Prof. Tolu Odugbemi, is outgoing Vice-Chancellor of Ondo State University of Science and Technology (OSUSTECH), Okitipupa and former Vice-Chancellor, University of Lagos. He was two-term Provost of the College of Medicine, University of Lagos (CMUL). In this interview with some journalists, he speaks on the challenges facing universities and other issues. Titus Eleweke reports
How challenging has it been running a new and growing University?
The task of starting off and running a new university especially in a developing nation like Nigeria has been quite challenging and enormous. I must say, however, that the challenges have been quite surmountable. At the inauguration of the Governing Council of this University on 27th September, 2010, by the Governor of Ondo State, Dr.OlusegunMimiko, the first major task before the then Council was how to retrieve the operating licence of the University that was withdrawn by the National Universities Commission (NUC) apparently for the failure of the University to commence academic activities three years after its initial establishment and for lack of infrastructural facilities to herald the effective take-off of the new University.
At inception in September 2010, there were no students, no academic, technical, and administrative staff. OSUSTECH then had only existed in name without any concrete and meaningful facilities on ground. Giving this background, there was no way the NUC could have restored the operating licence it had earlier withdrawn.
What measures did you put in place towards solving those identified teething problems?
As I said earlier, the first major task for the then Council was how to retrieve the operating licence of the University from the NUC. As the Vice-Chancellor, I decided to pursue with vigour the retrieval of the licence with NUC.
After interaction with NUC officials, the Executive Secretary of NUC, Prof Julius Okojie finally agreed to dispatch a 4-man Resource Verification Team to the University in November, 2010 to assess the quantity and quality of available facilities in the University. The attention of Mr. Governor’s attention was drawn to this request and he immediately set in motion the process of identifying and acquiring a take-off site for the University.
The new site upon identification at Idepe, Okitipupa was renovated for the use of the University. The Governor also approved a Take-Off Grant to the new Council for the procurement of vital equipment and facilities and for the erection of new and additional buildings at the take-off site. With this, the University Governing Council was able to pay for the outstanding balance of contractors for job done at the take-off site, furnishing of laboratories, purchase of vital teaching and learning equipment and reagents, new vehicles for key Officers of the University, four coaster buses, an ambulance for the Health Centre and other vehicles for operational activities.
Following the successful visit and the positive recommendation of the Resource Verification Team of the NUC, the regulatory body formally restored the operating licence and approved that the University could commence academic activities in 10 approved programmes in the Faculty of Science.
The commencement of Academic Programmes then became the new focus. Academic and Administrative Advisory Committees under the chairmanship of Prof. A. I. Akinwande, a seasoned academic and administrator and other eminent Professors from the Universities of Lagos and Ibadan, ObafemiAwolowo University, Ile-Ife and the Federal University of Technology, Akure were set up.
Other Professional Administrators from the above-named Universities were also invited to advise and assist the University in the recruitment of quality and qualified non-teaching personnel as pioneer staff.
Consequently, advertisements were placed in national dailies for the appointment of pioneer staff and students and interviews were subsequently conducted for shortlisted candidates between 20th and 23rd December, 2010. Admission processes also commenced simultaneously with the recruitment exercise in line with the Joint Admission and Matriculations Board (JAMB), admission guidelines. Advertisement were placed in national dailies for candidates who scored 200 and above in the 2010 Unified Tertiary Metrication Examinations (UTME) to apply for admission in the new University. The first post-UTME screening test was thereafter conducted using the facilities at the Fiwasaye Girls Grammar School, Akure for candidates that applied for admission.98 students were eventually admitted on merit out of qualified candidates that sat for the screening test conducted in December, 2010.
Academic activities formally commenced at OSUSTECH in January 2011 with 98 pioneer students. The formal inauguration of the University was performed on Thursday, 3rd March, 2011 by Mimiko. The event also witnessed the matriculation of the first set of 98 pioneer students into the 10 NUC–approved programmes in the Faculty of Sciences comprising of four academic departments namely Department of Biological Sciences, Department of Chemical Sciences, Department of Mathematical Sciences and Department of Physical Sciences.
It should be noted that OSUSTECH made history as one of the few universities in Nigeria that moved to its permanent site in a record time of two years after commencement of academic programmes in January, 2011. This was made possible with the support of the Ondo state Government. All the laboratories in the University are well-equipped with modern and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment. Modern university is about teaching, learning, and research and community service. We encourage research in applied sciences among staff in such areas as solar energy, biogas, fertilizer production and soap and cosmetics production. We also encourage and support staff financially at attending conferences at home and abroad.
In order to give further expression to our appreciation of the contributions of staff, the University instituted the “Merit and Productivity Award” to deserving staff on an annual basis. In essence, the vision of the Award is to sustain and enhance staff productivity and to be a token to those that have gone extra mile to achieve excellent performance in a particular year.
What is your on the recent reported cases of unrest and demonstrations in some institutions including OSUSTECH due hike in fees?
