In this revealing and quite fiery interview with Professor Muyiwa Falaiye, the Director of African Studies at the University of Lagos, EduTimes Africa enjoyed the rare privilege of extracting his candid opinion on a number of burning issues affecting Nigeria’s educational sector.
- Thank you for giving us the opportunity for this interview sir. My first question for you . You are a highly decorated academician with laurels won across the globe. The prestigious fellowship at the Center for African Studies, University of Florida, Gainesville, USA being just one of them. How has life spent in academia been like for you thus far?
Thank you very much. Maybe you are not aware that I also recently became a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, which is the highest Academy for researchers in African Studies, African Literature, Arts and Humanities.
And it’s one of the most competitive and challenging academies in Nigeria to become a Fellow of. So for me, it’s one of the greatest achievements because I know how difficult it is to become a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. One is in the company of people like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and other such illustrious individuals, who are also fellows of the Academy.
It says that there is something you are doing that is right and that you are working hard to promote the Arts and Humanities. Having said that, my almost 40 years in academia has been very productive, better than I thought it would be.
Perhaps because I came into academia by chance. I did not grow up telling myself I will become a professor or anything. And indeed, it’s something that surprises me, because I didn’t quite start off in that direction.
But I’ve had a fulfilling time. I’ve achieved more than what I set out to achieve as an academic. I’ve written books, trained students, produced 14 PhDs, which is quite a lot. In the process, I have become one of the authorities on African Studies anywhere in the world.
I have been able to attract grants. I’ve been able to win fellowships. I’ve travelled to over 45 countries, and for me, these are very remarkable things, considering the background from which I came.
And well, I still have some time to go. I still have about ten years before retirement, which for me, means I have only just started. The road is still long, and I intend to do a lot more before I eventually retire. God sparing our lives.
- It is common knowledge that the educational sector in Nigeria, much like the health sector, has been in shambles for some time. Some argue that primary and secondary education are in greater need of urgent attention than the tertiary, at least judging by the poor written English of many undergraduates. Would you agree with this and what can be done to ameliorate it?
I think all aspects of the education system in Nigeria requires attention from primary to tertiary. And the unfortunate thing for some of us who were brought up in the 80s, is that the table has turned.
When we were growing up, it was prestigious to attend public schools and less prestigious to go to private schools. That has changed now. Now it is prestigious to go to private schools and less prestigious to go to public schools.
It also tells you the degree of neglect by successive governments in the education sector. Personally, I do not agree that standards of education are falling. I do not think so. I think priorities are changing.
I think those who are in primary schools, secondary schools today are exposed to different ways of acquiring knowledge and different ways of knowledge production than what we went through. Some of the things that secondary school students now know, we didn’t know even at university because of the exposure to a wide range of tools, facilities and sources of knowledge production.
I also think that whatever we have at the university level in terms of the degree of understanding of the universe, is partly part of the process from the primary to the secondary level.
I think that if things must change in this country, we have to pay attention to primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education because one cannot be taken in isolation of the other.
I also think that a lot more work needs to be done at the secondary level and primary level than at the university level, because by the time you get to the university it is already garbage in, garbage out. There is little you can teach such a student at that stage.
For example, a student who does not know how to speak English at the primary or secondary school level cannot learn it in university. And if you don’t have a background in the sciences properly founded from primary or secondary school, you cannot get to university and suddenly become an Einstein or a Galileo. These are things that you develop gradually from the lower to the higher just like osmosis that flows sometimes from higher to the lower average. So, these are some of the things that we need to understand when we assess the quality of education.
But I think though those who say the standard of education is falling might have a point, I for one do not totally agree with them. I think what we have now is that more people are going to school.
And if you find an average or a mean, you will find that if there are 100 students in school now, you will probably have 50 that are good. And this is different from the past where maybe we had 25 in school. Even if 20 of those were good, you would still have a backlog of people who did not have access to education. So, it’s a matter of conjectures and refutations about whether standards are falling or not falling.
However, I think a lot has to be done in Nigeria, particularly to improve the funding of educational institutions to improve the welfare of teachers. Because you cannot have a good educational system if you do not take care of the teachers. And these are priority areas that the government should seriously look into.
- Sir, there have been incessant strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in Nigeria for decades. Nobody can deny the fact that government funded tertiary institutions have been grossly underfunded for years. But is money the panacea to their plight? Will merely throwing in money at the various problems restore these institutions to the glory of yesteryear?
