The Nigerian University System Needs to Change Its Funding Model

By Taiwo Owoeye, PhD.

A viral video of ASUU President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, urging Nigerian students to vote out leaders who are not prioritising education in the country has elicited diverse opinions on the social media.

While some see the video as partisan and unbecoming of ASUU, others see absolute nothing wrong with the video arguing that students, parents and lecturers have the right to make comments about their political choices.

My interest in the viral video is where the ASUU President said that the current ASUU struggle is a sacrifice that will lead to situation where, if our universities are well funded by government, poor Nigerian students will sit in the same class with children of ministers, governors and students from UK, US, Ghana and enjoy quality university education.

The statement summarises the ideological foundation of the ASUU struggle and why it considers poor public funding as the major problem of the Nigerian University System.

I will, however, argue in this short essay that the evidence does not support that argument. The real problem is not poor public funding ( although it could be better) but the inability of the system to change its funding model to the one where those who can pay will share the cost of university education with government and those from poor households will be completely subsidised by the state or through other means.

The current model relies entirely on government subsidy for every student irrespective of the income level of the parents. This model is sub-optimal and bad for everyone- parents, government, the university and the Nigerian people.

I will give a practical example. Let us assume a medical consultant has a 16- year
old son who just gained admission to a medical school of a first generation federal University. The boy also attended a private boarding school that cost 1.5M per session ( 500k per term).

Let also assume that his daddy who had a free medical education in the 1990s has a maid who he pays 40k per month. Now the maid has a 16-year old daughter who just graduated from a community secondary school where she was top of her class. She has also gained admission to the same university to study medicine.

The funding model we have now will charge each student 20k per session for medicine because the Nigerian state does not want the poor girl to be denied university education. Each of them will also live in a hall of residence that looks like piggery because the system does not want to deny the girl free accommodation so nobody pays the full cost of running and maintaining the hostel.
This model is sub-optimal for everyone.

A better model is to charge the boy 2M or above per session and give the girl scholarship. ( In some variants of this model students are charged or awarded scholarship relative to the income level of their parents) This alternative funding model is better for everyone.

The boy’s father who is a medical consultant can afford it. Beyond that, it will give his boy quality education. It will also afford him the opportunity to repay the Nigerian state that gave him subsidised education in the 1990s and also afford him the opportunity to subsidise education for poor children.

For the university, it will unleash massive private fund it has been denied, improve its competencies and governance since it will be competing for private funding and diversify its funding sources.

For the Nigerian state and people it will allow students who enjoyed subsidised university education few decades ago to repay their debts to both the government and the Nigerian people by subsidising university education
for the poor today, improve the quality of university education and allow the government to concentrate on basic education.

Nigeria spends four times more public fund on tertiary education than it does on basic education- primary and secondary.

However, the biggest beneficiaries of such model will be university teachers. It will increase funding to universities, diversify same, insulate, to a limited extent, their salaries from both inflationary and currency depreciation shocks and makes the university system more competitive and productivity driven. It will also help in categorising the university system with a few elite public universities , deregulate the salaries of professors with a cap at the lower end.

The obvious question is how huge is this private household funding? While we don’t know the exact amount we can guess by looking at how much Nigerians spent between 2010 and 2020 on foreign education.

According to CBN that figure is $28. 65B.( This figure include expenses on both secondary, undergaduate and post-graduate studies).This is what went through the official route of the CBN. If we add what went through the unofficial route and payments to private universities in Nigeria it is going to be far higher than this. Of course, not all of these funds will be unleashed on public universities for many reasons but whatever fraction gets to the system will transform it for good.

A second reason why this model is better is because of the changing nature of undergraduates. During the first four decades of the Nigerian university system spanning 1950s to 1980s most undergraduates were first generation. Their parents did not attend university. The state did subsidise their education either through scholarship in 1950s and 1960s or tuition free system in 1970s and 1980 ( Given what we know now the scholarship option should have been retained for the 1970s and 1980s)

That changed during the last four decades spanning 1990s to 2020s as most undergraduates became second and third generations. Their parents attended university and are therefore ready to share some of the cost of university education with the state.

But increasingly they are frustrated by a system that has come to be defined by instability and chaos due to incessent strike actions and ideological lock-in.

A 2016 survey by NOI Survey finds that stability in calender remains the first determinant for the choice of university among parents trumping infrastructure and others.

These strikes have also pushed most educated middle income households to seek for university education in poorer West African countries- Ghana, Benin, Togo, Nigeria Republic among others turning these countries to educational hubs for Nigerians.

Among middle income households who seek university education in these countries and other European and African countries are university teachers who keep closing down their universities while pushing these huge household funds including their share of the funds to private and foreign universities.

Ironically, they starve their own universities of such funds and improvise both the system and themselves and in a way the economy.

For example, the CBN governor has repeatedly expressed horror about how demand for university education has become dollar-driven contributing to the depreciation of the local currency as Nigerians seek foreign universities abroad including poorer West African countries.

Another narrative of ASUU that is off the mark is the argument that the reason the system is this bad is because the political elites do not train their children here. But what most Nigerians do not realise is that the academic elites who can afford it send their kids to private and foreign universities too.

The reason is because like most educated and high and middle income Nigerians, the political and academic elites make decisions on how to educate their children rationally not politically. They allocate their private funds to where they can have optimal returns. Public universities by not charging discriminatory fees do not create the incentive to attract private household funding from this class of Nigerians.

To attract children from households that can share the cost of tertiary education with the state , the Nigerian University System needs to change its funding model to create incentives for both private funding and research grants.

Also to attract political elites to send their kids to Nigerian University the best option is to create elite universities for them, price it appropriately and give scholarship to brilliant students from poor households. Demonising the political elite for making rational decision is not the right strategy.

Most countries build elite universities for three sets of people, high income households, highly educated households and exemptionally brilliant students from low income households. The first two pay appropriate fees, the third enjoy scholarship.

Indian Institutes of Techmology (ITTs), arguably the world best research and elites university system outside the Western world, run on such model despite being a public university system.

In conclusion, the best way to let the children of governors, senators, ministers and the ordinary Nigerians study in the same class with equal access to quality
university education is not to rely exclusively on public funding but to price university education appropriately in a way that will attract both public and private funding among others.

Nigerian University system needs to change its funding model.

Taiwo Owoeye is a Professor of Economics.

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