Prof Abdallah Uba Adamu is the vice chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria, (NOUN). In this interview with Christiana Nwaogu and Henry Tyoemba, he speaks on the stiff resistance that greeted his move to reform the institution, strides, and challenges.
You were appointed to coordinate the largest Open Distance Learning (ODL) centre in Africa in 2016, how has the journey been so far?
First of all National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) is not new to me. When the university was resurrected by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Professor Olugbemiro Jegede was appointed as the coordinator of the university at that time and he invited some professors to assemble in Lokoja, in order to come up with the blueprint of the university and also to come up with study materials.
I was part of that team in 2003 where I developed two-course materials and after the course material development was finished, I was offered the faculty of education as the dean because I was a professor of science education that time. But I declined because I hate any position of power. I preferred to just simply be a lecturer but not an administrator.
When I came into the university, I got appointment letter on February 27 and I took over on 1st March 2016. The biggest challenge I faced was the fact that a new composite was created for the university in Jabi, Abuja and that was the biggest challenge. I found it very difficult to relocate from Kano to Lagos but it was a national duty and I had to do it.
So on the day of taking over in Lagos on the 1st of March, 2016, I informed the university community that we are moving to Abuja on the 25th of March and to be very fair to the university community. Nobody complained to my hearing, maybe they complained among themselves, but nobody came to me and confronted me that we are not going. And so by 3rd April, we have finished the total transfer from Lagos to Abuja and all the faculties at that time were there, here in Abuja the only was the administrative functions of the university.
We appointed the deputy Vice Chancellor academics to be in charge of that Lagos office which we now call Lagos liaison office. By August 2016, we informed four faculties in Lagos that they are moving to Abuja, these are the faculties of Art, Science, Social Science and faculty of Health Science. They moved on 4th August 2016. Again that challenge was that people had already paid their school fees and they had to relocate and start all over again. So the biggest challenge is shifting the main campus from Lagos to Abuja where it belongs because these structures as you see it, were created in just eight months.
What administrative changes have you introduced into the system since taking over?
When the university was created in 1983, it was suspended in 1984. Ironically enough, it was suspended by then, General Muhammadu Buhari because the construction of the university created a lot of misconceptions about what the university is going to be so the military government at that time decided that the university was not really ready to take off.
It was never closed but suspended. It was resurrected in 2001-2002 and the reason why it was resurrected was because, between that time the university was suspended in 1984-2001, there were a lot of issues with conventional universities.
These institutions were run without checks. They became miracle centres where somebody staying in Sokoto, for instance, will get a degree from a university in the south without any quality assurance.
So in 2011, the National Universities Commission (NUC), closed down all the satellite campuses and they sent a memo to president Obasanjo to resurrect the National Open University since people are eager. For Open education, the reason why the satellite campuses were acceptable is because people at that time wanted to go to school but they cannot either, they have dropped or they have families.
Really undergraduate education is for younger persons, it is between the ages of 18-22 but when somebody is at 30 he finds it very difficult to abandon the job and go and study so that is why the satellite campuses were very famous but when NUC sent a memo to the president requesting him to resurrect NOUN, the president accepted it. In fact, when he accepted it, he enrolled as one of the pioneer students of the institution and professor Jegede was recruited from Open University of Hong Kong to come and initiate the university all over again.
So that was how the whole thing started and the issue around that period was acceptability of the university. People are used to a didactic process of being taught. You go into classroom, you sit down in front of someone and that person teaches you for two or three years or four hours and at the end of 13 weeks, that person gives you examination and you pass or you fail. So when you are asked to go and learn on your own, the only thing to guide you are study material and facilitator, people turn a little bit worried.
So they never believed that Open University is something that is acceptable and we are now also trying to change the consumption from offering education to learning. Because when you talk of education you are referring to a situation where somebody is didactically teaching you something. But NOUN like other ODL institutions is not about education, they are about learning. They empower people to learn on their own. Along the line, the development pattern of the university has been trying to reposition itself as the best ODL in Africa and because of the government support the university has at that time we succeeded. Since Obasanjo resurrected the university we have all the successful governments have extremely supported the university.
