COVID-19: Time for govt to stop treating private varsities like orphans

By Ikenna Emewu

Dr. Ihechukwu Madubuike, former education minister told me the story of how the government of Shehu Shagari he served enacted law to birth private universities in about 1980.

This was later abrogated by the military junta of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari after it got power by robbery in December 1983.

However, after the return of the law to create private higher institutions, the Igbinedion University in 1999 came to the scene as the first this time. So we have been at home with private universities, polytechnic and colleges of education in the past 21 years.

These institutions, some 78 private universities, over 40 polytechnics and about 26 colleges of education owned by private Nigerians have not received very welcome treatment by the regulators and other agencies that supervise the smooth operation of Nigerian higher institutions. Beyond the issuance of operation licence and supervision of standards, the government of Nigeria looks away from the welfare of these institutions.

I am of the strong opinion that that is not friendly and to a large extent counterproductive. The private institutions are part of the society and our body of education sector just as all private banks, factories, healthcare facilities etc.

Whereas they are there for business, I think the government is not fair to deny them of every incentive it accords the public counterparts even when they also render services to the country.

The Tertiary Education Fund (TETFund) of the federal government has since inception closed a huge gap in funding and equipping public tertiary institutions – federal and state. This is a federal agency that has done well for the system and future of the country and doesn’t create divisions between the state owned and federal owned institutions even when the states are autonomous tier of government that runs its budgets and education policies, pays workers, places their fees etc. That is commendable as TETFund provides them amenities, research grants and other supports including teachers training and courses equally.

But why is the private school treated like an orphan? It is just bad that even private primary and secondary schools go through the same rejection at the state levels as if they are of no consequence to the society.

Truly, these private schools also play a great role in easing the burden of pressure of admission into the public institutions. Let’s leave aside the profits they make, but we can’t rule out some element of public benefit they also offer. No matter what parents pay to have their children pass through them, the human resource they provide for the country is for common good.

When a factory or manufacturing outfit comes on board, on paper at least, most of them depending on the sector they belong to, enjoy some government incentives, tax grace and other little encouragements. Let’s leave out the operability of these incentives, but they exist.

In the financial sector, the central bank provides support to commercial banks that make most profit among all private sector establishments. Many of them have been pulled back from the brink by the intervention of the central bank and the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) The insurance commission does the same for insurance companies as the Securities and Exchange Commission provides support to stock brokerage firms etc.

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) provides support to the companies under its regulation for better operation and results. Even the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) is not left out in this.

So, why is the education sector totally different, or is this still our old tradition of making light of the importance of education in Nigeria?

It would not be a bad idea or any loss if the TETFund devotes even 5 percent of its budget to support the private universities, polytechnics and colleges of education and find a way of scheduling it to go round.

However, even if provision of infrastructure is out of reach, why would the lecturers in these private universities be excluded from research grants and other supports for trainings and capacity improvement when the same government and society require them to have quality manpower?

These institutions can only produce quality graduates with quality manpower to groom them. Regarding physical infrastructure, since they are also part of the requirements for accreditation and sustenance of their programmes, why deny them of any semblance of support?

I was moved to look closely at these issues after TETFund on about June 20 published the availability of its 2020 national research grants and specified it is for public institutions or universities. Why the exclusion?

In the global crises of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of rules by the government are relaxed to give support to organs, agencies, sectors and organisations that form part of the larger society to assist them survive.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has been announcing a lot of interest-free loans and other facilities to the SMEs and even individuals as palliatives this precarious time.

Few days ago, 17 commercial banks wrote the CBN to apply for the rescheduling of 32,000 loans to companies and individuals as palliatives.

I am yet to hear of any palliative the TETFund and Federal Ministry of Education have for any institutions, especially and including the private ones? How then would they cope with the existing vagaries without such institutional support?

At last, TETFund mandated public institutions to go ahead and acquire healthcare facilities in their domains as one of the conditions for reopening in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The mandate directs that if any of the institutions makes arrangements to provide such as soon as possible, TETFund would refund the cost later. And no mention of the private schools again. That is not fair. We need to rethink this approach and be kinder in the way we view these issues. We can’t reasonably say the private schools won’t be possible avenue for the spread of the pandemic or that the private schools owners have the capacity to handle all these alone. If we succeed in safeguarding the public schools and students of private schools are exposed to danger, we wouldn’t have made positive impact in solving the challenge. Therefore, we should also provide them assistance in this situation.

Now the world and Nigeria are still at sea over how to conquer this pandemic, if for instance a private university or research body comes up with an answer, Nigeria would take the glory and also the benefits.

A young engineering student of a private university, the Gregory University announced producing power generator that runs without fuel. If that comes into use, the entire country would benefit and in our quest for advancement in all fields of knowledge, the private institutions are not ruled out.

The reason the government even created them is because they are sure they have some value to add. Since they are beneficial to us, we should also ensure they exist to assist provide valuable service to the system.

It is possible the private institutions produce about 10% of the graduates we turn out every year. These products of theirs are not rejected for national service, not rejected in the job market – public and private. We should therefore show better responsibility to ensure that such products are properly nurtured for valuable use to the society. They won’t get that top class quality until the institutions that produce them are encouraged by the government, not only in inspections to ensure standards but further in training their manpower especially the teachers to be of improved quality. We are also aware that one of the disincentives about quality lecturers taking up employment with private universities includes this denial of assistance for research and courses which the government provides the public institutions counterparts through the TETFund.

In this period every aspect of the society would be struggling or are already struggling for breathe of air to remain alive, the federal government should start rethinking its behavior towards these private institutions.

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