The country’s wretched educational system recently got some attention with the introduction of a postgraduate summer school at Ikogosi in Ekiti State. The programme is the brainchild of two Nigerian academics, social critics and former journalists, Associate Professors Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare of the University of California and University of Kansas, United States respectively. In this interview with FOLARIN ADEMOSU, the scholars share their experience at the summer school and offer searing observations of the country’s defective tertiary education sector
Q: What was your experience at the Ikogisi Graduate Summer School that held in Ekiti State recently?
Adebanwi: The experience was illuminating in terms of the opportunities it created despite the challenges of the country’s educational system, particularly higher education, for which reason we came up with the idea of the graduate summer school. I talked about opportunities because we were very concerned about the problems in Nigeria now, which is understandable.
The idea of the summer school arose as a conception of opportunities within the context of problems, so that is the major theme for us. The other side of it, which is related to the opportunities, is that they came out of the crisis. We saw the crisis there in spite of the opportunities we created with the idea of the summer school. What do I mean by the crisis? The challenge of higher education in Nigeria is something that we are all familiar with and which started from the mid-1980s, which led to the emigration of some of our best minds.
Our purpose in respect to the summer school in Ekiti State was to see how we can turn brain drain into brain gain. It is clear that there are quite a number of quality Nigerian scholars abroad, particularly in Europe and North America, and we thought we could bring these people home, many of whom are eager to return to help Nigerian students.
Given the enthusiasm of the students from the opening of the summer school as well as the reactions of the scholars from Europe and North America, it was clear from day one that we were up to something good and far beyond our expectations, too. In the middle of all of that, we were able to see the challenges of higher education in Nigeria and the students were exceedingly open in letting us know there problems and challenges.
We were able to bring those challenges into focus and in the context of our enthusiasm about the opportunities and challenges presented to us as Nigerian scholars, who happened to have been abroad as students and lecturers at different western
institutions and had, once, been products of those challenges and crisis ourselves. So, it was a confluence of challenges and opportunities.
We succeeded to some extent in what we wanted to do, particularly in transforming those challenges into opportunities for the students. We succeeded in making them see their challenges as a way of embracing the opportunities that exist in the context of those who came to teach them, the materials they were able to access as well as the kind of 21st century, upper scale teaching and mentoring they received both from the visiting overseas scholars and their home-based counterparts. I am sure we achieved our goal, given the reaction from the students, who commended the project and wished its continuation in the future.
Given that this was the inaugural edition of the project, what were the challenges you faced?
Obadare: I think there is a sense in saying that we are still actually processing what we learnt. I think the most important challenge we faced was in the quality of the students. Although they were enthusiastic about the project, but we saw clearly years of decay and the fact that they were profoundly lacking in so many areas of research like how to formulate research questions, what it takes to master a particular literature, “how to write a research proposal, how to apply for a research grant/funding and the language of communication e.t.c, which are the basic stuff that graduate students in other countries take for granted after a year of graduation. The discovery gave us further assurance that we had embarked on a good project. Although there were minor logistic challenges, which we were able to surmount, the real challenge was to bring the students and the faculty we recruited on the same page, intellectually speaking.
Who approached who first on the need to develop a project like the graduate summer school?
Obadare: It was not like somebody approached the other first. Myself, Wale and Dr. Kayode Fayemi have been friends before he became the governor and we have met at several fora. As you know, Dr. Fayemi used to be an academic, author and journalist. He is one of the few governors that I know who actually attend the yearly African Studies Association, which holds in different venues in the United States. I think directly connected to this is the meeting that held in New Orleans, which he was part of before he became a governor. I do not think there was a particular moment where there was a ha-ha about doing the project.
Moreover, Ikogisi is the culmination of the years of continued conversations about the crisis in the educational sector in Nigeria. Before Dr. Fayemi, we were in touch and he kept nudging us to make the project a reality until Adebanwi and I were able to salvage some space and a little bit of time to ensure that we have it this summer.
