Cleansing the Augean stables, Nigeria, circa 2016 CE (4) Higher education and a different kind of corruption, a different order of corruptibility

No Comments » December 17th, 2016 posted by // Categories: Higher Education in Nigeria


Cleansing the Augean stables, Nigeria, circa 2016 CE (4) Higher education and a different kind of corruption, a different order of corruptibility

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.  Famous United Negro College Fund slogan                                                                                             

Compared with Law, Politics and Governance and Religion, the other institutional locations of epic corruption that I have either been exploring or will explore in this series, Higher Education (HE) presents us with a relatively much “cleaner” profile than the perceptible “norms” of corruption in Nigeria. Dear reader, please do not get me wrong, for I am neither saying that corruption is rare in our universities and polytechnics, nor am I arguing that lecturers and professors are more honest than lawyers, judges, politicians and our fraternity of jet-set evangelists of wealth and opulence. Nothing could be further from the truth and I would be the first to admit that there are aspects of corruption in higher education in Nigeria that are pretty close to the scale of the corruption that we more commonly associate with the mega-looters now facing the music in the law courts on account of Buhari’s war on corruption. If this is the case, what exactly do I have in mind in pressing this claim that higher education has a relatively “cleaner” profile than what we see in many other institutions in Nigeria?

Well, the exceptionalism that I associate with higher education with regard to corruption has two very specific and, as a matter of fact, quite ordinary or banal features. Here they are. Firstly, compared with Law, Politics and Religion, there’s not much money to loot and plunder in our higher institutions, since in fact, universities in Nigeria are typically greatly underfunded. Secondly, historically speaking, mega-scale corruption is a very new, a very recent phenomenon in our tertiary educational institutions. Indeed, in comparison with the outsize, super-scale corruption that has been in existence in politics and governance and in the Bar and the Bench in the Judiciary for a long time now, mega-corruption in higher education in Nigeria is a late arrival. Thus, what we confront here is a different kind of corruption, indeed a different order of corruptibility. This is the central idea in this week’s contribution to the present, ongoing series. Permit me to briefly explain what it means as the idea is crucial for enabling us to see how, on the one hand, corruption in higher education is like what we see in other institutions in our country while, on the other hand, it is different and in certain respects, much bigger and more alarming than corruption among lawyers, judges, public officeholders, politicians and evangelists of “holy” greed and graft.

Though “corruption” and “corruptibility” are both nouns, they are very different orders of nouns. “Corruption” implies a thing that is in society and the world as a completed or consummated act; “corruptibility” on the other hand, implies a thing that exists in nature, society and the world as a never-ending process or possibility. To give a rather dramatic illustration of the difference between the two terms, think of the following proposition, dear reader: “corruption” is a thing, an act for which one is liable for arrest and prosecution, but no one has ever been arrested or will ever be arrested and prosecuted for causing or effecting “corruptibility”. Presented in this way, it seems that the difference between the two terms is marked by a chasm, but this is actually not the case and therein lies the challenge that corruption in higher education in Nigeria poses to us. I will now give an illustration that should considerably clarify what I am arguing here.

Perhaps the single most outrageous manifestation of corruption in higher education in our country is the fact that though everyone knows that our tertiary educational institutions are grossly under-funded, cases of big and unconscionable looting and mismanagement of budgeted or allocated funds are becoming more and more common. Right now, as of this very moment, there are several high-profile cases being investigated by the anti-graft agencies, the EFCC and the ICPC. Indeed, it is common knowledge in our universities, polytechnics and colleges of education that to be appointed as Chairman of Council, Vice Chancellor or Rector is to be given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get very rich.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, the norm, but the degree to which people within and outside our higher educational institutions struggle to get appointed to these positions is universally and correctly regarded as an indication of the state of things, the depth of corruption in higher education in the country. So common, so systemic has this pattern become that it now operates as a sort of a recurring cycle: when a new Pro-Chancellor, Vice Chancellor or Rector is appointed, a new team arrives on the scene to make the most of the cash cow that is an institution’s meager budgeted or allocated funds. This is the most familiar or notorious face of corruption in our higher institutions and it is very recognizably “Nigerian”. What is perhaps a little un-Nigerian about it is the fact that, thanks to the unions and professional associations in our universities, it attracts more whistle blowers and more opposition than in the other institutions in the country’s public or corporate existence. If this is the essential face of “corruption” in our higher educational institutions, what about the face or faces of “corruptibility”? Prepare yourself for a confounding and simultaneously “national” and “universal” tale, dear reader!

