UNIUYO 21st Convocation Lecture: Emerging Challenges Of University Education In Nigeria In The 21st Century – Prof. Pat Utomi

Madam Vice Chancellor Members of the
University Senate Principal Officers of the
University Faculty, staff, graduating students
Distinguished Guests Ladies and Gentlemen
I am honoured to address you today as
convocation lecturer. I am not particularly sure
how the lot was drawn that resulted in my being
inflicted on you. I am even more worried that the
subject, Educating Nigeria for the 21st Century
has been assigned me.
I have been a University Teacher for many years
after a spell as an entrepreneur, a consultant
and a manager in industry but I am not sure that
I have managed to cumulate enough wisdom to
speak with any authority on the subject of
education. I respect myself and as a result, have
thought such matters should be left to eminently
qualified persons like Professor Pai Obanya, and
if we want to disturb those resting peacefully,
the memories of the like of Professor Babs
Fafunwa. In my more rascally days as an
undergraduate at the University of Nigeria in the
season just following the Civil War, a hailing of
the types of Prof OC Nwana would have been
enough to settle who should have the right of
Since I did not have enough courage to decide
my merit of the invitation to give this
convocation lecture, I had no choice but to
burrow into the subject matter in the hope that
my understanding of the fact that parents are
the first teachers of their children, should give
me locus Standi, as a parent, to address the
subject. So this is not likely to be the case of
the mythical Onitsha woman socialite who when
a sumptuous tray of Jollof Rice was served her
said “Ha yee I was not expecting this” and
promptly opened her bag to fetch the ready and
waiting cutlery that would permit maximum
effect in doing justice to meal.
Since curiosity drove me as a graduate student
in the United States in 1979 to register for a
class on Revolutionary education offered by a
Professor doing research in Cuba, I have done
little to educate myself on how people are
educated, even though I am constantly engaged,
in educating people, as
a parent, and in settings that are more formal, as
a teacher of business. Indeed note has to be
made here of a caveat I have often offered at
the beginning of some of my class sessions
which is not original to me. It says that those
who can do it. Those who can’t do it, teach, and
those who cannot teach use the case study
method. As you all know, being a Business
educator I primarily use the case study method.
My need for redemption is evident.
The foregoing effort at providing advance
apologies for my limitations notwithstanding, the
call of duty still demands that we proceed on
this excursion down the track of my thinking on
the subject of the challenges confronting
university education in Nigeria in the 21st
It seems to me that a decent way to proceed
would be to establish how I think the 21st
century is likely to emerge; What I think the
critical needs for fitting into that emerging
civilization may be and how learning can enable
culture adapt. An appropriate first foot forward
may then indeed be a snapshort of Nigeria at the
dawn of the 21st century and where tertiary
education in Nigeria is situated as the 21st
century unfolds.
The 21st century dawned on Nigeria with a
troubling remark by a man whose life spanned a
good part of the 20th century and whose work
defined the new discipline of management, Peter
Drucker. He had noted that at the beginning of
the 20th Century the quality of life of the
average African and the average European were
mainly similar or marginally different at best. But
by the end of the 20th century, he pointed out;
the difference was like night and day. This
difference Drucker suggests is the result of
productivity growth in Europe. In Africa, typified
by Nigeria, productivity did not grow as it did in
Europe because of education, technology and
cultures of production.
Among the great boosts to output at the
beginning of the 20th century was the advent of
the moving Assembly line which made mass
production possible and The Ford Motor
Company would ensure that emerging middle
class people could buy a motor car. But colonial
Nigeria would not industrialize Nigeria. What
colonial government required was maintenance
of the activities of Law and Order, basic civility,
and the evacuation of Raw materials to Europe.
Formal education, beyond the requirements of
acculturation of the traditional agents of
socialization like the family, age grades etc. was
knowledge for being obedient subjects of the
empire and for administrative capacities to
manage “minimum” government. The Higher
Colleges in Yaba and elsewhere, as well as the
University College in Ibadan, were set up to
produce the leadership elite of this limited public
service. It was not until self-Government came
that Nationalist leaders in their new garb as
leaders of government embarked on an
aggressive policy of Industrializing Nigeria.