Adebanwi: Just to emphasise the continuing dialogue we had about Nigeria and some form of social salvation in different sectors, the highpoint was the discussion we had about higher education and what we could do with Dr. Fayemi. So, different ideas began to crystallise and he reminded us of the idea of the summer school as one that could be done at this time. And because who Dr. Fayemi is and the trajectory of the discussion on the project, we did not have to explain what we needed to do. The proposal was about how we were going to do it, and not to convince him about doing it.
Obadare: And in the context of other suggestion the different stakeholders have made about how to overhaul higher education, which have been eminently proven. Think about the suggestion by Professor Wole Soyinka about shutting down the university system for two years to address the rot therein. Someone else has reiterated that suggestion by recommending that it should be shut down for 10 years. We may get to a point where we will do that, though I hope not. But, in the meantime, this is about what we can do, what is doable. Maybe not to completely change the system, but to stop the rot.
Adebanwi: It is like a 25-storey building is on fire and you do not have cranes and all of that to combat it, but you have water to stop the fire on the first two floors. So, it is part of our contributions as intellectuals and as people who are engaged in the Nigerian crisis on a daily basis.
For us, Nigeria is like something you cannot give up on. We have been unable to get it out of our system. I think it is impossible for two intellectuals to give on social crisis, otherwise it is easier to ship out building materials to sell at Alaba or elsewhere and in which case, you are free of all the continuous thinking about how to solve the country’s problems. So, we felt this is something we can do in the middle of all of that.
What we would rather do is to sack the Minister of Education, change the government and start by putting people who, at least, have minimum understanding of education. Since we cannot do that, it is a minimal effort that we should
Obadare: We are actually also merely formalising an informal relationship that we have with different students, colleagues and all of that. There is no day that we do not receive request to send one journal, article or the other. Those exchanges were always going on irrespective of the institutional dimension. In a sense, it is about putting things in a defined and formal context because part of what we have done was to encourage the postgraduate students by saying: ‘Look, don’t let this stop here, let’s continue to have a relationship and not just with the two of us, but also with those fine scholars we brought from different parts of the world.’
Are they Nigerians in the Diaspora or some foreign academics?
All of them are Nigerians. Professor Niyi Osundare, who gave the keynote address and rendered a poem on Ikogisi in Ekiti dialect, was there. Professor Femi Taiwo is one of the best Philosophy teachers produced in the country and the African continent. He is just moving to Cornell University to start a new programme. He is a taskmaster, who does not believe in half-done tasks. He taught the students at the Theory and Theorising seminar, which is one of the problematic areas in higher education in Nigeria.
In the last two decades, students of higher education in the country are not taught to think in abstract terms. We emphasised to the students that what differentiates a graduate from a trader is the former’s capacity to do abstract thinking and the ability to link different kinds of phenomena because if it is all about what is happening or the story, the market woman knows that better. But it behoves a graduate student to link their conditions with the state and nature of politics in Nigeria, to the nature of the government, to the character of international finance and global capital e.t.c. So, the theory and theorising segment was very important and it was clear from Professor Taiwo’s teaching that we are absolutely in need of that kind of instruction for the students.
There was also Professor Bayo Olukose, who is one of the leading political economists on the continent and Executive Director, CODESTRA, and presently works with IDEP, a United Nations agency in Dakar, Senegal. He taught alongside Professor Adeola Adenikije of the Economics Department of the University of Ibadan. They both taught Economics, Globalisation and International Finance seminar.
We also had Professor Funmi Olorunsakin from the King’s College, London, who with Dr. Charles Alao taught the Peace and Conflict seminar. Also, Professor Oka Ogbono of the University of Ibadan Sociology Department, who taught the Methodology seminar, which was extremely important because most of the crisis in higher education is also the problem of people not being taught methodology in the university.
Professor Adeleke Adeeko, a distinguished professor of English Language. He taught along with Dr. Tayo Alabi in the Literature, Culture and Society seminar. Myself and Obadare taught the State and Civil Society seminar, how to write proposals and grants for a master’s dissertation or Ph.D thesis. There was also Dr. Bola Ikeje, who teaches Psychology in U.I. She paired with the wife of Ekiti State governor, Mrs. Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, a feminist scholar and activist, to teach the Gender and Feminism class.
