THE 2ND UNIVERSITY OF BENIN ALUMNI ASSOCIATION DISTINGUISHED ALUMNI (DAF) LECTURE 2018
Ugbowo Campus of the University of Benin.
The University Autonomy Question: The Role of the Alumni Association
…as you all know, I am just like most of us here – an ordinary alumnus without any qualification or experience in university management. However, where I might be different from others is that I have had the privilege of managing the affairs of a complex state that owns a university which runs a complex multi-campus system. In my eight years as Executive Governor of Delta State, I tried as much as possible to let the state university alone because I believed, and still believe that a university can manage itself successfully. After all, that is where we have the great brains producing new and fresher great brains every year. But I soon discovered one thing. In as much as I wanted the university to be on its own, both the university management and the staff, including the various staff unions, kept coming to me with one issue or the other.
This brings me to the kernel of today’s lecture – autonomy.
What is Autonomy?
Ordinarily, autonomy means total independence. It is a state of total independence and self-government. For the university system, therefore, autonomy should mean independence from outside bodies such as the Federal or State Governments and freedom to make decisions in all areas including management, funding, financial expenditure, staffing, academic control etc. I believe that universities can be autonomous. But can the current flux of Federal and State Government-owned universities in Nigeria be truly autonomous? If left alone, can they fund themselves? I know that the numerous private universities we have in Nigeria are doing their best in the aspect of funding and financial autonomy. But has it been easy for them? Is it not the same private universities which are actually privately set up business ventures that are now clamouring to be included as beneficiaries of government interventions through the TETFUND?
Mr. Chairman, distinguished fellow alumni, ladies and gentlemen, one other connotation of university autonomy in Nigeria is Privatization. I say this because in business, there is nothing such as ownership without control. So if the universities are to be autonomous and be free from government control then the ownership should be turned over to the various Governing Councils.
In Nigeria of today, we might not be able to have university autonomy. This is why the great brains in the university system have come up with what I consider as an aberration. They call it partial autonomy or semi-autonomy.
Mr. Chairman, distinguished fellow alumni, ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing such as partial or semi-autonomy. Autonomy is autonomy. But this is not the first aberration that we have in Nigeria so let us accept the concept of semi-autonomy as practicable.
For the Nigerian university system, therefore, semi-autonomy would mean independence in internal administration and management including staff employment and promotion, students’ admission, mounting and running of academic programmes etc. but with adequate funding from the Federal or State Government that owns them. But to whom much is given, so much is expected. Thus the universities must be ready to account for the funding that they receive from the government in a transparent manner.
This is where the alumni association should come in. All over the world, alumni associations are considered as significant stakeholders of their universities. Their opinions on issues concerning their universities are usually respected by the university management and other stakeholders. The strength of any university alumni lies in the pool of skills and talents available to be tapped for national development and not in its ability to serve as a money pot to its parent institution. University alumni associations can also be invaluable as a coaching network that significantly enhances the employability of future graduates. Alumni associations should participate actively in the development of their various institutions and their nation like their counterparts in developed countries because the challenges of university education and development can only be properly addressed with the involvement and contributions of those who passed through its four corner walls.
Alumni associations are well-known sources of strength to the younger generations, they are strong and powerful voice which could exercise a considerable amount of influence on the policy direction of education reforms in Nigeria. And they can help to provide the funding.
A classic example of alumni intervention in maintaining university autonomy was seen in the attempted change of name of the University of Lagos (UNILAG). You will recall that on May 29, 2012 while celebrating the Democracy Day, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan announced that the Federal Government has changed the name of the university from University of Lagos to Moshood Abiola University. The pronouncement sparked a wave of protests by significant stakeholders of the university, prominent among which was the University of Lagos Alumni Association. The stakeholders argued that the name, University of Lagos was a local and international brand name to which they have developed so much emotional, intellectual and academic attachment that the Federal Government cannot just change the name in a fiat without consulting them. The alumni association along with other stakeholders used all peaceful means to reach out to the Federal Government to reverse the pronouncement. In the end, they won and the Federal Government quietly dropped the idea.