Limited as the goals of colonial Administration
were, the tertiary institutions they set up were
known to have been of high quality. When at
independence the government of Prime Minister
Abubarkar Tafawa Balewa wanted to determine
the direction of the policy on higher education it
set up a commission chaired by Oxford
University educator Sir Eric Ashby. That
commissions report is particularly remembered
for its note that the quality of higher education in
Nigeria in 1961 was as good as the best in the
world, and for Ashby’s comment that it was
harder to get into University of Ibadan, than to
get into Harvard, that year.
In the same manner as the University College in
Ibadan set enviable standards the first
autonomous university in the country, the
University of Nigeria in taking a different turn to
produce professionals for a more ambitious
national development agenda. Drawing from the
role of the Land Grant universities on the United
States which were critical to the Agricultural
revolution there, the UNN which was midwifed
by Michigan State University, inspired a new kind
of excellence that took the American course
system from object of jokes in British Nigeria, to
the preferred approach for a good rounded
education, as the General studies classes better
prepared the UNN graduates for the general
challenges of the environment and workplace.
The ‘alchemy’ of soldiers and Oil would despoil
this tradition of academic excellence that spread
from UNN and UI through the original 5
universities including the University of Ife and
Lagos and Ahmadu Bello University.
With military rule and Oil money the belief
Nigeria could do all things led to a view of
funding availability and a more egalitarian notion
of higher education. The regime of General
Olusegun Obasanjo by 1978 sort to open access
in a way that resulted in overcrowded campuses,
inadequate facilities, poor teacher- student ratios
and deterioration of standards and culture
consequent on such pressure on facilities by the
end of the century many of the universities had
reached a point where the universities were a
shadow of their years of glory.
During this period from 1948, when the University
College was opened and the end of the century
the political economy of Nigeria had gone from a
colonial marketing board economy but on
agricultural commodities to an emerging
industrializing economy in which the regions
were competing for who would bring the most
gains of progress to their nationality groups. This
phenomenon which influenced the race to
industrialization, Television, and free education
programmes was aptly described by Michigan
State University professors Robert Melson and
Howard Wolpe as “Competitive Communalism”
The Competitive Communalism epoch that
anchored Nigeria’s Federalism would be eclipsed
by a new season that characterized the last two
decades of the twentieth century, the concept of
sharing “the national cake” of oil receipts. This
was done in a manner akin to the Vicar, the
National Government, handling out prebends, to
the Assistant Vicars. Richard Joseph in his book,
Prebendal Politics in Nigeria labels this concept;
Bureaucratic Prebendalism.
Its fruits unfortunately, included Dutch Disease,
slow growth, a collapse of culture and a
desperate need for structural Adjustment of the
economy. One victim of structural Adjustment
programmes and the need to shrink the frontiers
of the expanding state was a decline in the
funding of the university system.
If we are to educate Nigeria for 21st century
effectiveness, a clear sense for that world, is
imperative. Thomas L Friedman writes well the
‘prehistory’ of the 21st century. His conclusion:
The world is Flat. In his much read book: The
World is Flat- A brief History of the Twenty –
first Century, Friedman reflects on the dramatic
changes drive by technology and the emergence
of huge populations of new middle class people
with the coming of prosperity to India, and how
globalizations ascendancy in the midst of all the
new technologies are redefining standards and
The World had come to be a place of grave
inequalities in the 20th century as Drucker
already pointed out. Those inequalities came
with the Great Escape from misery by a small
part of the planet as a result of leaps in
healthcare and output, as Princeton professor
Angus Deaton provides a grand explanation for in
the book: The Great Escape
The asymmetries of knowledge, information
technology and access to capital were in a
paradoxical way both deepened and eased by
new technologies.
Processing the technologies increased advantage
over those who lacked it yet access to it made it
possible for those who did not have it previously
to leapfrog stages of development and even
have some advantage over those still struggling
to defend yesterday’s investments that were
being overthrown or required more energy to
unlearn what they had invested much to learn
before climbing the new learning curve. I recall a
personal encounter as the last century was
barely three years to go.
