Nigeria’s 98 public universities suffer from chronic underfunding; often leading to strikes by lecturers and staff over payment of salaries and other welfare issues.

Experts, including lecturers, blame the underfunding for the poor ranking of Nigerian universities globally with no Nigerian university making the list of the top 1,000 universities in the world. Like the universities, Nigeria’s over 120 public polytechnics and colleges of education are also poorly funded.

Amidst this situation, however, Nigerian federal lawmakers want the creation of over 200 new tertiary institutions; mainly for political reasons as each affected lawmaker wants the institution established in his or her constituency.

In 2012, the House of Representatives committee on NEEDS assessment presented a report in which it noted that infrastructure in Nigerian federal universities are inadequate, dilapidated and overstretched.

Three years before that, the federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) reached what is now popularly referred as the 2009 agreement on the revitalisation of the institutions.

Under the agreement, the government would, among others, pump N1.5 trillion into the universities within three years, work towards committing 26 per cent of annual budgets to education and make education funding a first-line charge.

Strikes over underfunding of federal universities

Eleven years after the agreement, industrial actions by ASUU remain perennial. In 2010, members of the union went on strike for six months – from July 2010 to January 2011. From December 2011, they were on another strike for 59 days. Again, the universities were shut for five months from July to December 2013 and from November 2018 to February 2019.

The government made some concessions to the university teachers shortly before the 2019 general elections. But before that, there was a short strike by the union in 2017 and then another one for nine months in 2020.

Despite signing the MoU of 2012 and 2013 and also a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) in 2017, the government has been unable to meet many of the demands of the lecturers.

Meanwhile, very little attention is paid to the perennial strike by the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP). Just like their counterparts in the universities, strikes at federal polytechnics are frequent and disruptive. All of these are primarily because of the failure of the government to properly fund its tertiary schools.

But in spite of the chronic underfunding of existing institutions, many members of the National Assembly want new ones established in their constituencies.

Lawmakers want more federal-owned tertiary institutions

There are 45 federal government-owned universities, according to the National Universities Commission (NUC). There are also 53 and 99 state-owned and private universities respectively. Also, there are 27 federal and 49 states owned colleges of education, according to the National Commission for Colleges of Education (NCCE).

In all, the NCCE says, there are 200 accredited institutions awarding NCE certificates in Nigeria.

There are also 32 federal polytechnics in Nigeria, 51 state-owned polytechnics and 64 private polytechnics.

Amidst the challenge of funding these institutions, the ninth National Assembly has 126 bills seeking the establishment of universities (some are concurrence bills seeking to approve what the Senate had passed). There are also 140 bills for the establishment of specialised colleges and 27 for the establishment of polytechnics. In most of the cases, the lawmakers that proposed the establishment of the institutions want them cited in their constituencies.

The lawmakers apparently see the performance of their primary responsibility of lawmaking as not sufficient achievement to present to their constituents for re-election, which explains why they focus on physical projects or handouts. Over the years, zonal intervention projects (ZIPs) serve as the physical projects. However, there has been a shift towards the establishment of tertiary institutions.

Senate-House Rivalry

This new rush has created a rivalry between members of the two chambers, the House and the Senate. In 2019, there was a spat between two federal lawmakers from Delta State, Ovie Omo-Agege, who is the deputy senate president, and Nicholas Ossai (PDP House of Representatives member from Delta) over two bills to establish polytechnics.

Mr Ossai had earlier sponsored a bill to establish a federal polytechnic in Kwale, which was passed by the House and transmitted to the Senate for concurrence. However, the bill was stepped down because the Deputy Senate President had another bill for the establishment of a polytechnic in his own senatorial district in Delta State.

When Mr Omo-Agege’s bill was presented to the House for concurrence, Mr Ossai opposed it on the principle of federal character. Citing Sections 14 and 15 of the Constitution, he argued that Delta South, where Mr Omo-Agege proposed the polytechnic to be sited, already has a number of federal institutions.

“Why I speak against this bill is simple. Before you bring a bill, it must align with the constitution. Hence, I am questioning the foundation of the bill. I am arguing it on equity and fairness. The Orogun Polytechnic– you are setting up a polytechnic in a senatorial district that has the Petroleum University, which is a federal institution. And we are talking of fairness and equity. You are talking of a zone that has Delta State University. You are talking of a zone that has the polytechnic in Oghara,” Mr Ossai argued.

He was ruled out of order by the presiding officer, Idris Wase (APC, Plateau), who stated that the argument of federal character was not relevant in that particular context.

“I am being fair to you, but you must be guided. Everyone knows the importance of school with the high rate of out-of-school children. We need to establish a number of high institutions, if the government can fund it, so be it. We were together with you in Harvard, that district alone, they have over 200 universities, for God’s sake. This is a very straightforward bill, I will now put the question,” Mr Wase said.

It is unclear if the relationship between President Muhammadu Buhari and Mr Omo-Agege played a role, but in May 2021, the president approved the bill by Mr Omo-Agege to establish the polytechnic.

