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Nigeria’s university system needs radical reform: student loans for more than 100 million people might be a good place to start

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By David Mba and Val Ekechukwu

Amid strikes by Nigeria’s Academic Staff Union of Universities, one thing is clear: the current funding model for the country’s public universities is broken. The government’s new Higher Education Bill aims to fix it.

Our view, based on over 30 years of working in the academy, including holding positions as university administrators in Nigeria and the UK, is that the bill won’t fix the many problems facing the country’s higher education system. Unless we rethink the whole system, it is unlikely to deliver the change that’s needed.

The biggest challenges facing the higher education sector include financial sustainability and investment, alignment of courses to the specific industrial and societal needs of Nigeria, and support with graduate employability. These need a rethink of the current funding arrangements for the sector. The new bill, with enhanced governance processes, offers the nation an opportunity to deliver a new financing model, with enhanced quality assurance, for the sector.

What’s in the bill, and what’s missing?
First, a summary of what’s in the bill.

It proposes an interest-free student loan for payment of tuition fees at universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and vocational schools established by federal or state governments. Eligibility applies to applicants with an income, or family income, less than N500,000 per annum (US$1,117), qualifying over 133 million Nigerians. Applicants require at least two guarantors. And they must begin repayment two years after completion of their National Youth Service Corps term.

Reasonable enough, maybe. But digging deeper we have uncovered hidden problems.

The first is value for money, or a lack of it. The student loan model in the UK has, at its core, the customer rights of students. This means fee-paying students have the right to question the quality, service and support provided by their university. Credit hours have to be met in full, course content must be delivered to the letter, and course delivery rigorously scrutinised.

In addition, for science and laboratory-related subjects, students are entitled to expect equipment that complements their lectures. Stipulated lab experiments, workshop, studio and field exposures must be met in full.

For the scheme to work in Nigeria, fee-paying students would rightly expect equipment that ensures they get value for the money they have invested. The reality is that such equipment is often inadequate or non-existent in many of Nigeria’s public universities, as is evident from one of the lecturers’ demands.

In its present form, the bill lacks a governance framework that would support the complaints of fee-paying students.

The Nigerian government must then consider which public body is responsible for setting the expectations and outcomes students should receive from their universities, along with the level of satisfaction they should be entitled to.

The government must consider, too, the types of skills, attributes and employment opportunities students are expected to receive.

Which brings us to the second fundamental problem with this legislation: employability.

Graduate employment is a cardinal principle upon which repayments are premised and structured. There need to be jobs for graduate students to go into before they begin paying back their loan. But with unemployment at 33%, there aren’t the jobs for graduates to enter.

Even for those who get work, there ought to be a minimum threshold of income prior to the commencement of repayment. Without such a threshold, future graduates may be abandoned to a vicious cycle of indebtedness.

Further attention should be paid, too, to how the government manages the flow of public money to universities. The bill, for instance, makes no reference to future levels of tuition fees based on inflationary pressures. A cost-sharing mechanism between the government and students, with a cap on tuition fees, would not, in our view, address the funding challenges of the nation’s universities.

Nor does the bill provide the option for universities to provide maintenance grants that cover the living expenses of students. The new government Education Bank, which will manage the distribution of subsidised tuition fees, may be an attempt to solve this. But it is unclear why funding can’t be allocated to public universities without the need for such an intermediary. This isn’t cost effective or value for taxpayer money.

Blue-sky thinking
We believe there should be a rethink of Nigeria’s entire public university system.

For example, what about a free market-style system, driven by supply and demand?

The government would have to remove any cap on tuition fees and allow universities to charge fees that reflect their own values and mission. This would ensure both value for money and future employment opportunities.

Under this scenario public universities would be fully commercialised. Students would demand more of their universities, which would drive improvements in student support, teaching practices and employability. New contracts for staff employed at universities would be struck, and new management hired, ending union strikes.

But such an approach would sound a death knell for the provision of public university education, one of the directives of state policy enshrined in the country’s constitution. And because of that it would be unworkable.

Nevertheless, Nigeria can’t duck the need to find a way to balance value for money and employability, with demand for a public university education.

Where to next?
Nigeria needs a model that combines the public university concept with a cost-sharing mechanism that involves government, universities and students.

A good starting point would be to adjust the bill. It needs a governance framework which addresses the problems we have identified. In exchange for government funding, universities should improve their teaching and support to match student expectations, align academic courses and research to the needs of the national economy, work closely with the public and private sectors, and provide evidence of value for money.

These changes should be considered as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the current public university model.

  • Prof Mba is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research, Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise), University of the Arts London, while Elechukwu is Professor of Engineering at the UNN
  • The article first appeared on The Conversation