The Privatization and Commercialization of Higher Education in Nigeria - By Roy Chikwem

The Nigerian higher educational sector is perhaps the largest in Sub-Sahara Africa both in the number of educational institutions and the population of students.

Only 57 per cent of adult Nigerians are literate, matching the rate for sub-Saharan Africa, compared with 71 per cent for all developing countries. The privatization and commercialization of higher education has occupied the minds of Nigerians over the years. For many, it simply means increase in the cost of education and for others, privatization of education is a positive move which implies more resources for the educational sector and a much better quality education for students. The trend towards educational privatization is strong and it is taking place in many other countries because the educational sector is a large expenditure item in government budgets and they often face pressure to privatize. Historically, Nigerians are familiar with the private schools that were operated by the missionaries, before they were taken over by the government.In general, the Nigerian government performed disappointingly in maintaining and managing those schools. Therefore, Nigerians prefer the private institutions and choose to forgo the free public educational system if they can afford it. Over the years, the Nigerian higher educational sector has suffered a lot of setback including inadequate student housing, poor funding by the state and federal government, poor technological advancement, poor educational planning for the preschool, elementary, secondary, and vocational schools, corruption in the Minister of Education, non-restoration of autonomy for tertiary educational institutions, non-functional facilities, disruption of academic calendars by lecturer strikes, cultism and so much more.
To arrest the failures of the public higher educational system in Nigeria, The former Obasanjo administration issued licenses to private individuals and organizations to establish private polytechnics, monotechnics and universities. The number of private higher institutions has increased at the same time as increased fees have been introduced in some public institutions. This trend has emerged largely as a result of the incapacity of the government to satisfy the increasing educational demands. The response to the new privatization program in the educational sector has been mixed. Many Nigerians initially were generally opposed to the idea but there seems to had been an apparent support from the international community. The strongest opposition had emerged from the National Assembly and the labor unions. The privatization crusade is, however, much more complex than a mere increase in private funding.  It appears to be an answer to an increasingly diversified demand in terms of content, teaching methods, and to the desire of families to choose the school to which they send their children. The issue is not so much of money but rather the freedom of choice, flexibility, regulation, quality and accountability. In developed countries, privately managed and regulated schools are generally supposed to be more effective, efficient and produce better results than schools managed by the government.  Privatization may therefore mean that parents pay the cost of schooling rather than the government.

Emergence of Privatized Higher Educational Institutions in Nigeria
The recent emergence of private tertiary institutions in Nigeria is not a new phenomenon. They have evolved during two historical periods. The first period, during the period of Nigeria's second democratic experiment (1979/1983), private universities emerged without any defined educational planning for their development and were later abolished by a military regime in 1984. Both prior to and during this period, official thinking followed mainly two Presidential Commissions on Higher Education in Nigeria, the Ashby Commission (1962) and the Cookey Commission (1981), that were very conservative about the proliferation of universities (public or private). The second period in the evolution of private universities (under the Obasanjo government, 1999 - 2007) occurred as part of a planned development project. Since 1999, 34 private universities have been licensed in response to over 110 applications received by the National Universities Commission, a federal government agency charged with the regulation, accreditation, and monitoring of universities (both public and private). Today, there are 34 private universities in the country and their establishment is seen by many as a positive development in our higher educational sector. Although there are 91 universities (federal, state and private) today in Nigeria but their carrying capacity is abysmally low. Out of one and half million candidates seeking university admissions annually, only about 200,000 of them can be absorbed. Being there is a 9-Year free and compulsory basic education in Nigeria, it is certainly going to throw up the proportion of more candidates seeking placement into universities. That is why there was a need to come up with proactive strategies for creating more university spaces without compromising academic standards. The proportion of funds made available to public universities in the last 15 years is still far from adequate to make these institutions regain a respectable place in the global ranking of universities. It is true that these institutions are now embarking on an aggressive drive to generate funds internally, but they still rely heavily on government subventions which are grossly inadequate. Regrettably, the bulk of these allocated funds (sometimes as much as 80%) are expended on salaries and emoluments of both academic and non-academic staff.
Thus, the National Universities Commission (NUC) granted some private universities approvals to open up their doors, among these universities were ABTI - American University of Nigeria, Ajayi Crowther University, Babcock University, Benson Idahosa University, Bowen University, Cetep University, Caritas University, Catholic University of Nigeria, Covenant University, Igbinedion University, Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Lead City University, Madonna University, Pan Africa University, Redeemer University and Wesley University.  The Federal Executive Council (FEC) presided over by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar on June 1 2005 approved the licensing of another seven new private universities in the country after receiving report of the stringent and rigorous screening exercise conducted by the National Universities Commission (NUC) through which they emerged. The new institutions were Bells University of Technology, Crawford University, Wukari University, Crescent University, Novena University, Renaissance University and University of Mkar.  The Nigerian federal government on December 11 2007 issued two more licenses for the operation of private universities. The two new universities are Achievers University, Owo in Ondo State and African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, capital of the country. Furthermore, the Federal government had issued new licenses to the following polytechnics; Abuja School of Accountancy and Computer Studies, Grace Polytechnic, City Polytechnic, Our Savior Institute of Science and Technology, Imo State Technological Skill Acquisition Center, Universal College of Technology and Wolex Polytechnic.

