Enhancing Employability of Nigerian Universities’ Graduates In a Competitive Global Economy (1), By Akpandem James

The pervasiveness of the unemployment scourge has become a matter of global concern. It seems age-long and quite commonplace. For some time now the issue has remained one of the focal points of political campaigns in most parts of the world. Its raging nature does not seem to recognise status of countries – from the very developed nations, to developing, and worse still the under-developed countries.

Unemployment is often used to describe a state of joblessness, usually associated with persons who are either not gainfully engaged for whatever reasons, or those looking for jobs through recognised channels. Employment on the other hand refers to the categorisation of those who work for wages in whatever form – either self-employed or gainfully engaged. The gainfully employed usually have some skills-set which could be vocational or professional; but these are often knowledge-based.

Knowledge base and Employment profile

The rapid transformation of a society is often associated with the knowledge base of its people. A society that takes knowledge development seriously is a society that takes growth and development seriously. The level of growth and development of a society also influences the rate of employment within the society. The Nigerian situation has been a case-study in stunted growth, where a few of those who have reached a reasonable height of knowledge-attainment are usually not interested in the growth of society beyond their frame of reference and status level. That mentality has transcended a lot of activity levels in the country, including education. Since those at the commanding heights of government are more interested in sustaining their status and can also afford to send their wards abroad for knowledge pursuits, developing the educational infrastructure in the country has been treated as just a routine project, not deserving of extra attention.

As a result, tertiary education in Nigeria has become just an avenue for securing a reasonably convenient future, not primarily to contribute to knowledge and development. Those in authority see it as one of those routine projects of engagement; those in charge see it as a graduate-producing mill, while those who pass through such institutions see them as vending machines that produce meal tickets. Consequently, none seem to methodically consider production of quality man-power as the primary focus. However, it must be noted that countries that desire rapid growth and development; countries that desire to be consistently economically stronger, make deliberate efforts to lay appropriate foundations for the future through sound educational infrastructure; through consciously demanding that the people are well prepared for the beckoning complex working environment, and through deliberate steps to meet the needs and demands of globalisation.

Countries like the United States of America keyed into such consciousness long ago, which is why educational institutions in that country are highly rated globally. And that is why the country is more consistently economically stable than most others. That is why the growth and development levels there are efficient and dynamic. Even in Africa, one can easily discern some kind of correlation between countries with better rated educational institutions and their growth level. Take South Africa and Egypt, for instance. You may even add Ghana and Kenya. It has been severally proven that sound knowledge base enhances cultural intelligence, and cultural intelligence is one of the most crucial characteristics of global leadership which enables intellectual maturity to deal with global challenges.

Since the world emphasises a knowledge-based environment, it is important for students to be:

1. Information-literate and able to make good use of knowledge;
2. encouraged to be multilingual so that they can play important roles in the global economy in the future;
3. highly skilled in the area of new technology since this has changed peoples’ lives and is also a major source of employment;
4. able to work with others both inside and outside the workplace, as the world has become smaller and contact between people around the world has increased.

Technology had long reduced the world into a global village, and the people of the world have become indigenes of a global community where survival is reserved for the fittest. To be competitive in such a community, following current trends becomes a must act. Leaders and education policymakers in discerning countries had long realised this and had taken concrete steps in the development of educational policies and infrastructure to increasingly align with the interests of the global market, in order to maintain their competitive edge. The basic aim is to prepare the people well enough to function effectively in the competitive global economy. Nonetheless, it is arguable if the Nigerian situation can be said to have realised this fact as yet; otherwise, why is unemployment such a threatening issue!

Nigeria and Unemployment Issues

In Nigeria, the issue of unemployment has become a recurring decimal, particularly during election seasons. In spite of these seeming concerns, the situation obviously has not improved and so the issue continues to remain on the front burner of critical discussion, far less than that of deliberate implementation.

During the build-up to the 2015 general elections, just as in others before it, all the political parties pointed to the high level of unemployment in the country and decried the lackadaisical attitude of the government in power towards arresting it. While the ruling party claimed it has been one of its topmost priorities, others described the prevailing situation as unacceptable, thus requiring urgent attention and remedy.

