Guest Blog Post – Missive to Ikhide Ikheloa: A Diasporan Fulbright’s experience of Higher Education in Nigeria

Professor Okey C. Iheduru teaches at Arizona State University, in the School of Politics and Global Studies.

Preface: This essay is a compilation of two postings I made beginning 28 August 2013, in which I responded to a discussion on the listserve USA-Africa Dialogue Forum occasioned by a Call for Papers by the editor of the Unilag Journal of Politics. The subject of the heated debate was the propriety of demanding upfront payment from prospective authors by a supposedly peer-reviewed journal. In that intervention, I also promised to do a proper write-up of some of my two-year sabbatical/Fulbright and LEADS Scholar experiences, particularly as it concerns higher education in Nigeria.

I am a full professor of Political Science in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe. Given the time constraints I face (especially readjusting to life in America after two years plus the incinerating heat of the Sonoran Desert), this may never happen if I wait for the opportune moment. Consequently, I have decided to post short accounts of my experiences from time to time and whenever time permits. I have entitled this write-up as “Missive to Ikhide Ikheloa:” Ikhide, in my opinion, is the most trenchant, if often unrepentantly acerbic, critic of higher education in Nigeria. In fact, the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) are lucky he is not the Minister of Education. He also often enthralls his audience with nostalgic tales from his younger days, especially about the antics of Papalolo. Ikhide actually speaks for many Nigerians, at home and in the Diaspora, even if his “solutions” often come across as a cluster bomb. I have never met this social and literary critic, but I hope my “missive” to Ikhide will be of interest to you the reader, and possibly generate further intellectual discussions about the epidemic level of debased scholarship and academic fraud that pervades Nigeria today vis-a-vis the gallantry of a handful of our colleagues who daily give their all to ensure that we still have a higher education system that is even worth criticizing.

I just completed a 2-year sabbatical/Fulbright Fellowship LEADS Fellowship at the National Defense College, Abuja in Nigeria during which I participated in six (6) National Universities Commission (NUC) program accreditation visits to one federal, two state and three private universities for Political Science and International Relations, Economics and Sociology.

I learned a lot about the opportunities and challenges of university education in Nigeria. I’ll never forget many of the exceptionally brilliant students my panels and I interacted with as part of our assignment. Some economics departments have advanced electronic labs for their formal modeling/econometrics courses, while some programs have easily accessible subscriptions to various research databases for their electronic libraries. When time permits, I’ll do a proper write-up on my experiences, more broadly.

I would like here to respond to the “Call for Papers” from the University of Lagos (Unilag) that asked prospective authors to also send money. During the accreditation visits (which are really meticulous and rigorous), I found that while quite a number of colleagues are doing serious scholarship, the overwhelming percentage is engaged in what you call “Vanity” journal (and book) publishing. Every department–100 PERCENT–that we evaluated had its own “journal” which is “edited” in-house. Thereafter the authors literally put a gun on the head of administrators to count those “publications” as part of the percentage of scholarship that can be locally published. Even Colleges of Education and Polytechnics have departmental journals in Nigeria–there was a CFP from one of them on this list recently.

None of these “journals” is indexed, either locally or internationally; so, colleagues who live/work five kilometres away from the institutions may not even know that such publications exist. Some institutions have been posting some of their publications online to give them visibility and possibly generate citation counts. There are claims (I have no proof; it wasn’t my charge) that some of the articles are plagiarized or may even be exact copies of papers published elsewhere with a new author and institutional affiliation.

Sadly, there is no nation-wide outlet to present, publish and/or professionally review recent work in the fields I evaluated since, for instance, the once-famous Nigerian Political Science Association and its journal died following the zoning of its leadership to the North who must have their “turn” at leading the association. A similar fate has befallen many scholarly groups–the Historical Society of Nigeria seems to be one of the few exceptions. Asked why these colleagues shouldn’t be reading and/or publishing in outlets put out by older institutions with seasoned academics with more credible track record, I was hushed down with: “Why should we be reading their own? Why can’t they read our own [journals]?” A PhD is a PhD, I was told, even if it’s awarded by a two-year old caricature of what others know as a university.