Let me start by correcting the wrong impression that there was a “hike” in school fees at OSUSTECH. There was never a time that there was a hike in the school fees at OSUSTECH.
The Governing Council at its inaugural meeting on 27th September approved inter alia a fee of N100, 000.00 and N150, 000.00 per session for indigenes and non-indigenes respectively. This fee schedule has since been maintained in the last five sessions.
School fees are charged in all well-established and high ranking universities all over the world including nearby countries like Ghana. We should also observe the strategy now employed by some universities in Europe to visit Nigeria to recruit high calibre Nigerian students who have to pay fees that will range from about USD5, 000 to USD20,000. Such fees when well-managed ensure equipping and maintaining excellent laboratories that attract international students, scholars and teachers. The output of research from such excellent academic centres made them gain international recognition and high ranking. The spirit of OSUSTECH as envisioned by the State Government and Management is to make OSUSTECH join the league of high ranking universities in the world. OSUSTECH has been making steady progress in the last five years. We are mindful of producing graduates who are employable in the job market or graduates who are job creators.
On the issue of students’ protest on fees hike, it is indeed most unfortunate. We have had four uninterrupted academic sessions since January, 2011 when academic activities commenced.Our students hitherto have been excellent in conduct and character. Earlier, there had been previous agitations by staff over unpaid salaries. The Staff, in view of this development, were becoming agitated. The students took advantage of the tense situation to clamour for a reduction in school fees and for improved infrastructural facilities. They went ahead with the support of “outsiders” to circulate false information about the University. Education and Health issues should not be subject of partisan politics; otherwise the whole country will suffer from the consequences of misinformation.
The destruction, stealing and vandalisation of University properties in the name of protests and demonstration should be condemned by people of goodwill. Protests and demonstrations though are legitimate means of channeling grievances but should be done in civil manners devoid of abuse and destruction as being done and practised in advanced climes. Harassment, intimidation, “arrest and detention” of committed and dedicated staff that go about their lawful duties by students under the guise of protests and demonstrations are criminal offences which should attract severe penalties. A situation where protests are being used as means of personal vendetta against perceived enemies and opposition in a university system is untidy. No modern university can survive in an environment of hatred and acrimony.
Appointments and promotions into positions in the university system should be based on merit or measured in terms of performance and output and not based on ethnicity or sentiments. Therefore, a situation where ethnicity and mediocrity is being introduced into the process of appointment or promotion is a bad sign pointing to the downgrading of the entire system. Universities all over the world are universal institutions meant to serve wider and not sectional or parochial interests. There should be no “preferred community candidate” for positions in a modern university setting where people from all walks of life should be free to work and contribute meaningfully to its development. In the past, Nigerian universities used to have as faculty members people from Britain, United States, Canada, Pakistan, India and from other African nations. We also used to have foreign students from these countries that came in large numbers to study in Nigeria. Today, the reverse is the case. This explains partly why many Nigerian universities fail to make the first top 500 in global ranking of universities.
Appointment into positions and admission of students in a modern university setting should be guided by established rules and not based on race, religion, political affiliation, and ethnicity, social or economic status. OSUSTECH as a modern university should not be seen to encourage or promote sectionalism, division or sentiments. The notion or belief that the University that is located in a particular environment is meant to serve the interest of the community alone should be discouraged. Attempt should be made by government and people of goodwill to enlighten and re-orientate the people of the communities where a particular university is located that such university is meant for the generality of Nigerians and not a “local or village university” that is established to serve parochial interests.
The local politicians too should also be re-orientated not to interfere in the internal administration of institution(s) located in their domains. People tend to see tertiary institutions established in their localities as “personal institutions” which should be exploited for personal gains and for the pursuit of personal agenda for political and economic gains. No modern university can thrive in a hostile environment.
How accredited are courses in OSUSTECH?
All the academic programmes in OSUSTECH are accredited by the NUC. The University played host to the NUC accreditation teams between Monday 25th February and Wednesday, 6th March, 2013. The following nine programmes: Industrial Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Geophysics, Microbiology, Zoology, Botany, Fisheries and Computer Science had full accreditation, while one programme, Biochemistry, had interim accreditation status. The various laboratories, equipment and facilities at the University Libraries and Farms were adjudged adequate during the accreditation exercise. Efforts are also underway to start off the Faculties of Agriculture and Engineering. The Academic Briefs for the proposed Facilities had been prepared and made ready for submission to the NUC for approval. The Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) had also started the furnishing and equipping of Engineering workshops and laboratories in the University.
Why is it difficult for Nigeria to grow technologically? Despite several institutions of science and technology in the country?
One of the major challenges of universities and research institutions in Nigeria has been poor or lack of funding from governments at all levels. Most universities especially universities of technology require good funding to be able to make meaningful impact towards the technological advancement of the country. Apart from this, most research outputs from these institutions are hardly appropriated or utilized by governments and companies involved in the production of vital materials needed for industrial growth. Government for instance, requires a great deal of political will to be able to provide the needed environment for healthy industrial growth.