They all talked of strategies to remedy the situation. Often times that is the much they do, as only peripheral actions are usually taken thereafter to create employment in the public service for those who have already left school, rather than building careers that make school leavers self-employed or relevant in other employment circles within and outside the country.

Education, formal and informal, has often been regarded as the fundamental fulcrum on which national growth and development take their bearing. Even the colonial government in Nigeria recognised that fact; and that was the basis for the Ashby Commission of the early 1940s. In spite of this realisation, unemployment in Nigeria today results largely because of education without the right curricula, infrastructure and logistics for further engagement.

While talking about national growth and development, most people seem to be pointing in the direction of education to produce the required man-power, but focus often seems not to be on the quality of man-power to fit current realities; and this seems to be the draw-back to effective competition in the employment arena and subsequently the harbinger and sustainer of unemployment. The simple fact here is that the status of a good number of our educational institutions and the level and quality of man-power produced from them in recent times are largely substandard and therefore incapable of addressing the productive requirements of both the immediate and global communities. Products of such systems are either substandard or outright unemployable. And this is likely going to throw up a competition challenge in the global economic arena.

It must be noted here that there is a distinction between a substandard and an unemployable graduate. Some graduates may have passed through school without the school passing through them. And, because, for whatever reasons, they did not internalise the required orientation and instruction, they cannot fit into the next level of endeavour and therefore end up being unemployable. Also, there are others who in fact have gone through school but did not have the right orientation and instruction, not necessarily because of their individual incapacity, but because of lack of requisite facilities and logistics, and consequently end up as substandard products. Both constitute the large army of the unemployed in Nigeria.

However, this is not discountenancing the fact that available employment openings are far less than the turnover of university graduates in the country. And this also, has a lot to do with the development of university education in Nigeria, the mentality of the government and its agencies and the values and orientation of the society.

Development of University Education in Nigeria

Generally, universities are devoted to excellence in teaching, learning and research, as well as developing leaders and the manpower needs of the society. Different countries, in most cases before now, fashioned out their respective areas of need and emphasised the development of such areas in the curriculum development of their educational institutions. However, with the pervasive nature of technology and the resultant globalisation, universities with requisite wherewithal now go far beyond their immediate environment into areas of global concern and relevance, producing graduates with global leadership mind-sets and dynamic competences rather than just expertise for national manpower needs.

Going by global ratings, Nigerian universities do not seem to be part of the global race to produce graduates imbued with in-built capacities to renew competences to achieve congruence with the changing global business environment. The first set of universities in Nigeria emerged following the recommendations of the Ashby Commission, set up by the colonial government in the 1940s to study the necessity of university education in Nigeria.

Interestingly, apart from the University of Ibadan which started in 1948 as a college of the Metropolitan University of London, and University of Lagos established by the Federal Government in 1962, the other three first generation universities were established by the then regional governments. University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was created in 1955 by the statute of the then Eastern regional government, and opened for classes in 1960; University of Ife followed in 1961 by the then Western regional government; then the Ahmadu Bello University in 1962 by the government of the then Northern Region. Between 1948 and 1962 these five universities, which are today seen as the First Generation universities, were established in the country. They were established primarily to meet a need for qualified personnel in Nigeria, and to set basic standards for university education in the country.

Following increases in the number of persons seeking university education in Nigeria and the growing need for scientific and technological development, the Federal Government made a provision in the Third National Development Plan (1975-1985) for the establishment of seven more universities in states that had none then. Remember Nigeria had 12 states as at that time. Between 1975 and 1980, seven additional universities which came to be identified as the Seven Sisters or Second Generation universities were added.

The need to address special areas of technological and agricultural demands reportedly prompted the setting up of 10 additional Universities between 1985 and 1999. These were classified as Third Generation universities. These categorised universities are all Federal Universities today. Subsequently, more universities were established at random. At the last count, there were about 39 federal universities established for several reasons, ranging from the reasonable to the mundane, as Nigeria, at least on paper, runs a federal system with federating units known as States. Depending on their capabilities and needs, states also are free to establish universities, subject to certain conditions and subsequent accreditation of the courses by the National Universities Commission (NUC). By 2014, there were 39 state-owned universities in Nigeria.