Have you been able to change the status quo in line with operational level of the university?
Don’t forget that when the university was created, it was created basically with civil servants in mind to provide them with an opportunity to upgrade their skills and qualification while they are on their jobs. And then, the Joint Admission And Matriculation Board (JAMB) came along. When JAMB came along, it came with post UTME after some time. When students applied to JAMB, you have about 1.5 million students applying to JAMB and out of this figure, less than four hundred thousand actually get admitted.
So even if the students pass JAMB, they need to pass post UTME and they keep failing. It was after about three or four years they realize that there is Open University, that was the university everybody was looking down on, then they realise NOUN offer the same courses as conventional universities, the advantage is that it is cheap, flexible and affordable because whatever we charge in this university is exactly the same charge in any university in terms of registration.
We don’t charge school fees because education in Nigeria is free but students pay for the things that government will not pay like Identity Card and so on. So we try to make sure that the university is affordable and that is why the student who could not get into the conventional universities started rushing in and we are taken by surprise, we were shocked because when you produce study materials by maybe 100 students, then the study center we tell you we have 2000 students. In Lagos, we have about 27,000 students and in Abuja here we have about 41,000 students.
So what we did was we established study centers in every state then we also created what we called community study centers. The community study centers are centers established by a particular community and our rule is that you secured the building yourself, buy computers and everything.
What we do is to provide you with minimum of five staffs and pay for their services. We also have specialized study centers. For instance, we have the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). They decided to have a study center of their own where the whole staff will be educated and they provided a building right here in Abuja so we give them. Also, we came up with a policy on prisoners where we are giving them free education up to Ph.D. level totally free of charge. So with these outreaches and outspread of NOUN, we are able to capture a lot of students. However, there is in balance, the total number of students we have in this university, Northeast, Northwest or central states are not up to the total number of students we have in Southwest because the university at that time was located in Lagos so people in the southwest were aware of it so the centers were already there. We were struggling to get states government in north to give us a place to set up study centers. Sokoto, for instance, has not givens study center up till now. We have to rent an apartment and pay for it.
What are your short term and long term plans for the institution?
My short term plan is to continue to strengthen the university as a leading ODL administration and we have done that in a series of ways. Number one, when I first came I discovered that the university uses what they call the school system of school of Art, school of education and I thought that school and university are not deeply related in the minds of our students, they will say things like the school is like a secondary school or something like that. And that matter contributed to the lower image of the university that they don’t even have faculties but schools. A school is a congregation of faculties because if you have a school like school of medicine then you have a faculty of biochemistry, chemistry and so on.
So we changed from school to faculties. Another short term achievement was election. Before I came deans were appointed by the vice chancellor but I am an ASUU member and a very strong one, I believe in democratisation and therefore, I insisted that there has to be democratisation. People should be allowed to elect those that they want. If you are good you will be elected if you are bad you will not be elected. Then another thing we did was to synchronise our programme with NUC.
But the biggest struggle was getting our students to be admitted into law school and to be allowed into NYSC. Because of the misconceptions the public have about all these, we were told that we are a correspondent, part time and so on and that NYSC and council on education do not allow correspondent and part time students to enroll. So the first thing we did was to set up a process to end our Acts which we remove any reference to correspondence or part time and we are very hopeful that soon, Mr President will assent to the bill because it has gone through all the processes, from senate to house of representatives and we are sure it has been sent to Mr. President and once that is done the law school will now be informed that we are no longer part time and NYSC will also be informed.
I can also understand the worry that NYSC has because this 2018 we graduated 14,600 students so maybe not all of them are under 30. Let us assume that it is only about 7000 so you could imagine 7000 students jumping into NYSC so NYSC said that they will be happy especially if appropriation has been made in order to absorb the large number of students. We are also having our own plan, instead of having worries about deploying these students, why didn’t they serve their NYSC where they are so that they don’t have to keep moving because they are special students in the sense of having being done their ODL so we are working and hoping that the new year will bring good news.