I had been spending a sabbatical year from 1996
to 1997 writing a book as a scholar in residence
at the Harvard Business School. I linked up with
some of the Nigerian academics in the Boston
area. One of them was an old friend Tayo
Akinwande who was a Professor at MIT. In our
conversation there was frustration that even
though engineering had gone the way of
microprocessing Nigerian engineering faculty
were not keeping up. I then suggested that we
could add value by designing a programme
where we could select about 100 top engineering
graduates in the country and bring them into a
yearlong programme in which some of them
could use their Leave time to come in and lead
classes, and others intervene by satellite
distance learning. We, from the Business school
would have sessions in Entrepreneurship and
then bring Entrepreneurs to endow a fund from
which groups of these participants would
compete on Business plans. The best would win
a prize of about N10 million which could only be
used as seed capital for the venture offered in
the plan.
On return to Nigeria I took the idea to PTDF
Secretary Chief Tayo Akpata in the hope they
support the initiative. He liked it but time soon
ran out on PTDF and the regime.
The World becoming flat had very direct
consequence for learning, and Thomas Friedman
spoke to this when he wrote that “The first and
most important, ability you can develop in the
flat world is the ability to “learn how to learn- to
constantly absorb and teach yourself new ways
of doing old things or new ways of doing new
things” (p302 (release 2.0). This is clearly an
imperative in a world where every job is
increasingly going to be subject to digitization. I
recall a statistic from a few years ago that
showed salaries had gone up through the years
for every category of workers in the United
States except for the group with less than High
School of education. The reason was simple. If
you had enough brawn in the 1950s you could
get a good job working the Assembly line in
Detroit, with hardly any education. With the
unions, wages kept getting better and a house in
the suburbs with two cars in the garage was
quite possible. But as the 20th century moved to
its close the Assembly line in Detroit was
increasingly robotics based and the factory
worker had to understand how to programme
those more efficient robots. With less than a high
school education in Detroit you were increasingly
becoming like the man in Organization learnings
Rewan’s axiom where the rate of learning has to
be equal to or greater than the pace of change
in the environment or the organization would be
in the mode of a Dinosaur, progressively.
Educating for the 21st Century will have to
involve preparing people, in a time of rapid
change, to understand and engage cultures
distant and different, yet endowed in a manner
that character can advertise trust, subject
understanding, quickly communicate
competence, and high Emotional Intelligence
facilitate empathy with partners. These
capabilities do not come easy but they flow
readily from teachers passionate about their
work, as a vocation, and tireless in pursuit of the
education of the race, seeing that the future
depends so on it. Universities the home of the
highest level of such learning need therefore to
be better understood.
To determine emerging challenges for University
education it should make sense to establish why
universities exist. The idea of a University is one
I have tried to explore following the profound
thought of John Henry Cardinal Newman that
Anglican clergyman and Oxford scholar who
would become a Prince of the Catholic Church
and found the University of Ireland.
Twenty years ago I offered a summary of what a
University had come to be in the light of the
debate around the Cardinal Newman’s idea of a
university. “Institutions of higher education,
usually comprising a liberal arts and sciences
college and graduate and professional schools
and having the authority to confer degrees in
various fields of study. The modern university
evolved from the medieval schools known as
studia generalis; …The earliest studia arose out
of efforts to educate Clerks and Monks beyond
the level of Cathedral and Monastic Schools …
were institutions in which the essences or
universities were studied.” (Encyclopedia
Britannica, 1968)
These essences or universals set the course of
higher education at this ultimate level along a
path that was deliberately comprehensive in
scope. This point is in fact more richly
summarized in the 1952 preface to John Henry
Cardinal Newman’s The idea of A University. He
takes the view here that the university is a place
of teaching universal knowledge. This implies
that its objective is, on the one hand,
intellectual, not moral; and on the other, the
diffusion of knowledge rather than the
advancement of it. The diffusion need brings the
students but they will lack the osmotic capability
of absorbing fully the existing base of knowledge
unless the universal knowledge includes values
that give context, meaning and relevance to the
knowledge gained in the university. This is why
this university confers its degrees on people who
have been found worthy in ‘character and in
There are many who wonder if the character
part of this qualification is still a serious
consideration given the values of graduates in
the workplace, the incidents of cult violence,
examination malpractices etc., that have come
to become pronounced aspects of the public
view of the contemporary Nigerian university.