By 1993, the need for the private sector and capable individuals to float universities also was considered, because it became increasingly obvious that government alone could not meet the yearnings of those requiring tertiary education. The Federal Government consequently enacted a law in that year to accommodate such concerns.

Following the enactment, organisations (particularly religious bodies), ventured into the sector and by the second quarter of 2015, 59 private universities in the country have been given the nod by the NUC to commence lectures. That brought to at least 137 the number of universities in the country by March 2015. Shortly before the Goodluck Jonathan administration left office in May 2015, it was announced that about five Colleges of Education in the country were to be converted to degree awarding institutions. If that number is added to the already approved ones, the figure of known and formal degree awarding institutions will swell to at least 142.

The South Western part of the country has the highest number of Universities. Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti and Ondo states alone have 42 universities; followed by South-South, 21; South-East, 20; North-Central, 18; North-West, 16; North-East, 15, and the FCT, 5. There are 83 universities in the South and 54 in the North.

Sadly, Nigeria can only boast of the quantity and not the quality of universities. In spite of Nigeria’s self-styled status as the giant of Africa, only ten of the 137 approved universities have made the list of first 100 universities in Africa in recent times. While South Africa has eight (8) in the first 20 and Egypt six (6), Nigeria has only one (1). Incidentally the only one, University of Lagos, is the 20th in Africa by 4icu.org latest ranking. 4icu.org is one of the authorised site for world university ranking.

In the same ranking, South Africa has the first five universities and Egypt the following four (6th to 9th). Only nine Nigerian universities have consistently made the first 100 universities in Africa in the last few years. They are:

1. University of Lagos (UNILAG)
2. Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife (OAU)
3. University of Ibadan (UI)
4. University of Ilorin (UNILORIN)
5. Covenant University, Otta (CU)
6. University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN)
7. University of Benin (UNIBEN)
8. Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (ABU), and
9. University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (UNAAB)

In the 2015 4icu.org/ng ranking of universities in Nigeria, the following made the first ten:

1. University of Lagos (UNILAG)
2. Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife (OAU)
3. University of Ibadan (UI)
4. University of Ilorin (UNILORIN)
5. Covenant University, Otta (CU)
6. University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN)
7. University of Benin (UNIBEN)
8. University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT)
9. Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (ABU)
10. University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (UNAAB)

It should be noted that all the above listed universities, except one, are federal universities. No state-owned university is in the first 10 in Nigeria and the first 100 universities in Africa; and only one out of the 59 privately-owned universities made the list. Only two state universities, Rivers State University of Science and Technology and the Lagos State University, made the list of the first 20 universities in Nigeria.

As indicated earlier, by 2015 4icu.org/ng ranking, only UNILAG made the first 20 in Africa; OAU was ranked 23; UI, 38; UNILORIN, 41; CU, 43; UNN, 74; UNIBEN, 81; UNIPORT, 85; ABU, 86; UNAAB, 88. The picture is not very different in other ranking sites, only with very slight adjustments.

The picture is worse when looked at from the global ranking perspective. No Nigerian university was listed among the first 1000 in the world in 2014. In the QS World University Rankings® 2014/15, no university in Africa made the list of first 100. However, University of Cape Town in South Africa made the first 150 list, while four universities in that country made the list of the first 500 universities. Kwa-Zulu Natal University, also in South Africa, was ranked 501 in the world.

However, by September 30, 2015, the picture got slightly better when the University of Ibadan was listed among the top 800 in the world by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Six South African and three Egyptian universities made the list. Uganda, Morocco and Ghana also had one university each within that bracket. Only 13 universities in Africa made the list.
Compared to Nigeria, South Africa has about 53 universities, with only 25 categorised as traditional, comprehensive and technological. The rest are private universities and degree awarding colleges affiliated to universities outside South Africa. In all the ranking sites, at least four South African universities make the first ten and at least eight make the first 20 universities in Africa.

The picture painted above has its own implications when considering Nigerian graduates for overseas engagements. Outside the very exceptional ones, it is a tight situation for graduates of Nigerian universities as opposed to Nigerian graduates from universities in other parts of the world. It must be noted however, that Nigerians perform exceptionally well when exposed to universities in conducive environments, with relevant facilities and competent instructors.

