Industrial action by Nigeria’s university lecturers has entered its seventh month. The strike is one of the longest by academic staff in Africa’s most populous country.
Strikes have plagued Nigeria’s university system for the better part of three decades, beginning in 1988. At the heart of the problem are longstanding disputes over arrears of unpaid salaries and repeated failed promises of the federal government to fund public universities.
Nigeria’s first university, the University of Ibadan, was established in 1948, originally as a college of the University of London. There are now 217 universities: 106 public (49 federal, 57 state) and 111 private, according to the National Universities Commission.
The public universities are funded by the government, taking less than 10% of the federal budget. The grant is based mostly on staff strength and number of students. The public universities also charge tuition fees, typically only a fraction of the full economic cost. Relying heavily on limited government funding, the universities have struggled to meet their costs or diversify their revenue streams.
The problems facing Nigerian universities have worsened over the years. This is due to the rapid expansion of Nigeria’s youth population and the increased pressure for places in crowded institutions. As university education is widely perceived as a passport to social and economic mobility, demand and enrollment for university places have increased rapidly in the past decade.
Nigeria’s lecturers’ strike raises fundamental questions about how Nigerian universities are run and funded. There’s no easy fix, but there are three fundamental areas that Nigeria needs to address.
The first is government funding, which is currently well below the UN recommendation and needs to be increased. It should also be more transparent and better managed.
The second is university curricula. They need a revamp to produce graduates who are better suited to the realities of the national economy. The economy can’t offer more formal employment at present; it needs job creators.
Finally, universities need to generate their own income to complement government funding. They must fully embrace their mission as economic contributors, along with research and teaching.
Funding based on employment
The history of African universities goes back to the founding of the University of Timbuktu in the 9th century. Colonial African universities were originally set up in the 1940s to train an elite cohort of civil servants. Following independence, as European countries expanded the university sector, African countries followed suit.
Expanding access to university education is an excellent idea. But at the time, African labor markets had limited capacity to absorb university educated workers.
The wide availability of opportunities for formal employment in western countries is at the heart of their main university funding model. Governments provide loans to universities for students’ tuition. They also offer accommodation and maintenance grants for students. Once the students graduate and are earning above a certain threshold, they begin to pay back the loans.
A number of stakeholders in Nigeria, including legislators, are now calling for a student loan model. The idea is flawed. It fails to recognize that African economies have limited graduate opportunities for formal employment.
As we have noted in one research paper, Nigeria (and Africa more broadly) is in greater need of job creators than job seekers. The labor market for formal employment is saturated.
This brings us to another major problem. Nigeria’s university curricula and operational model are well behind the pace in the rapidly changing global landscape of knowledge production. Indeed, globally, universities are not the only sites of knowledge production. Across Africa, hundreds of tech hubs are finding new solutions to society’s economic and social challenges.
Nigerian public universities must re-invent themselves as entrepreneurial and boundary-spanning hubs. They must work with industry players to solve society’s problems.
Three steps are required to address the funding and operational challenges for Nigerian universities – and African universities more generally.
The first step is to expand degree apprenticeships. I would argue that all degree programs with strong vocational and technical components should be prioritized through an apprenticeship route. This means that students will spend some time in real work. In return for that work, their employer-host will bear a large share of their university funding and living expenses. The government will bear the rest. This approach mitigates the funding challenge and the need for updated, industry-compliant curricula. It will also expose students to real-life situations and opportunities for entrepreneurial learning.
Secondly, as we noted in another paper, Nigerian universities need to embrace the many opportunities presented by the new knowledge economy to function as commercial entities. They would combine this with teaching and research. Their primary goal will be to deliver economic value to the public, rather than profit to shareholders. Universities can bring in entrepreneurs and business owners as partners to operate within university premises.
They can also empower academic staff to engage in income generating activities. These bring in rents, royalties, commissions and profits, and various types of indirect revenue. The appointment of university management teams should be based partly on their entrepreneurial profiles and capabilities. And funding should be based partly on the university’s performance as an economic actor.
Similar to the Teaching Excellence Framework and Research Excellence Framework for UK universities, Nigeria needs something like an Economic Excellence Framework. This could inform government funding.
Nigerian public universities need to engage their alumni as partners, as universities do in North America. Alumni can be co-opted to sponsor projects and facilities that support teaching, research and economic excellence.
These steps would transform the way Nigerian universities are run and funded. They will make the universities self-sustaining and produce graduates who are job creators. In turn, the universities will be more responsive to the national economy. It will also encourage competition and performance among universities.
Finally, they will drive transparency and public accountability, by showing the public their value.