It’s worth noting that in one state university we visited, of the nine (9) lecturers on the Sociology faculty, six (6) obtained their PhDs (as well as their BSc and MSc degrees) from that very same department. Not only do you smell “in-breeding” you can assume they were also taught and mentored by senior colleagues who rose through the ranks based on publications in departmental journals. Indeed, many colleagues on the Deans and VC ranks today cut their academic teeth in the “Volume 1, Number 1” syndrome of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s worth noting, though, that no more than 68 percent of faculty in all Nigerian Universities have doctorates; not easy to produce one, really.

It was amusing to find senior lecturers, associate professors/readers and even full professors with 50-100 “scholarly papers” almost 9/10 of which appear in these in-house and other publications. I’m not making any judgment regarding the quality of these publications since I have not read them. Yet, I find the culture very worrisome. Sometimes “books” (especially edited volumes) are published without a clear reason why such a “scholarly book” should be published. I earned some reputation as a snub whenever I explained my inability to honor “Prof, can you please contribute a chapter for my book” requests.

Many of these colleagues with very long list of “scholarly papers” have fewer than five (5) citation counts on Google Scholar, if at all they do. Of course, many of us Diaspora academics have relatively very little citation counts. It must be stated that, as at this point, the NUC has not taken up the responsibility to regulate this aspect of academic quality—not sure it should. What are department heads, deans, Senate and vice chancellors supposed to be doing?

From our Diaspora stand point, many of these publications are clearly “Vanity” journals and books, but the reality is that it costs a lot of money to publish them. Cash-strapped departments, faculties and/or universities have more weighty priorities. Perhaps, a much better write-up could have been on ideas/strategies to help these colleagues to get out of this morass—many of them teach 3-4 courses of 200-500 students a semester without TAs and get as small as N10,000 a year for academic conference presentations. Any ideas?

From Vanity Publications to PhD Production and Professorships in Nigeria

While I can understand and explain why some of the lecturers in some of the programs I evaluated as part of the NUC accreditation panels chose to engage in what we might term vanity publishing, I was surprised at the virtual absence of policies or discussions about quality assurance regarding scholarship outputs in many universities. Not one scholar I met had heard about Google Scholar (and its citation counts for every published piece of journal article, including those published IN NIGERIA), let alone other (sometimes controversial) measures of quality, such as Web of Science/Word of Learning and Pearson’s annual reports of “Impact Factor” of journals and academic publishers. It was therefore not surprising that a member of USA-Africa Dialogue Forum from the University of Lagos (Unilag) claimed that the Unilag Journal of Politics was “highly rated” without, of course, indicating who rated the journal and how, given that it is not indexed anywhere, and there is no rating agency in Nigeria. On two occasions, two editors of two different journals (very senior academics) proudly defended their journals to me by stating that they were “recognized and good quality because [they have] an ISSN number!”

While Google Scholar and other measures of quality sometimes exclude chapters in edited volumes, it should worry us that an academic that boasts 50-100 “professional papers” cannot equally boast ONE citation count (including the discounted self-citations) on Google Scholar! As I stated in Part 1, more than 90 percent of the CVs I reviewed listed as publication outlets “Volume 1, Number 1” or Departmental journals or self-published books or books whose publishers’ names and addresses are more innocuous and lesser known than the remotest streets in Ajegunle, Lagos or Ekeonunwa Street, Owerri. I concede that “writing for themselves” is not unique to Nigeria, but most scholars elsewhere don’t engage in this kind of massive inflation of output that is clearly indefensible.

Each of the six universities I visited had disproportionately more junior faculty (Assistant Lecturers–MA/MSc holders—and Lecturers I & II—anywhere from recent PhDs to PhDs with 3-6 years’ experience; and even master’s degrees with years of experience and/or professional certificates) than senior faculty (Associate Professors/Readers and Full Professors). A few of the Lecturer IIs and Lecturer Is were effective Acting Heads of Department (HODs). Yet, this contravenes NUC’s policy of Senior Lecturer as the minimum for the HOD to be able to provide a modicum of “academic leadership” to the unit. Some of the Assistant Lecturers and recent PhDs were quite good, but a large number were both victims and perpetrators of another form of fraud. In response to the NUC’s directive that the PhD is the minimum qualification for teaching in universities, several new universities have mounted PhD programs, some without NUC approval, even though they lack the resources and capacity (faculty members) to mentor the PhD students—who are mostly their academic staff without the doctorates. Many “older” universities have also expanded PhD enrollments to soak up the demand, even as some departments have upwards of 70 master’s degree students in a department boasting less than four full-time lecturers with PhDs.

