Chilling truth from Prof. Ajienka’s observatory…
From CHRIS ANUCHA, Port Harcourt
Joseph Atubokiki Ajienka, the debonair Vice Chancellor of University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), is not a religious prophet but a professor of Petroleum Engineering, who though, 100 per cent home-trained, can hold his head high, anywhere in the world.
But in this interview with Education Review, he threw a bombshell when he predicted that, in a few years to come, private universities will take over the Nigerian education scene and relegate the federal and state universities to the background, the same way private nursery, primary and secondary schools are now doing in many parts of the country.
In this interview, he tells the reasons he feels so and what the government must do to reverse the ugly trend. He also talks about the standard of education and argues that it is not falling, as you may want to believe.
Sir, tell us about yourself, your background.
I was born in 1955 and attended Okrika Boys School in Okrika, Rivers State, Government Comprehensive Secondary School, Borokiri, Port Harcourt and University of Ibadan for my first degree in Petroleum Engineering. I came to the University of Port Harcourt as Graduate Assistant and worked under the late Prof. Chi Ikoku, who, if you like, was the doyen of petroleum engineering in Nigeria.
I was privileged to work under him. Actually, there were two Ikokus, both of them are Chi Ikoku. The other one is Chimere, and he is Chukwu Ikoku or something like that. I learnt a lot from him; he was a quintessential teacher, very inspiring. He was an international scholar, known in the petroleum industry, worldwide, for his publications.
So, I decided to stay back and I did my Masters and PhD under him. From being a Graduate Assistant in 1982, combining academics and teaching, I rose through the ranks, to become a Professor in 2001. As I always say, I’m 100 per cent Nigerian content. I didn’t school outside the country, but I was privileged to be taught by people like him and Emmanuel Egbogah. These are international scholars that gave me the confidence and the foundation to practise.
I can say that in petroleum engineering, I can stand my ground anywhere in the world because of the improvement we’ve had, working with these scholars.
Though you said you would want this interview to be restricted to academics and not about your private life, one would like to know what it was like growing up. Are you one of those born with silver spoon?
I’m proud of my background. My father was a chief from Okrika. My childhood was sunny, I must say. I grew up with my grandmother and for a long while, I must tell you, it was my grandmother I knew. And then, of course, my mother was there. My mother’s two sisters had no children; as a result, they were quite supportive of my education in secondary school. I’m a child of many mothers; I grew up in the midst of many mothers.
That, also helped me to appreciate and value the relationship with these other mothers, even more than my biological mother. If they are strict, you must appreciate why they are strict. It was an interesting background and I enjoyed every bit of it.
Out of these ‘many mothers’, who among them impacted more on your life? All of them! As I said earlier, my childhood was with my grandmother. She was a very popular woman. She was one of the best palm wine sellers in Okrika. They knew her everywhere and I always followed her to all those markets, to everywhere she went. All her friends knew me. It was a very interesting phase of my development.
Looking at the standard of education in the country today, how will you compare the period you went to school and now?
I asked a question the other day at the Government House, where I chaired one of the sessions at the Education Summit. I asked if the standard of education was falling and most of the people said, ‘yes’. But is it the standard or the quality that we are talking about? We must make a clear distinction about this. In fact, it started in a workshop we organized here about quality assurance, where someone said the standard of our education is falling and it made me to think. And I reflected on this and realized that standards are the ones that are documented, the entry qualification, syllabuses and all that. They don’t change as such. If anything, standards have become higher.
Take for instance, the kind of mathematics we learnt in secondary school. When my little daughter comes home and, says, ‘daddy, they gave us this,’ sometimes I look at it and won’t understand anything and she would struggle with it and after a while, she would say, ‘daddy, I have solved it.’ When I was in her shoes, probably I wouldn’t have been able to think as fast. So, standards are even much higher now. I asked a question. How much of the mobile phones, handsets, do you know how to use? What percentage of it do you know how to use? I don’t think we can use five per cent.
But give it to your children, without anybody teaching them, by the time they manipulate it, you will be sorry that you are so ignorant about this. Think about the way they manipulate the television at home, the computer and the electronic gadgets. So whose standard is higher? When the computer started, I was teaching very experienced secretary on how to use the computer, the mouse and all that. She was afraid of using the mouse.
We are afraid of technology, of the new developments, but our children are not. They are in a digital age; they are used to multi-tasking. You may be sitting down with them and they have earphones in their ears, they are listening to music, they are playing around with handsets, doing all manner of things. So, standards are very high, electronic standards, digital standards are very high, which we parents cannot cope with.
There are many parents that depend on their children to manipulate their television, computer and Internet. Every time, my wife would call our son, ‘come and do this, come and do that for me.’ I would ask her, ‘if he goes back to school, who would do it for you?’ Standards are very high now. If you talk about quality of teaching, then, we can understand. So, quality, in terms of being fit for the purpose, has reduced, because of lack of commitment.
People are getting so tired about challenges and so on. People are not giving their best to what they do. Let me talk about the communication skill. In those days, those in Standard Two spoke very good English, they could read and write letters. These days, the quality of writing is so poor. Those are the things that people observe and say that standards have fallen. But actually, the standard of education is very high now.
You said something about lack of commitment. Is it on the part of teachers or students?
