Repositioning Nigerian Universities Within A Dynamic Global University System: Challenges And Prospects

July 23, 2012

It is always a matter of utmost pleasure for me to be on a University campus to interact with scholars, students and administrators, and indeed, the world; that is, the world that normally comes to a University and for which a University is created. Because the university is a veritable universe in a city, even if based in a small town, the universe of a university transforms its locale into a city. A true university is a place that encompasses the world: it welcomes the world and opens out to the world. As the summit of higher education, the university is the veritable instrument and institution of social transformation.

Given that the university constitutes a world, or perhaps represents a mini-world, a typical university campus, even when it is not on a single expansive land, is usually a big place; it is usually big in its virtual and/or physical space; big in its many disciplines, including colleges, schools, faculties and departments; and, big in terms of its labyrinth of rules and regulations. It is therefore easy to lose your way in a university. You can lose your way in terms of finding the specific place, classroom, or office that you are looking for; you can lose your way in terms of familiarity with the rules and regulation governing your conduct or action in the university; you can also lose your way in terms of finding the appropriate means and methods of achieving your goals within the university.

In terms of the physical or spatial dimensions of finding or losing your way in a university, many universities around the world often have maps; they, therefore, place maps and directions and names of places at strategic places and points on the university campus. The story is told of a new student in a university who was attending an orientation programme on the campus. To make it easy for the new students to find their way around the campus, specific orientation arrows were placed around the campus. Just by the side of the hall where the orientation would take place, there was a big arrow on the map with the words, “You are here.” One of the new students, exhausted from moving round the campus to find the hall, created a graffiti by the side of the arrow with the words “But, why?”

This graffiti, though the work of a neophyte on a university campus, if we consider it deeply, is actually the product of a very sophisticated mind that was yet unaware of his own potential philosophical depth. This question, “But, why?” is both a personal and a collective question. A society can ask itself, “Why a University?” or “Why should we have a University?” And the student, current or graduating, can ask himself/herself, respectively, “Why am I here?” or “Why did I attend a University?” The last version of that question is one that those who are graduating from this university might be asking themselves now, after a few years of burning the proverbial midnight oil.

Distinguished guests, indeed, the students, “Jambites,” (as we called fresh students in my time) and “stalites” (those in their second up to their last year), and also graduating students, need to ask themselves this question. However, the answers they provide cannot have meaning if the society at large is not able to satisfactorily answer the bigger question, which is “Why a University?” The individual student’s answer to the question about why there is a need to have university education can only find meaning in the universe of the answers provided by the society at large. But the larger society cannot answer that question, unless and until, the University itself has answered the question adequately. If the sign in the university says “You are here”, the university needs to answer the question, “Why are we here?” In other words: what are universities for?

I have been asked to speak to the issue of “repositioning the Nigerian Universities within a Dynamic Global University System.” However, we cannot begin to examine how to reposition the university system without returning to the fundamental question that I raised. This is particularly so in a country in which, in the last three decades, owing to a myriad of reasons, the university idea, as well as the university ideal, have been lost. Almost three decades ago, precisely in 1986, the Nobel laureate and Nigeria’s primus public intellectual, Professor Wole Soyinka, asked that all the universities in Nigeria be shut down for one year, while we return to the table to rethink the university idea and restart the process of rebuilding the world-class university system that we once had. Twenty four years after Soyinka’s wisdom was ignored, we are still confronted with the question that he raised by that position. How do we recover what we have lost? How do we reconstitute the University Idea?

When, in 1862, one of the three oldest universities in India, University of Bombay – which was started only five years earlier – awarded its first degrees, the Chancellor of the University, in his inaugural Convocation address, urged the students to “…recollect that you are no longer pupils of any single school, but graduates of a University.” Therefore, he added, “Your standards must henceforth be… [that] of the whole educated world.” In reminding students of that University – now called University of Mumbai – of that wisdom during their convocation earlier this year, the President of Harvard University, Professor Drew Faust, affirmed that “Universities are stewards of an unbroken and endless chain of inquiry.”  Between the statement of the 19th century first Chancellor of the University of Mumbai and that of the current President of the most prestigious University in the world, Harvard University, is a fundamental declaration of the universality of the university and its central and original role in modern life.

Every university identifies its core mission as teaching, research and community engagement. But as they say in the wisdom of our ancients in Yorubaland, O’un to’ wa leyin efa,o j’oje lo (What lies beyond six, is more than seven). What lies beyond these three critical roles of the university, is certainly far more complicated than the three words and phrase that encompass that mission. Which is why, when the new student in the story I told earlier saw the sign, “You are here,” he asked the important question, “But, why?” We can ask too: why is the mission and vision of the university more complicated than its three core roles of teaching, research and community engagement suggest?

This university for instance, Osun State University, does not simply repeat the three universal core purposes of the university. There is a very good effort by the university founders to complicate these core purposes in the university’s vision and mission. The vision of UNIOSUN is “To be a centre of excellence providing high quality teaching and learning experiences which will engender the production of entrepreneurial graduates capable of impacting positively on their environment while being globally competitive.” From this vision, it is clear that the founders of this university not only recognised the core purposes of a university, they also acknowledge the potential universality of the university. Also, in its mission, the Osun State University, hopes “To create a unique institution committed to the pursuit of academic innovation, skill-based training and a tradition of excellence in teaching, research and community service.”


Last modified: July 23, 2012

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