Former minister of Education and ex-Vice Chancellor, Imo State University, Prof Anthony Anwuka, tells CHUKWUDI AKASIKE about the challenges facing the nation’s education sector, politics, among other issues
The National University Commission recently reviewed the university curriculum after 25 years. Don’t you think the delay would have had an adverse effect on the country’s tertiary education and national development?
The review was made because of some certain demands from the universities, industries and some employers of labour who complained about the quality of graduates and what should be added in their curriculum to reflect the demands of industries and employers of labour. Universities and professional bodies have roles to play. On the registration panel that the NUC constituted, you have the official accreditation and NUC accreditation, and based on the pressure from professional assessors of the programmes in the universities, the tertiary institutions are trying to reflect the demands or needs of the industries.
How will you describe your time as the Vice Chancellor of Imo State Universities?
It was not an easy one; it was difficult, it was hard. The funding was not adequate to meet some of our needs in the university, but government tried as much as it could within its resources. However, we still needed some extra funding which was not coming either from the state government or from the Federal Government. So, it was a question of management because the funding was not enough and that is not a very easy situation to be in.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities has sought the intervention of stakeholders in the disagreement between it and the Federal Government over withheld salaries in order to avoid further crisis in the university system. What is your view about this?
Well, it is all about funding. My view is that the universities have to review their school fee structure. There is nowhere in the world that what is going on in Nigeria will be allowed. I know it is a very good thing to say that university education should be almost free, but until the universities start charging appropriate fees, the financial problems will continue, the ASUU strikes, everything that is going wrong in the university will continue. The universities should have adequate funding; they now have to charge commensurate fees. The lecturers cannot be saying ‘pay us as our counterparts in the United States, Ghana and other climes are being paid’, but you stay here, and you don’t charge any fee. It becomes difficult. Free education is a mirage; I don’t think it exists at that level anywhere in the world. Regardless of the feelings, you have to go back and charge adequate fees for the universities to have adequate funds.
But you are aware that some parents are poor and will not be able to fund their children’s university education if the fees are high. How will you respond to this?
Education is an investment; if you can’t invest, you don’t have to (invest). All of us can’t go to the university; it doesn’t happen anywhere in the world. Even in America, not everybody can go to the university. Let them say these are the fees they are going to charge in order to be able to cover the cost of running the universities. Again, the government can be able to have students’ loan funds or something like that to be introduced into the system so that students can get that kind of loan from the government for them to have university education. But to run education at the higher level or at the university level is easy as it is than running a private nursery school because parents pay 10 times what people pay in the university. This is ridiculous; it doesn’t make sense. We joke about it and we think it is something we are doing that is wonderful. There is nothing wonderful about it because it is destroying the system. We have to go back and change the school fees structure in the university. If you can afford it, you go. If you can’t afford it, you go to polytechnic or college of education or something else. It is not about being emotional; it is not sentiment; the truth is that you have to invest in education in order to reap profit in your investment. That is the way I feel about it.
The Federal Government has earmarked 7.9% of the total 2023 budget for education. But this is still a far cry from UNESCO’s recommendation of between 15% and 20% budgetary allocation for the sector. Do we think we are making progress in that area as a country?
I was in the system; I know that the government can say whatever they want to say, but have they ever released one-third of the funds they appropriate for education? You just see it in paper and then the universities will go agog that they have approved billions of naira for them, but the fact is that these funds are not released. Let me tell you, the university system in this country is surviving till today because of the intervention of the TETFUND. The fund is as a result of the tax collected from various industries and business houses to fund education. Without TETFUND, tertiary education would have died in this country five years ago. What is sustaining tertiary education today is TETFUND intervention. Nigerians contribute through their taxes to funding education. Some devices like that had to be put in place to make sure that the universities have funds. Running education the way we are running it right now in the country is a very sad and painful experiment.
What is your view about the current brain drain in the university system?
If I say as a professor, my business is to teach in the university, and I stay for eight months, I am not paid. At the end of eight months, you tell me because I did not work, I will not be paid; no work, no pay. So, what do you want me to do? If I have any place, any offer anywhere that will make life a little bit comfortable to me, I will go. Those of us that have roughed it out till this moment, we know what went through. So, some of my colleagues who left in good time have better condition of service that we are not having in this country. Anyway, I am out of the system; I m retired now.
But what can be done to stop university lecturers form leaving the country in droves?
