There have been significant advancements in the higher education sector in Nigeria, practically induced by the advent of private tertiary institutions. This development in the higher education sector has ushered in an era of gigantic transformation for the academic institutions across the nation, making the country’s education sector globally competitive and dynamic, in a manner of speaking.
Recognizing the increasing demand for higher education and the need for diversified academic offerings, the Nigerian government opened the door for private sector involvement in the provision of quality tertiary education to its citizens in the early 1980’s.
The first private university in Nigeria, the Babcock University, was established in 1984 by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This marked a historic milestone, paving the way for other faith-based and privately-owned tertiary institutions.
With this development, Nigerian-owned tertiary institutions now rank alongside most prized universities of the Western world that had hitherto held serious attraction for Nigeria’s “nouveau riche”.
Prior to this period, the country’s higher education sector was predominantly public, with government-owned universities and polytechnics being the primary providers of tertiary education.
As with most establishments of governments in Africa, and especially in Nigeria, the dominance of the public tertiary education sector by the governments, especially the federal and state governments, was not without its debilitating challenges.
Among the predominant challenge of the government-owned institutions was the incessant strikes by Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU), a labour union established in 1978 when university lecturers in the country, dissatisfied with the state of higher education, formed the union to advocate for better learning environment and working conditions for the lecturers.
The nascent union embarked on a journey that would come to shape the course of Nigeria’s higher education, albeit, negatively, as frequent strikes kept students at home, sometimes for a whole academic year. The immediate implication was that some courses with duration of four years saw students spending five to six years minimum before graduation.
The recurring strikes by ASUU, which often centred around issues such as salary discrepancies, infrastructure deficiencies, and inadequate funding for universities, became a characteristic feature of higher education in Nigeria.
Among the long-term consequences of the ASUU strikes was the uncertainty that surrounded the reliability of the higher education system, which compelled some of Nigeria’s brightest minds to seek educational opportunities abroad, contributing to a continued brain drain, which is detrimental to the nation’s quest for global competitiveness.
Prolonged strikes took tolls not only on the immediate academic calendar, but also on the long-term development of universities. The interruptions disrupt research initiatives, impede infrastructure development, and hinder the overall progress of academic institutions. These factors collectively diminish the attractiveness of Nigerian universities on the global stage.
These disruptions, did not only affect the continuity of academic programmes, but also undermined the confidence of both local and international students in the stability of the Nigerian higher education system, which led to most parents, even the not-so- rich, striving to send their children abroad for academic pursuit, with attendant cost implications.
Private tertiary institutions in Nigeria have continued to thrive and are now globally recognized. With a commitment to academic excellence, state-of-the-art facilities, and a focus on holistic development, these institutions are contributing significantly to the nation’s educational advancement.
Notable private universities in Nigeria include Covenant University, Babcock University, Landmark University, Bowen University, Augustine University, Afe Babalola University, American University of Nigeria, Igbinedion University, and recently, Maduka University, just to mention but a few.
Nigeria boasts of about 270 universities presently, out of which 148, or 54.8%, are private. Although some experts have argued that private institutions are expanding access to the education system, demands for higher education still outweigh the available spaces.
The private universities and institutions are seriously adapting to global standards and embracing innovative approaches to teaching and research. The commitment to enhancing the quality of education is evident in the rise of specialized programmes, state-of-the-art research facilities, and a growing emphasis on collaboration with international academic partners.
However, despite these positive developments, the increasing trend of educational tourism poses challenges to the sustainability and growth of Nigeria’s higher education system. A considerable number of Nigerian students opt to pursue their tertiary education abroad, drawn by the allure of prestigious institutions and the promise of exposure to diverse academic environments.
While the international exposure can be beneficial, it often results in a brain drain, as talented individuals may choose not to return to contribute to the development of their home country.
In a world where innovation and knowledge are the currency of progress, global competitiveness in higher education is non-negotiable. Countries that invest in developing a cadre of skilled, forward-thinking graduates are better positioned to lead in technology, research, and socio-economic development. Nigeria’s ascent to global competitiveness hinges on its ability to produce graduates who can not only meet international standards, but also set them.
Fostering academic excellence demands a comprehensive approach that encompasses curriculum development, research investment, faculty training, and infrastructural advancement. Upgrading laboratories, libraries, and online resources is pivotal to creating an environment that nurtures curiosity and innovation. Simultaneously, a dynamic curriculum that aligns with emerging global trends ensures that Nigerian graduates are not just participants, but architects of the future.
To mitigate the adverse effects of educational tourism and harness the potential of the country’s intellectual capital, there is a compelling need for strategic intervention. Policies and initiatives should be devised to attract, retain, and nurture the brightest minds within Nigeria.
This involves addressing the root causes that drive students abroad, such as perceived gaps in the local education system, limited research opportunities, and concerns about the quality of infrastructure.
By elevating the standards of local institutions, the appeal of studying abroad diminishes, and students are more likely to choose domestic options for their academic pursuits.
True global competitiveness goes beyond academic prowess. It requires the cultivation of leadership qualities. Nigerian higher education must instill in its students not just knowledge, but also the ability to think critically, adapt to change, and lead in diverse environments.
Leadership programmes, mentorship initiatives, and exposure to real-world challenges can contribute to shaping graduates who are not just employees, but leaders capable of steering Nigeria’s course on the international stage.
To enhance global competitiveness, Nigerian higher education institutions must actively seek collaboration with their international counterparts. Partnerships can facilitate knowledge exchange, research collaboration, and exposure to diverse perspectives. By actively participating in the global academic community, Nigeria can both learn from others and contribute its unique insights and experiences.
Fostering academic excellence and leadership in Nigeria’s higher education system is not the sole responsibility of educational institutions, it is a collective endeavour. Government support, private sector engagement, and community involvement are all integral to the success of this mission. It requires a commitment to invest in education as an investment designed to add value to the nation’s future.
As Nigeria charts its course in the 21st century, the imperative for global competitiveness in higher education is undeniable. Fostering academic excellence and leadership is not just a need, but a collective responsibility that will shape the destiny of the nation. By nurturing a generation of innovative, forward-thinking leaders, Nigeria can position itself as a formidable force in the global arena, contributing to and benefiting from the collective progress of humanity.
The advancement of Nigeria’s educational system calls for a paramount need to curtail the exodus of students seeking education abroad. By fostering academic excellence at home through strategic interventions, the nation can retain its brightest minds, address critical challenges, and contribute significantly to the global academic landscape. The time is ripe for a concerted effort to empower Nigeria’s higher education and position it as a hub of innovation, research, and academic distinction.
Okoronkwo, a leadership and good governance advocate, writes from Lagos. He can be reached via [email protected]