When the Federal Government licenced nine new private universities in March, the news was greeted with considerable enthusiasm in some quarters and a good measure of scepticism elsewhere. Both reactions stemmed from people’s perceptions of how much (or how little) these new universities could improve the state of tertiary education in Nigeria. But how much of this optimism or pessimism is based on fact? Rather than the usual knee-jerk reaction, let’s examine the issue from an objective standpoint. Tertiary education in Nigeria faces two main issues: access and quality. Therefore, any improvements would necessarily be in one or both of these areas.
In terms of access, the establishment of these universities is part of a welcome trend in the expansion of private sector involvement in higher education in Nigeria. This began in 1999 when military rule ended, and the decade from 2005 to 2015 has witnessed the establishment of 51 new private universities. The dramatic nature of this expansion is highlighted by the fact that only 14 federal and 17 state universities were newly established within the same ten-year period.
These new universities will help to absorb some of the surplus demand for university degrees in the country. According to the former Minister of Education, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, over 1.7 million candidates registered for the United Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) in 2013, and the Nigerian university system could only accommodate a third of that number. So the optimists are right to celebrate: the establishment of more universities means more space for prospective students.
However, the sceptics' response is important. The expected increase in supply of university spaces will be modest in the short term. Matriculation at these new universities within the first few years will be low, as is often the case as new institutions start out with limited course offerings in order to concentrate their resources on developing a few core programmes.
Additionally, new universities are less attractive to prospective students because many families make choices based on the prestige and reputation (academic or otherwise) of institutions. Of course, there will still be the pull factors of access to new facilities and the absence of strikes that intermittently affect government-owned universities. It is also expected that the initial pool of applicants will be drawn from proprietor affiliations. For instance, Augustine University, Ilara; Kings University, Ode Omu; and Mountain Top University, Ogun State, all founded by religious organisations, are likely to attract students who are in some way connected to the respective congregations.
Altogether, the universities have set modest targets for their initial enrolment rate, with the lowest estimate being 150 and the highest, 500. The total proposed initial enrolment across all the new universities is 3,935 students, which would provide access to only a small proportion of students who will be seeking admission this year. All things equal, total enrolment across all nine universities is projected to reach 42,173 in their tenth year of operation. This will have an impact but it will be modest and will certainly not match the rate of increase in the demand for university spaces.
Then again, another important aspect of access is cost. The average yearly tuition for a private university in Nigeria is about ₦550,000, an amount that would cover tuition, textbooks and other fees for four or five years in a federal university. Therefore, as the sceptics are quick to point out, the pool of students is likely to be limited to the higher socioeconomic classes (lower-middle class at the very least). This is an unavoidable reality because proprietors of private universities rely on student fees to run their institutions. However, when we look at the whole university system, all classes of people will still benefit. When these private universities take in students with more money, it decreases the competition for places in less expensive federal and state universities. Therefore, a “richer” student choosing to attend a private university increases the likelihood that a “poorer” student will gain admission into a government-owned institution.
As we move on to the issue of quality, only time can really tell whether any of the new universities will succeed in overcoming the challenges facing all participants in the Nigerian university system. One major hurdle they will need to scale is the dearth of qualified academic staff. There is a shortfall of 19,548 out of the estimated 50,000 academic staff needed in universities nationwide. If these new universities can find a way to acquire the necessary staff, procure and maintain top-notch facilities and utilise well-designed curricula, then within the next decade we may be able to properly assess the quality of graduates that they produce.
In all of this, we cannot ignore the other way in which these nine universities will have their most immediate and visible impact — economically. They will create opportunities in their host communities for businesses to cater to staff and students’ demand for hairdressing, laundry and cleaning services, restaurants, shops and hotels. This will definitely be a boon for the areas where the university campuses are situated, particularly the more remote areas. In this respect, the southwest geo-political zone is the biggest winner, since it is home to six of the nine universities, with four of them in Ogun state alone. Even if it may be too soon to reap the educational fruits, there is still much to be gained from these nine private universities opening their doors.