Is anybody throwing money at education?
Nobody’s throwing money. I don’t know where people are throwing money. Money is not thrown into education. You see, it’s pathetic that ASUU has struggled over the years to ensure improvement in the quality of education but people do not seem to understand the role ASUU is playing.
I have been a member of ASUU for as long as I have been in academia, which is going on 40 years now, and I cannot remember any year ASUU has gone on strike for its own selfish reasons. Never. But people still don’t seem to understand that ASUU, generally speaking, is an altruistic organisation that tries to sustain whatever level of education we have. I say sustain because we are unable to even push forward.
If you were to go round universities in Nigeria today, you might say that some of them are not fit for purpose. Some of them are below standard. But whatever you find there has been a product of the struggle of ASUU.
These days, people talk about TET Funds and Needs Assessment. All of these were born out of the struggle of ASUU. I cannot remember the last time ASUU asked the government to increase salaries until this last strike. That is why this last strike has been so painful for many academic staff.
Because this is the first time ASUU is asking that salaries of members be reviewed. And this is understandable given the falling standard of living and the economic conditions of this country at this point.
So, when people turn around to blame ASUU for going on strike, it pains us. It really hurts. Having said that, I think this is the time, and I know ASUU members are beginning to think this way, that this is the time ASUU should stop bothering itself about the quality of education offered in universities and rather concentrate on the welfare of its members. And that is what trade unions do. Trade unions don’t have to worry whether our students pay fees or not, whether there are classrooms to teach, or whether there are books in the libraries. Let the government and the parents and the children worry about that. That is what other trade unions do. That is what doctors do. I can’t remember doctors asking the government to put whatever in hospitals. They always ask for their salaries. So, I think this paradigm shift is going to happen. It’s going to happen. But it will be unfortunate for the system because whatever level of success, modicum of achievements and even the so-called poor standard that people talk about, has been achieved because of ASUU’s actions. At least in the university system. That will change.
- Universities the world over are known to serve two main purposes. First, as institutions of learning for those given admission after successfully completing the secondary education. Second, as repositories of knowledge, particularly in the area of research which is crucial for all areas of social development. Which African countries have excelled not only in the former but also in the latter. And how can this be seen in their level of development?
Well, there are three reasons why universities are established. One is teaching and that is what most people know. Unfortunately, this is the least in the priority of universities.
The other is research. And the third one is what we call community service. Most people think all we do here is teach. And that is why the government had the effrontery to say that lecturers were not working during the strike.
I tell you, within that eight month strike, the number of research outputs that came out of these institutions, you’ll be shocked. So, even though lecturers might not be working in terms of teaching, there are other things lecturers do, and people should get themselves enlightened about those other things.
They should also ask, were those lecturers doing research during the strike? Were those lecturers engaged in community service during the strike? So, teaching is just a part of what they do. And it will surprise you that no lecturer, at least in public universities, in research universities, is assessed by teaching.
If you like, teach from morning till night, that’s your business. Nobody cares. At the end of the day, what is assessed is your quality of research, the quality of your publications. That is what people want to see, and that is what universities worldwide are known for.
I’m not sure that many Harvard professors or Cambridge professors, operating in environments that all of us describe as saner climes, are assessed because they go to class or are assessed by how well they teach. Yes, it is good to teach well. It’s good to combine all of those. But ultimately, what determines your progress in this system is not the number of hours you spend in the classroom, it’s the quality and the quantity of research that you produce.
This is so because what changes society is not necessarily the teaching, it is the research. And what is research for? Research is to make life better for everyone, to look at challenges confronting humanity and provide solutions to them. And this is going on in Nigerian universities, at least to a level proportionate to the level of funding that universities get here. So, it’s not fair to begin to compare the University of Lagos with Harvard. First, what is the quantity of research funding that goes into Harvard? What is the quantity of research funding that comes to Nigeria? What do students pay to attend Unilag? What do students pay to attend Harvard? People just compare blindly. Students pay thousands of dollars to go to Harvard. In fact, it’s as if no fees are paid here. Students come here and pay N25,000 in a year. What do you do with that? And you expect to have the same results? And you begin to compare the quality and quantity of research production in Harvard with Unilag? It’s incredible to make such comparisons. However, given the little we are given here, I think a lot of work is still going. Things can be better. Of course, things can still be better but things getting better also has to do with the quality of funding that comes into this place. Whether it is the government that increases its funding or whether it is students that begin to pay something meaningful as fees, somebody has to pay something to the university for things to change.