The standard of remuneration for lecturers, including the professors, should be improved. If you pay them adequately like others are being paid outside, they will stay. If you pay them peanuts, they will not stay; they will go to a place where they will make a living or where they will be appreciated.
Many think your nomination as a minister in 2015 was based on the relationship to the former governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha. Apart from competence, don’t you think the relationship played a part in that appointment?
The governor has the right to nominate somebody he feels is qualified to hold a particular position. It is just by co-incidence that I am his in-law. Of course, I went for an interview in the Senate, and I was not found wanting in any circumstance. When I was through with them (Senate), they had no option but to confirm my appointment.
You are currently not active in politics. Why is it so?
Yes, I’m not. I’m sick and tired of the way politics is played in Nigeria, where people are not sincere; they tell the general public one thing, and they go ahead to do a different thing entirely. They have a very exclusive agenda where some Nigerians are more Nigerian than others. Equity and fairness are not practised in politics here. So, I don’t think it is a place for me. I’m tired and sick of Nigerian politics. I’m quiet; I don’t belong to any political party except that I have some sympathy for the Labour Party because of the insincerity of Nigerian politicians. You’ve had presidency from the North, you’ve had presidency from the West, then it goes back to the North, then it goes back to the West. It is as if the South-East is not part of this country. Since there is a candidate from the South-East and his political party is Labour Party; that is why I have sympathy for it (LP).
How will you describe the governance style of the Governor of Imo State, Hope Uzodimma?
Why will you say that?
He depopulated Orlu by bringing soldiers to come and shoot people there. I am still in Nigeria; don’t you know the number of youths and persons killed in his senatorial zone? And they are still killing.
But the governor has always said he has no hand in the killings in Imo State and that he will expose those behind the dastardly act.
Maybe he is talking to infants who don’t understand or talking to people who did not lose relatives. Remember that at a point, my son was shot, and I had to fly him to the US for treatment for about three months and I spent millions of naira to get him well again. He (Governor Uzodimma) was my friend, but when he got power, he began to think that every other person doesn’t matter. But we will see; power is transient.
Is there no way you and the governor can reconcile your differences?
How? Many people have been killed. My son was shot, and I had to take my personal resources to ensure his treatment in the US for about three months. He (son) has been going off and on to the US for checkups. We are human beings, and when people do things without recourse to conscience, I don’t think it will take time…
The teaching profession has welcome a lot of quacks. What is the way out?
They should make the teaching profession in the country become a real profession that is accepted and accorded all its dues and rights so that the right people will be in the profession. But when the right people are not there, certainly, you will have quacks.
Are you not disturbed that while the embargo on employment put in place by the Federal Government has not been lifted, thousands of graduates are being churned out every year with no plan to employ them?
Let’s see if there will be a change with the new government that will come in next year. But the current government has no plan at all for the youths and their employment. There is nothing on the ground for the youths.
You were part of this government in the past. People will be wondering why you did not advise the government on these issues.
I did, but we have a person in charge of affairs that does not listen. You talk and talk, he pretends he is listening to you, but he does nothing about what you are saying.
Are you talking about the President of the country?
I am talking about the leadership of the country.
With the current embargo on employment, what is the way out for Nigerian youths?
The fact is that the youths are not agitating, and they don’t feel they have problems.
The President of ASUU once raised the alarm that some lecturers in Nigerian universities come into the system with poor First Degree results. As a former Vice Chancellor, how were you able to ensure that the best standard was followed in this area?
That is what I was known for. The rule says for you to be employed in the university system, you must have at least a Masters, but preferably a PhD, because if you have a Masters, after one year, you begin to look for in-service training. So, universities were advised to bring PhD holders into the system. That was what I did throughout my period there (Imo State University). Anybody who is employing anybody below Master’s degree in the university is acting against the law and frustrating the operations of the university system.
What should be done to clear out those who are not qualified in the system?
I don’t think any university that I know in Nigeria, whether federal or state university, employs anybody with less than Master’s degree. But I can’t vouch for the private universities. The private universities sometimes look for cheap labour. So, they can hire anybody.
Cultism has become a menace in most Nigerian universities. How were you able to tackle this challenge during your time as the Vice Chancellor of Imo State University?
