A new bill to help usher the much-needed reform into tertiary education in the country faces a barrage of criticisms from stakeholders
When the ministry of education inaugurated a visitation panel to appraise federal universities and inter-university centres, in 2011, the objective was to clean up the system and ensure that tertiary institutions in Nigeria focus on its role of education and research.
The Universities Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, the fallout of the visitation panel, is believed to be capable of steering Nigeria’s tertiary institutions back into global reckoning. Currently, the bill has been passed by both arms of the National Assembly and is going through the harmonisation process before members of the Senate and House of Representatives. Anytime from now, President Goodluck Jonathan is expected to sign it into law.
Presenting the white paper of the visitation panel last year, Rukayyatu Rufai, minister of education, highlighted areas where waste and impunity of some principal officers of the universities’ councils will be pruned. “It is obvious that most of the rancour and bitterness generated within the university sector arose from lack of transparency in the deployment of resources, especially funds. Therefore, as managers of a vibrant subsector, all vice chancellors as models must live above board. The ineptitude of principal officers and their management will surely not go unnoticed and will henceforth attract appropriate sanctions,” she warned.
But as laudable as some of the principles contained in the proposed law are, stakeholders in the industry have raised the alarm over some of the provisions, which they insist were “smuggled into the bill.” They argue that the extension of retirement age for professors and the reduction in the tenure of some career officers in the University Council can undermine the reform process.
Fred Agbaje, a legal practitioner and lecturer, University of Lagos, UNILAG, said the increment in the retirement age of professors is an invitation to academic rot and brain drain in the system. “What happens is that most of them struggle to become professors and once they get that they are no longer contributory to the academic welfare of students. Now, if such fellows remain in the system, for as long as they remain on the faculty quota, intellectual stagnancy begins to set in. Why don’t you create employment and give room for other academic staff to advance their career? ” he queried.
For instance, they claim that the tenure of some principal officers of the University Council has been reduced without recourse to a public hearing. Specifically, the tenure of registrars, bursars and librarians in tertiary institutions has been slashed from two terms of five years each to a single term of five years.
Section 5 of the bill states, “A registrar shall hold office for a single term of five years beginning from the effective date of his appointment and on such terms and conditions as may be specified in his letter of appointment.
Notwithstanding, the council may, upon satisfactory performance, extend the tenure of the registrar for a period of one year and thereafter, such registrar shall relinquish his post and may be assigned to other duties in the university.”
Before the bill went to the National Assembly, the affected officers enjoyed two terms of five years each. The second term, they say, is not automatic but by reappointment based on excellent service and good conduct. Some registrars of private and public universities who spoke with the magazine last week say that provision has already determined who comes back into the council or not. But the proposed amendment, which they insist was not part of the 2009 agreement between federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, is capable of dampening the morale of career officers and encourage mediocrity and a lackadaisical attitude to work.
Speaking to the magazine, Peter Akingbade, a former deputy registrar, says the proposal is tantamount to a forced retirement for the affected officers. “If you have been a vice chancellor and you leave that post, you can go back to your department as a lecturer, as a head of department. There is seniority in the academic cadre. But when you are in the administration sector, it is like you are forcefully retiring the officers because it is quite hard to go back to the system and work for your subordinates. It is not right at all,” he said.
Leke Adeboye, Registrar, Samuel Adegboyega University, Ogwa, Edo State, also faulted the National Assembly for passing the bill without a public hearing.
“We need experienced people to manage our universities. This thing came through the back door. Nobody can come out and say they proposed this thing. It is either the committee of vice chancellors or some mischievous people. Unfortunately, the National Assembly did not conduct a public hearing for stakeholders. Why didn’t they conduct a public hearing? We need experienced administrators to have two terms of five year each. If the registrar, bursar or librarian is good, then he is reappointed. We need to talk about this,” he submitted.
To salvage the situation, the Committee of Registrars of Nigerian Universities, CORNU, has sent a letter to President Jonathan, seeking audience to enable them thrash out these issues. A registrar in one of the universities in the South-west last week expressed hope that the meeting with the President will be fruitful “and save the education sector from a fundamental harm.”
In Agbaje’s estimation, librarians, bursars and registrars provide the needed checks and balances in the university system. “If that bill sails through, then the affected career officers will become slaves within the university system. They will become chessboard for vice chancellors. The vice chancellors will treat them anyhow. The concept of certainty, acting independently without looking behind their shoulders, will no longer be there.