The National Universities Commission is a body first set up in 1962 inside the Cabinet Office as an advisory agency which, over the years, metamorphosed into a corporate body enacted by statute in 1974, under its first Executive Secretary, Professor Jibril Aminu. It is now one of the most active and commonly recognised regulatory agencies firmly embedded in the Federal Ministry of Education. Its mission statement states: “To be a dynamic regulatory agency acting as a catalyst for positive change and innovation for the delivery of quality university education in Nigeria”. On any rational examination of the agency, it is anything but “dynamic”. On the contrary, it has remained static and highly bureaucratic, with a jaundiced view of higher education incompatible with the needs of today’s diversified and fast-moving knowledge acquisition from multiple sources. Its remit and raison d’être have not been reviewed for 60 years. Its service delivery has remained in-ward looking, dreary and notoriously predictable. A centralised education system is the anti-thesis of “dynamism”, “positive change”, and “innovation”. Its rigid hold on the education system in a multi-ethnic, multi-nation, federal state is backward-looking, especially when there is pressure on countries to “roll back” the frontiers of the state in all other aspects of public life. Let us dig deeper.

Part of the mandates of the NUC is to: grant approval for all academic programmes run in Nigerian universities; establish all higher educational institutions; maintain quality assurance of all academic programmes; channel external support to Nigerian universities, among others. To achieve this, its administrative structure consists of a Governing Council, and a Secretariat with 12 Directorates: Academic planning, inspection and monitoring, management and support, students’ support, establishment of private universities, research, innovations and information technology, etc. It is clear the NUC is a behemoth, breathing down the necks of every university in Nigeria. This cannot possibly be right. That no audible objection is being raised about this all too pervasive and intrusive body by people at the receiving end of its sharp edge is puzzling, to say the list. My best guess is that this is a result of a cosy entente cordiale that exists between senior academics in the universities and the management of the NUC. All the more reason for the public concern reflected in this piece.

To be fair to the agency, originally, there was a perceived need to have a single authority to coordinate the academic programmes of existing and new institutions to ensure and uphold uniform standards. This is especially so in view of the fact that the universities were, almost invariably, taxpayer-funded. However, in 2021, delivery of university education is no longer the preserve of government alone. Churches, consortiums, voluntary organisations and individuals also provide university education for the public. Moreover, the ultimate arbiter of quality education in today’s world can no longer be government bureaucrats, it has to be the beneficiaries of qualified graduates from the universities; the employers of labour.

With their clipboard and Bic biro to hand, the NUC regularly turns up at the door of universities to carry out periodic, in some cases, sporadic inspection of their curricula, checking for conformity to laid-down rules. This has become a huge ceremony, and fanfare, overlaid by enthusiasm and apprehension in varying circumstances. The very fact of a visit by a NUC accreditation team now represents a theatre in which everyone dances to a well-rehearsed tune. They come wielding the big stick of “accrediting” or “de-accrediting” a particular programme, department, faculty, or even an entire institution. They go round, bleary-eyed, ticking boxes like you see election observers do, except that they carry such awe and such menace on their faces akin to the Gestapos. They delight in probing into every minutiae of a university’s programme: how many students have enrolled on a particular course, and a particular unit; over what period of time; the topics being covered in a chronological order; how many textbooks in the tutor’s office; how many contact hours with students; classroom space; how much time is taken for tea-break, etc. Pretty mundane and inane. Let us face it, and as menacing as they make themselves look at times, there is practically nothing the NUC demands of a resourceful institution that would not miraculously appear in time for an accreditation, even a fresh human skull. Everyone plays to the gallery, of course. The NUC officials are good at many things; thinking outside the box is not one of them.

Accreditation (the crown jewel in their armoury), has degenerated into an expensive charade in its manifestation. But, never mind, everyone revels in the ritual anyhow. Nigerians can be so compliant, and are generally too happy to give robotic answers to predictable questions from officialdom. In turn, some Nigerian academics have taken leave of their senses too. Many no longer understand the meaning of “academic freedom” they profess and cherish so much. Globally, academic freedom is at the core of any university’s standing. It has been circumscribed in Nigeria by over-zealot NUC staffers in the name of enforcing uniform standards.  Oh, let us not teach this or that, because the NUC team may not approve. Or, this or that course unit has either been ruled out, or not yet sanctioned by the NUC, so, let us not dare expose our students to it, and other similarly mind-numbing banalities. Many have forestalled their own ability for creative thinking and foresight, as a result of their dogmatic, zombie-like approach to the NUC’s ‘criteria’, which echo loudly like voices in their heads. Is this a healthy development for the Nigerian academia? Surely not.

In my view, government bureaucrats should not be in the business of dictating course titles and their precise contents to any university. It is a regulatory overreach, and an insult to the more established institutions in Nigeria. Can anyone say that the likes of University of Lagos, University of Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ahmadu Bello University, Bayero University, University of Port Harcourt, University of Nigeria, Nsukka etc, or, Afe Babalola University, Covenant University, Elizade University, Baze University, Backcock University etc, need some busybody to tell them what to teach and how to teach? There are many more similarly good universities, too numerous to mention. They should not be herded in the same direction. They should be allowed to play to their individual ambitions and strengths. Above all, they should be given maximum leeway to manage their curricula as they deem fit. Most academic courses these days are linked to professional bodies for additional certification anyway. That said, there would still be room for regulatory oversight, but not in the current one-size-fits-all manner. Once granted its corporate licence, a university should be allowed to run its institution free from the NUC diktats for a period of 10 to 20 years. The NUC would reserve the right to revoke the licence anytime, in case of an egregious breach of its mandate. This draconian power would be subject to final arbitration of the courts. The commission would also have the right to conduct an impromptu inspection of any university upon the receipt of a petition from interested parties. This can be described as ‘light touch’ or ‘arms-length’ regulation, fit for the 21st century.

Finally, in case you think this piece is unduly harsh on the NUC, this is what the agency cheerfully advertises on its website: “The Commission has recorded a number of successes since its inception. These successes can be attributed to the quality of its leadership, dedication and commitment of the staff, the quality of its Board members, cooperation received from universities and support from the Federal Government”. As of today, there is not a single mention of any of the “successes” referred to. I rest my case.

By Tayo Oke

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