While some departments (especially in most of the older universities) are still graduating quality PhDs that are garnering local and international awards and publications in some of the most competitive outlets in the world, a large number of the new PhDs are actually “arrangee PhDs.” In some cases, ONE retired professor is hired (often as an adjunct) with the sole terminal purpose of mentoring and awarding the PhD to one or two students—often relatives, pals or concubines of “the Ogas at the top” and/or a favored staff member. Once the deal is done, there is no more PhD program and the old bloke collects his money and goes home, or perhaps to another mercenary assignment. Where the programs exist formally, it is not unheard of for ONE professor to “produce” over 10 doctorates in ONE year. One household name in Political Science has become notorious for serving as SUPERVISOR to several PhD candidates in more than SIX universities at a time! His detractors call his mass-produced protégés “Pure Water PhDs,” but they are all happily teaching in a university near your villages! I politely turned down an offer to supervise a well-connected PhD candidate in one of the universities in central Nigeria. I would have had no other affiliation with the institution. My eldest brother, a former professor at a university in Georgia, USA, had to recall two PhDs already awarded for insufficient work in 2011 as Dean of Postgraduate Studies and later Acting Vice Chancellor at a private university in Nigeria.

I have always wondered what the external examiners (the second level of review after the candidate has passed the oral defense at the departmental level) have to say about this madness. But again, if the candidate has to pay the N350,000.00 to N500,000.00 cost of scheduling a doctoral defense (includes transport, accommodation, per diem for the External Examiner; and other incidentals), plus over N700,000.00 total cost of the program (from start to finish), few External Examiners would like to look too deeply and probably rock the boat. A repeat visit is always a consideration. Candidates are often compelled to foot this bill (pending reimbursement by the university via the Supervisor, which may never come or may be misappropriated by the Supervisor) because waiting for the university to provide the funds might mean waiting a year or two more to defend. Besides, if you’re fed up with having to fork out N10,000.00 to N20, 000.00 as “reading fee” for every graduate seminar paper, wouldn’t you gladly mortgage grandma’s grave to extricate yourself from the clutches of your “Profs”?

Rigorous external review of portfolios for promotion to professorships is still the norm in most universities, especially at the federal and state universities, although occasional deviations occur. Some private universities also follow this practice, but many are too young for observers to know how that process actually works. It is known, however, that several private universities are notorious for the tendency of their proprietors to unilaterally promote staff, rather than allow the Senate and/or Governing Council to perform this function. A program can receive a failing or interim accreditation if it does not have the right staffing mix (Assistant, Lecturers, Associate and Full Professors) as stipulated by the NUC, among other indicators. That could spell trouble for enrollment, especially in highly sought-after programs (Law, Medicine, Accountancy, etc.) and consequently for the university’s bottom line. Some proprietors have also dictated the admission of students without requisite admissions requirements (e.g., many of the ex-Niger Delta militants ended up in some private universities as part of the Amnesty Program. I wish Boko Haram lunatics would be amenable to such a treat, despite the headaches that would create for lecturers and administrators!). One proprietor reportedly wondered why lecturers refused to award First Class degrees to students if that is what they wanted. The man understood the “price system” better than the “foolish professors” paid with the students’ tuition! The NUC, of course, frowns at such indiscretions and has not hesitated to sanction the affected institutions whenever accreditation panels report such violations.

One of the most pervasive but difficult fraudulent practices that the NUC’s Quality Assurance Department (which is responsible for program accreditation) has to contend with is the use of “academic mercenaries” by universities during accreditation exercises. Programs that have been staffed for 3-4 years by an army of full and part-time assistant lecturers would suddenly list full-time and/or part-time associate professors/readers and full professors in order to meet the NUC staffing mix requirements. The worst culprits seem to be the sectarian universities. It is common to find some lecturers (including retirees, civil servants, pastors, etc.) on the payroll (perfunctorily) of two to three universities simultaneously.

