On President Jonathan’s new PhD Scholarship Scheme

The President’s new initiative to support young first class students’ study through to PhD level in some core disciplines (science, engineering and economics) at some of the world’s best Universities could be valuable in principle, as it could potentially contribute to the nation’s current higher education manpower, which in fact is the President’s main justification for the initiative.

According to vanguard newspapers the President

decried the dearth of qualified academic staff in the tertiary institutions… that 60 per cent of lecturers in the 124 universities across the country had no doctorate degree, noting that the situation ‘is embarrassing and un-acceptable…. an inter-ministerial department … to come up with policies for robust training so that young men and women who are interested in academics could go anywhere in the world, that over the years we must bridge that gap.’

 So the crux of the matter is that there is a dearth of PhD-holder academics in our Universities, and therefore, we need: i. ‘policies for robust training’ and ii. opportunities for ‘young men and women who are interested in academics [to] go anywhere in the world.’ These two strands could be valuable, given that none of Nigeria’s 124 Universities falls amongst the world’s best 1, 000 and our best in the league of African Universities is only at number 30. On the policy level, the options to be pursued could be several ranging from importing expatriate lecturers in specific disciplines to reforming our higher education sector to deliver on a fast track bases the required number and quality of PhDs [this article is based on the assumption that PhD is an important element in improving the current quality of University education]. I will attempt to identify four of these policy options in this article. I will also try to address the issue of opportunity, albeit minimally.

Policy options ‘for robust [PhD] training’

The first option is to institute a fast track PhD process at our Universities with the pilot programmes focusing on core disciplines as identified by the President. Fast track programmes are offered through direct admission from first degree to PhD track for high performing students, and could take between four and seven years, depending on the discipline of study, satisfactory progress and the country of study. Another fast track route could be an accelerated Executive PhD programme for highly qualified and experienced individuals. Considering the stated direness of the situation, is it possible for Universities to create three to four-year fast track PhD programmes without compromising quality standards? Is it possible to consider the option of PhD by publication for those who have been teaching and publishing papers for several years?

The second policy option, and perhaps more robust in terms of higher education development in Nigeria, is to identify specific institutions or departments from core disciplines as ‘centres for excellence.’ In this regard, such institutions/ departments should be well-funded including the establishment of scholarship schemes, new professorial chairs and extensive training for faculty and essential non-faculty staff (for example laboratory attendants and library staff). Such a process could serve as the channel for investing long-term research and development funds in Nigeria. In order to establish a transparent process, all 124 Universities could be asked to compete by submitting University Strategic or development plans covering a ten-year period from which the outstanding institutions could be selected.

The third option is to explore linkage programmes between our first generation universities and overseas universities, to facilitate staff rapid attainment of PhD qualifications through distance learning arrangements, while remaining as faculty at their current Universities. The advantage of this is that the Universities have the dual benefits of having their staff remain at the institutions, while affording them the opportunity of further training. In addition, this policy option is crucial because if the premise for the government’s new initiative is the paucity of PhDs, then current faculty should be supported as a means to ‘bridge the gap’ as the President has noted. It is possible that some of these lecturers have the aspiration to pursue further qualifications but are impaired by the lack of prerequisite resources. Certainly a government supported PhD scheme will provide some succour and motivation. This option could also include ‘importing’ lecturers in the core areas where the need is most critical.

The fourth option is that the government could loosen its ‘embargo’ on employment and encourage young (and older) scholars who have completed PhDs or are in the process of completing PhDs to return to Nigeria as researchers or academics. As an incentive, the government could commit to subsidising the costs of those students still studying, especially in cases where they are studying without scholarships. In order to achieve this feat, the government through the Universities Commission or Ministry of Labour could create an online manpower database, where people will be afforded the opportunity to register. I am convinced that such a database would yield a significant number of PhDs both in the short and long-term. This might in fact be a cost-effective means of ‘bridging the gap’ in relation to addressing our current PhD deficit.

Creating Opportunities for training

The biggest challenge is how to effectively deliver this initiative. The President proposes, and I quote Vanguard Newspapers again, that ‘the ministry of education and this committee will have to travel to these universities to negotiate for positions in the top 25 universities in the world.’ Is this the most cost-effective means to achieving the goal of securing places for prospective students into foreign Universities? As in Nigeria, most Universities require applicants to complete application forms, with relevant documentation (typically including transcripts, letters of recommendation, motivation and a research proposal), which will be considered and the students notified of the outcomes (although in some cases the process can be completed by an agent). In some UK universities, application for international students is a rolling process, and students’ applications are considered on a first come first served basis.

Even if the committee were to be involved in securing places (as an agency, on behalf of the students), does it require for the committee to travel to these Universities? What would these trips yield that cannot be achieved through other media? Certainly, there are various other options – emails, phone calls, courier, fax or simply contacting the Embassy of the country where the University is based. Fortunately, many of the likely countries [based on current international university rankings] have diplomatic representation in Nigeria, and I am certain they would oblige the federal government’s committee every audience. In my view, travelling to these Universities does not add any major value to the applications being submitted, and students’ applications will still be considered on their individual merits.

Furthermore, we need to broaden opportunities for our young people to attain higher education. This requires further policy changes. First, there needs to be better management of the bursary schemes across the country, and a harmonisation of these schemes (at local government, state and federal levels) to ensure that the students derive the maximum benefits. As a practical step, these bursaries could be paid to coincide with the beginning of the academic year, in order to enable students cover their fees and other relevant expenses. The government needs to begin to utilise existing institutions to perform the function of advancing educational opportunities for youth, rather than create committees. One would imagine that rather than create a new, potentially expensive, committee, the function of supporting students to pursue PhDs could have been assigned to the federal scholarships board, as it would be performing a statutory role and therefore not require significant additional costs.

Towards 2020: 20

I consider the present discussion a valuable opportunity for the federal government to reflect on its overall higher education policy and strategy. Does the higher education strategy fit within its vision 2020? The strength of Nigeria’s higher education sector and the quality of its research outputs and outcomes no doubt are crucial elements for the attainment of the vision 2020. It is therefore necessary that any strategies designed will be such that moves the country towards the attainment of this long-term vision.

In line with this long-term thinking comes more questions. Has anyone at the Ministry of Education actually undertaken any analysis to understand what the long-term – even if theoretical, benefits of this programme will be? What mechanisms are in place to achieve the mandatory five years post study work within Nigeria? What is the exit strategy for these beneficiaries once the five years are over? I hope that this article will be the start of a major discussion on [higher] education policy in Nigeria.

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