As a former two-term Governor of Delta State who had Infrastructural Development as one leg of the tripod of my administration’s agenda, I believe our Alumni body can help cushion the effects of the myriad challenges bedeviling university autonomy by investing heavily in infrastructure. I read the Chairman of the five-man Federal Government Negotiating Team versus ASUU/NASU/SSANU -Professor Olawale Babalakin’s Interview in one of the dailies yesterday. He agreed that for our universities to run smoothly, the Federal Government must part with two trillion Naira annually. It goes without saying that if the Federal Government must stick to such arrangement, other critical areas like security, agriculture, health, infrastructure would have to be ignored. Hence, he pleaded with ASUU and others to be considerate. It invariably means that institutions must seek alternative funding sources. That interview was an open sesame to more Alumni Associations involvement in bailing out their institutions. I am simply a messenger that was not sent on an errand. Already, alumni association have undertaken quite some projects such as doling out financial awards, scholarships, endowments, building of hostels and other legacy infrastructure for their universities. Of course, here at the University of Benin the alumni association has been involved in numerous interventions to which we all here can testify.
A very latest example is the huge Infrastructural leap our United Kingdom Branch has successfully taken by securing for our great Uniben, a license from the Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) to generate 15 megawatt photo voltaic solar power project. I hear the project is designed to operate under a Public Private Partnership arrangement to complement the 7.5 electrification project being undertaken by the university. You all will agree with me that when this project is completed, there would be huge multiplier effect on our university’s economy.
I sincerely commend our UK branch for this initiative while also using this opportunity to plead with other branches to borrow a leaf from our diaspora friends. Maybe after this lecture, America branch might take up the challenge to build a gas turbine or refinery for our engineering faculty.
It would be a very fantastic thing if the University of Benin can secure a license to design a cheap technological easy-to-maintain refinery.
It is no longer secret that I am a senatorial candidate in the forthcoming general elections. I have as one of my campaign promises a proposal to legalize what is generally referred to as “illegal refineries”. About 6,000 illegal refineries were reportedly destroyed by the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) in 2015. Some of these “refineries” were actually rickety projects that are being over-glorified by calling them “oil refineries”. However, among the thousands of illegal refineries, there must be some that are well set-up. Should a country that cannot put its four “legal” refineries in full working order afford to destroy its own indigenous refineries? Illegal refineries should be done away with, but those youths and women should be engaged in better set-up refineries. The illegal refineries that are being destroyed offer a lot of employment for the youths and women, which, in turn relieves government of the burden of providing jobs for them. There has to be a rethink towards the conception of “illegal refineries”. The so-called “illegal refineries” are a testimony of the ingenuity of Nigerian youths and women in their ability to creatively innovate despite the challenges of their existence. The ingenuity that has been exhibited by the operators of the so called “illegal refineries” should constitute the foundation of technological breakthrough. I have promised my people that when I am elected as Senator representing Delta South Senatorial District, I will push for the promotion and encouragement of indigenous technology in the oil industry and also legislative backing to recognize and reform all the non-conventional refineries. Of course, this is a veritable area our Uniben Alunmi Association can explore and also forge partnership between our Alma mater and International Oil Companies towards developing the refining technology.
However, in addition to the financial and infrastructural interventions, alumni associations should also begin to get involved in managerial and accountability interventions in their universities.
As key resources and stakeholders in the university system, the alumni must fashion out ways to make the university managements to uphold the principle of transparency and accountability at all times. Judging from the professional training and personal achievements, including the cognate experience of alumni in governance, alumni associations have the capacity and wherewithal to do this. In addition to this, the alumni must also support their universities in fund-raising. We must not let the burden of funding rest on the owner governments alone, otherwise, there might soon be “funding-fatigue”. Let me quickly add here, especially for those of us in government that government should partner with relevant alumni associations to assist them in implementing their education policies and reforms. Even in the areas of evaluating and monitoring these reforms with a view to measuring impacts and performances. On their part, university managements must see the alumni as partners in progress so as to be able to tap from their wealth of experience and connection.
I conclude with this: Education is the bedrock of national growth and development. We all have a part to play. In playing this part, we must ensure that we preserve the values and doctrine of our institution.
Mr. Chairman, distinguished fellow alumni, ladies and gentlemen, as I take my seat, I would like to recite the last stanza of our anthem:
God bless this our noble school
As we bid peace to reign
May we have no cause to mourn
But rejoice in gains achieved
We hope for place man will
Bring brain and brawn to build self still.
I thank you for listening and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.