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Where the difference lies

Posted by By Reuben Abati on 2006/06/24 | Views: 233 |

Where the difference lies


I PLAYED host to a US-based Nigerian scholar, a few days ago, and although the gentleman who is on a research visit to the country of his birth shall remain nameless, our discussions which focussed in part on the condition of the academia in the United States, with the inevitable comparison with the Nigerian situation proved quite instructive and informative.....

I PLAYED host to a US-based Nigerian scholar, a few days ago, and although the gentleman who is on a research visit to the country of his birth shall remain nameless, our discussions which focussed in part on the condition of the academia in the United States, with the inevitable comparison with the Nigerian situation proved quite instructive and informative.

He had spoken about his personal encounters with the university system in Nigeria, the scholars at home, and how his experience in the United States points to the omissions in the Nigerian system.

For the past two decades, Nigerian academics in search of better conditions for contemplative inquiry have continued to flock in droves to foreign universities. The tragedy is that the situation at home has not improved. The brain drain phenomenon continues to pose a threat to the Nigerian university system. The Nigerian academic is a victim of so many contradictions, man-made, self-inflicted and environmentally conditioned. My guest had also relocated abroad some years ago. He is now a Professor in one of the leading American universities. But the fire of patriotism still burns in him. He has a passion for his country. He has an abiding faith in the capacity of the Nigerian to excel, if he or she is given the opportunities to do so. He has positive and reassuring stories to tell about the great strides that Nigerian academics are making abroad. But he'd rather return home to contribute to the growth of a knowledge - industry in Nigeria.

"I'd like to return to Nigeria, as soon as my children are in college. I'll like to return to a Nigerian university and make a contribution."

"Which university do you have in mind?"

"I'll probably go to... if my mother is still alive by then."

"I like your patriotism", I told him. "I hope you'd be able to adapt."

"One of the greatest things about man is his capacity to adapt to any and all situations and still manage to thrive", he philosophised.

"I like that"

"Look, I tell my colleagues in the United States that we are all agbero Professors. We are helping another country to put passengers on its train of progress. We are training manpower for another country while our own people at home are in dire need of our expertise. But again, you see, when you hear stories of persons who returned home out of patriotism, spent two years-only to rush back to the United States in exasperation, you begin to get worried."

I was impressed by the fact that my guest has not lost touch with his roots. He is not one of those characters who suddenly encounter the difference in other lands, and begin to throw big stones from outside, without an attempt to focus on lessons that can be learnt. For my guest's benefit however, I quietly pointed out that the Nigerian university system is worse than it was 10 years ago. The failings of the Nigerian state can be located in the destruction of the university system, and the education sector in general. My guest concurred:

"I know. I have just returned from a seminar at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife. I saw the topic of the Seminar. It appeared interesting to me, so I went to attend the event. I won't deceive you, I was surprised at the quality of presentation by our Nigerian colleagues. I didn't introduce myself, by the way. I just sat in the hall like any other person. I thought, if this is a reflection of the prevailing standard in our universities then, we are seriously in trouble in this country."

Well, I doubt if the visiting scholar has visited the libraries of some of our universities where the books are either old, or torn, or not available; where the university Librarian goes to work on the back of an Okada. Or the classrooms without windows, the zoo where all the animals have been stolen or slaughtered and transformed by skilful chefs into tasty peppersoup; laboratories where there are no equipment ; lecture halls that prove inadequate for the students' population, and so the learning process is an exercise in endurance; indeed a test of human patience. I didn't want to ask whether or not he has seen some of our universities which are not as equipped as some private secondary schools and the students who are not interested in ides; students who are "unteachable." But I felt duty-bound to point out that the standards of scholarship have also fallen.

Many of our so-called academics do not know enough about the subjects that they teach. They are overworked, underpaid, and under constant harassment from a society that no longer appreciates hardwork. The result is that the ivory tower now looks very much like the general society. The larger population of Nigerian scholars at home is represented by those who in addition to their assignments as lecturers have to find other ways of living up to societal expectations. Hence, there are lecturers who run a thriving okada business: they don't ride the motorcycles themselves but the better part of their time is spent chasing the contract - cyclists around town. Others sell hand-outs, or engage in numerous Consultancies which amount to a distraction. In-between all this, the scholar still has to find time to return to his primary calling. In the process, quality suffers.