What is the most difficult decision you have to take since you resumed service as VC?
When I took over, I discovered that the data management of university infrastructure was sourced to a particular company and then, the question I asked was that do we have a department of computer science? They said yes, do we have lecturers in computer science? They said yes. So why are we sourcing data management if we have a department of computer science? So the most difficult decision for me was to shut down the agreement with the previous company and come up with our own and that caused a lot of problems, both internally and externally. Externally, the company decided to launch a campaign against me, they have ‘#buhari save NOUN’ that somebody from Kano who doesn’t know anything about technology has come in and was trying to disrupt the good things that has been going on. The university was stable before he came and now it has become unstable. Internally, we had a lot of people who were benefiting from the previous company so they were also slowing down on things so that was a big challenge. We have to come up with a big stick. We have to say, look if you want to work with NOUN work with NOUN, if you don’t want to work with NOUN get out. But with my effort, now we own the data. If a student said there is any missing result we can quickly look at the records and determine where the problems are from but in the past we have to write to the company in Lagos and ask them to please look into the case and this company is not only dealing with us, they were dealing with other organizations so by the time they get back to us, the students had given up.
It is very simple, because they have gone behind my back and God knows that I was doing it to save the university money. We spent N385, 000 000 every year to this vendors and by recovering that money we were able to provide other services to the students. Now any study centre around Nigeria that wants anything we give them. So I don’t have any problem because I know I made a decision with a clear conscience, not because I wanted to punish anybody or I wanted to deny somebody anything because I believed that the university should be set on a straight path of its own diligent and dependency and because we now own the data, missing results have become things of the past. Most of missing results issues we are now getting was from 2014 or 2015 when the data was with the vendors. Now we are able to negotiate an agreement with them where they have to give us back our data.
We have to pay for it but they are able to give us back our data and compiled that data back to our network so now we have very few cases of missing results. When we came and discovered that these results are with the vendors and the vendors are not academicians, they have no idea what the whole thing is about. What they want is money. So when we shut them down and created our own data it becomes very easy for students.
We have also created a system where by students can write directly to the Vice Chancellor because I don’t create barriers. Remember we use over 2000 facilitators, and these facilitators are the ones who supervise the students, so some of them don’t return the results as quickly as they should have. We have now created a new system where we have a website just for facilitators so if a student, for instance, knows his facilitator, he will call him and ask him what about my results? Based on that we have now reduced by over 90 percent the issues of missing results. That is why this year 2018 we were able to graduate, 14,600 students.
Conventional universities award honorary degrees to individuals. Is NOUN also considering that?
We don’t focus on honorary degrees because to us this is not a ceremony. To us, a university is a serious academic place for research and teaching. We want to provide better quality to our students. Honorary degrees are very good because the association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian universities has come up with guidelines which indicate the kind of honorary degrees you should give. But at the management level of the university, we decided that honorary degrees are not our front burner now. Our focus is, first of all, to create credibility through advocacy because people don’t like NOUN, they don’t believe NOUN is a place to come to. My target is to get students, when I came in, the total number of student we have that were registered was 420,000 but now we have 515,000 and currently, we are doing examinations and that is the beauty of NOUN, no strikes.
Strike does not affect us because the nature of our university does not lend itself to unions the law is created in such a way that I do not provide opportunities for us to have unions. Unions are basically focused on what you can call land universities, but we have students that are spread all over the world and because they don’t come to classes, we don’t have facilities where we go and teach, we don’t even see the children until during examination, so this does not apply to us but I as the VC I am a strong member of ASUU and I believe in ASUU demands, I believe in ASUU’s logic and reasoning and so on and so forth. But at the moment NOUN does not operate any Union because of the law establishing us.