Monday, June 24, 2013

"We have no vision for the education sector" - Prof. Poju Akinyanju

A Professor in the Department of Microbiology, University of Ilorin, Poju Akinyanju, spoke in an interview in the Punch newspaper, concerning the challenges confronting science education in Nigeria.

Q: President Goodluck Jonathan has said Nigeria needs more universities. What is your stance on the issue of establishing more institutions?

A: The question is more basic than this. We should first of all ask ourselves if Nigeria has universities. What we call universities, to be frank, are not universities. There is very little research going on in our universities and there are not enough facilities in our institutions. It is easy to bring students together and graduate them after four years. But the students will leave with a wishy-washy training because the teaching facilities and research work are not there.

I am speaking largely for science-based disciplines. We need more facilities in our institutions. So, what we should be asking ourselves is if our universities should be called universities in the first place. We should think about this before going ahead to establish more universities.

Q: In the area of science, is Nigeria closing the gap?

A: We are not even close to where the world is in science. In the last 15 years, I have taught in about three universities and on the average, we line up about 20 students to a microscope. There is very little that can be done with in such a situation. For example, microbiology in our institutions is at the molecular biology phase. I am not aware of any functional molecular biology laboratory in Nigeria and if there are, they must be every few, or largely dysfunctional. The truth is that you need to be on ground, doing your own part of the research in order to compete with the outside world. Facilities such as microscopes and spectro-photo meters are not available. These facilities are necessary.

Q: The Federal Government often says it funds public tertiary institutions adequately. Do you agree with this?

A: It is a little bit of both, the universities and the federal government are at fault. I will explain why. For example, there is no sufficient money for universities to run a proper molecular biology laboratory. To run this type of laboratory, you will need about N20m. This is not a lot of money when one considers the amount of money people play around with in Nigeria. There is no university that can actually devote that amount of money to molecular biology and the FG is also not releasing that kind of money.

And it is also true that the money given to universities are not being properly utilised. Often, most universities focus on meeting up with the requirements of the National Universities Commission institutional accreditation. These also include having good buildings, good lawns and flowers. But very few Nigerian universities focus on putting money into laboratories to enhance teaching. There are universities who claim to be top of the range and still teach with chalkboards. Some of them do not even have Internet facilities. In them, students sit on top of each other because the lecture hall is choked.

At the end of the day, it is a mixture of both. The FG is not disbursing enough money into the universities and the universities themselves are not allocating money properly. Instead of funding laboratories, they would rather sponsor students abroad and they will spend about N10m on each of them. Meanwhile, they can use the money to train the students in Nigeria.

Q: Why do you think science graduates complain of their inability to get jobs?

A: Clearly, there are not enough jobs for any discipline, not to talk of science-trained graduates. Professionals such as accountants, bookkeepers and economists tend to get jobs faster, but overall, there is the problem of unemployment in the country. The issue of unemployment is however worse for science graduates. We say graduates should be self-employed and focus on entrepreneurship. But where are the facilities to train these students for them to be self- employed?

For example, since laboratories are unavailable, how do I teach students about how to grow mushrooms? This is a multibillion-naira business. Also, there are not enough industries to absorb these science graduates that universities are producing. However, there is also the problem of ill-trained graduates. So, the few industries that are available will prefer to look for graduates that are trained outside the country.

Universities are their own problems. University managers need to be re-orientated on how to effectively run them. They need to learn to this. Universities are places of ideas; places where theories are challenged. They are places of experimentation and of democracy. So, it is more than just pumping money into them.

Q: Why do you think emphasis is more on certificates rather than experience?

A: These two terms should not be a basis for comparison; somebody must be certified to be capable somewhere. Experience is linked to certificate. If the training is proper, it will not be difficult to garner experience. People must be trained. We may say that not everyone should go to the university, but people must be trained and when they are trained, they must get certificates. If people enroll in universities with the aim of just getting certificates and you train and nurture them properly, they will have both the certificate and experience. So, there should not be a comparison between certificate and experience. People need to be educated and when they are educated, they should be certified. Captains of industries are complaining that they are spending too much money retraining graduates. They are right because we ought to have trained them to a certain level before we push them out.

Q: Why are graduates not being trained to a level where industries would not need to complain about them?

A: There are no facilities, there is shortage of staff and staff experience is low. Sad to say, but we are in a circle where these ill-trained graduates return to the university to lecture and you cannot give what you do not have. It is a difficult thing. Once you lack the required facilities or proper environment to train, there is no way graduates will be distinct. There are graduates in some ministries who cannot think on their feet. This is because they have not been trained. In the past, students used to organise symposiums and lectures. But now, it takes about a year before a student can organise any of such. It is a general decay. What we have today is garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t train graduates, there is no way they will fit into the society.

Q: What is your view on the belief that Nigeria has abundant resources but lacks the capacity to develop them?

A: It has actually been settled a long time ago that what is most important is the human factor. So, despite Nigeria’s vast resources, if you do not train human beings to explore them, the raw materials will lie fallow and others will make use of them. For example, how much of oil have we been able to explore ourselves? Our agricultural products are there lying waste. I believe we need the right research and technology. For instance, China has been able to develop its human capital to effectively manage its raw materials. It is what the humans do to the raw materials that matters. Raw materials cannot turn into products on their own. Without human beings, raw materials are just a waste. It is the human factor that is most important.

Q: What are the pitfalls in the education system?

A: Lack of facilities, poorly motivated lecturers and unqualified members of staff including problematic environment. The environment for learning is not conducive. However, the external factor, which is the government, is to blame. We have no vision for the education sector. Our leaders do not have a vision of what education should do for the nation. They think universities should just be there to keep children so they would not be nuisances.

In the final analysis, the problem is that education is now a political process. Politicians have not re-orientated themselves to believe that education is important and foundational to the development of a nation. With this, nothing will change. The problem with education has become a national issue. Now, our children in universities are not interested in thinking or debating. They are more interested in being assistants to politicians to make money. So, the entire problem in the nation is affecting the system. Unless the nation changes, you cannot resolve the problem.

Q: What do you think the future holds for science in Nigeria?

A: In the next 15 to 20 years, with the way things are now, we may not have gone far. For example, if you want to start training people in molecular biology, you will need to build laboratories, and create revenue for them. Science in particular is endangered in Nigeria and until we take the right approach to it, we won’t solve other problems.

Source ~ Punch (June 9, 2013)

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