When I told my guest that there are Professors in our universities today whose research publications, on the basis of which they bear the title "Professor" are in the main contributions to local, Departmental journals and newsletters, he was amused. Of what use is a Professor who is not known anywhere outside the state University in his state of origin? Or who has never been quoted anywhere in the mainstream in his profession? Or whose attendance at conferences is limited to programmes by Non-Governmental Organisations? And whose publications are all veritable symbols of the vanity press, and the local praise-culture? I once saw a would-be Professor's resume: it contained a few write-ups on one of those internet chat-rooms which were presented as important contributions to knowledge!

My guest was not surprised. We traced the problem to the wilful destruction of university system by an illiterate and predatory elite which seized political power in Nigeria, and proceeded to justify its might by castrating the very institution where the seeds of revolution and progress can be sown. Our review of the university system motivated my guest to offer a testimony of his American experience.

In the university where he works, he teaches only three courses in a whole academic session.

"Is that all?" I asked.

"That is all", he affirmed.

"In Nigeria, here, some lecturers teach 15 courses per session. They supervise students. And they are involved in all kinds of activities in society".

"No, No. I teach only three courses. Then, I spend the rest of the year attending conferences and doing research. The university pays for the Conferences. I am also entitled to research grants".

"Nobody gets research grants here o. Except you are in the Vice-Chancellor's committee of friends. The university doesn't even have enough funds to cater for all interests".

"No. You don't have to be a friend of the Vice-Chancellor to be supported by the system. In fact, for you to get promoted, the University is more interested in your research output. You either publish, or you get kicked out of the system. And you can't publish anywhere. It has to be a University Press. I see many of our colleagues at home publish their own books. Nobody will take that from you in the university where I teach."

"There are no publishers here. The few ones that exist are not supported by government. Nigerian academics have therefore learnt to resort to self-help. Some of them are very active in university politics. They are very busy serving in this or that committee..."

"If you do that in the United States, you won't impress anybody. Your list of community service can be that long but it won't bring you any recognition as a scholar. Eventually, you'd be thrown out."

"Nobody throws anybody out here o. Once you are appointed a lecturer, and you are a regular face at the University Staff Club, your position is assured until the age of 65."

"I am even leaving the University where I teach now because another University has offered me the opportunity to teach only two courses. By March, I'd be free to do research."

"You mean for nine months, you won't have to do any other thing?"

"I do research. I attend conferences. I am allowed the freedom to think and write. But of course, there are the Appallachian state universities..."

"What is that?"

"That is a term I use for some of those universities in the United States where all you do is just teach classes and collect salary. There are universities like that in America too. But if you teach in their leading universities, you just must do research, and publish your contributions to knowledge. Those of us in the Humanities envy the scholars in the Sciences. In some universities, once they give you a position as a lecturer in the Sciences, they would set up a laboratory for you. Your own laboratory. You may not even teach classes. You are just required to do research. Americans generally also look down on academics but the truth is that theirs is a society that values knowledge. Their knowledge culture is reflected in the emphasis that the system places on research".

"Knowledge means nothing in today's Nigeria." None of our universities is ranked among the first 200 in the world."

"That is sad."

"Mediocrity is a very powerful element in all our institutions".

"We simply have to invest in knowledge if we want our society to join the global competition for advantages. Nigerians have ability. What they need is a system that supports and encourages excellence and productivity."

I doubt if my guest would ever return home to teach in a Nigerian university. Would he be able to stand the deadly intrigues in the system, to which many Nigerian academics are fully sworn? Would he be able to stand the angry and misled students whose values have been conditioned by the culture of the streets? I didn't need to tell him about a certain occasion when I participated in a panel that interviewed candidates for the post of the Vice-Chancellor of a University. One of the finalists had travelled from the United States where he had a good position in a University to attend the interview. He wanted to serve his country, and help set up a credible and enduring academic system. When we told the fellow that there have been occasions when Nigerian students abducted their Vice-Chancellor, locked him up in a toilet and demanded ransom before he could be released - if he is faced with such a situation, how would he handle it? His response was marked with incredulity: "Excuse me gentlemen, I don't mean to be offensive, but do you really mean that such a thing could happen here?" We exchanged glances. We really didn't have to ask him further questions.

Without a conscious and deliberate investment in knowledge by the Nigerian system at all levels, we are merely preparing the graveyard of the future. No wonder Nigerian academics are fleeing abroad; and parents are sending their children to universities in Ghana, South Africa and elsewhere...

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.