The World of Higher Education

On today’s episode of the World of Higher Education podcast, we’re talking about Nigerian higher education. Economically and politically, Nigeria is one of Africa's powerhouses. Yet, when it comes to higher education, it trails significantly. To help us understand why that's the case, Dr. Olabisi Deji-Folutile joins us. Dr. Deji-Folutile is editor-in-chief of Frank Talk Now and chief operating officer of AF24 News, and who writes frequently on higher education matters from Lagos. 

Creators & Guests

Alex Usher
He/Him. President, Higher Education Strategy Associates
Dr. Olabisi Deji-Folutile
Editor-in-chief of Frank Talk Now and chief operating officer of AF24 News, frequent higher education writer.
Samantha Pufek
She/Her. Graphic Designer, Higher Education Strategy Associates
Tiffany MacLennan
She/Her. Research Associate, Higher Education Strategy Associates

What is The World of Higher Education?

The World of Higher Education is dedicated to exploring developments in higher education from a global perspective. Join host, Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, as he speaks with new guests each week from different countries discussing developments in their regions.

Produced by Tiffany MacLennan and Samantha Pufek.

Alex Usher (AU): On today’s episode of the World of Higher Education podcast, we’re talking about Nigerian higher education. Economically and politically, Nigeria is one of Africa's powerhouses. Yet, when it comes to higher education, it trails significantly. To help us understand why that's the case, Dr. Olabisi Deji-Folutile joins us. Dr. Deji-Folutile is editor-in-chief of Frank Talk Now and chief operating officer of AF24 News, and who writes frequently on higher education matters from Lagos.

Many of the Nigerian system woes are economic in nature. As an oil state, one would expect funding to be tied to the prevailing world price for hydrocarbons, and hence be somewhat volatile. Unfortunately, that's really all Nigerian higher education institutions have to rely on. An active political student movement has seen to it that universities can't charge anything beyond essentially symbolic tuition fees. That means that institutions are severely constrained financially. And lengthy strikes, which paralyze large parts of the system all at once are common.

That doesn't mean that Nigerian students absolutely refuse to pay for education. Tens of thousands of them go abroad, particularly to the UK to get an education, and hundreds of thousands of attend private universities within the countries as well. Private institutions with solid foundations, mainly those supported by some connection to a church or denomination, actually looked pretty good compared to public universities.

But there are other issues at play in Nigeria as well. The issue of violence on campus and the presence there of organized gangs on university campuses known as cults, though the term is not religious in origin, have been a recurring source of concern.

All told, Nigerian higher education is in need of some serious reforms, and Dr. Deji-Foutile provides us with an excellent outline of how those reforms need to be prioritized.

Alex Usher (AU): Good morning, Olabisi. Thanks for being on the show. Can we start just with describing the Nigerian higher education system for those who don't know about it? What types of institutions exist there? What, if anything, distinguishes the structure of Nigerian higher education system from others in Africa?

Olabisi Deji-Folutile (OD-F): We have a system that is just like the one being run in the United States of America. That is, we have universities that award degrees, first degree masters, doctoral, and post-doctoral. Now, in terms of structure, we have federal universities, we have state universities, and we also have private universities. Now, the federal universities are controlled by the federal government. State universities run by the state government. Private universities by their owners. Now, aside from universities, the higher education system in Nigeria also covers polytechnics, monotechnics, and colleges of education. So, in all, we have about over 160 universities in all in Nigeria. Out of these, 43 of them are federal universities. So basically, that is the structure and it's not exactly different from what is done in other African countries. Just that the only difference I can point out is the universities in South Africa for example, could be well funded. Making them be more recognized. But I think in terms of structure, they are basically the same. We run the same structure across Africa.

AU: You mentioned the difference between state and federal universities. There aren't many places in the world where both levels of government fund a different set of universities. The only other one I can think of off the top of my head is India. Is there any difference at all between the state universities and the federal universities other than who's paying the bills? Do they specialize in different areas?