The steel industry must be fully harnessed and regular supply of electricity should be guaranteed for sustainable industrial growth and development. A situation where universities and research institutes rely on generators to provide electricity and power vital research equipment does not augur well for industrial growth. For any meaningful development to take place especially, technological breakthrough in the area of motor car production, there must be effort in the direction of steady electricity coupled with the improvement and funding of the steel sector of the economy.
What is your take on the growing number of higher institutions in the country?
I don’t think that the number of private and public higher institutions in Nigeria with a population of over 170 million is on the high side. What the country really needs at the moment is to ensure that these tertiary institutions update their curricula in tune with modern best practices and in line with the current realities of the country.
Apart from this, the coordinating and regulating bodies in charge of tertiary education in the country such as the NUC and the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) should ensure that all higher institutions both private and public adhere strictly to the minimum academic standards as outlined by them.
These bodies should be more effective in their statutory roles of ensuring standard, quality and efficient service delivery in higher institutions.
A development where about 27 universities were closed down recently by the NUC for illegal operation was worrisome and not good for the image of the country. A situation where graduates of our tertiary institutions are without basic knowledge and mastery of the subject of their study is not healthy for the entire system. I do not think the number of higher institutions we have in the country is on the high side, but we only need to put some control measures to ensure sanity in the entire system.
How do you think Nigeria can develop its science and technology base?
As said earlier, there are three key issues involved. First, there must be proper funding of universities and research institutes to enable them focus on their primary assignments. Secondly, government on its part should play its role of providing a conducive environment for sustainable growth and development. In this regard, attention should be paid to the development of vital key sectors like energy and steel. Thirdly, there should be workable synergy between the universities and the industrial sector. The research outputs from these institutions should serve as veritable tools for industrial development.
What are your expectations for OSUSTECH in the next five to ten years now that the institution has successfully taken off?
The dream of the Governor of OndoState, was to make OSUSTECH a model and one of the best universities of technology in the world. The management of OSUSTECH has therefore been making frantic efforts to make the university truly world class and one that will compete favourably with other notable institutions across the globe.
This therefore, informed the decision of OSUSTECH management to establish the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Leadership Training (CELT). The ultimate aim of this Centre is to inculcate practical training skills in our students in other to make them job creators and positive contributors to socio-economic and political lives of the State and Nigeria at large.
At the Centre, the students are exposed to over 21 skill trainings and every Wednesday afternoon has been made lecture-free period to enable them learn any vocational skill or trade of their choice. Such trainings include bakery and confectionery, beads production, tailoring and fashion designing, drum-making, tie and dye production, weaving and production of “Aso-Oke”, sculptural works, welding, metal and fabrication, bottled and sachet water production and others. The University Farms too have been stocked with various poultry products, fish, pigs, goats and other cash crops to give practical agricultural trainings to the students.
The Management, as part of its efforts to encourage sporting activities amongst students, instituted an inter-departmental football competition in 2012. So far, three football competitions had been organized on inter programme basis and the winner and runner up teams were presented with trophies and cash prizes donated by the Vice-Chancellor. Other sporting activities such as lawn tennis, table tennis, badminton, athletics and other in-door games are being given due attention. The ultimate aim of Management’s support is to encourage students to compete and win medals in national and international competitions. Work is however, on-going on the construction of the University Sports Centre.
The University Management, as part of its efforts to assist indigent students, has instituted the Work-Study Programme. The programme is designed to offer opportunities to brilliant but indigent students to work on the University farms and factories during the weekends and holidays to support their education.
I would like to use this medium to appeal to all stakeholders to exercise patience with the University and allow it grow to enviable height. The University commenced academic activities only in January 2011 which is barely about five years old and cannot be compared to others that are twenty years old or more. We appreciate people of goodwill who have visited and commended the giant stride that OSUSTECH has made within the short time of its existence. To improve the university system, eminent and courageous persons with vast experience in university system should be appointed into key university positions. Such leaders should be focused, fair and firm with proven high level of integrity. Advisers, Special Assistants and others should be technocrats working and analysing data. Funding and provision of well-equipped institutions coupled with regular payment of staff salaries and entitlements should be sustained in a conducive learning environment comparable to any reputable international institution.
The host communities of universities as vital stakeholders have significant roles to play in sustaining the institutions in their localities. The role of community-university relationship to include facilitating accommodation for staff and students; assisting in securing scholarships for indigent students and showing interests in the general progress and development of such institutions.
We have been making efforts in ensuring that our students imbibe leadership skills by allowing them to form productive associations and groups useful for nation building.
Therefore, I desire to see OSUSTECH after five years to be ranked among the foremost universities of technology in Nigeria. I equally expect to see OSUSTECH in a decade’s time to be among the best universities of technology in the world where meaningful research outputs are being turned out for sustainable growth and development of the country.