The idea of a university from the foregoing is of
a place that diffuses ideas to people of
character so the ideas can be properly utilized.
But utilized for whose benefit? Since man is a
gregarious animal and has always lived in
communities which provide the non-
appropriability goods he requires, it should seem
reasonable that knowledge should be utilized
both for his individual benefit and the benefit of
the university community, and the progress of
the society in which the university is located. A
one-time chancellor of the University of Navarra
in Spain, the Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva,
states this most richly when he points out that:
“A university must play a primary role in
contribution to human progress. Since the
problems facing mankind are multiple and
complex (spiritual, cultural, social, financial etc.),
university education must cover all these
aspects.” (Escriva, 1974)
To contribute to human progress, the university
has necessarily to advance knowledge to new
frontiers that make living more comfortable than
has hitherto been the case.
I have however argued in the past that the
university idea needs to be reconsidered to be in
more specialized form to bring the knowledge
and progress required by a man at this time in
history. At my remarks of acceptance when my
1998 book was presented The Abiola Prize for
the best academic text published in Nigeria I
said the following words:
“Since the convergence of three streams of
technology – computing, telecommunications
and broadcasting – the vision of the information
age has materialized and the possibilities for the
future remain infinite. These infinite possibilities
have redefined the competitive advantage of
nations. To compete today countries not only
need knowledge workers, they also need centres
of excellence in academic research.
Ever since the Japanese showed that you could
build successful technology companies without
investing in basic science research and the
Americans followed suit with companies like the
Bell companies getting rid of Bell labs, tertiary
institutions have had to play a more critical role
in the research that moves society forward. How
do our universities measure up in research?”
Books of worth cannot be published unless the
best of academics are attracted to the university
and have the resources to engage in research.
Yesterday the best graduating students stayed
back as junior fellows when the average, like
myself, were thrown into the world.
Unfortunately today what Nigerian society has
done to the dignity of the academia led many of
them to seek greener pastures outside the
academic. This phenomenon has been made
worse by the new idolatry of our time, the
elevation of money to the level of god
worshipped by society.
Those who stayed behind found themselves
unable to find basic journals, not to talk of travel
grants or funding for serious research. The need
of the moment is therefore finding the best
formula for ensuring that the best people stay
behind and that the books, journals, travel grants
and research funding are available. In my opinion
one of the best ways to achieve that would be
to have more specialized institutions in tertiary
education and to encourage the other
universities to become particularly known in
some fields. In that way they can have closer
cooperation with industry in the areas they add
value and industry can better support them.
In my opinion we need to redesign many masters
degree programmes as finishing schools where
people who have developed decent skills that
are inadequate or obsolete can realign their
knowledge base to new realities. Take as an
example the issue of engineering skills. Our
professors are diligently striving to impart
engineering know-how to their students. But the
reality of our times is that micro-processing
skills drive innovation and productivity gains.
We cannot expect business-as-usual professors
in such areas. The challenge is to have a Centre
of excellence that brings the best minds with
engineering degrees and provides them both
micro-processing skills and entrepreneurship
training. To deliver the kind of value we hope to
see in such a situation the institutions cannot
afford to be all things to all people, so they have
to focus.
