When, about 20 years ago, signboards announcing Heritage University sprang up around Kaduna, many thought the founders were setting the stage for the emergence of private university education in Nigeria, especially in the disadvantaged areas. Today, even the faded remnants of those signboards cannot be found. The much heralded Heritage University never took off.
Nigeria’s 170 million people have a grand total of 156 universities, when we should have at least two or three thousand. This explains why only 10% of the 1.7 million candidates that sat for UTME last month will secure admission. Clearly, there is a huge gap between the number of candidates and available spaces – a gap that government is unable or unwilling to close.
In the southern states, private groups and individuals took on the challenge by establishing private universities, many of which have produced several batches of graduates. But in the already educationally disadvantaged north, the groups and individuals with the financial and political muscle to establish or support the growth of private universities are, as usual, “missing in action”.
Of Nigeria’s 156 universities, 51 are private, but only 10 are in the north. If those allied to religious or special interest groups are removed, American University of Nigeria, Yola, and Baze University, Abuja, may emerge as the only northern owned and accredited private universities.
To put the situation in proper perspective, Kano state, with its population of over 10 million people, has no private university; indeed, the entire North-west zone, comprising Kano, Katsina, Jigawa, Kaduna, Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara, with a population of about 40 million people, does not have a single private university. While there may be concerns that given the high cost of private education and the inadequacy of qualified teaching staff, if it would be rational to establish more private universities in Nigeria; the answer is yes.
True, few families can afford private universities, but they have many advantages; the cost of training students abroad is very high – reaching upwards of millions of naira per student per annum – monies that could create jobs and stimulate economic growth. Also, many families have found to their cost that sending children to schools abroad may not necessarily produce the better students in terms of qualification or moral development – many students sent abroad ended up victims of alcoholism or drug addiction. Having private universities here will help parents monitor their children’s development in person, not through vague progress reports from foreign schools.
Currently, the 10 private universities in the north are: Al-Hikmah University, Ilorin, founded in 2005; African University of Science and Technology, Abuja (2007); American University of Nigeria, Yola (2003); Baze University, Abuja (2011); Bingham University, New Karu, Nasarawa state (2005); Katsina University, Katsina (2005); Nigerian-Turkish Nile University (2009); Salem University, Lokoja (2007); University of Mkar, Benue state (2005) and Wukari Jubilee University, Wukari, Taraba state (2005).
At the moment, countries like Ghana, South Africa, Malaysia, India, Cyprus, UK and the US are draining Nigeria of hundreds of billions of naira per annum from Nigerian students studying there. According to the U.S. Embassy Educational Advising Center, Nigeria sends more students to the United States than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, with over 6,500 students studying at over 733 institutions. There are 71,000 Nigerian students in Ghana, costing Nigeria N160 billion; the federal government spent more than N900 million to sponsor 150 students abroad in 2011, nearly 10 per cent of the 14.14 billion allocated to Nigerian universities.
In the same year, there were 17,585 Nigerians studying in UK universities. A report in 2010 shows that Nigeria fuels the UK education sector to the tune of N246 billion; over 60 per cent of the 2012 education allocation. It is estimated that by 2015, there will be about 30,000 Nigerian students in the UK – about seven per cent of the total UK university population.
Given that the costs of private universities may be beyond many, there are alternatives to private universities in the form of community colleges. A community college is a public institution of higher education and is characterized by a two-year curriculum that leads to either a bachelor’s degree or prepares students to transfer to a regular degree programme. The transfer programme parallels the first two years of a four-year degree programme while degree programme generally prepares students for direct entrance into an occupation.
Community colleges usually have low tuition, are established locally and have relatively easy entrance requirements. If we are to give hope and a sense of belonging to the millions of youth across Nigeria that currently lack education, no real-life skills and no job prospects, every senatorial zone should strive to establish a community college, paid for from public and private resources.
As for the ‘big’ men, granted, not all of them can establish private universities, but those with the means should support existing ones by creating educational endowments or initiating scholarship schemes to help bright but indigent students to attend the few existing private universities, while also exploring ways of creating and supporting community colleges. Nigeria cannot afford to lose another generation of young people.