One of the observed problems of Nigerian universities is the conception. A number of universities are established with reasons other than scholarship in mind. Politics, commerce and religion are fast becoming major considerations for the establishment of a good number of universities in Nigeria, and these have great influence on how they are administered and funded. A number of them were not originally conceived as universities, but were later converted due to political, social and economic expediency. Because these were not originally conceived for the purpose, the environments of some of the universities are not conducive for serious intellectual engagements.

After converting whatever school into a university campus, focus is subsequently diverted much more to considering the improvement of infrastructure or movement to a permanent site rather than developing knowledge facilities and status of instructors. State-owned and instigated universities are mostly found in this mould. It is no coincidence that those that were built from the scratch as universities, on their own virgin sites, constitute the bulk of the ranking universities.

In addition to the observed variables, the duration of undergraduate programmes in Nigerian universities are the same and depends largely on the course of study. The Social Sciences/Humanities-related courses last for four years while Law, Pharmacy and Engineering/Technology-related courses take five years. Courses with medical orientation take longer periods. Medicine (Veterinary and Human) takes six years with longer sessions during the year. Each academic year has two semester sessions. With this, both the better equipped and the not so equipped institutions run the same schedule for similar programmes. Except for the privately-owned universities, others hardly graduate students on schedule owing to disruptions by students’ riots and strike actions by academic and non-academic staff of universities. The result of this development is predictable and its effect quite telling.

Trends in graduate turn-out and engagement

One of the biggest problems analysts face in Nigeria is the lack of an integrated data base where information and records could easily be accessed for any serious work. Often, figures are bandied about by organisations and groups trying to push one point or the other. The same has affected analysis of trends in graduate employment in Nigeria. It would not amount to mischief if one were to say that it may be difficult to get the exact annual graduate turn-out in the country. This is so because degree-awarding institutions sprout at random in many locations across the country, some unknown to the NUC. Unfortunately, products of some of these mushroom institutions are reportedly either being accepted or ‘necodemously’ find their way to the National Service; so it even compounds the situation.

Ogunu (1990) while working on the statistical analysis of the development of university education in Nigeria confirmed this position when he observed that a crucial problem facing educational planning in Nigeria is the paucity of data. “Accurate statistical data needed to assess the efficiency of our educational system and make realistic projections are not readily available,” he pointed out. This, on its own, could be a very crucial factor in the inability of government to effectively plan and budget for institutions. Ogunu had pointed out, also, that knowing past trends is a prerequisite to forecasting future levels because statistics on enrolment, graduate out-put, academic staff and funding are essential building blocks for effective planning for university education at national or state level.

In his study, Ogunu relied much more on figures from the NUC; but with the several contraptions that are dishing out certificates and degrees all over the place, the NUC figures may just be those of institutions recognised and captured by its operatives; but employment, particularly in the private and informal sectors, are not restricted to NUC recognised institutions.

It is bad enough that reliable data of graduate turn-out are not readily available, it is even worse that deliberate attempts are not made to capture the figures of employed and unemployed graduates in the country. Any figure being bandied about, is just to sustain a purpose; it is not a product of any scientific or empirical process. Some of the figures are a mix of graduates from both Nigerian and overseas’ universities.

However, a casual observation of the flock of graduates roaming the streets without jobs for years, unarguably points to the direction that the level of unemployment in the country is critically high. If we add the number of those just patching up and awaiting employment through formal channels, then the situation would attract the declaration of a state of emergency. Even without the benefit of an empirical study, it can conveniently be said that the situation is frightfully ominous.

One of the reasons why this is so, is that a good number of universities in Nigeria prepare students for the kind of jobs available mostly in formal settings, and such jobs are comparatively fewer and far between. Another is that graduates themselves prefer jobs through formal channels, and end up struggling for the few openings that are available. Apparently, because of the high level of annual graduate turnout and the slow pace of growth of the economy due largely to the bureaucratic indulgences of the government, majority of the graduates end up roaming the streets endlessly without jobs. Therefore, the success level of graduate employment in Nigeria in recent times is really nothing to write home about.

About the Author: Akpandem James is a fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors.

This was delivered at the University of Uyo Distinguished Alumni Lecture during the joint University and Alumni Convocation Dinner on Friday October 30, 2015.

Source: Premium Times

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