In suggesting specialized tertiary institutions I
am in no way consigning the traditional
university with a broad spectrum of disciplines to
the dustbin of history. Far from that. There is a
place for universities that serve to provide raw
materials for the finishing schools that many
graduate programmes will have to become. The
very specialized institutions complementing work
done as undergraduates could be the anchor for
the specialized skills needed to stay
The idea is to have a complementary network of
knowledge providers, some of which train the
average to maintain systems while others
function as centres of excellence that shape the
best for the challenges of moving society
forward. At a time when we must leapfrog to
close the development gap that has opened up
between Europe and us in this century we
cannot afford to ignore the ideas of centres of
excellence that will light the torch for society to
follow. It has by now become familiar refrain for
me that the challenge of development is to
restore in 2000 the relationship of the lowest
decile of the population in Europe and Africa in
1990. In 1990 the difference between the quality
of life of these groups was marginal. Today the
difference is as with day and night. Technology
driven productivity increases, which have given
mankind more productivity growth in that last
100 years than in the 10,000 years of recorded
history before the redesign of the stream engine
by James Watt, have separated us from the
industrialized West. To bridge this yawning
chasm we need to reinvent education and create
special centres of excellence that will provide
the leadership for circumnavigating stages of
development; competitiveness in knowledge is a
function of the quality of human capital.
In the network of complementary institutions we
also need to encourage diversity. There should
be private and public institutions unrestricted by
bureaucratic requirements that serve no purpose
beyond the restriction of imagination and the
satisfaction of the bureaucrats’ desire for
control. Whereas the university should be a place
for ideals and idealism where faculty are, as a
colleague jokes frequently, a collection of
anarchists united by a common car park, we
should have competing concepts. There should
be tertiary institutions with a niche in the locus
of praxis where making things happen is
treasured above the idealization of reality.
If the land grant universities “democratized” the
prosperity the Agriculture revolution, and the
computer based research and teaching hubs
created industry clusters like Silicon Valley that
transformed a struggling US economy of the late
1970s; what should universities do for Nigeria in
the 21st century?
In my view the challenge of claiming the promise
of Nigeria involves purging from the effects of a
collapse of culture; positioning for
competitiveness on the global value chains of
factor endowments of different regions of the
country. It is also a challenge building creative
problem solving dispositions as different from
the system -maintenance and solutions
importation mindset that a season of oil wealth
has foisted on Nigerian culture. As the effects of
ICT and convergence shrinks the world into that
mythical global village, globalization has
demanded of us global citizens who play to
global standards and not to Nigerian standards.
How can the universities rise to these challenges
after a long period of underfunding and
politicization of university administration in
which, sometimes, academic excellence and
town-gown engagement to solve society’s
problems, were literally suspended?
As I have said before, this will involve each
university trying to define its purpose in the face
of some of these needs and a world constantly
in the throes of change. And this may involve
unlearning so it can learn. Let me illustrate with
an example of what I once called executive
vocational education.
Speaking at a summit on job creation in Rivers
State a few years ago I lamented the paucity of
skills in many sectors and showed that investors
are sometimes limited by quality of people
available in technical skills areas. My favorite
illustration that when you see tiling that is neat
you almost instinctively, conclude Malians,
Togolese and Ghanaians had been recruited for
the job. I concluded by suggesting that in the
face of so many unemployed graduates
‘executive vocational training’ to provide six
months crash course in Tiling/Masonry to such
graduates with an Entrepreneurship module. The
idea was that such graduates would recruit
others a little less skilled, as part of gangs that
would step into opportunities where Togolese
Artisans were making a fortune while they went
from office to office begging to apply for jobs
not there.
But it would be difficult in the traditional
university system to think of such course
offerings unless a track of unlearning precedes
new learning.
So, just as most businesses go out to fashion a
strategy for their venture and revise them in the
face of change, universities should be able to do
the same. A Business case study I used to teach
some twenty years ago was of a steel producer
in the US that had mini-mills around the country
and was one of the thriving stocks on the New
York Stock Exchange. The name of the company
NUCOR, which came from its earlier incarnation
from the Nuclear Corporation of America points
well to how corporate purpose can evolve.
Surely the purpose of the Nigerian university
praised by Sir Eric Ashby has changed. Part of
the crisis of university education in Nigeria is the
failure to change purpose with shifting reality.
The university, besides being a place people
come to learn should itself be a learning
organization where, as in Rewan’s axiom, the
rate of learning has to be equal to or greater
than the pace of change in the environment. My
prescription is that this learning adopt the
“pedagogy of the Determined” approach.
I have advanced in previous writing a rejigging of
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, idea.
