody coming to the university. The polytechnics’ roles are very different from the roles of the university. The roles of colleges of education are also very different. If we’re able to get the roadmap for education right, we are likely to solve the problem of access to (tertiary) education. Polytechnics are more practical-oriented, and we shouldn’t cancel them.

They are now converting some of them to universities; I don’t think that is right. Not everybody should be in the university. The existing universities should be expanded to accommodate more (students), rather than creating new universities. You are duplicating efforts. Another thing that can help is to make academics more attractive to people; because the carrying capacity is also part of the problem. For instance, if I have ratio 1:20 in science, ratio 1:30 in humanities, if I don’t have the carrying capacity, there is no way I can admit more.

Buildings alone do not make a university. It’s the human beings that are there (both academic and non-teaching) that make the university and one of the ways to increase the carrying capacity is to make the salary attractive. If you make the salary attractive, you will attract the best brains.

Nigeria’s education curriculum, particularly tertiary, appears to have been designed to produce people with this white-collar mentality, rather than wealth creators. Do you think it is possible or even desirable to tweak the curriculum to make it respond better to national needs?

They (government) are trying to make sure that every programme has an entrepreneurship component, but we can go beyond that. Apart from curriculum…the curriculum is 70 percent national, and 30 percent local content; I would have preferred that it to be 50:50. I also believe that all this entrepreneurship that we are talking about would only make sense when students are able to make use of these things. Every local government is supposed to have an industrial estate.

You put all the equipment there. As the products of universities and polytechnics learn all these things, if they go to banks, there is no way they can get a loan to establish business. Whatever they have learnt, if there is nowhere they can get money to start, they get frustrated.

However,  government can take over that responsibility, like what they have in Japan, percent which is very simply: put an industrial estate in every local government, so that those youths, what they’ve learnt, they can go there, pay certain amounts as rent per month; whatever they want to produce, they go there and produce it. Then they take the product and sell it. By the time they do that a number of times; they are able to make money to start their own company.


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