As an accreditation panelist, you know a mercenary HOD when he/she is unable to answer simple questions about personnel, curriculum, exams, budget, etc. concerning her/his unit. In one university I evaluated in mid-2013, the “Dean of the College of Natural Sciences” happened to be an old acquaintance of mine with whom I have lived in the Phoenix metro since 2004. Interestingly, he told me (perhaps without realizing the riskiness of his flippancy) that he was returning to his “base in the [Phoenix] Valley in two weeks.” A different panel, not mine, evaluated his College. The employment letters of many of the mercenaries, including my friend’s, in the personnel files we reviewed are always backdated by at least six months. While many public and private universities (including those in the United States) will not be able to meet their obligations to their students without these often under-paid and poorly appreciated adjuncts, my concern is the intentional fraud that is being brazenly perpetrated in Nigeria. Sure, NUC should (and does occasionally) crack down more on this practice; but it is not feasible to turn accreditation panels into EFCC hounds, given the mountain of documents and files and the tortuous reports they have to write in two extremely hectic days. These are my thoughts, the good news is that many concerned Nigerians are beginning to focus on the challenges in our educational system. I am happy to be part of the conversation and I welcome any ideas and suggestions for concrete action to stem the hemorrhage. In the name of generations of children.

11 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post – Missive to Ikhide Ikheloa: A Diasporan Fulbright’s experience of Higher Education in Nigeria”

  1. I would love to hear more especially as regards the private uni’s, if Federal Schools like Unilag have this reputation, I can only imagine the rot in the private uni’s.Granted that our Educational sector has been severely underfunded, we clearly have too many busybodies parading themselves as scholars in our varsity. There’s indeed fire on the mountain.

  2. A very insightful piece. I love especially the understanding the writer brings to the situation of scholars in Nigeria. It is not easy to teach more than 200 hundred students, grade their papers and still retain your sanity much less produce a scholarly work. Sadly, though, no one in the serious academic world wants to know whether you teach X number of students. They judge your scholarly works purely on merit. If those works don’t meet international standard, then they are subpar. Good for the dustbin. This positivist attitude is cruel, but that is how the intellectual world works.
    Thanks a lot, Prof. Iheduru.

  3. Firstly what you have said, is quite correct but not new.
    Many institutions in Nigeria may fall into this category but not all. You were kind enough to let us know that you worked with 6 universities and it must have been with respect to your discipline.
    Making it sound as if it is the whole of the country and for all courses is the first thing I find offensive. The second is that since you’ve had some better exposure, and with the depth of knowledge you seem to possess of the Nigerian situation, I would have expected solutions, not just bashings,which many in the system already are aware exists.
    Let us have the way out which many of the institutions can add to what they are already doing.

  4. I find Prof Iheduro’s piece another expose of the rot in our university system with respect to academic quality, this time with focus not on the undergratuate but the doctorate and professorial cadre.
    Our country is plagued by endermic inferiority complex, which explains why any form of title becomes an object of worship that we desparetely crave and ironically destroy whether the title is chieftancy, national award, knighthood, doctorate qualification, professorship etc.Where else do you have professional qualification titles prefix names in a strange way as Engineer, Surveyor, Pharmacist, Architect etc more than Nigeria.The corruption that has permeated every nook and cranny of our Nation is responsible. Why would the Ivory Tower think it would be immuned from the strangle hold of corruption in a sustainable manner. What to do? Begin with a leadership that abhors corruption not by rehtorics but by action in a sustainable way and things would gradually fall in place not only in education but in politics, governance, religion,private sector etc.

  5. Great summary of what I also saw in Nigerian Universities working here for the last two months.

    But I have a few things to add:

    I completely understand the mercenary issue but it happens because there are too few professors in Nigeria that meet the NUC’s requirements compared to the demand for tertiary education that exists, especially outside of the humanities fields. Universities end up very short on qualified teaching staff -creating a market for mercenary professors. Nigeria really lost out on the heavy immigration of Nigerian academics to “greener pastures”. Perhaps NUC needs to conduct an appraisal of what kind of teaching expertise by field actually exists in Nigeria and then supplement through digital learning resources or adjust their requirements to better suit the market realities (hopefully without shortchanging the quality of education students receive).