A university, a polytechnic is not a primary school or a high school; it is a place of higher education. As a matter of fact, for most of its more than a thousand years’ history, the university as we know it has been a place where learning was severely restricted to a very tiny proportion of the population, far above those whose education would never go beyond, at first, primary schools and later, secondary schools. Indeed, for more than the first 800 years of the evolution of the medieval and modern university, most of the populations of the countries of the world did not have education beyond primary school, not to talk of university. The idea that as many people in a national population who desire to have university education should have it is a post-Second World War social and cultural development. This is the “universal” dimension of this tale and the United States and India are two of its greatest national exemplars. In the last three quarters of a century, each has set up universities as briskly as primary schools are set up. However, fortunately for these two countries, the older, more established universities have been able to absorb the deleterious impact on quality and value that this rapid expansion of the national tertiary educational system has caused. The Nigerian “national” variation of this universal tale presents us with a more tragic narrative, a narrative whose immensely depressing theme is – corruptibility.

A state or a private university is set up with a declaration that the intention is to make the newly founded institution a “world class” university within a decade or even less: I have lost count of the number of times that I have come across this phenomenon in reports and profiles published in our newspapers and magazines. “World class” universities need a long, long time and tremendous outlays of financial investment to emerge from the “ornery” level of the vast majority of the world’s universities most of which, for the most part, are content to be functional, user-friendly places of instruction and learning rather than self-important and elitist institutions. As a matter of fact, since Nigerian universities currently rank very lowly not only in the world at large but on the African continent, how could any newly founded university in our country realistically aspire to be a “world class” university? To this question, we can and indeed must add the following question: wasn’t the extremely rapid expansion of the number of universities one of the most crucial causes of the lowly ranking of Nigerian universities in Africa and the world?

These two preceding questions lead us right into the heart of the crisis of “corruptibility” in higher education in Nigeria in the last three decades. Let it be noted that “corruptibility” indicates not a completed and finished act of corruption but a process in which value and quality are gradually but inevitably diminished, often with incalculably destructive consequences. At the core of the phenomenon is not the populist or even egalitarian though non-meritocratic idea of more and more universities; rather, it is the practice of creating more and more universities with absolutely minimal human and financial capital investments in them, turning the great majority of them into no more than glorified high schools. The great swindle, the extremely unconscionable scam is to have convinced parents, students and apparently the whole country that “universities” without the most elementary facilities for higher learning are universities. Lest the point I am making here be missed or underappreciated, let me make it absolutely clear: any place at all will become a “university” in our country once such a place has been declared a university; parents will send their children to it; professors and lecturers from the older and more established universities will help to get it accredited and “teach” in it for negotiated remunerations; and it will produce both “graduates” with impressive-looking certificates and diplomas and “professors” who will in time circulate around and within the entire Nigerian university system.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, so goes the epigraph to this piece. It was and still is the fund-raising slogan of the United Negro College Fund. Its historical resonance goes all the way back to the early 20th century when many advocates and champions of African American economic, social and intellectual emancipation felt that higher learning was a critical arena of struggle. Then and now, in the African diaspora as well as on the African continent itself, higher learning remains a valid and crucial arena of struggle for the expansion of the human and civil rights of our peoples. But glorified high schools turned by declaration and swindle into “universities” are the very antithesis of these rights. How do we know this? Well, think of this fact, dear reader: Nigerian universities are some of the most lowly and poorly ranked universities in Africa and the world and yet Nigerians in the Diaspora in Europe and North America consistently outperform most of the indigenes or citizens of other African countries in higher learning institutions. And there is also this fact: potential employers of the products of our tertiary educational institutions constantly and perennially complain that our graduates are so poorly educated and trained that they are “unemployable”. Only glorified high schools proclaimed as “universities” through swindle produce “unemployable” graduates!

Here is the ultimate and profoundly confounding question that we face in this crisis of “corruptibility” in higher learning in Nigeria at the present time: are we really producing “unemployable” lawyers, engineers, doctors, chemists, architects, agronomists, scientists, mathematicians, journalists, teachers, etc., etc.? And are our universities producing women and men with well above average in quality of mind and discernment necessary for a modern democratic state that is built on justice, equality and dignity for all? If your answer is no, please have the arguments necessary to secure the truth of your opinion. If yes, what do you think we can and ought to do about it? I shall be giving my own response to this question at the end of this series next week.

Biodun Jeyifo                                                                                              


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