It was very exciting for the students to see the first lady actually teach. The students were made to come out of their patriarchal order of thinking due to their robust exchange with her, particularly the young men among them and some of the women who were used to the patriarchal life.
The next day after she taught, Dr. Obembe, a feminist, took up some of the issues and there were heated arguments between him and the students, who were unfamiliar with feminist ideas. Some of the ideas and issues discussed in each of the seminars came out in subsequent ones, even though the professors taught at different times. For instance, Adeeko raised the issue of feminism, though he was not there when the feminism and gender class was taught. Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, formerly of the World Bank, and retired Professor Ishola Olomola were there and they gave their thoughts on Ekiti State’s place in Nigeria. So, it was an exceedingly exciting time.
Obadare: After formal instructions, we also encouraged the students to have interaction with the faculty and we had a situation where over 40 people were asking different questions. Besides, linkages were created between the faculty and the students.
So, more or less we helped the students facilitate lifelong relationship with the faculty, as we have had with some people who gave us that kind of opportunity when we started out. They were excited to meet some of Nigeria’s world class scholars and we let them know that Nigeria has the materials to produce these people. We let them know that while it is not easy to bring all these people together, they should exploit the benefit if the world being a global village for them to access the facilities and capacities of the scholars from wherever they (the students) are located.
On the future of the project, Dr. Fayemi is committed to doing the project yearly and even before we finished, he had had a proposal
from someone who wants to do a similar thing for science, engineering and agricultural sciences and we are thinking about running them concurrently from next year. It will then be social science and humanity and science and technology summer school.
What were the criteria for selecting the students who participated in the summer school?
Adebanwi: Actually, the original idea was to have graduate students of Nigerian universities, but because it was mainly funded by the Ekiti State government, it was difficult to include people from other states. So, eventually we settled down for Ekiti postgraduate students from any university in Nigeria. The criteria were basically for students to apply and make personal statements on why they need to participate in the summer school. At the end, we had over 200 applications from which we selected the participants.
Was it deliberate that all the members of the faculty were Nigerians?
Adebanwi: Yes, it was. As I said, we wanted to bring Nigerian scholars based abroad and here to teach the students.
How challenging was it for you to assemble the scholars?
Adebanwi: It was extremely challenging, especially to us. Getting them to accept to come was the easiest for us, but assembling them in two weeks was extremely challenging and the time for which we wanted the seminars to run. For instance, Professors Funmi Olorunsakin and Abass Alao were running something similar in Kenya and they came to Nigeria directly from there. Dr. Taiwo was also to give a keynote address at the Awo Institute and he is coming back for Fagunwa Conference in August. He is moving there to CIADO to upstate New York to Cornell University.
So, all of that was exceedingly challenging, but exciting because of what we wanted to achieve and which they all subscribed to. Interestingly, the scholars were even more excited when they came and they pledged their commitment in participating some other times. There were also other scholars who expressed their anger to us for excluding them.
What will happen to the summer school when Governor Fayemi leaves office?
Obadare: I think to answer that, we will reiterate the point we made at the beginning. That we were able to have the programme in the first instance was because we have a governor like Dr. Fayemi. So, we must understand what composes Dr. Fayemi, as regards his intellectual and political compositions, which was central to the actualisation of the project. The hope is that post-Fayemi, another occupier of the office will be committed to the same idea. It does not have to be Fayemi as Fayemi, but some other person who is also devoted to the cause of higher education in Nigeria and social justice; somebody you do not have to explain the rationale for a project like that to. Our hope is that having done the first one and how successful it was, subsequent ones will make the programme institutionalised.
Adebanwi: It is also interesting that some of the students actually asked the governor, who hosted them to a dinner, that there should be an enabling law to institutionalise the project. The other part of it was the beauty of the idea. For instance, a friend, Mukhtar Baba Ahmed, who is based in the North, heard about it and called, asking: ‘Can you please send me something about this programme?’ We sent him some reports written by journalists on the programme and he sent to people on his link serve, including former heads of state, governors and some other highly placed Nigerians. He wrote a personal commendation note to go with it and urged his contacts to replicate it.
