Nigeria’s university education system is faulty.
Employers and human resources experts have been saying so. The system, they say, has failed to equip graduates with the right skills suited for today’s work environment. Today’s organisations hire people to perform specific tasks that help them in achieving their business goals. They don’t want graduates that parade just certificates, but graduates with the right working skills who can contribute to the development of the organisation.
They want technical competence; they also want candidates properly equipped with complementary skills such as problem-solving ability, interpersonal skills, effective communication skills (oral and written), reflective and critical thinking ability, organising skills and ability to translate ideas to action.
Unfortunately, the average graduate of a Nigerian university lacks most of these skills. That is why we often hear employers lament that Nigerian graduates are unemployable.
But the graduate is not totally to blame. What skills are Nigerian university teachers imparting? What skills do they themselves possess? Do they have a mindset different from civil servants in government ministries, departments and agencies? And so, year-in year-out, the Nigerian university system churns out graduates without the requisite skills to fit into today’s challenging work environment.
One basic reason for this is that not much of teaching is going on in our universities today, due largely to the quality of teachers. The quality of teachers in the universities has dropped considerably. The old system whereby best graduating students in each department were retained as graduate assistants has been discontinued in virtually all the universities. As such, these would-have-been great academics find their way out of the education system and, in many cases, out of the country where they make immense contributions, while the average or below average graduates, failing to find jobs elsewhere, return to the university to get higher degrees and become university teachers.
As Niyi Osundare, professor of English at University of New Orleans, USA, said a few years ago, “The students we are producing now are half-baked not because they lack potential, but because those potentials are never actualised. It’s high time we began to examine those that are teaching in our university system. Mediocre teachers will always produce mediocre students. It is a logical process. Unless those students are lucky or they are extraordinary and so decide to learn beyond their teachers. Effective, conscientious teaching is vanishing from our universities.”
Another angle to the problem is that many university teachers do not bother to update their knowledge. How much research, for instance, is going on in our universities today? The truth is that many of our university teachers do not embark on any research. If they ever do, it’s for selfish reasons: for journal publications so that they can get promoted (the age-long “publish or perish” syndrome) – it’s nothing that benefits the students, nothing that benefits the society.
And so, in this age of information revolution, university teachers keep regurgitating to students the selfsame notes they themselves had received as undergraduates ages ago, as though in slavish obedience to a certain cast-in-stone code: add nothing, remove nothing. The argument about government not funding research enough may well be valid, and one can’t excuse government’s dereliction of duty, but what have the university teachers done with the little that’s been available over the years?
Added to the above is the obvious lack of communication between the university (the gown) and the larger society (the town). Nigerian universities operate like islands – except, of course, when they demand better welfare from government. They don’t know what the society needs and so fail to tailor their curriculum accordingly. For instance, of what use have the tonnes of term papers, degree projects, Masters and PhD theses on varied subjects produced by students on a yearly basis been to industry, to society? How have these research works aided government in its policy formulations? None whatsoever. Instead, these efforts, every passing day, continue to gather dust in library shelves that even subsequent students don’t bother to visit – probably because of their utter irrelevance. But these research projects can become relevant if they focus on particular problems that industry seeks solution to, and industry can actually sponsor such research works – for its own good.
There is, therefore, an urgent need for a thorough review of the entire system, not just the regular surface scratching. For instance, changing the Department of History to Department of History and International Studies, or the Department of Archaeology to Department of Archaeology and Tourism Studies without commensurate change in the course content or in the requisite skills of those who teach the courses is like pouring old, soured wine into a new wineskin: the sour taste remains. You have merely exchanged a monkey for a baboon. So, for any real change to happen, it’s the curriculum, not the name, that needs to change.
To achieve this, the gown and the town must communicate effectively to arrive at course content that meets society’s immediate and long-term needs. As Babatunde Fashola, former Lagos State governor, rightly said in his speech at the Lagos State University (LASU) on June 6, 2013 to mark his 2200 days in office, “Our human resource is the most important resource we have and will ever have. Our students in tertiary institutions are in the generation right behind us. They are the ones who are being prepared for the job market and leadership responsibility. They are the ones who will replace me and the commissioners, the permanent secretaries, the legislators and the judges, indeed the entire public service. They are the ones who in a short time will bear the responsibility to refine our crude oil, generate our electricity, produce our water, manage this university, build our trains, secure our state and country and generally be responsible for our people’s well-being.
“All of these will happen very soon. The question then is this: Do these leaders in waiting and in training understand what we are doing? Do they understand why we are doing it? What are the choices of study that they themselves have made? Why did they make them? Does our society still require those skills they are learning? Is there an inherent flaw in the training we are offering in a way that it does not connect with our societal needs? Why do we have so much to do in our country and yet still have so many unemployed people?”
As a way of bridging this gown-town divide, universities need to begin, from time to time, to invite industry experts to interact with both students and lecturers to share on-the-field experiences. There is no reason, for instance, why a fellow who has spent a lifetime in a particular industry, say, automobile, cannot get a place as adjunct professor in the Mechanical Engineering department of a Nigerian university. For all you care, such a fellow sharing hands-on experience with students might have greater impact than a professor’s whole semester’s lecture notes.
Finally, aside from interacting with the rest of society to ascertain their needs, our university teachers need to constantly update themselves with the latest developments in their fields of specialisation through research, conferences, workshops, etc. This is the only way they and the graduates they produce can remain relevant in an ever-changing world.