On the part of everybody! What is responsible for this? When I came here, I started out as a lecturer. We knew everybody by name. One of the pioneer graduates is Membere, he is Executive Director in NNPC now. We organized tutorials and graded them. We worked happily and gave the best of our time, power supply was not so much a challenge; chemical laboratory could accommodate the few pupils; that was the way it was at that time. Now, over time, the number exploded, everybody wanted to read Petroleum Engineering. There was so much pressure on the system, ‘admit’, ‘admit’, and so we admitted. Now, you don’t even know the names of your students.
When you give tutorials, they are so many that you are not able to mark the papers. And gradually, we started putting groups of people together, to work together. That, in itself, is a very vital part of training. In those days, undergraduates organized tutorial classes; they gave assignments, you could come together, one of you would solve a problem, the others would look at it and you discuss.
That was a very valuable process of education because you are building team skills. But now, all that has been eroded, the number of people, class size, has now become so unwieldy for some professional disciplines. Take people in Literature class, for instance; you cannot just give objective and think that the person has understood it. But the class size has become such that, when you give a long essay, a teacher is supposed to read it, correct and students will interact and improve. But when you now have a situation, where, instead of dealing with, maybe, 30 students, you have 100, how much time does the man have to read through and correct? These are some of the things that affect the quality of service delivery.
Even if you wanted to do it, the time is not there for you to concentrate to do so. It does appear to me that you are among those who clamour for more universities in this country, at least, to be able to reduce this pressure you talked about? You see, we don’t even have many universities like in some countries that are developing.
But this thing should be planned properly, in a systematic manner. It is not enough, with a fiat, to declare that we are going to have so, so, and so universities. Even when that has been done, some bit of planning must come into it.
Where are we going to get the lecturers? How are we going to recruit them? How many? What disciplines do we start with? We need access to education, we don’t even have enough universities. If you look at the number of candidates who write Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), and the percentage of people admitted every year, then, you will know that we have a huge gap. But it must be properly planned in such a way like, a strategic education plan.
We can say we need so, so, and so number of universities. Find out how many universities that are producing PhDs in a year; how many do we need? And gradually, we fill the gap. Are federal or state universities in any way, threatened by the proliferation of private universities in the country today? After the civil war, even before the war, in the Eastern Region, my alma mater, Comprehensive Secondary School, Borokiri, was one of the few government colleges. In fact, it was in a class of its own, because it was comprehensive.
We needed to do some bit of technical education, commercial and so on. People in Comprehensive Schools knew how to type, write in shorthand; we did woodwork, we did metalwork, technical drawing and so on. It was a bit more balanced than the Grammar Schools. Then, after the war, there were few government colleges. Every community, every town, had a major school. Okrika Grammar School, for instance, was a well-known school in the whole Niger Delta. The brother school was DMGS, Onitsha. These were missionary schools.
People used to come all the way from the present Bayelsa State, up to Niger Delta states, to attend Okrika Grammar School. Every town had some schools that it could reckon with. Then government took over everything. That was the beginning of the problem. Today, what is happening? They are giving them back. You give something that is dead back to the owner? No! I wished they had allowed missionaries to run the schools. What happened? Right before our eyes, by the time, we were finishing from Comprehensive, Federal Government colleges started. After a while, many people started trooping to Federal Government colleges because they were better funded. Then Federal Government Girls’ College, Abuloma started. Initially, there were no private nursery schools. If your child was in Township School, Port Harcourt, it was something else. But private nursery schools started and killed the likes of Township School, the best of public primary schools.
Why? It was a combination of so many factors. There was a time in this country that they were not paying teachers. You remember? NUT was on strike, one strike after the other. As a result, the commitment of the teachers reduced and people started withdrawing their children from those schools to private schools. After they dealt with the primary, next came the secondary schools. Private secondary schools started coming up and, of course, killed the likes of Comprehensive Government colleges. After the war, the first Aggregate Six in Rivers State was from Comprehensive Government College. The following year, another Aggregate Six, so, people were looking forward to aggregate six, to distinction.
Now, when the result started tumbling, of course, parents started taking their children to private schools – nursery, primary and secondary. Any parent that went to school wants the best for his child. So, it wasn’t surprising that there are now private universities.
What is happening is that, if you look at the total number of universities in the country – Federal, state and then, private, you and I know that a university like UNIPORT has a lot of assets. If you put value on the lecturers, professors, number of people who have PhDs, we have a lot to showcase! And for the lecturers, to convince them to go to the private schools, they will think twice. They will think they are more secured in the Federal university, than, maybe, in a private university. But I can assure you that from what I’m seeing, what happened to the government primary and secondary schools will happen with the private universities. Now, they are on the pages of newspapers, advertising.
The parents who are sending their children there are comparing the quality of education from the private universities. For instance, NUC (National Universities Commission) said they organized an examination for those who had First Class and Covenant University turned out to have higher percentage of people with First Class that scaled through the NUC test. These are important indicators that parents are looking at. So, my take on this is that, in the next few years, the public universities will face stiff competition from the private universities, but not all of them. There are some serious private universities or faith-based universities like Covenant, Redeemers University and so on.
When we get to that threshold where these universities also have the same quality of lecturers we have in the federal and state universities, you will find that many parents will be moving in their direction. When many parents start moving in that direction, then the real competition will begin.
The only way to continue to take the advantage of federal university, as it were, is funding. And the way it is, everybody knows government alone cannot fund higher education. We are seeing it; we are experiencing it. Unless a decision is taken to fund education properly, things may be much more difficult, may be, in the next 10 years. (to be continued next week).