Importance of Privatized Higher Education in Nigeria

The Nigerian private higher educational sector enormous importance is increasingly advantageous and clear. The extraordinary growth and potential of Nigerian private higher education is major news, usually controversial. This privatization is one of the few matters in higher education that attracts immense interest beyond higher education itself. Private higher educational institutions are devoid of the burden of collective management. Decisions are usually made by the vice chancellor or presidents. The senate and the faculty council are entirely advisory in nature, which confer the academic degrees. Private institutions can respond rapidly to the changing needs of educational demand and labor market needs. Private higher education institutions are decidedly more expensive for students than are the public. Private institutions are more flexible and definitely offer higher quality services than their public counterparts. Nearly 100% of private institutions are funded from tuition fees and not from the state budget. They are entirely dependent on their markets.

The effects of globalization and education are enormous. Education used to be regarded as a non-tradable service however; private provision of education is huge business in Nigeria. The technological developments like the internet and cheaper telecommunications combined with increased acceptance on non-traditional educational settings (remote learning) may well broaden the scope of international trade in education services in the coming years and at this point, has created the potential for fast growth in Nigeria. Globalization has heightened the demand for education, which has also increased many private higher education institutions however; globalization may also lead to an erosion of national regulatory frameworks for education. The growing number of private universities is an indication that the private sector partnership in the Nigerian educational sector has yielded fruitful dividends, with more private sector involvement in higher education, the standard, quality and regular funding of the ivory towers would be guaranteed. This development is also expected to increase vacancies for more teaching and non- teaching staff as well as prospective students seeking admission into universities.

Virtues and Demerits of Privatized Higher Education in Nigeria

Apart from the ideological arguments for and against privatization, efforts to rigorously document the specific advantages and disadvantages of higher educational privatization in Nigeria have proved inconclusive. The merits and drawbacks of privatization have been subjects of considerable debate among business-people, community leaders, parents and public employees alike. Indeed, each element of privatization from its apparent, satisfying educational demands to its possible negative impact on the low-income families provokes strong reaction. About the only thing that everyone can agree on is that the trend has been enormously beneficial to owners of the private institutions. The following are some controversies engulfing the operation of privatized higher education in Nigeria, that communities, public providers, and private providers all need to consider:

Cost of Privatized Education
The foremost controversy that has engulfed the operation of private institutions is the outrageous school tuition and fees. They are so expensive that the common citizens cannot afford to send their children but rely on the public schools. Thus, the private schools are patronized by children of the rich and elite. The cheapest private university in Nigeria is Al-Hikmah University, Kwara State. It's owned by the joint organization of Raim Oladimeji and World Assembly of Muslim Youth, based in Saudi Arabia. They admit both Christians and Muslims, and students have the right to their religion. The actual tuition amount is two hundred and fifty thousand Naira for some courses but students could get a hundred thousand naira scholarships from the University, so they end-up paying one hundred and fifty thousand naira per session. However, some public universities have started increasing their school tuition and fees. Students of Ladoke Akintola University (LAUTECH) in Ogbomoso, Oyo State protested against the recently increased tuition fees announced by the management of the institution. The protesting students decried the announced increase in fees which range from N50,000 to N60,000 from the former N5,000 and N6,000. However, some state governments remain generous and continue to subsidize the cost of higher education. Governor Sullivan Chime of Enugu State recently directed the immediate cancellation of all school fees for the one hundred and eighty one students of the College of Medicine of the Enugu University of Science and Technology (ESUT), for the remaining number of years; they are to spend in the college.

Employee-Student Union Affiliation
The second controversy surrounding the private institutions is the issue of employee-union membership. Many of the private institutions have refused to grant approval for their staff members to join any employee union both local and national including the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU). However, it is no mystery that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strikes have contributed to the degradation of the educational system in Nigeria. ASUU over the years are swift to embark on national strikes without consideration for the students. Thus, a four year university program is unfairly extended to a seven year program because of constant employee union strikes. Therefore, it was imperative for the private institutions to take proactive steps to safeguard the unnecessary prolongation of university programs. Though, the private institutions have insisted that lecturers and students will not be allowed to join any trade and student unions respectively.  The administrator of one of the private institution was quoted as saying that "He that has the pipe dictates the tune, so lecturers and teachers will not be part of ASUU and the students will not be part of a national student union organisation because they are mission student in a mission sponsored university”

Standard Rules and Regulations

The third controversy is the issue of private institutions operating under their own rules without any standard rules and regulations. In 2007, Covenant University introduced mandatory HIV/AIDS testing for new students and those about to graduate, as part of its 'Total Man' concept. The university says this ensures that its graduates are not only academically sound but of high moral standard. Pregnant students who cannot prove they are legally married risk suspension or expulsion. Covenant University is however rated as the best private tertiary institution in Nigeria last year. They implement a strict code of behaviour: all students have to live on the campus and, among other restrictions include the ban on mobile phone usage. The controversial policy has caused an outcry among HIV/AIDS activists and government officials, who have warned that the move could be a setback in tackling the country's widespread problem of stigma and discrimination. The country's licensing body for universities, the National University Commission (NUC) summoned Covenant University officials to clarify the policy, which NUC says is unjustified.