The promise of colonial education was to
improve the lot of once peasant peoples and
help them raise their living conditions But, as
Peter Drucker pointed out the quality of life of
the average African in 1900 was only marginally
different from the average person in Europe in
1900, but as the twentieth century came to an
end the difference in their quality of life was as
night and day. So what happened in the course
of the twentieth century?
Part of the explanation may be found in the
thesis of that Brazilian educator from 40 years
ago, Paulo Friere. He was a Marxist and great
admirer of Franz Fanon. I too admired Fanon but
Catholic education saved me from being a
Marxist long before I learnt that if at 18 you
were not a Marxist something was wrong with
your heart but if at 40 you were still a Marxist,
something was wrong with your head. So I took
the essentials of The pedagogy of the
Oppressed, stripped it of its ideological overhang,
drawing from the inherent entrepreneurial
foundation of human nature, captured in Judeo-
Christian tradition in Genesis 2:15 where man is
made co-creator with God, moving creation
forward, and offered the ‘Pedagogy of the
Determined’ as escape from the pedagogy in
which oppressed peoples from colonial situations
received only enough to keep the status quo of
oppression. That pedagogy of the oppressed
also allowed limited controlled ascent of the
colonized, and post-colonial Africa. The
pedagogy of the determined entailed and
compelled of every learner a vision of
leapfrogging the productivity surge Peter Drucker
identified in his comment about how Europe and
Africa grew apart.
For modern America, education brought it
prosperity through the institution of Land Grant
Universities that supported the Agricultural
Extension Services and made America’s
Agricultural revolution possible, with some help
from such remarkable institution building effort
as the Peruvian Economist Hernando De Soto
identifies in his Mystery of Capital and both Nial
Fergusson, the British Historian at Harvard and
Alan Beattie the Financial Times Economist
show clearly in their books, Civilization and False
Economy which strive to explain how North
America prospered and Latin America faltered.
To liberate Nigeria from its location on the
misery index is to retool its educational system
in which an elite lacking in vision allowed the
conditions of the pedagogy of the oppressed.
We can see the evidence in how we took
character building out of the educational system.
Where once schools like Government Secondary
School Owerri prided themselves with the motto:
When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health
is lost something is lost but when character is
lost, all is lost; to one that does not teach civics.
How will they know values shape human
progress. When history is not taught, how will
they be inspired by heroes past to dream the
impossible and make it happen.
The future of education is in taking the factor
endowments of regions of the country and
deciding to become globally competitive on their
value chains, with educational systems aimed at
vocational training, engineering, and scientific
experimental skills that support dominant play on
those value chains.
As a corporate learning organization the
pedagogy of the determined should compel
universities to begin the search for purpose with
a vision of Nigeria in shrinking, interconnected
planet at once imperiled by man’s conduct but
opening opportunities in the interdependence
arising therefrom.
The imperative of now is a learning university,
healing yesterday’s errors, enabling a leapfrog
over the years the locust has eaten, and opening
up a brave new future. As Prof. Pai Obanya
insists; “Higher education institutions in Nigeria
will have to start from now on to apply the
global vision on the development of higher
education curricula with its emphasis on the
inculcation of generic skills, the aim of which is
to prepare students both for the world of work
and to the demands of learning society of the
21st century. Beyond his prescription flowing
from those comments which include a
foundation year during which students are
exposed to ways of learning; eliminating narrow
specialization in Bachelors degree programmes,
the involvement of wide range of stakeholders in
curriculum review and IT as base subject for all
the challenges the universities to rethink
teaching and learning methods.
Chairman, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen;
the journey of this discussion lead to a simple
conclusion. Like the sage said to the children
who thought they were smart and came to him
with a young chick held in the palm of their
hands behind as they waited for his response to
whether the chick was alive or dead: the future
of higher education, as is that of Nigeria is in
your hands, you the chieftain of the university
system. What you do today will determine
tomorrow. That is a sacred trust.
I thank you for your kind attention.
Patrick Okedinachi Utomi BA. M.A. MPA, Phd.
DBA (Honoris Causa).

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