As the nation contends with slumped economic fortunes that are mainly accruable from oil resources, it makes hefty sense to contemplate fresh ways to source revenues to sustain the operations of institutions. But increasing the cost of university education that would be borne by students and their parents as recently proposed by vice chancellors should not be one of these measures.
By proposing that tuition-free university education should be abolished, the vice chancellors under the aegis of the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities have only reopened an old debate. It is the right time for the debate because it throws up the imperative to prudently manage resources so that there would be enough to deploy in important areas of the nation amid the recession.
The economic crisis has rendered the government at both the federal and state levels incapable of paying workers and pensioners. Now, there have been lamentations about how the paucity of funds has become a major impediment to the actualisation of the great visions that different levels of government and their officials have for the people.
Yet it is a wrong time for the debate because the same economic crisis that has reduced the funds available for the government has also impoverished the citizens. Indeed, since the citizens are the more adversely affected, vice chancellors should not expect parents to get money to bear an additional cost of university education. Is it the parents who have been rendered jobless by the closure or relocation of their companies that would pay the tuition? Or is it the parents who receive N18,000 minimum wage that would pay it? Even with the universities operating the so-called tuition-free system now, is it all the citizens whose children are qualified for university education that can afford it?
The idea of stopping the tuition-free policy should be jettisoned simply because of the poor. Remember, most of these vice-chancellors and others who are canvassing the payment of fees in universities enjoyed tuition-free university education. But for this, most of them would not be where they are now. Those in the South West during the government of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo often recall with a high sense of gratitude how his free educational policy made it easy for them to go to school. Yes, the population of university students then was not as much as we have now.
But that era did not have as much resources as we command now.It is not because university education is free that standards are low. After all, we pride ourselves on having one of the best university systems in the world from the 1950s to 1970s that attracted students and scholars from different parts of the world. But this great university education was tuition-free. It was a time that university students were fed with sumptuous chicken-laden meals and other needs of theirs were met by the government.
Yet it produced great scientists, administrators and writers, including a Nobel laureate. So interest in learning is not exclusive to a generation, place or sex. Even now, despite the much-condemned fall in educational standards, there are students who are genuinely interested in learning. Or would the vice-chancellors agree that because there are some lectures who are not ready to do their work therefore all university teachers are bad? Or is it that since high fees are paid in private universities all the students there are doing well? Far from it. There are cases where parents have paid so much to send their children to private universities but only for them to fail to cope with their studies. Even when they are withdrawn to other private universities, they maintain this failure streak.
Worse still, some turn to crime and cultism. Just recently, there was the report of a student of a private university who has been sentenced to death for killing his colleague. Besides, have the policies of free education in countries like Norway, Austria, Germany, Finland and Sweden made their educational standards low?
We live in a nation where the citizens pay taxes but they live as though the government owed them no obligation – they provide their own water, roads, electricity, security, etc. For the majority of the citizens, they only can accept that a government exists because it provides education.
But if this service is removed, the citizens would only be more alienated. Besides, it borders on self-sabotage if the government discourages the education of its citizens by making its universities expensive. Many nations of the world that have recorded giant strides in technological development invest so much in education. But if it has become inevitable that through the abolition of the free-tuition system funds would be freed for the provision of infrastructure, then some conditions should be met first.
The government should allow the economy to improve in such a way that gainfully employed parents can pay the tuition of their children in the universities. The government should strengthen its open university education system, create more awareness about it and boost the confidence of the public in it. Part of the current inferiorisation of the open university system is seen in the fact that those with law degrees from it are not allowed to go to the law school. Yet there are legal luminaries who got their law degrees through this open university system.
It is good that the vice chancellors have thought of the need to help those who may not be able to afford the tuition. In this regard, the VCs have suggested that the Federal Government should set up an education bank. But this may not be a workable idea since an education bank would only make some people richer. The purpose for setting up the bank would be defeated through corruption. Those who genuinely need the money would not be given. Instead, it would go to the cronies and fronts of bureaucrats through a perverted quota system.
Again, the government has to sufficiently convince the citizens that available resources are well managed. How do we convince the citizens that the government cannot afford a tuition-free university education system when our public officials are living flamboyantly? The same government officials who would lament that resources are lean are the ones who are receiving billions as security votes every month. And at the end of their self-servicing tenures, they would continue with their huge pensions, houses, cars and medical allowances for themselves and their families.
Instead of looking up to the government that has a history of shirking its obligations to the citizens, the vice chancellors are the ones that would ensure that indigent students are still accommodated if the tuition-free university education system is abolished. One way to achieve this is through a work-study scheme. This was done by the late Prof. Jelili Omotola at the University of Lagos as the vice chancellor in the 1990s. Until all these measures are put in place, any attempt to increase the cost of university education for the citizens who are already impoverished by the official looting of the national treasury would only provoke their animus towards the government and its agents, including the vice chancellors.