    Here are some solutions I have

    – NUC needs to compel schools to specialize especially in the STEM fields. I know they are currently trying but perhaps asking a school to simply pick only one faculty it will specialize in might make it easier for them to get qualified faculty for the one field they want to focus on without having to rely on mercenaries.

    – NUC needs to better structure new Universities so they can gain from the experience and resources of the older institutions. I especially love what the Ghanians have done with compelling new Universities to be “affiliated” with older Universities. It will really help with satisfying the demand for higher education in Nigeria while maintaining the quality.

    – NUC needs to compel Nigerian Universities to go digital. I think a lot of these mercenary lecturers who actually know their stuff would be a lot more use if they could actually beyond posing for the accreditation exercise share their expertise. The online tools now exist and a great quality digitalized course can now be produced for less than $1000. If say the country’s lone expert in Systems Engineering produced a digital course that can be distributed to all the new Nigerian Universities running system engineering departments as learning resources, then he will at least make a more useful mercenary.

    At the risk of cheap promotion, I actually moved back to Nigeria to help arrest some of this decay in our tertiary education system by setting up Fora – we publish and distribute digital learning resources (presentation slides, required texts, test banks, videos of lab demonstrations and lectures) bought from Universities in the United states and repackaged in Nigeria and we resell to the Nigerian University market. We currently mainly focus on the management sciences and engineering fields and we charge every student in a department one all encompassing annual subscription fee of between $50-$100 for the privilege.

    I really believe, especially with the growth and establishment of MOOCs in the last year digital learning resources are the future of the Nigerian higher education market. Nigeria currently has one of the most selective tertiary education systems in the world, turning away 90% of students applying to go to University. Students in need of a University education are spending 10 billion dollars outside this country every year because of our high selectivity rate. We have very little expertise available – and this mercenary issue is evidence of that. The only way we can scale access to quality education to all our kids who need it is online.

    We better get with the program ASAP.

  6. I have been teaching at Obafemi Awolowo University since 1972 and have been a Professor since 1988 and so, unlike Professor Iheduru I have a lot of experience within the much maligned Nigerian university system. I admit that there is a lot to be desired within the system but it is not nearly as bad as the gory picture painted by the Professor from Arizona. My first question to the learned Prof is, what exactly is he doing in Arizona when there is so much useful work that he can be doing in Nigeria? Given all the faults that he discovered during his short stay in Nigeria it should be clear to him that even a little contribution from him will be amplified here because the needs of the Nigerian university system are so great. There are many people much better qualified than he is to teach in a university in the USA and so his contribution to that system no matter how weighty is not likely to make any waves in the big pond in which he finds himself. Moreover he lives and works in an environment in which he cannot be appreciate because of the colour of his skin and he is not likely to be a role model to many, if any of his students in a way he would be in Nigeria. The truth is that he is no more than an economic migrant in the USA in the same way that fruit pickers from Mexico are, and he will always be treated as such. So, why is it that Prof. Iheduru is not making plans to come back home to be part of the struggle to salvage the Nigerian university which successive Nigerian governments have pauperized and bastardized over the last thirty-five years?I have the satisfaction of having helped to produce thousands of Nigerian pharmacists who are not only working in Nigeria but like the Prof are to be found all over the world taking post-graduate courses, teaching in American universities and practicing as pharmacists having passed the relevant Board examinations. It is counter productive for people like Prof. Iheduru basking in the warmth of a dollar loaded institution to casually pass insults on those of us who to all intents and purposes are on the war front, battling against petty prejudices, short-shortsightedness and institutional poverty but still managing to be productive. I will not speak for all Nigerian academics but must invite Prof. Iheduru to check my profile on Google Scholar to find out that you do not have to run away from Nigeria to be a productive scholar. I cannot help feeling sorry for the Professor after reading his diatribe but I will not give up on him and hope that he takes up my challenge to him.

    Come back home to contribute your quota before it is too late!


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