TETFund and private varsities

TETFundAGAINST the backdrop of “critically weak” research output of Nigerian universities and a need to utilise the country’s entire research manpower “without discrimination,” the private universities pro-chancellors’ call for a review of the law establishing the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) to allow private universities benefit from the agency would seem valid.

However, such support should only be given after the private institutions might have justified their existence and requests by meeting time-tested international standards of university education.

University administrators generally, however, should learn to acquire some business management acumen so they can profitably run the universities and be less dependent on government funds. Knowledge has no boundaries and the business perspective to administration would be a welcome approach to running the under-funded institutions.

In his evaluation the other day, Prof. Iyorwuese Hagher, chairman of the forum of pro-chancellors of private universities, had observed that the country did not stand a chance of being counted among the best 20 economies in the world when her universities do not rank among the best 500 in the world. This is true. Thankfully, a few of the nation’s private universities are showing promising signs of being listed in the nearest future if they continue on their current path of excellence.

The pro-chancellors alleged discrimination against member institutions, parents and students on the basis of TETFund Act, especially its Section 7 (1) of 2011, saying it clearly violated and contradicted the “provisions of Section 18 of the constitution and allows for an unjustifiable exclusion of private universities.” Their recipe for growth and development in the nation is a rapid expansion of research efforts to include applied research, research commercialisation and innovation. That contention is good, but more agreeable is the argument that products of research are best through collaborative efforts of public and private sectors.

Education experts have also argued that since at least 70 percent of the inflows into TETFund are from taxes paid by private companies, therefore, excluding private varsities from enjoying what the sector has contributed is inequitable and discriminatory. The second contention is that all graduates from the universities do eventually serve Nigeria which would be severely hurt if the private varsities are left to churn out products of less quality. Thirdly, TETFund support should significantly lower the fees regime in private universities and by extension the schools would attract more qualified admission seekers.

Submissions above are certainly strong points for consideration of the request of private varsities for TETFund’s support. The quality of human capacity available to the country is raised in the process. Already, there is a capacity problem as there is a serious deficiency in teacher-students’ ratio to service the over 140 universities, public and private, in the country. An uncontrolled approval of universities would, therefore, have repercussions for the quality of graduates. There are claims, too, that shortage of lecturers has forced duplication of academic staff listings around the campuses. This is unacceptable, in fact fraudulent. Amid the human capacity shortages, ironically, hundreds of thousands of eligible students are even being denied placements yearly in the available tertiary institutions.

The deficiencies apart, the pro-chancellors’ request in the present circumstance is also a little self-serving. For instance, many proprietors see the establishment of universities as purely business concerns with little or no thought for academic work or research. The danger of funding such schools with TETFund is the likely mushrooming of similar ventures without the capacity to handle them by the owners who would merely wait on the government for support. The nation’s already battered image in global education standards will suffer further should such an abuse or fraud be allowed.

However, because of overriding public interest in the survival and development of the private institutions, they may be allowed to run for some years and prove their capacities for excellence first before they can qualify for support. Whenever they are found worthy, therefore, a yearly renewal of support should be pivoted on control measures including judicious use of the funds approved and a positive inspection report on teaching and research.

It is important to note that infrastructural and human capacity challenges are rising by the day even in public-aided institutions. TETFund must do more to prove critics of the country’s present education standards wrong. Grants to private institutions is not new. According to a former National Universities Commission (NUC) Executive Secretary, Peter Okebukola, the 1882 Education Ordnance and the 1890 Education law made explicit provisions for a grant-in-aid to private schools.

The government should, therefore, keep TETFund support for private institutions in view towards eventual implementation in the overall public interest.

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