What manner of universities?

What manner of universities?

Is anyone out there taking notes of what is happening to our universities? The pathetic news coming out of Ondo State last week was the closure of the Wesley University of Science and Technology following the failure of the school to pay salaries. Newspaper report indicates that employees of the school are owed up to 21 months salaries. The university authorities announced the closure through telephone text messages addressed, not to the students, but to their parents. In the message, it said: “Our esteemed parents, we have some challenges with salaries and lecturers said they could not conduct exam until they were paid. Since it is dragging, we resolved that students should go home for safety. They’d be called back close to resumption for next semester to write the exam. Please, bear with us.”

I am really at a loss as to what that message was trying to suggest. So, to owe staff for 21 months is considered merely as ‘some challenges’. And the message seems to suggest that the lecturers are to blame for the closure because they (lecturers) say they ‘could not conduct exam until they are paid’. I tried to imagine what it means to be owed salaries for that period of time and still couldn’t comprehend. It only occurred to me that while we recently bemoaned the fate of several employees of governments at different levels who were owed salaries, nobody realised there were others in public institutions like this being owed so much.

The Wesley University is considered a ‘private’ university. When we talk about private schools, we refer to their ownership, not their operations, since they are not owned by the state (i.e. federal or state governments). There are clearly three types of university ownership in Nigeria now – government, individual and registered ‘charities’ made up mainly of religious missions. The Wesley University is in fact owned by the Methodist Church. Whatever the nature of ownership, every university in Nigeria is public to the extent that their licensing and operations are regulated by the National Universities Commission (NUC). Also, their admission is open to everyone, because the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) is still the clearing house for admissions.

The question, therefore, is what the state institutions responsible for standards in our universities are doing to ensure that students are not short-changed. The regulations required here should start from the grant of licence. I am not satisfied that there is enough rigours put into the process of granting licences for the establishment of universities, be they owned by the state or private citizens or groups. One really wonders what the NUC considers when granting the licences. Do they require properly-researched and written business feasibility plans to show that the promoters can successfully run the schools without such embarrassments as running into debts with salaries payments?

Promoters of universities must realise that it is a mega operation requiring huge investment of funds, not only at the initial stage but continuously until such a time that the school can break even. And that could take up to 10 years from inception. Merely relying on contributions of adherents of the religious missions as basis for funding a public institution is not enough. And school fees alone may not also cover the costs of operation. Even more important is the fact that a university should ideally be seen as a charitable establishment meant to improve human knowledge, and profit-making should not be the basis for their establishment. My concern is that, like most things with us as a people, every religious mission sees it as a right to be licensed to operate a university because other missions like theirs have such universities. And this happens even when many of these missions are struggling with the operation of lower levels of schools owned by them.

Another area of concern for me with the operation of universities is the gradual and consistent erosion of independence of thoughts among students. Many of the universities run by religious institutions have so muscled the students, forcing them to live a regimented life of religious observances, including abolition of the use of mobile phones on campus, compulsory light outs in the night and signing of exits before leaving the school etc. There was this photo that trended on the social media a few years ago of university students who were made to kneel outside the school chapel for arriving late for the compulsory Sunday service. You would almost conclude that these universities are glorified secondary schools.

In the instant case of the Wesley University, it is curious to me that the notification was addressed to parents, not the students. This can only mean one thing: the university does not recognise the students as adults yet or that they are important enough to be consulted, even when they are the primary beneficiaries of the school’s services. I can understand nursery, primary and maybe secondary schools writing directly to parents and guardians, sometimes signing the ‘communications book’ and sending it through the pupil to parents to pass information about the schools. But to suggest that our universities have been reduced to the level of lower schools where the students are not considered old enough to take decisions for themselves is worrisome. It is not therefore surprising that some of the universities have since instituted the parent-teachers association (PTA).

First published in The Niche newspaper of July 26, 2015. http://www.thenicheng.com/what-manner-of-universities/

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