Commentary by Mercy Odibe, David Emumena
As of 15th August 2018, there are 152 universities – Federal (40), State (44 ), and private (68) – scattered all over the country not counting polytechnics, colleges of education, colleges of agriculture, and the like.
The higher education sector in Nigeria has often come in for criticism as one of the weakest links in the country’s drive to economic prosperity, increased innovation, and industrial advancement. Some of the accusations leveled at Nigerian Universities include the emphasis on theory and not enough practical/fieldwork, a dated curriculum that is out of sync with the current trends and demands of today’s job market, poor facilities that do nothing to prepare students for the high-tech business environments they are supposed to graduate into among others. These problems are well-documented and have been widely discussed by stakeholders. The problem lies in finding and implementing a workable solution that addresses the core challenges facing the education sector. It is rather unfortunate, as these issues have persisted for years through successive administrations. As efforts intensify to drive non-oil exports in Nigeria, it will be foolishness and a sure path to failure if the higher education sector is not actively involved in these efforts. These institutions of higher learning must be able to provide high-quality, technically oriented training to students, first and foremost.
How can this be done? One way is to build sustainable linkages between universities in the country and industry. Although this is easier said than done, it is possible. The practice where researchers and innovators in universities hardly meet with entrepreneurs and counterparts in the private sector is unfortunate because, at the end of the day, universities lack the capacity to commercialize their own research. Besides, there is very little incentive to do so. Their first order of business is acquiring, sharing, and improving knowledge. Entrepreneurs and the private sector, on the other hand, exist for the purpose of raising capital, conducting commerce, and making profits. This is how jobs are created, how industries are built, and how countries go from low-income to high-income. That is how high-income economies run and if Nigeria is aspiring to achieve high-income economy status, there are no other options. A situation where university and industry exist so far apart from each other clearly undermines their roles in informing the pace, form, and direction of social-economic advancement in the country. Institutions of higher education in Nigeria, therefore, need to, as a matter of urgency, invest in structures that link students to industry, especially now when the world is looking to Africa (and Nigeria, in particular) as the next frontier for international trade. Ordinarily, that would seem like a large enough number of higher institutions to positively affect and drive innovation and deliver the kinds of benefits to the economy that a vibrant education sector can offer any nation. However, while the number of students graduating from universities and other higher institutions is on the rise, the expected impact on innovation, entrepreneurship, and industry is still a long way from happening.
Research and Development as a bridge How do we make sure that higher education is linked to current market needs, to boost growth that enhances holistic national progress? Firstly, both sides already recognize the mutual benefits and the potential spill-over to the economy of this kind of collaboration. University administrators understand that if they are to remain relevant, they need to train graduates fitting the job market, and concretize and try out concepts created in the real world. On their part, Industries also acknowledge that to successfully innovate, they cannot exclusively rely on their internal research and development. They know that universities could open up great opportunities to an enormous global pool of talent and skills. The challenge is how to close the gap between the two Firstly, both universities and industries have different expectations. Often, universities interested in pursuing linkages (and technology transfer) do not know where to look for companies that need certain technologies. One reason for this is the fragmented nature of the private sector in Nigeria. Another possible reason is that most business organizations in Nigeria operate with informal business structures that make it difficult to effectively create sustainable, professional linkages. On their part, industries may find it difficult to get specific expertise in universities. In some cases, they don’t even know which institutions to approach for the kind of expertise they may need. This could be a function of the way Universities in Nigeria are currently structured. The Industrial training arrangement – where University students spend a year in industry – has not been effective either in this respect. There are also issues surrounding ownership of patents, loss or ownership of property rights and sharing of benefits. In addition, universities and industries in Nigeria typically have different work rhythms and ethics. On the one hand, university bureaucracy and timelines (especially in the public sector) can massively slow down cooperation. On the other hand, industrial research and development are time-sensitive, driven as it were by the need to create products that quickly meet existing needs. So how do we solve these problems? The first step is to create platforms for dialogue between entrepreneurs and academia. Generally, any dialogue between industry and universities should be based on a clear understanding of the comparative advantage on each side – a foundation of shared purpose, where each partner is clear about what assets they will bring to the table. Each party needs to clearly define and communicate the purposes and expectations associated with the collaboration. In this regard, the organized private sector represented by the various chambers of commerce scattered around the country – and other sectoral groups like the manufacturers association of Nigeria – have a massive role to play. Unfortunately, these organizations are yet to wake up to this responsibility. It behooves the organizations representing the organized private sector to open lines of communication if the whole process is to succeed. Using this template, universities, and industries that are actively researching for partners should not find it difficult to locate such partners. On their part, universities in Nigeria must as a matter of urgency, expand their understanding of the needs of industry and link these needs to academically sourced solutions. On the part of education policymakers, there should be an emphasis on industry-focused degree programs, at all academic levels. Policies should be aimed at facilitating increased dialogue between industry and universities in Nigeria.
Conclusions It is obviously clear that improving the linkages between universities and industry in Nigeria is a win-win situation. The company gains up-to-date expertise and a network of contacts in academia. The university obtains reality-based knowledge and connections to the business sector. The graduates of these institutions get a degree and gain research-related work experience at the same time. Beyond improving innovation and socio-economic development in Nigeria, Universities can also increase their global rankings while attracting foreign talent to study in Nigeria. One way to do this is for universities to develop frameworks for tracking alumni who have joined the world of business. Few universities have databases for their students’ linkages to the practical world during or after their study period, yet graduates who have gone through intensive university-industry linkage programs could offer valuable feedback from their experiences while boosting the university’s profile. On a final note, Nigerian universities must invest heavily in an enabling environment for research and research capacity development. This must include programs focusing directly on the human component in order to raise the capacity of individuals and build a critical mass of competent researchers. In this regard, perhaps private universities are better placed as the funding structures of public higher institutions in Nigeria severely limit their ability to move quickly on new initiatives.