And without a good quality university, you cannot have a good quality society because societies are founded on the quality of research that comes out of research institutions and universities. So you cannot have one without the other.
- So, Nigerian governments, both national and subnational, always complain they lack adequate funds. How else can universities be funded?
There are many proposals that have been made by the academic staff, ASUU, and even by others in the larger society. And my opinion, my personal opinion is that the government cannot fund universities anymore. And it is foolhardy to expect the government to fund universities because of course there are competing needs, there are competing areas of national interest that the government also has to fund.
Well, I think the government would be deceiving itself by insisting that it wants to maintain free university education in the country. It’s time the funding of universities be shared between the government, parents and the students themselves.
You remember that it’s not only young students that come to university, there are also students who are working and those who are privately employed. So, everybody can contribute to the funding of the university.
In this time and age it is silly to think that universities can be run like a charity case or universities can be run like the Salvation Army. You see, in these saner climes that people talk about, hardly will you find universities that are run on a pro bono basis. That is one thing that we have not done here. The government does not have the will to ensure that people who come to the universities pay fees. Of course there are also arguments that the government is wasting resources, the government can do better, the government has the money, the government is not doing this or that. Those are not enough. Now, even if the government has the money, it would be counterproductive to allow people to come to the university without contributing to it.
This is why I say with emphasis, that a lot of people at our universities today, especially federal universities, do not deserve to be there. They don’t need to be there. They can be successful in other areas that do not require them to attend the university. Because universities are free, more or less, everybody, I say it again, every idiot wants to come to the university even when they know that it’s not what they need.
And I also think that society should not make people who do not go to the universities look stupid or look like failures. I think that’s one of the reasons why people want to come to university. Not because they want the knowledge, not because they need to be there, but because if they don’t come there, people regard them as failures. And this denies them of the social status that they should have ordinarily, because they can actually be successful doing other things. But because in Nigeria it’s easy to come to the university without paying fees, they come here and just occupy space.
And when they finish their degree, if they manage to finish the degree, they throw the degree away. Hard earned taxpayers money that is spent to educate them, they throw it away and start selling pepper. It’s incredible. And the earlier only people who really need to come to the university, come to the university, the better for everybody.
And this will also reduce the cost on taxpayers, because ultimately, those who pay the fees for those students in federal investors are the taxpayers. And if the taxpayers continue to fund students who are not serious, continue to fund students who should be elsewhere, who will be more productive doing other things, I wonder what we really want for ourselves as a country.
So, I think the funding should be distributed in such a way that everyone who participates or partakes in that process contributes to the funding. And in my view, this would make students who come to universities a bit more serious than they are.
It will also reduce the crave, the craze, the wrong, the right, the reason why people come to universities. And then people can do other things. We are lacking in very many areas now in Nigeria. You hardly find good artisans anymore, you hardly find competent technicians anymore.
And those who claim to have graduated from university as engineers can hardly fit in because they ought not to have been there in the first place. And let me remind you. The duty of a university is not to stop people from getting in.
The duty of a university is to classify those who get in, to classify them into groups, into class, what you call the Greek classes. So if anybody comes to the university, whether the person is fit, whether the person deserves to be there or not, as long as the person is consistent for those three, four, five years, the person will still get out of university but in a classified degree.
So, our duty is to decide whether you are a first class, second class, third class, or an ordinary pass. And that is what universities do. So, I think we should make other areas of knowledge production, knowledge distribution, and other areas where people can be useful to themselves, more attractive to Nigerians, so that fewer and fewer people will aspire to come to the university. In the so-called saner climes that people like to make reference to, going to the university is hardly a priority. In fact, you will be shocked that many people will tell you that they don’t want to go to the university, they want to do other things. And because they know that they will not be rated any lower than their colleagues who have gone to university, they know that they can be successful, even more successful, than those who went to the university.
That is where we have not gotten to in Nigeria. And it’s unfortunate that we have made our young people believe that without a university degree certificate, they are nobody.
You can read the concluding part of this interview in the March edition.