When private universities fail

By Ladipo Adamolekun
ONE key finding from a survey of selected public and private universities in eight African countries that I undertook for the Association of African Universities (AAU) in 2005 was the phenomenon of failed private universities. It was summarised as follows in my report:

Cross section of Vice Chancellors of federal, state and private universities in Nigeria during a meeting with National Universities Commission held in Abuja.

“Phenomenon of failed private universities: The phenomenon of ‘failed’ private universities was mentioned in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe.  In DRC, it was a case of the founders of two private universities requesting the state to take over the institutions.  In Zimbabwe, the Great Zimbabwe University, sponsored by the Dutch Reformed Church, failed and the government had to step in to distribute its students among the country’s public universities.  Against this background, it would make sense for governments that encourage private participation in the higher education sector to be proactive in taking steps to prevent failure”.

With 79 private universities by January 2019, Nigeria is by far at the top of the league of African countries that encourage private participation in the higher education sector.  At a time when Covenant University (privately owned) is one of only three Nigerian universities included among the 1,258 universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings published in late 2018 (the other two are University of Ibadan and University of Nigeria, Nsukka), it would appear counterintuitive to warn about “when private universities fail”. I will demonstrate in this short essay that it makes eminent sense to accept the likelihood of failed private universities and have contingency plans for both the prevention of failure and the management of the consequences of failure. The essay begins with a brief overview of the Nigerian experience with private universities to date.

Nigerian Experience with Private universities: An Overview

“… an unreflective proliferation of private universities; a subordination of public interest to the private in the sphere of education… a growing class evolution of the educational system in favour of the privileged against the majority who are poor…”

ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) Communique of its June 11-12 NEC meeting, Vanguard, June 27th 2005.

Public varsities failure contributes to private varsities growth — Prof Falola

Of the country’s 79 private universities, forty were established during the first decade (1999-2009) and the remaining 39 during the second decade, almost a 50:50 spread. (For comparison, 57 public universities were established by the federal and state governments during the 20-year period – 20 and 37 respectively).  If by 2005 when only about 20 percent of private universities had been established ASUU was already critical of “unreflective proliferation”, it is almost certain that it will be hypercritical of the current 79.  I would argue that many (including this writer) would agree that there has been a proliferation of private universities. Strikingly, they are almost equally split between faith-based universities and those established by individual founders. (Only one private university is explicitly international – the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja).

Regarding geographical spread, there are more private universities in southern Nigeria than in northern Nigeria and the distribution across the six geo-political zones is also uneven both among the three in the north (more in north-central than in the two other zones) and among the three in the south (more in the south-west, followed by the south-east and fewer in the south-south).

Unlike the location of federal universities that has had to respect even spread, to the extent possible (there is, at least, one per state), establishment of private universities is dictated by affordability and, to some extent, by what economists call the law of demand and supply. In the case of the south-west with which I am most familiar, affordability appears to trump demand and supply. Unexpectedly, the over-supply of private universities in the zone is the major explanation for low students’ enrolment in a significant number of them – more on this point below.

The most widely canvassed justification for the establishment of private universities in the country is that they help to increase access to university education.  The incumbent Executive Secretary of Nigeria Universities Commission (NUC), Prof Adamu Abubakar Rasheed, is a strong protagonist of this viewpoint: he reportedly predicted the establishment of 150 additional private universities in the next three years in 2016 (see Vanguard, December 11th 2016). However, the available data on student admissions into public and private universities reveals that there is limit to their usefulness in expanding access. According to my investigation, 90 percent of total students’ enrolment in 2016/2017 were in public universities with only 10 percent in private universities. The public/private share of enrolment is likely to be about the same in the current academic year.  Indeed, the inability of many of the private universities to attract students is one of their major challenges as reported in the print media over the past decade – see for example a report on the problem in Joseph Ayo Babalola University (JABU) in Osun State in The Nation, January 31st 2019.

A second argument for the establishment of private universities is that it ensures diversity in the provision of higher education which, in turn, increases the choices available to both students and their parents.  Unlike ASUU that focuses on “class evolution” that pits the “privileged” against the “poor”, I strongly support the case for diversity and the possibilities of choice for students and parents.

First, parents who prefer private to public universities inside Nigeria for a variety of reasons (for example, avoidance of interminable strikes that extend a four-year degree programme to six or seven years and attachment to a faith-based institution) would have had to either reluctantly send their children to the public universities or, if they can afford the expenses, send them to institutions outside the country.

However, the abundant choices between 91 public and 79 private universities in the country has not prevented a persistent bleeding of the economy through the expatriation of billions of naira annually to fund the education of Nigerian students in universities outside the country. There is strong evidence that a significant percentage of them study in second- and third-rate universities in African and European countries. In the circumstance, re-certification of degrees obtained abroad that is currently applied to the medical sciences and law should be generalized for all degrees obtained from outside the country with only selected publicized exceptions.

Overall, the phenomenon of private universities must be adjudged a welcome development.  They have contributed to increased access to university education, albeit to a more modest degree than is widely canvassed by their champions both inside and outside government.  Significantly, too, the emergence of Covenant University that was established only in 2002 as one of three Nigerian institutions ranked among the best 1258 in the world in 2018 is evidence that private universities can help to enhance quality university education in the country.

How to prevent phenomenon of failed universities

Strikingly, the three examples of failed private universities cited in the opening paragraph of this essay cover the two ownership types in Nigeria: the private university in Zimbabwe was faith-based while the two in DRC were owned by individual Founders. The obvious lesson to learn is that both types can fail. I would proffer two measures for preventing failure.

First, the Federal Government should declare a minimum of five-year moratorium on the establishment of private universities.  This would mean that no new private university will be approved until 2024.  The moratorium could be extended to between seven and ten years in states where supply of private universities already exceed demand. This criterion will almost apply to a few states in the south-west and the south-ease.

Second, I would like to recommend that absorptive capacity should become a critical criterion for assessing applications for the establishment of new private universities.  For example, if any of the public universities in a state (every state has at least two, one federal and one state-owned) is unable to meet its annual admission quota, there would no justification for licensing a private university in that state. Given the steep fees charged annually in private universities, proximity should not be an argument for licensing a private university.  Parents that can afford to pay such fees would be able to choose from among existing private universities.

Third, and finally, a decennial evaluation of every private university should be undertaken by a mixed panel of leading academics and top private sector chief executive officers (serving or retired in both cases).  One crucial issue that should feature in the evaluation criteria is the succession plan for the leadership of universities established by individual founders.  This is likely to contribute hugely to the prevention of failed private universities.

Managing the Consequences of Failure

The adage that prevention is better than cure also applies to the phenomenon of failed private universities.  However, when prevention fails, managing the consequences becomes inescapable.  The solution adopted in the DRC and Zimbabwe that is mentioned in the opening paragraph appears to be the most obvious: the state (the Federal Government, in the case of Nigeria) will have to step in and help the students in any failed private university.

However, in addition to the option of distributing the students in failed private universities among selected federal universities, there are two other options. First, it is likely that a significant number of parents would choose to send their students to other Nigerian private universities (this option was not available in the two countries cited in my survey). The second option is for FG to agree with the owner/founder of the failed university to constitute the institution into a campus of the nearest federal university.  The arrangement should be backed up with an appropriate Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would be legally binding.

In closing, my point about the likelihood of failed private universities in Nigeria could turn out to be an understatement as the phenomenon could truly be upon us during the third decade of their emergence.  To be forewarned is to be forearmed!