A monumental scandal that rocked the privately owned Igbinedion University, Okadaland was when the female students protested to the school authorities over the incessant sexual and financial harassment by some lecturers of the institution. Some of the female victims, unable to cope with the unending sexual harassment by the sex-crazy lecturers had sent an SOS message to the print media to come to their relief and a Sunday Sun reporter went undercover in the privately funded university owned by the Benin billionaire, Sir Gabriel Igbinedion, the Esama of Benin Kingdom. Investigations revealed that so far, two senior lecturers, a certain Prof. Odutuga, the ex- Dean of Basic Medicine and one Metuonu, a lecturer in the psychology department have been disciplined by the university authorities for awarding marks for sex.

Additionally, Crawford University forbids male students from growing beard. It also bars female students from using artificial hair, earrings and any form of jewellery. Bullying, violent and anti-social conduct is not allowed. Violations of these rules are punishable by suspension and sometimes expulsion, depending on the gravity of the offence. Relationship that promotes promiscuity and immorality are forbidden. All these rules are contained in their revised Student Handbook. The institution’s Corporate Communications Officer, Mr. Ikem Victor, said that the university designed the rules to make the students responsible citizens.

Conversion of the Polytechnics to Universities
The fourth controversy that is likely to affect the growth of private higher educational system in Nigeria is the planned transformation of all Federal Polytechnics to Federal Universities. The Federal Government recently approved the affiliation of all Polytechnics to Federal Universities nearest to them, and the subsequent award of bachelor of technology (B.Tech) degrees in place of Higher National Diplomas (HND). The Federal Government noted that since the polytechnics had derailed from the initial goal for which they were established by featuring students in virtually all non-technical courses, further awards of HND should be halted. The Minister of Education however stated that the HND certificate obtained before now would remain a legal tender and would be treated as the equivalent of first degree with the holders not discriminated in any manner whatsoever and with no limit to their progression in the work place. The Federal Government also ruled that the two most prominent polytechnics in the country, the Yaba College of Technology and Kaduna Polytechnics will henceforth be known as City University of Technology, Yaba and City University of Technology, Kaduna respectively. The Federal Government also set up a Presidential Technical Committee, headed by Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu, to work out the details for the conversion of colleges of education and technical colleges into campuses of federal universities. The Minister of Education stated that while the NCE certificate would be retained, as the minimum teaching qualification at the basic level of education, private colleges of education and polytechnics will continue to be licensed for the award of qualifications at ND and NCE levels.

Student Cultism
The fifth controversy has actually vindicated the children of the rich, elite and military class. For years, the general public have accused the children of the privilege for sponsoring and encouraging violence student cultism in the public educational institutions. The general public had claimed that the rich kids were polluting the children of the poor, resulting in their participation in violence student cultism. However, the recent emergence of private tertiary institutions in Nigeria has debunked that allegation as false and without any merit. There are practically non-existences of any student violence cult groups in the private tertiary institutions, which are mostly attended by the so-called rich, elite and the military class. It is transparent that the private universities have been able to effectively and efficiently weep-off prospective student cultists from attending their campuses. Many have suggested that the student cult activities are non-existence in private universities because students fear the risk of expulsion after spending millions of naira on their education. But student cultists in public institutions tend to transfer or re-apply to a different public school, when expelled because of the low cost of education in public tertiary institutions. The public tertiary institutions have battled the menace of student cultism for decades without any success.  

Despite the remarkable rate of change that marks Nigeria’s Private higher educational sector today; seven forces are undeniably spurring the spread of privatization in Nigerian higher educational sector: the rise of an information-based economy, redistribution of wealth, changes in demographics, an increase in public scrutiny, the advent of new technologies, the convergence of knowledge-based organizations and a decline in public trust in government. The Federal government can help public postsecondary education systems respond to these forces by helping define academic quality and student achievement, eliminating overlap and duplication, ensuring accountability, and more efficiently utilizing the capacity of providers of postsecondary learning. The truth remain that it is yet to be known the full consequences and implications of privatizing higher education in Nigeria. There are more questions than answers and we are not even sure whether higher education is a profitable field for the private sector, though the preliminary evidence suggests the long-term opportunities are better than in elementary and secondary educational sector.

Roy Chikwem is the Director of the Chikwem Foundation, Inc. A-Not-For-Profit organization that advocates for the education of every Nigerian child.  He wrote from New Castle, Delaware, USA. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This article was written on December, 2008.


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