September 30, 2022


Just Do Travel

Exploring agency of Nigeria’s higher education system for growth

6 min read

The work ethics of educated Nigerians is way above average. It has been said before that any country you travel to and you do not see a sizable migrant population of Nigerians, you should know that something is questionable about the country’s economic prospects. Nigerians are often resilient, possess a ‘can do’ attitude and are tenacious in the pursuit of their goals. Nigerians thrive in the diaspora and possess the adaptability necessary to do things differently. With a disproportionately young population in Nigeria, one common trait among Generation Z (people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s) is a sense of pessimism, an acute lack of patriotism for Nigeria, as evidenced by numerous rude and unwarranted comments littered across social media platforms, and an irrational desire to be wealthy at all costs! Daily incidents of crime committed by this youthful population are so numerous that they tend to outshine positive developments taking place in the country. Do we just concede that the future is grim based on existing trends? Our point of contention is that we should not. Rather than that, we would argue for the importance of higher education in Nigeria in terms of training and shaping these young people.

Our treatise in this article is about the role of institutions of higher learning in Nigeria, specifically colleges of education, polytechnics and universities, both private and public. We focus on two important factors in this piece as the building blocks for subsequent ideas. We have stated previously that the education sector in Nigeria is key to the country, much more so at the turn of the 21st century, given the global problems we have encountered thus far.

We define higher education in Nigeria generally as any post-secondary institution beyond high school education. This category will include technical colleges, education colleges, polytechnics and universities. While we recognise that the targeted population and expected qualifications at technical colleges and colleges of education are distinct from those at polytechnics and universities, we argue that polytechnics and universities must move away from a teaching-centric approach to higher education and toward one that is driven by innovation and anchored in a strong research culture. In other words, these institutions of higher learning should evolve into knowledge hubs for innovation.  The initiative to do this rests first on the academics working with these institutions, who must first ‘look in the mirror.’ They must examine their true motives for becoming academics, eliminate plagiarism and avoid publishing in predatory journals.

New and original knowledge, based on extensive research, is what enables a nation to flourish. Though it is essential to teach exceptionally effectively in these institutions of higher learning, research has demonstrated that the best academics are those who are driven by their own research, including researching their own practice. If Nigeria is to establish a foothold in the community of nations and establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in Africa and the rest of the world, research and innovation must be deliberate at the individual, institutional and national levels. Each academic must reassess and recommit to being a knowledge producer on an individual basis. Polytechnics and universities must have an institutional research focus and agenda that are sustainable. As previously stated, the need for curriculum change and reform is critical to this. This will support the creation of a teaching-research-innovation nexus capable of responding to societal problems. Or, what good is an engineering degree from a Nigerian university if the graduate is unable to connect theory and practice in order to address real-world problems?

Global challenges continue to defy one-sided thinking and thinking that is based only on dichotomies. In other words, today’s difficulties necessitate a multidisciplinary approach guided by multi-stakeholder relationships. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how government institutions might collaborate with commercial and public research organisations to address a global health threat such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The argument here is for building robust multi-stakeholder partnerships, referred to as a ‘quadruple helix model of innovation’ in the literature. This approach is effective and useful in assisting the higher education landscape in moving forward in the 21st century. The quadruple helix innovation model acknowledges four key actors in national innovation systems: Academia, business, government, and society. In other words, this demonstrates the need for collaboration between research, policy, industry and government. As is increasingly becoming the norm in other national innovation systems in the global North, a strong connection between these four actors as strategic partners must be intentionally fostered in order to develop implementable and impactful policies that are SMART [specific, measurable, achievable (or attainable), relevant, and time-bound].

Enough of relying just on the national government to handle all of Nigeria’s higher education sector’s problems. Although the Federal Government has a responsibility in establishing the platforms and infrastructure necessary for these institutions of higher education to operate, each academic must accept their academic autonomy. Self-leadership is absolutely essential since it results in novel research problems that contribute to social benefit. We do not believe the Nigerian government should be free from blame for the difficulties confronting our higher education system. Instead, we do believe it is important to ensure that no academic is contributing to the problem at the grassroots level, where they have direct control and influence. Academics must take ownership of their teaching and research achievements. Innovative thinking should become the norm, not just doing the absolute minimum to earn a living. A number of inventions that we are presently harnessing across the world developed from collaborations formed through the type of helix model mentioned above and sustained by the academics driving these innovations. Exploring how to leverage a company’s corporate social responsibility for research development is a low-hanging fruit that might be pursued. The choices are practically endless. As Nelson Mandela put it, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

We must re-establish our nation’s winning ways through the leadership of our higher education institutions in Nigeria. We cannot continue to employ obsolete strategies to address new problems. In Nigeria’s higher education landscape, the constant and periodic industrial strikes cannot continue. The 21st century demands academics to think differently and to develop novel approaches to resolving these recurring industrial disputes. Since 1999, there must have been a more effective strategy to involve the national government in building and strengthening our higher education system. This has gradually eroded the credibility of our polytechnics and universities, driven away international students who previously contributed extremely valuable knowledge exchange and experience in the development of intercultural learning, rendered our polytechnics and universities uncompetitive, and devalued the degrees and qualifications conferred by these institutions. Academics and administrators at these institutions have a responsibility to play in addressing this, particularly in light of the dynamic nature of contemporary society. Every Nigerian, including parents, has an obligation to play. As previously mentioned, we live in a knowledge-based global economy. We cannot afford to stay complacent as a country, waiting for the emergence of a messiah-leader at the helm before making meaningful changes to our higher education institutions. Enough with the excuses and accusatory finger-pointing at the government and/or the government’s accusatory finger-pointing at stakeholders in higher education institutions. Ideas rule the world.

Ojo is an academic at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa while Gbenga is the Managing Partner of MTouch Professional Service in Nigeria; they can be reached on Twitter at @Emmanuel_Ojo and @Falana_Gbenga, respectively.

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