OD-F: No, they don't. It’s just about the bills. All of them are controlled by the National Universities Commission, which is the coordinating agency for whole universities in Nigeria. The difference is the fact that the federal government pays the bill for federal universities and for states, the state governments pay the bills. Also, in terms of the government councils, while the federal government is in charge in federal universities, states are in charge in state owned universities. And when they're talking about the government councils, I also mean appointments of vice chancellors and others in the government council, which could be either academics or non-academic members of councils. Also, the state universities, while the federal universities allow [students from] every part of the country to be admitted. But state universities are basically established to cater for the educational needs of their students. So, they are more interested in capturing indigenous people from their states. They lay more emphasis on that. So, what that means is that you can have a university, a state-owned university in Lagos, for example, having about 70% of students coming from Lagos state and just giving 30% quota to any other student from any other parts of Nigeria.

AU: Nigerian governments are reliant on oil revenues to maintain public expenditures, and these can be very volatile. So, I know that the country has gone through some ups and downs in the way that it's funded higher education. In some countries, student fees are used to help institutions maintain a stronger level of base funding. Particularly when times are bad. Is this the case in Nigeria? And if not, why not?

OD-F: Well, unfortunately that is not the case in Nigeria. This is because most public-owned universities in Nigeria, in fact all, are tuition free. So, that method of generating fund from tuition is not just available. What most students pay in Nigerian universities are maybe fees for registration, fees for little things. So, you'll find a student paying less than a hundred dollars, for example, for a whole year. The state universities charge a little bit but they are also limited because education is also linked to politics in Nigeria. For example, if you are a state-owned university and you try to charge students money, well when the time comes when you will need their votes and they will tell you that “no, we cannot vote for you because you are making children to pay for education.” A case in mind is about 10 years ago, when the former governor decided to increase the school fees of Lagos State University and he actually increased significantly about 300%. But, when the time of re-election came, he had to bring down the price to 25,000 Naira. When 25,000 Naira is less than $50 American dollars. He had to do that because he needed the votes. So, we don't have that access to tuition fees in Nigeria. That accounts for some of the major problems we have when it comes to funding and I also think that is why we have issues with strikes; and I mean lecturers going on strikes and poor payments for lecturers too because that tuition isn't just a way of funding for higher education in Nigeria.

AU: I was just about to mention that. I mean, one consequence of inadequate funding is that faculty pay can be quite low and that can turn into paid disputes. Nigerian public universities might be world champions in terms of days lost to strikes. I've known you've had strikes that have gone at least a year and I understand that there has been in the last few months quite a spade of strikes as well. What's the state of labor relations in Nigerian universities right now?

OD-F: Well, I'm not proud of that statistic. The last strike was for eight months before then we had a nine months strike, which took about a whole academic section. So now, the lecturers are at work, but we can't say that all is still well because the reasons for the last strike are still there. As a matter of us, by the time the lecturers were calling off the last strike we started in February, by the time they were calling it off in October. The union told Nigerians that they were not satisfied with the outcome of the strike but the lecturers had no choice than to go back to work at the time they did because the government had already taken them to court.
What are the issues? Basically, they're talking about non-payments of some allowances that are due to them, the non-implementation of previous government agreements as to the announcements of facilities and structures, those issues are still there. As a matter of what the major issue in the last strike was the payment structure for lecturers because government shifted them to what it's called, U P I S, that's a unified payment structure for all civil servants, which they rejected and came up with their own details. But the federal government rejected that. But obviously now the lecturers are still being paid based on that U P I S, which they rejected, which was a major reason for them to go on strike. So, the reasons for the strike are still there, and we cannot say the relationship between the federal government and the union is good for now. It's still shaky and anything can still happen.