In the 8th Assembly, there was a similar squabble between Abiodun Olujimi, the senator representing Ekiti South Senatorial District, and Olumide Johnson, the then House of Reps member representing Ijero/Ekiti West/Efon. Both lawmakers wanted a federal institution sited in their respective communities.

But the scramble for the establishment of new universities by lawmakers is not in sync with the programme of the government on the establishment of schools.

In June, President Buhari approved the establishment of four new universities. Two of them are universities of technology and two of medicine and nutrition; to be sited in Jigawa, Akwa Ibom, Osun and Bauchi states. The government also plans to establish a National Institute of Technology in Abuja.

The universities proposed by the government have specific targets – medicine and nutrition, and two additional technology schools, unlike the seemingly directionless approach of the lawmakers. None of the four new federal universities is among the scores the lawmakers want to be established.

However, the president could also be accused of proliferating schools in his hometown. In July 2019, Mr Buhari assented to the bill establishing federal polytechnic, Daura. In addition, there is the Daura transport university by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation which means the president has, while in office, supported the establishment of two tertiary institutions in his hometown

In all, President Buhari has, since assuming office, approved the establishment of nine federal polytechnics. Federal Polytechnic Ayede, Ogo Oluwa Local Government Area of Oyo State; Federal polytechnic Wunnune, Benue State; Federal polytechnic Daura, Katsina, State; Federal Polytechnic Kaltungo, Gombe State; Federal Polytechnic Shendam, Plateau State; Federal polytechnic Ohodo, Enugu State; Federal polytechnic Ugep, Plateau State; Federal Polytechnic Monguno, Borno State and Federal Polytechnic Orogun, Delta State.

Six colleges of educations have also been established by the administration. The schools are to be located in Sokoto, Benue, Ebonyi, Bauchi, Edo, and Osun states.

While the federal polytechnics in Daura, Katsina State and Orogun, Delta State, were established after the president assented to the establishment bills passed by the parliament, others were created by executive fiat, with bills to establish them still at various legislative stages in the National Assembly.

Unheeded caution

Apparently concerned by the apparent proliferation of tertiary educations, Femi Gbajabimaila, the Speaker of the House, in February admonished lawmakers to be circumspect on the establishment of institutions.

“It has become more difficult each appropriation cycle for the government to meet its obligations. The exploding recurrent cost of governance demands that we be more circumspect in the priorities we pursue, particularly regarding establishment bills in the National Assembly. At a time of reduced revenue, with pre-existing and worsening infrastructure deficits requiring significant investments, we cannot continue to keep establishing more institutions that impose a permanent liability on the government,” he said.

Despite his position, however, Mr Gbajabiamila has not been able to stop his colleagues from demanding more institutions. In fact, the House has never turned down the consideration of any bill on the establishment of universities.

When contacted, Aminu Suleiman, the Chairman House Committee on Tertiary Institution, did not pick calls to his phone to speak on this development.

Merge existing universities – SSANU

Voices outside the National Assembly have mostly been critical of the rush by lawmakers to establish more public universities when existing ones are underfunded.

“It is totally illogical, it is totally illogical as far as we are concerned as Senior Staff of Nigerian Universities, the establishment of universities has now become a charade, and it has started making a mockery of the entire university system. Because every politician wants to be seen as performing, and the only thing seen to be the index of performance is establishing a university in his domain,” Abdussobor Salaam, the Vice President (West) of the Senior Staff of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) said.

Mr Salam suggested that the existing universities should be merged instead. He said there is no reason for two federal universities in a state and also questioned the logic of state governments establishing schools when they cannot even meet their obligations, adding that the establishment of new universities creates more administrative expenses.

“My position is that the present universities should be merged. There is no reason why there should be two federal universities in some states. In fact, there is no reason why every state must have a university, if not that the establishment of universities has become a highly political tool, there is no reason why every state should have a university.

“All of them are mushrooms—when you cannot even fund the existing universities, you are now creating more universities. State governments that are not economically viable to pay salaries are now having two to three universities. Now, a situation where personnel are not paid salaries, are owed for six months, eight months, they are being paid fractions of their salaries, 50 per cent, 60 per cent, etc., rather than the full component of their salaries.

“When you now have bills for establishment of more public universities, what you are doing, the cost of governance of those universities becomes higher. What it means is that you will be paying for more principal officers, you will be paying for more deans, more HODs, more directors, more vice-chancellors, more registrars, more bursars.”

Olusiji Sowande, the coordinator of ASUU, Lagos Zone, also expressed opposition to the development. He said the trend will diminish the pedigree of schools in Nigeria.

“I think the proliferation of universities is a serious issue. And I think that before you can talk about creating universities, you must look at the status of the existing ones. What is the commitment of the government towards the existing ones, either at the state or federal level to all these universities? And what is their ranking when it comes to comparing them with universities around the world? I think those are the things that need to be done first before you can think of whether you want to add to it or if you want to make better the few ones that you have.

