At long last, the Nigerian government has directed all tertiary institutions in the country to work out modalities of taking their classrooms online. It is not as if this is a spectacular achievement on the part of the government, but at least, it is a positive response to the calls I have been making as regards the need for Nigerian institutions to migrate online as being done in other parts of the world to minimise the negative effects of their forceful closure due to COVID-19. In saner climes, tertiary institutions won’t wait for government to teach them their jobs. However, since ours is an unusually over-centralised system with Federal Government agencies controlling even state-owned establishments, this kind of abnormality may not be unusual.
Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu, had in a teleconferencing with all the vice chancellors, rectors and provosts of Nigerian tertiary institutions last week Thursday, directed all the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education in the country to activate their virtual learning environment to enable their students to continue their studies through digital devices.
His words: “We need to take advantage of technology like the case in other parts of the world. We cannot shut down all schools when we have other means to teach our students. We cannot be held down by COVID-19, we have to deploy all e-platforms to keep our universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and other schools open… We have to create virtual learning environment.”
Since members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) are currently on strike, and a lot would depend on them for the universities to teach online, the minister said government would do its best to resolve the labour crisis. In the meantime, he said private universities should commence virtual learning. The minister also asked the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) to ensure that primary and secondary school pupils continue to learn through radio and television stations.
Whether by sheer coincidence or otherwise, many state governments have begun some form of teaching for their pupils using radio and television. In Lagos, JSS pupils are taught English Studies, Basic Science, Mathematics and Civic Education on Naija FM 102.7 between 12 noon and 1pm. Ondo State has also recruited and trained 25 teachers for On-Air Programme, in collaboration with the management of the State Radiovision Corporation (OSRC), Orange FM and Alalaye FM. In Ekiti State, primary school pupils are being taught on the state-owned radio station, Ekiti FM 91.5 for 30 minutes every day between 3.10 pm and 4.00 pm while in Oyo State, the government is also using radio and television to reach out to pupils in terminal classes.
However, nothing has changed at the tertiary level. The few universities that are online are privately owned and they have been there long before the minister issued his order.
Lecturers and students at Elizade University, for example, have been interfacing with themselves using the university’s e-portal. Covenant University has been making use of the Moodle platform to continue lectures online. The Moodle is a pre-existing platform in the university, where lecture notes can be viewed, downloaded, and quiz tests conducted. The Moodle platform also provides access to the BigBlueButton, an online learning platform used for screen sharing, audio messaging and videoconferencing. The platform also provides multi-user whiteboard support. In the same vein, students of Crawford University have been receiving lectures since Monday, March 30, via the Crawford e-Portal. Course materials were uploaded on the online protocol by the lecturers while students log on and download. In addition to this, the university has been using the WhattsApp platform for its audio-visual lecture conference.
Now that we have come to a point where the Federal Government is preaching online teaching, it would be good to lead the government on as to what the next phase of this campaign should be. It is time for government to go a step further by ensuring that tertiary institutions in the country move to the implementation stage. This is very important because it would be of no use asking institutions to migrate online just because it is the right thing to say. As a matter of fact, whatever happens from now on will reveal the real intent of the minister as his subsequent actions are going to prove whether he was merely trying to be politically correct or genuinely meant business.
And the first litmus test of government commitment to the online migration would be the resolution of the labour crisis with ASUU. Besides, government may have to assess the capacity of its institutions to deliver online teaching and be ready to bridge whatever gap by providing the required resources. Creating e-learning portals might not be a big deal; it nonetheless requires some levels of commitment and seriousness.
This, being said, I also think it is high time we began to look closely into how administrators of our tertiary institutions are managing the financial resources at their disposal. We have become used to blaming government for poorly funding the education sector. No doubt, the sector is grossly underfunded and it is today a far cry from what it should be, however, I feel Nigerians could get better deals from government’s current investment in the public colleges of education, polytechnics and universities. That is not to say that government is not wasting precious resources that could have been devoted to education on frivolities. This notwithstanding, I believe tertiary institutions should henceforth publicly account for their internally-generated revenues as well as other intervention funds from government and other donor bodies. I am saying this because I believe there are some basic things that should by now be available in public institutions based on some of the funds at their disposal.
Take for instance, the disbursement of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund to all public tertiary institutions by the Federal Government. By the way, TETFUND was created as an intervention agency to provide supplementary support to all levels of public tertiary institutions. It is funded by two per cent education tax paid from assessable profit of companies registered in the country. In the last three years, these public institutions have received around N309bn as intervention funds. In 2017, they shared N67bn and N134bn in 2018. In 2019, the Federal Government approved N208bn for them. Each university got N826.6m; polytechnics got N566.7m each while the colleges of education got N542.2 each last year. This is aside the Special High Impact Intervention of N1bn each given to 18 institutions across the six geopolitical zones comprising six universities, six polytechnics and six colleges of education. How can anyone excuse these institutions for not having something as basic as online platforms or common toilet facilities?
The Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, Abubakar Rasheed, once accused some administrators of using their personal assistants to handle TETFUND projects. That says a lot about the kind of loose systems in these institutions. Apparently, there are issues with accountability and transparency. What I don’t understand is why government could choose to gloss over such serious infractions.
I seriously think ASUU and other unions in other public tertiary institutions should start monitoring how intervention funds and other internally generated revenues are managed. There must be a way to hold university administrators and other heads of tertiary institutions accountable. Unions should act as whistle-blowers once they notice that the administrators are doing something wrong or illegal.
Meanwhile, going forward, the NUC and other regulatory bodies for tertiary institutions should make availability of viable platforms for online teaching a major condition for accreditation. All these things count in global ratings. How can our institutions have good ratings when they cannot provide ordinary e-learning – things that kindergarten pupils enjoy in the developed world?
Finally, I think it is high time the lecturers called off their ongoing strike. This is not the time to argue over whether the strike is necessary or not. The lecturers should put aside their grievances and consider the interest of their students. I know the union has been doing its bit as regards the campaign against the spread of COVID-19. Its members recently distributed hand sanitizers and printed enlightenment brochures to educate Nigerians in Ibadan, Oyo State. This is absolutely a good initiative. But if you ask me, I would say the union may likely gain more respect if its members go back to work now than sharing hand sanitizers across Nigeria.
*Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the editor-in-chief of Franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: email@example.com