AU: Another issue on Nigerian campuses is that of gang violence. It keeps cropping up in news reports around Nigerian universities. Historically, the place of confraternities or cults on Nigerian universities goes back to the early days after independence in certain organizations to promote a nationalist ideology supported by a number of prominent students, including Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka. But at some point, these organizations turned to violence, right? That led to the presence of gangs working in leagues with local politicians sometimes and that's kind of become endemic on some public university campuses. What's the country's recent experience in this regard?

OD-F: Well, yeah. I would like to say that it used to be worse. It has gone down in many universities. The cultism is only prevalent now in the south eastern part of the country where we also have violent clashes that are not necessarily by students or cults. But I will also admit here that we still have issues with cults and violence on campuses. I need to also point out that these are also areas where we have a secessionist movement where some people are also killing and shedding blood from time to time because they think they are not getting a fair share of the confederation called Nigeria. They’re call the IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) and they are seeking to secede from Nigeria.

AU: Right. So, this is the area that was once known as Biafra?

OD-F: Yes, exactly.

AU: How does the state of higher education in Nigeria play out politically? The country just had a very competitive presidential election. Did higher education figure at all in the debate? Do any of the political parties stake out a distinctive position on higher education?

OD-F: Unfortunately, no. Other mundane issues were allowed to take over the political space. The current president elect did say that it would introduce tuition and grants but we still don't know how that is going to play out because, like I explained to you earlier on that politics and how it controls this issue of payments of tuition in Nigerian universities. He promised that there won't be strike during his own tenure. How he is going to ensure that we don't know yet, but we can't really say that our education was a major issue in our politics.

AU: It seems natural that in a situation such as Nigeria's, where the ability of public universities to provide a reliable service to students isn't guaranteed that private sector alternatives would emerge. And you said that at the outset of the interview, there is a private higher education sector in Nigeria. Some of these universities have managed to develop some really first-class facilities in a short space at time. And I'm thinking specifically of institutions like Redeemer’s University which was where the Ebola virus was first sequenced and which was admitted to the World Bank's African Centers of Excellence program ahead of many allegedly more prestigious public institutions. But how healthy is the private higher education sector in Nigeria really? Is it uniformly good? Is it uniformly weak? How do people see the private higher education sector in Nigeria?

OD-F: Well, I will describe them as a mix of the two. Some, like I explained earlier on, we have 79 of them now. Lots of them are very strong financially because they are owned by mission organizations. For example, Redeemer’s, as you mentioned, is owned by the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Then we have a few privately owned that are owned by private individuals that are known to be very wealthy. Mind you, because these universities are also charging fees, I think they have enough money to probably augment whatever the owners are putting in place. For example, Covenant University charges over $1,000,000, we’re talking about $6,000 to $7,000 USD in the year. And a lot of them will charge even more than that now. They have a stronger financial base than the public universities also because they have more control over their academic staff in that they ensure quality assurance. For example, you have to do your work. They are universities. For example, they allow student to rate their lecturer’s performance. When this is done, the lecturers don't have the hiding place, unlike what is happening in many public institutions. So basically, many Nigerians who can afford this would like their children to go to these privately-owned universities. But it’s just that not many people can afford the money. So, I think basically they are doing well. Of course, there will be some also that are not doing too well because of the number of students they have, they have some financial issues, but I think they are quite fine.

AU: Another alternative to domestic public universities is foreign universities some of which charge very high fees. I remember seeing a statistic almost a decade ago that suggested that Nigerian students were spending more money on tuition in foreign universities than they were in domestic universities. How common is it for Nigerian students to leave the country to study? Is that number increasing and where do they end up going?

