The public vs private university debate is the wrong one

When news broke that approximately 13 percent of Covenant University’s class of 2017 finished with a first class degree, a lot of people took to social media to express their overall concerns regarding university education in Nigeria. In fact, as at the time of writing this, many are still struggling to understand what one Twitter user has described as the bastardization of the quality of Nigerian education.

It is not a surprise that people are upset, considering the general idea that securing a first class degree in a private university is ‘comparatively easier’ than in a public university. On one hand, some people say private universities are not serious institutions and are making life easy for students. They say that people who go to private universities essentially pay their way to good grades. On the other side of the debate is the argument that public universities are making life harder for students to finish with good grades.

Here’s the thing, when Nigerian public universities are renowned for lacking infrastructure and lecturers who actually show up in class and are industry experts at reserving ‘A’ grades for God, how can you honestly take them seriously?

Private universities have stepped into the gap with limited funding except those with backings from religious bodies and wealthy individuals and are doing what public universities ought to be doing in the first place. Covenant University, Babcock University, and Joseph Afe Babalola University graduates, to name a few, are giving the overwhelming majority of Nigerian universities a run for their money and have done so in an unbelievably short period of time. Covenant University, for instance, is less than 20 years old and organisations like Stutern, Jobberman and BudgIT, have reported that it has the most employable graduates in Nigeria.

It is ridiculous that we have spent the last few days bashing a private university for doing the job of a public university instead of channelling the vexations to public universities, and the government by extension, for slacking.

The Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) has been closed since 2015. Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), which used to be one of the finest universities on the continent, has experienced several strike actions in recent years. Almost no one that passed through a public university came out when they were supposed to because the universities periodically go on strikes for a plethora of reasons. A former executive secretary of Tertiary Education Tax Fund, Professor Mahmud Yakubu, once said that public universities are overcrowded and understaffed and that the syllabus taught across the board is outdated.

The Nigerian education sector is in a lot of trouble. A little while ago Malala Yousefzai asked the Acting President to declare a state of emergency on Nigerian schools. Private universities cannot keep the cost of education down because of the economic environment they operate in and cash strapped public universities can neither get more funding from the government nor increase the school fees for fear of a student revolt. So our university education is simultaneously becoming too expensive for anyone to afford and too cheap for any sort of quality and this means more people are out of school and people in school are not getting value for their money.

If that is not bad enough, the general value of a Nigerian university degree appears to be decreasing. The ability of Nigerian teachers to do their jobs is under question and this has encouraged a lot more people to go abroad. The best South African and Egyptian schools exceed every Nigerian school by every important metric according to consecutive Times Higher education rankings. Nigerian universities also do not see a great influx of any sort of foreigners, a sign that usually says a country has a comparative advantage over its neighbours.

The worst part is that Nigeria still does not have a properly articulated education road map and everyone is calm about it. In fact, the last plan of any sort was created over a decade ago when Oby Ezekwesili was the Minister of Education. The permanent secretary of the ministry of education has even admitted that 10.5 million Nigerian kids are out of school, a number unlikely to include university dropouts, but gave no tangible hint at what the government is doing to combat it. It is surprising that when Nigerian schools are failing in a very small global village, what some Nigerians seem to care more about is that private universities are bastardising first class degrees.