I never believed Nigeria was serious about starting a Transportation University until Monday when President Muhammadu Buhari and other government officials commissioned the project in Daura, the President’s home town. The university, according to Transportation Minister, Mr Rotimi Amaechi, is a response to the question of how Nigeria would maintain and manage its railway infrastructure. The reason given notwithstanding, the whole gamut of excitement that characterized the groundbreaking ceremony, suggests something else. Going by the way the minister resorted to insults and vituperation on Nigerians that dared to query the rationale for establishing the university in the President’s home town; it appears the project was borne out of political contingency than any other reason.
Besides, Amaechi stole the show at the ceremony that ordinarily should have been organised by the ministry of education and the National Universities Commission in conjunction with the Transportation ministry. From the minister’s excitement, it is as if the transportation university is the best thing that has ever happened to Nigeria in recent times. He boasted about how he forced the China Civil Engineering Construction Company to undertake the project by refusing to sign the contract for Lagos/Ibadan Rail project and how he also forced the company to take some Nigerians to China for training in railway technology. The minister spent more time justifying the establishment of the university in Daura, than he did on the usefulness of the institution. The Director of Rail Services of the Federal Ministry of Transportation, Mohammed Babakobi, didn’t help matter, as he too, was more concerned about why the university must be in the President’s town.
Amaechi’s action, reminds me of the popular Yoruba adage that says forcing a man to get married is not a big deal, but making him to make provision for the family is the real work. Beyond constructing a university structure, there are numerous questions that Amaechi must answer to convince Nigerians that he understands what he is doing. For example, he needs to come clear on who owns the university and the institution that is funding it. Is it to be fully funded by the Chinese government or partly funded by the Federal Government? The only reason why anybody should be excited about a transportation university in Nigeria at a time like this as far as I am concerned is if the CCECC is fully running it as a gift to Nigeria. But, if all that CCECC is doing is to construct a university as part of its corporate social responsibility, then Amaechi’s display of a sense of achievement is totally misplaced. Having a Transportation University is the least of Nigeria’s problems. If government wants to develop transportation, what stops it from expanding transport departments in existing universities? The Institute of Transportation in Zaria is there as well as many others. The Federal Government could have simply increased the capacity of existing institutions to provide better manpower and training in the sector.
For me, it doesn’t make any difference where the university is sited. I believe the current administration has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that it does not have any iota of regard for federal character. President Buhari showed the direction his administration would follow with his very first set of appointments and he has continued on that path ever since. So, there is no point dissipating energy on something that is not likely to change.
The reason given by President Buhari for establishing the Transportation University is even more interesting. According to him, the university will bring rapid development to the nation’s transport sector and generate both academic and non-academic employment opportunities to Nigerians. How can a Federal Government struggling to fund its 43 universities be on an adventure of establishing more? A lot of people, including our leaders, know that Nigeria’s federal universities are nothing to write home about. This is one of the reasons why you are not likely to find children of the President, governors and other political leaders in these universities. Many of the university administrators are struggling to cope. Recently, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Prof. Idowu Olayinka, revealed that what the university was getting as overhead was less than N100m, whereas it needs a minimum of N800m for overhead. The VC wondered where universities were expected to get money from when reacting to lawmakers’ call for cancellation of admission fees in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions. The VC said what the university gets from the Federal Government in one year is not enough to fund it in a month.
How soon can this Transportation University catch up with the rest of the world on rail technology? When several countries are operating driverless trains and efficient underground rail system, Nigeria is still struggling to construct surface rail systems. The coaches here still run on the oldest technology and unfortunately for the country, its President thinks the aim of creating a university is to get people to be employed. The Texas Central train will soon be transporting riders on the 240-mile trip from Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston in less than 90 minutes, making it the fastest train in North America. Going by the way we develop in Nigeria, it could take forever for the university to be relevant to the rail business. Technology will definitely keep evolving and it is almost certain that our leaders won’t do what it takes to make the university relevant.
Engaging in high research and experimentation is one of the hallmarks of universities all over the world. How much budget does Nigeria devote to research in its universities? As of today, Africa, as a continent, produces one per cent of research technologies in the world. Tackling this problem should be of more importance to the giant of Africa than turning universities to a constituency project. As rightly noted by the African Research Universities Alliance, Africa can’t speak about development until it has the capacity to generate its own knowledge.
The rest of the world is concerned about how African universities are preparing students for the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) calling for more doctoral training. The challenge is lack of innovation and technologies that can solve the continent’s problems. For those who will argue that this is the essence of establishing Transportation University, I challenge them to tell Nigerians where they hope to get the academic staff that will run the university from. Are they going to be sourced from this current university system that is suffering from dearth of academic staff? There are reports of universities renting staff to get their courses accredited by the National Universities Commission. The NUC cannot claim to be ignorant of this phenomenon. A lot of lecturers in public universities work in private universities and vice versa. The NUC, for instance, has a template for the minimum number of PhDs that universities should have in each department, how many Nigerian universities meet this requirement? How many universities in Nigeria are producing PhDs on annual basis? I know UI produces the highest number of PhDs annually but I doubt if it could produce up to 500 per annum. The last figure I knew was around 250 per annum.
Honestly, Nigeria should concentrate on building its research capacity and developing innovative curricula that will help its students develop the crucial skills of creativity and critical thinking. These are some of the things that can make Nigeria relevant in the development space. China is one of the few countries in the world controlling over 80% of research innovations. The Federal Government should commit more resources into funding research activities and capacity building. Universities are not secondary schools. We don’t need this proliferation!
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: [email protected]