OD-F: Wow - Nigerians are traveling. They go anywhere. I will give you the one that is for 2022. The UK government offices said the Nigerian students contributed 1.9 billion pounds to the economy of the United Kingdom in the 2021-2022 academic year. Later statistics show us that there was a 300% increase in the number of Nigerian students, or in the number of student visas that the UK granted to Nigeria, in 2022. Right now, we have about 45,000 Nigerians that are studying in the UK 2021-2022 academic session and when you want to look at the combination of that with their families, there are over 60,000. Nigerians go everywhere, but their most popular destination for education is the UK and the reason is very simple: since the UK reviewed this policy of that allowed their international students to work three years before going back, or if they're able to get sponsors, they can stay in the UK permanently. Nigerians flooded the UK and also because of its policy of allowing students to come along with their families, they see that as a very good opportunity for them to relocate with their family to a better place. Their process is also very straightforward: you have your money, you give us your money, you deposit your money, we have to assess to what we have, then you show us your proof of funding, then you can come over. So, I think UK is getting most of Nigerian students. Even though before the war, Ukraine was also a good destination. And the Cyprus, though there are issues with Cyprus, but some Nigerians still go there.

AU: Why Cyprus? Why is that such a popular destination?

OD-F: Because it's cheaper.

AU: My last question here, Nigeria's Africa's largest and in some respects most resource rich country. It should be the home of Africa's most powerful universities too, but clearly there's a long way to go. If you had to pick out three major policy changes to get the country's higher education system moving in the right direction, what would they be?

OD-F: I will first of all start with autonomy. By autonomy I mean universities being autonomous in governance and administration. There is too much interference right now of government into the activities of these universities, both at the federal and the state level. But with autonomy, universities will be able to determine how to run their universities, whether they want to charge students and how much they want to charge. We talk about autonomous Nigerian universities, but they are not really autonomous, government still maintain a large scale of control over the universities, and this affects a lot of things.
Now, I will also talk about increasing capacity, measures to increase the capacity of the academics and to increase the capacity of infrastructure and all of that because lecturers need training and re-training, and part of this is also increase in salary for lecturers. Lecturers’ salaries in Nigeria are very poor, very unfortunately very poor. You have professors that hand less than 1000 pounds and they have more than 20 years of experience, so I think that's increasing their capacity, increasing their pay, and infrastructure. Then, I will want universities to charge tuition field. It’s time Nigerian universities started charging tuition. This is what happens all over the world; then we can institute scholarships, we can offer grants, we can introduce student loans, but their students should be allowed to pay for their education because the major problem of our universities or higher education now is lack of funding, and if we don't breach this, a lot of things will be affected. It's going to affect research, it's going to affect welfare of lecturers, we are going to be having labor crisis and lecturers going on strike. When students pay, the students will be able to even demand more quality from their lecturers. They will be able to hold the lecturers responsible for whatever they're giving them right now, which they can't do that because they don't have control. That's why lecturers can go on strike as they like and shut down universities as long as eight months and the students are just helpless. That can't happen if they're paying for their education.
Let me just put them simply, I would like to see a situation where universities are really autonomous in practice, not just in name. I would like to see a system where students are paying to get whatever education they are getting and their university education is priced appropriately, not just paying, but appropriate pricing. Then I would like to see a situation where the welfare of the academic staff and the non-academic staff in these universities are well taken care of so that Nigeria University lecturers can compete favorably with their counterparts in other parts of the world. But those are the bigger things I would like to see.

AU: Perfect. That's all the time we have for today, Dr. Olabisi Deji-Folutile. Thank you very much for joining us today. It's been a pleasure.

OD-F: Thank you for having me. It's my pleasure too.

AU: It just remains for me to thank this show's excellent producers, Tiffany MacLennan and Sam Pufek, and you, the listeners, for tuning in. If you have any comments or suggestions for future podcasts, please do get in touch with us at Join us next week when our guest will be Javier Botero, education sector consultant at the World Bank and former Vice Minister of Higher Education in Columbia. He will be joining us to talk about the evolution of Columbian higher education and the challenges facing the agenda of that country's new president, Gustavo Petro. Bye for now.

*This transcript has been auto-generated with minor editorial review; suggested edits can be made to