Corporatisation of universities: Nigerian experience

The university system in Nigeria, especially private institutions, is undergoing a significant transformation. The traditional emphasis on pure knowledge acquisition is giving way to a more market-driven approach. Many people see this shift as a pragmatic response to contemporary economic realities, ensuring graduates possess skill sets readily absorbed by the industrial sector.

Unlike their public counterparts, private universities are not guaranteed a steady stream of government funding. Their financial sustainability hinges heavily on student enrollment figures. Programmes with low enrollment translate to lower tuition fee revenue, jeopardising the university’s ability to pay faculty salaries, maintain facilities, and invest in essential resources.

Furthermore, the Nigerian job market is demonstrably competitive. Graduates lacking the specific skillsets demanded by industries often face prolonged unemployment. This can create a negative perception of a particular university, potentially dissuading prospective students from enrolling in programmes perceived as offering limited career prospects.

However, this emphasis on producing graduates with job-ready capacity raises critical questions regarding the potential obsolescence of knowledge and the continued relevance of academic programmes deemed less commercially viable. It is vital to consider if knowledge can actually become obsolete, or if the issue is a failure to connect existing knowledge to new discoveries.

Lest we forget, the world boasts of people like Jeff Bezos, whose intellectual foundation lay in literature, and Steve Jobs, with his background in calligraphy, as examples of what the power of seemingly “irrelevant” disciplines can achieve. These great industry titans, nourished by diverse knowledge, facilitated the cross-pollination of ideas that led to groundbreaking innovations and industries.

Universities, particularly private institutions, are increasingly prone to the practice of eliminating low-enrollment courses. While financial sustainability often informs such decisions, the potential ramifications for academic progress and the depth of learning must be carefully considered.

Low enrollment figures are not necessarily a reliable indicator of a programme’s intrinsic value. Suppressing programs based on short-term trends could unwittingly stifle future innovation. The history of science is replete with examples of groundbreaking advancements emerging from fields initially considered peripheral.

Are these courses being discontinued due to outdated content or a perceived lack of relevance to current industry demands? Could the decision be driven by financial considerations rather than a genuine evaluation of the intrinsic value of the disciplines in question? Is it possible that the curriculum of these low-enrollment programs requires modernization to reflect contemporary advancements? Could uninspiring instruction by the lecturers, rather than the inherent value of the subject, be the reason for dwindling student enrollment in these courses?

The corporatisation model also fails to account for the unique context of each university. A programme deemed unsuccessful in one institution, with its specific faculty and student body, could flourish in another. Perhaps the issue lies not with the subject itself but with the pedagogical methods employed by the university. A reevaluation of instructional approaches may be more beneficial than simply eliminating programmes based solely on enrollment figures.

The core mission of a university goes beyond producing ‘job-ready’ graduates. It is one that fosters an environment where intellectual exploration and critical thinking can flourish, a marketplace of ideas where diverse disciplines converge to create a new field of knowledge. The creeping influence of corporatisation model, with its unwavering focus on quick financial returns, threatens to stifle this very essence.

An area most affected by this model is the potential erosion of accessibility and affordability within the educational sphere. Universities, compelled by the dictates of the market, might prioritise high-cost programmes. This shift could transform these institutions, once bastions of knowledge accessible to all, into exclusive enclaves reserved for the privileged few.

The consequence? The children of those with limited financial means, even those brimming with potential, could find themselves locked out of these ‘market-ready’ programmes. Their dreams, once nurtured by the promise of educational opportunity, could be sacrificed on the altar of financial expediency.

However, dismissing the potential benefits of this model would be remiss. Increased funding could lead to the acquisition of modern learning tools, gleaming equipment, and enhanced research facilities, all of which could enrich the educational experience. Imagine classrooms buzzing with collaborative student projects that apply theoretical knowledge to real-world scenarios. The presence of industry experts sharing their wisdom with eager students could further enhance the learning environment.

Yet, a concerning aspect lurks beneath this veneer of progress. A fledgling discipline, by its very nature, exists on the fringes of established knowledge. Lacking the financial backing of dominant corporations, such disciplines struggle to secure resources and establish themselves within the academic hierarchy. This can lead to a stifling environment where innovative ideas, crucial for intellectual growth, are left unexplored.

The privileging of courses with proven financial viability creates a self-perpetuating cycle. Established disciplines, with their well-funded research arms and industry connections, attract even greater resources. This further marginalises nascent fields, hindering their ability to generate groundbreaking research and contribute meaningfully to the ever-evolving knowledge base.

Furthermore, the emphasis on immediate return on investment disregards the inherent value of intellectual exploration. As mentioned earlier, history is filled with examples of seemingly obscure disciplines that later revolutionised entire fields. Disciplines deemed irrelevant today might hold the key to solving tomorrow’s most pressing challenges. By neglecting these nascent fields, we risk stifling the very wellspring of progress. The dismissal of a discipline based solely on its current financial potential could inadvertently stifle groundbreaking discoveries with far-reaching consequences.

The key to resolving this tension lies in striking a balance. We can harness the benefits of the praxis and finances offered by the industry while remaining true to the core principles of academic inquiry. A holistic education equips graduates with specific skill sets and with critical thinking, communication skills, and the lifelong ability to learn and adapt. These qualities, essential for navigating a constantly changing world, can be cultivated through a curriculum that transcends the mere desire of job-ready graduates.

It is not in the interest of educational development to allow profit to supersede the pursuit of knowledge. Market relevance is undoubtedly important. But it should not come at the expense of a holistic education that equips graduates with the intellectual agility to navigate the complexities of the 21st century. Our universities are the seedbeds from which our nation’s future will sprout.

We must ensure that this fertile ground remains accessible to all persons and ideas for unrestrained pursuit of knowledge. Let the marketplace have its voice, not dictate the future of university education.
Reverend Father Nkadi, OP, wrote from Obosi. He can be reached via:

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