“But in my opinion, it is better to make the existing ones better. If there is a need to expand the existing ones, of course, many of these universities are conventional universities that can accommodate all categories of student interest. And I think it would have been better to expand their facilities or expand their research ability – expand everything that will make them competitive with other universities elsewhere, rather than increasing the cost of managing a university. Where you have to proliferate structure, administration, and every other thing, which means you are increasing the cost of managing education. And at the same time, you are not committed to funding it.”

ASUP, COEASU oppose bills

Other unions in the tertiary education sector also opposed the bills to create more universities, polytechnics and colleges of education.

Anderson Ezeibe, the President of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnic (ASUP), said the existing institutions are not staying true to the mandate establishing them, urging the lawmakers to focus on increasing oversight on existing schools.

“We are not comfortable with this, we are more interested in having the existing ones made more functional. Institutions are established for specific purposes. The mandate of a college of education is different from a university, the mandate of a polytechnic is different from a university. There is a purpose for establishing these institutions. The question is, are they meeting the mandate?

“Nigeria is a country of more than 200 million people, one can even argue that we don’t have enough. But in the context of available resources, we can say that we are overbloated because we are not funding them properly.”

The Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU) also expressed opposition to the proliferation of tertiary institutions. Smart Olugbeko, the President of COEASU, said the government needs to be sincere with funding of education in Nigeria by developing a student loan system and expanding the existing institutions. He stated that creating more institutions means more overheads.

Citing Ondo State as an example, Mr Olugbko said three out of four governors of the state created a university each and sited them in their town.

“Take for instance, a state like Ondo State, after the return of democracy, Ondo State has produced four governors. Three of these governors established one university each. Each was established in the home town of the governor. We have one in Akungba, established by Governor (Adebayo) Adefarati, we have one in Okitipupa, established by (Olusegun) Agagu, and we have one in Ondo, established by (Olusegun) Mimiko. So they are treating university as though they are trying to construct a borehole for the community.

“As it is done in other climes, education cannot be free, but that it is not free does not mean that the students should be made to pay through their nose. For instance, in the United Kingdom, education is not free, even for their citizens, but government will pay on behalf of the students, when the students start working, they will be made to pay back. Government should have calculated.”

Funding: The Major challenge

Most industrial actions by unions in the tertiary education sector in Nigeria were about funding. Oftentimes, the government is unable to meet agreements with the unions.

In the 2020 federal government budget, the allocation for tertiary institutions was N428 billion. A vast portion of this fund, N408 billion was for recurrent expenditure (salaries and overhead expenses) of the schools. Only about N20.6 billion was for capital projects in all the federal tertiary institutions.

To augment the allocation to capital component and research, the government created other sources of funding for all public institutions in Nigeria. These include the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), the Petroleum Trust Fund, the NEEDS assessment, Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) and other intervention funds like Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

Even with the interventions, funding remains a major problem for the institutions. TETFUND in 2020 budgeted N120 billion for 266 state and federal tertiary institutions. TETFUND is also the main source of funding for research.

The NEEDS assessment report found that 84.6 per cent of the intervention projects by the NDDC are abandoned, while almost all the state-owned universities depend entirely on TETFUND for capital projects. Despite these fiscal constraints, state governments continue to establish universities.

Despite the allegations of corruption in the TETFUND, Mr Olugbeko said without TETFUND, most tertiary institutions in Nigeria will not have capital projects in their school.

“The fact remains that government should look for means to fund the schools, TETFUND as a case study, I don’t think without TETFUND, any of our tertiary institution will have infrastructure.”

Perhaps to address the over-reliance on interventions, in the ASUU 2009 agreement, the union asked the government to allocate 26 per cent of its annual budgets to education, while 50 per cent of the allocation should go to tertiary institutions. This has been a mirage.

However, Mr Buhari recently pledged to increase the budget for education by 50 per cent in the next two years and 100 per cent by 2025. The president made the commitment at the Global Education Summit in London.

NANS oppose more institutions

When contacted, the President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Sunday Asefon, also expressed opposition to the moves by lawmakers to establish more universities.

“It is a good idea, but the present situation of things in this country do not warrant, do not call for any reasonable members of the National Assembly to be thinking of creating another tertiary institution, be it university or college of education.

“The question is, have they been able to enact laws that guarantee that every student that graduate from school should be directly employed by the federal government? The other question is, the schools on the ground, how many people can afford them? What becomes of them after graduating from those schools?

“As I speak to you, ASUU and FG are yet to reach an agreement. ASUU threatens strike every day. The bulk of the agreement is the funding of the schools. If the ones we have on the ground are not properly managed, I don’t see a need to create more,” the student leader said.

As things stand, the only buffer against the frenzy could be the reluctance of the president to assent to the bills after they are passed by the National Assembly. Maybe that will make lawmakers heed Mr Gbajabiamila’s advice and stop presenting bills for the establishment of more public tertiary institutions.

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