If you followed my tenure as the Vice Chancellor of the university, you would realise that it was my major task. We fought them to a standstill, and we made sure that by the time we were leaving, cultism was no longer in Imo State University. It may have come back by now, I don’t know, but while I was there, at least, during my last two years as Vice Chancellor of the university, there was nothing like cultism because I made sure I rid the system of cult members, they were sent out of the university. Some of them went to court, and the court directed that we should reinstate them, but the Senate said, ‘that is nonsense’. The Senate backed me to ensure that none of these cultists came back to the university, not even one was allowed to come back. That time, if anybody was identified as a cultist, the person will never graduate from Imo State University. I worked hard to get the university out of the stranglehold of cultists. Though it was tough then, I was able to deal with the challenge.
How do you view a situation where some lecturers teach in three or four different universities because of some pecuniary gains? Don’t you think this will negatively affect the standard of education? I don’t think it is new. In any civilised part of the world, for instance, if we need a mechanical engineer in IMSU, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering from FUTO (Federal University of Technology, Owerri) to come and teach there, and due to the poor funding faced by most of the universities, we can get manpower from one university as long as it is near, and the services are rendered. I am not against that.
Are you saying it is not an offence for lecturers to work in different universities?
It is not an offence as far as I’m concerned. For instance, when I was a Vice Chancellor, when I was having my accreditation, they needed a lab librarian, and they said the person must have a degree in Law and a degree in Library Science; such combinations were very difficult to find. So, I had to get in touch with ESUT (Enugu State University of Science and Technology) and I arranged with them to lease their librarian to me for a while for the purpose of the accreditation while I was looking for one who had that kind of qualification around. That solved the problem. When you have such a challenge, what will you do in such circumstance? Will you close down the department? That argument, even if it is pushed by the NUC or anybody in government, I don’t buy it. If you have manpower around you that you can use at a reduced cost, then you go for it.
In 2015, some members of the All Progressives Congress in Imo State kicked against your nomination as a minister. They claimed that you were once convicted for an offence by a High Court. How will you react to this?
Such nonsense! There was no basis for it. It was one little rascal who was peddling some things. There was no such thing. The court had finished with the case and there was no such thing. I am going to tell you about the whole case. When you are leaving the university, you are entitled to a new vehicle. The university wanted to buy for me a 304 Peugeot for N4m. Then I saw a small bus that they were selling for N3m. I said, ‘okay, this is what I want. Don’t buy the Peugeot 304 that cost N4m but buy the bus that cost N3m’. That was all; I was even saving the university some money. Then some rascals said, ‘he is going with a bus and not a car’. You can see the difference between N4m and N3m. So, when the case went to court, the court saw it and then struck it out. That was the end of the matter.
Sex-for-mark or sexual harassment has been a regular occurrence in many Nigerian universities. How were you able to fight this threat to the university system as a vice chancellor?
I was hard on all sorts of misdemeanour. If a lecturer is either caught selling handouts or involved in sexual misconduct, the person will be thrown out of the system. There was once a case like that. It was brought to me. The fellow was in Mass Communication or something like that, I sent him out of the university. The entire people from his local government area came, but I maintained my stand because this is not a question of sentiment. The man infringed on the rules of the university; so, he had to go. He was out of the university until I left. They reinstated him after I left; maybe he learnt his lesson and they reinstated him.
During your days as the minister of state for education, how were able to manage disagreement between the Federal Government and ASUU?
Since I was a member of ASUU then, I told the minister that I could not be able to do both at the same time. I urged him to handle it (ASUU matters). I could give him my advice, but I was not at the forefront in the negotiation between ASUU and the Federal Government.
But what is you view about the current disagreement between the Federal Government and ASUU?
They (ASUU) have a genuine case. If you make a pledge, if you make a commitment, if you enter an agreement with anybody, the circumstances you were in when you entered that agreement may change. So, you have to call the union and say, ‘come, I don’t have money; let’s see how we can go around it’. But don’t deny that you made a pledge or entered an agreement with the union. That is the problem. We need sincerity and say, ‘maybe when I had money, I agreed to do this particular thing, but now, I don’t have money. So, what do we do?’ ASUU members are reasonable, and they will understand.
As the 2023 elections draw near, what is your advice to the youth, especially undergraduates who may want to make themselves available for election violence?
My advice to them is that they ought to have learnt from their past experience. If they still want to go ahead and put themselves in harm’s way, whatever the consequence is, they should accept it. But if I have a son or a daughter who is in the university, which I don’t have now anyway, I will consciously advise him or her not to get in that kind of thing.