By Obi Nwakanma
A friend of mine sent me an e-mail last week, and his question in his mail was both amusing and troubling. He asked me to confirm that “our children in America are planning to build a university in our village.” Of course, “our children in America” are planning no such thing.
Most of “our children in America” are taxi drivers, nurses, nurse aides, cleaners, security men; just honest to god daily laborers with neither the resources, nor even the education to embark on such a project.
Not all Nigerians are highflying doctors, pharmacists, professors, research scientists; or high-end administrators here; there are some of those certainly, but many are too busy engaged in their daily labor; but even worse still, a University in the proper sense of the word, at least as many of us understand it here in America, is not within the province of their resource.
So the e-mail question took me by surprise, mostly because the inquiry came from a guy who is not what Americans may call a “dumbass” or the Yoruba would call “Suegbe” – he’s a pretty smart guy. It did tell me something nonetheless: that if he’s prepared to believe that “our boys in America” could just simply cause to rise, in the last remaining forests of my ancestral village, a university, then Nigeria is in worse trouble than anyone could imagine.
Somebody, of course, certainly is selling snake oil to folk in my village. I did ask around, and I was told indeed, that some guys, looking sharp, came around to negotiate for land in my village to build something or the other. I’m mostly skeptical, but perhaps, they’ll build some sort of thing and call it a University, charge the fees, employ many of these “Facebook PhDs” running around in Nigeria now, and start a university.
But what a bloody mess! The idea of the university in Nigeria has been turned into a joke; a sort of masqueradry; all you need is to order a hood and gown from Balogun market, and there you go, a University! The policy that privatized the University in Nigeria was fundamentally ill-conceived and ill-advised. It ceded a highly technical process to all kinds of parochial interests. All you need now to inaugurate a “university” in Nigeria is to buy the license, knock together some ramshackle barracks; place a huge signboard nearby, and advertise it.
The sad thing is that Nigerians are flooding to these places, acquiring unusable and irrelevant certificates and very little education. Many of these private universities are centers of religious indoctrination – they are “faith-based” organizations incapable of transmitting the fundamentally secular ideals of a modern university.
Stories abound that seem to me absolutely surreal about these universities. In one instance, the university administration and its religious trustees imposed dress rules; religious and prayer routines on campus, and in another instance, one such Christian University only recently announced that it would cut fees to members of their church; in other words, they’ll discriminate against all those who do not subscribe to the tenets of their faith.
This is plainly ridiculous and ought to be grounds for closing down this miasmic hothouse Pentecostal drudgery. Privatizing the university is one of the saddest, most destructive policies on the development of the Nigerian university and a mockery of the goals of the national university system. A nation’s university system is the catalyst for cutting-edge and experimental knowledge-making.
It is not only that these private universities lack the orientation for exploring dimensions of empirical knowledge, they lack the wherewithal. A university is not merely the buildings in which it does its business, it is a system of thought. To sustain it requires a vast institutional capacity. Yet, these private universities are now flourishing. Most of Nigeria’s so-called wealthy now send their children to these places.
Nigeria’s once great public universities, like its once great Government Colleges, have been turned into ghettoes where they produce barely literate graduates. Quality of academic staff has not only gone to the dogs, it is often shocking to me when I encounter some of these new generation of academics from Nigerian universities in conferences, and I plod through their papers: bad prose, dated methods, so last-century-thinking it makes you shiver for their students.
Many who now teach in Nigerian universities made detours into the system by other means because industry and migration had taken the best. Many speak rotten English. Many have neither the temperament for the scholarly life nor the mind for it.
Many would not be found teaching in a decent secondary school in the past when Nigerians took the education of the nation seriously. Nigerians talk glibly about the collapse of their once great public universities, but only few really understand the implications of these in the long run for Nigeria.
The argument often advanced by those who promote these private universities, often based on typical Nigerian revisionism, would point and say all the great Universities of Europe and the United States were founded by religious societies and are private.
That parallel would only be half-truths. They also argue that the public universities are too stretched to admit the quantum of young Nigerians seeking university education. That too would only be half-truths. Nigeria’s labour needs must determine the quantum of admissions into the universities, based also on merit.
Nigeria is currently unable to absorb that quantum of badly trained university graduates into its workforce, so it does not need more private universities to produce more unemployable graduates. Graduate unemployment is already too high. It needs a different policy. So, what is a university? It is a complex system of knowledge production.
The award of degrees is only half the function of the university. The universities of a nation is its first base of research and intelligence gathering; it is its strategic storehouse of sometimes extremely secret, and protected research; it is linked to the national defense and security system of a nation; it is the source of its governing ideas in competition with other nations.
It is the site for the production of its most strategic works force. That is why, even in its most severe economic crisis, every nation, the more serious of them, shields its universities, from political intrusion, and from the flight of resources – human and material. But visit a typical Nigerian university today, it would leave you terribly dispirited.
Badly designed and collapsing architecture; terrible living and learning environment; decayed, dated, or non-existing infrastructure; the decline of an entire culture, which has been replaced by a rather curious Nigerian equivalent of patchy how-for-doism. It is a joke.