Obadare: I think that was a testimony to the power of a good idea because it will eventually speak for itself. Now, I am thinking about the idea of free education in the defunct Western Region. It might disappear for while, but there is always the groundswell belief sedimented into people’s imagination that there should be free education. We hope that in a similar fashion, this particular idea of the summer school will be sendimented in people’s minds.
Adebanwi: May be I should also add, for instance, when we invited the Vice Chancellor of Ekiti State University to the closing of the summer school, he told us that he was already planning to come there himself, meaning that he had already bought into the idea.
Given the success of the summer school in Ekiti State, were you persuaded to suggest to the governor that it should be replicated in other states in the southwest?
Adebanwi: It actually occurred to him, but he decided that we should test-run it in Ekiti State and that it would be easier to sell if they see the success of it. By the third day of running the programme, the governor said a colleague governor met him in Abuja and asked about the summer school. The idea is already there and the programme has properly advertised itself, but governor Fayemi will also be selling it to his colleagues in the southwest. I am sure his colleagues are already interested in it, but the idea must be externalised and expanded beyond the southwest. As I said, the first governor to inquire about the programme from him is not a southwest state governor.
The two of you can be described as part of the lucky few academics, who have the opportunity to lecture abroad, but your colleagues back home are in a dire straits, as strikes in the universities and polytechnics have caused a paralysis in the educational sector. What does this portend for the future?
Obadare: There is nothing new about the current strike action by ASUU. It is the same fundamental problem we have had in the last 20-30 years. Anybody reading the news now will think ASUU is on strike because of N12,500, as they have alleged. But for me the overriding thing is that as an institution ASUU has run into a cul de sac in terms of coming up with fresh ideas, which is the reason they resort to strike. If there is anything, this further underscores the imperative to begin to generate new ideas for Nigerian universities, but also the antecedent imperative to have a situation where such fresh ideas can actually emerge. This is so because it is debateable whether we have institutions that can produce such ideas in the current context. How ASUU or the personnel currently teaching in Nigerian universities are implicated in all and their capacity to generate new ideas is also debateable.
Adebanwi: The state of the faculty is a reflection of the general crisis we have been talking about. If Professor Wole Soyinka could suggest in 1986 that the university system be shut down for two years, you can imagine the state we are in now. I remember vividly that he was asked in an interview in Newswatch about university autonomy and he replied that it was in a state of anomie. We are now actually reproducing those people who do not have any business with the university.
That also lends credence to a statement by Professor Bidoun Jeyifo, who as president of ASUU in the 80s, described a particular vice chancellor as one without a curriculum vitae and I think he made reference to it recently in his weekly column. Look at the time he made the statement. You can imagine the situation we are currently in. I say with all sense of responsibility that there are vice chancellors who are not worthy to be vice chancellors; we have people at the federal level, who ought to be anywhere near any ministry, let alone the Ministry of Education.
For me, the crisis cannot be articulated in isolation. It is a product of a political crisis, which regenerates and reproduces leaders who ought not to have anything to do with leadership or running a modern state. We now have people with no capacity for the most minimal forms of modern administration, but are the ones deciding policies in the educational sector. Unless we resolve the fundamental political crisis, we cannot resolve the problem, which are consequences of the former. If we had somebody like Chief Obafemi Awolowo in position of authority, we would not be talking about this type of problems.
Obadare: I must emphasise Wale’s point that every society gets the kind of university it deserves. In every situation, you have the town and the gown. One determines what happens in the other. We cannot have what we have in politics and political organisation in Nigeria and expect the universities to be different. What you have in the universities is what you have in the hospitals and other sectors of our national life. I think it is important that we do not see the ASUU issue as an isolated case. We cannot expect to see teachers who are morally different from the rest of the society.
Adebanwi: In addition, think about what the politics has done to our culture, society and economy, which also explains what they did to the university system. The most devastating effect was felt during the regime of former Ibrahim Babangida, who directly assaulted the intellectual industry by destroying the university system. One of the ways by which you can quickly destroy the society is to destroy the intellectual commission, making it difficult for people to think and think well.
This article was first published in The News
Last modified: July 20, 2013