The University, Progressives and the Unintended Consequences of the Equality Principle, By Jibrin Ibrahim

I spent this week in Johannesburg attending a research workshop on the and the public good in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. These four countries have had significant transformation of their higher education systems. They have been characterised by rapid and dramatic multiplication of the number of institutions and students and a decline in quality. Even more important has been the debate on the place and purpose of the in society. Our research team is posing the question – are our universities still serving the public good and if they are, what is the nature of the said public good. If they are not, what purpose are they serving?

In his opening remarks to the workshop, the Vice Chancellor of the of Witwatersrand, Adam Habib spoke about the student revolt that has affected the South African system over the past two years. The students’ revolt, he explained, is global but also generational as the youth of today are very conscious that they are not receiving the same deal that their predecessors got from higher education. They have many problems including access, finance and jobs after graduation. Their key concern however is inequality and they want a system accessible to all, whatever their financial standing.

Progressives have articulated and supported this basic demand for free education.Professor Habib is of the view that there is nothing likes free education and the translation of the demand is that government, rather than parents or loans must pay for everybody. Societies can decide to accept this demand but the consequence is differentiation of the universities as mass intakes in the context of economic crisis affects quality. As standards decline, the elite opt out of the mass universities and send their children to alternative quality universities and the result produced is one of the unintended consequences of leaving the poor with poor quality degrees as inequality returns through the wide-open gateway that has been created. He urged progressives to develop a better reality check by considering the world they live in rather than the world they want.

The fears of Adam Habib have already happened in Nigeria. In a recent lecture entitled “Salvaging Nigerian Universities”, my good friend and senior colleague, Ladipo Adamolekun, regretted the serious decline in the quality of universities and reminisced about his days as a student of the world-class of Ibadan in the 1960s. He recalled the three qualities that made the great; they had quality teachers, an enabling environment for learning and international competitiveness.  “All three combined to ensure that Ibadan was indeed a world-class ,” he concluded. He however warned that we must not take the decline of universities in isolation. All other strategic elite institutions in the country including the civil services, the judiciary and the military have suffered similar decline he added. I completely agree.


I was a student in Ahmadu Bello University in the 1970s and during our time, the universities were still quality institutions even if they had by then lost the “world-class” label. The three qualities mentioned by Adamolekun also applied to us. On graduation I joined the faculty of the university and within a few years, became an active member and later a leader of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).The ASUU of our time was committed to sustaining the quality education we found but alas, we won many battles and then lost the war. By 2013, I could no longer recognise our universities and wrote the following in my column during yet another long and destructive strike by ASUU:

“Over the past two decades, the compulsory sale of hand-outs to students by some lecturers and the sexual harassment of female students have become constant topics for musical lyrics and beer parlour jokes. More importantly, there is a significant part of university professors whose promotion has been on the basis of self publication rather than peer review and many professors in Nigerian universities today have not got a single peer reviewed journal publication in their CV. This means that we have a growing percentage of fake professors in our universities who cannot stand up and get respect among their peers in the international context. ASUU demands to receive remuneration of international standards without a struggle to ensure that the quality of their members is also international can only lead to increased reputational erosion.”

We have a responsibility to seek to understand how Nigeria got into this process of decline. The easy part of the story is declining finances of the university system, which made it difficult for the universities to recruit and above all to retain quality staff, engage in research and provide a conducing atmosphere for learning and research. The more complex story relates to the corruption of Nigeria society in general, which created a mentality of looting and wanton exploitation in whatever situation people find themselves. ASUU, a major player has been unable to retain focus on the struggle for academic freedom and university autonomy and transformed itself into a more classic union seeking to protect the interests of its members alone and in the process lost sight of the essentials – students, teaching and research. We fought for and won the right to determine who becomes Vice Chancellors, it was a pyrrhic victory as more and more of them are today being investigated for being mega looters of billions of Naira belonging to the university.

It was in 2011 that the then Governor of the Central Bank and now the Emir of Kano drew the attention to what our elite did relative to university education, they send their children out. He explained that at that time, there were 71,000 Nigerian students in Ghana and their parents were expending one billion dollars annually. The Ghanaian researcher at the workshop explained that unfortunately for the Ghanaian youth, their universities simply cannot afford to resist all the good money Nigerians are bringing into their system, which Emir Sanusi had told us is much higher than the budget of all public universities in Nigeria. Two levels of differentiation are occurring in terms of Nigerians and the university system.

The first is that according to their budgets, Nigerian parents have assessed the international university system and each one finds their level. The main countries of attraction are the United Kingdom, United States, Ghana, Malaysia, Canada, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Hungary and Russia. The second level of differentiation is internal. Nigerians are increasingly demanding and are getting better universities, most of them private. Religious organisations, community leaders, politicians and business magnates are stepping into the arena to provide universities that could cover the curriculum, not go on strike, graduate their students on time and above all provide better quality graduates. These new universities have a commercial orientation and are not interested in research. In addition, they are further destroying our public universities, as they are completely parasitic on their staff. Nigeria simply does not have the faculty to populate the huge number of universities we are establishing each year. The high fee paying universities are not training or bringing in new staff and the crisis of the university and the public good is deepening.

Article 18 of the Nigerian Constitution is clear in its definition of education and the public good. “Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels” Our grand norm directs that Government shall, as and when practicable, provide free primary, secondary and university education.The turning point in terms of the debate over the public good and the Nigerian university system was in 1980 when Biodun Jeyifo and Uzodinma Nwala were elected pioneer President and Secretary of ASUU. They both had a radical socialist ideological bent and believed that the time had come to struggle for Article 18 and other principles. Today, the quasi totality of the Nigerian elite avoids free public education for their children and seeks better quality private schools. To keep the equality principle alive, ASUU has been able to sustain its foundational principle. One question that needs posing is whether the time has come for a more open debate on the university system? Why are we not debating the fact that one quarter of the money we spend on foreign universities would be enough to significantly improve our educational system and bring back some world-class institutions? The same would be true of our health system.

This is necessary because ASUU has retained the capacity to be a strong player in the university system. It has the capacity to carry out long strikes, keep students at home for months at a time and get them to pressurise their parents to compel the government of the day to sign a deal. Successive administrations through the ages have all been forced to sign implementation has always been the bane of policies in Nigeria. My view is that in reality, ASUU is weak because its too focused on grandiose victory that often yields little in real results. The fact of the matter is that Nigerian Governments are irresponsible and never fully implements deals it signs. The struggle for a responsive and accountable government is a much larger one and goes far beyond the ASUU struggle. ASUU must go into introspection and learn what every trade unionist knows, the gains in the struggle are never total, and they are always incremental.