Sunday, 26 June 2011

David-West’s lamentations for Nigerian varsities (1)

On June 19, 2011 · In Sunday Perspectives ..
By Douglas Anele

Tam David-West is well-known nation-wide. Apart from being a former Minister of Petroleum and Energy, and later Minister of Mines, Power and Steel, he is a retired Professor of Virology at the University of Ibadan. Now, although I do not agree with him on several issues, including his uncritical, almost worshipful, admiration of former military dictator, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, his latest comments on the state of Nigerian universities are right on target.

As an experienced academic who rose to the pinnacle of the profession, Nigerians should take his frank dissection of the decay in our so-called Ivory Towers very seriously. In a recent interview in one of the national dailies, David-West, in his characteristic boldness, took a critical look at the situation in the topmost level of our educational pyramid and concluded that things have seriously fallen apart.

The former minister began his jeremiad by reminiscing about his days as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan in the 1950s. According to him, the population of students was low whereas the quality of lecturers then was high. Students were properly fed and taken care of in the halls of residence.

Apart from lectures, they were taught the rudiments of gentlemanly culture, that is, the culture of the elite Western bourgeoisie. David-West recalled that when he was in school a monthly banquet dinner was organised “in which highly-placed guests were invited from outside the university to “wine and dine” with students.

At that time, which he referred to as the “bloom years”, students didn’t just pass through the university alone, the university passed through them as well. Thereafter, from the mid-1980s, the system started collapsing. The standard is so bad now that even lecturers lack the refinement expected of the cognoscente.

David-West cited the cases of a lecturer who picked a piece of meat from the floor, washed and ate it; of female lecturers who park recklessly across the street, only to apologise when confronted; and, of postgraduate students who write English very poorly. He argued, correctly, that blame for the rot in the university system is not only for the politicians that have failed to fund these institutions properly for years.

In his words “the degeneracy is too much. I feel like crying for the universities. The standard is too bad.” According to Niyi Osundare, another retired Professor from Ibadan, there are politicians in academic gowns. Of course, increasing decline of academic excellence has jeopardised standards in all our universities. The problem is compounded by the plunge in moral rectitude. Instances of moral turpitude by lecturers, especially those at the professorial cadre, rankle the mind.

Some professors, David-West avers, share research grants meant for their departments; others manipulate the system to get their spouses appointed professors. There was a case of a deceased Deputy Vice-Chancellor whose son stole a book from the bookshop; the matter was hushed because his father was a VIP in the system.

Subsequently, the criminal was awarded a degree, with the cliché on the certificate which reads: “having satisfied the university in learning and character.” There are professors who forge the signatures of their heads of department and other principal officers of the universities, and collude to award degrees, even doctorates, on the basis of poorly-executed research programmes. In the mad rush to produce doctorate holders, or get certain unqualified lecturers promoted on irrelevant grounds different from laid down rules, senior academics shamelessly compromise the system.

Instances are known of professors on sick beds who are asked to evaluate the papers of professorial candidates just to “quicken the process and save time.” The current regulation from the National Universities Commission (NUC) making it mandatory that every university lecturer must have a doctorate was soundly criticised by David-West. I am also one of the few lecturers at the University of Lagos who consider NUC’s decision disingenuous because, as the saying goes, “the hood does not make the monk.”

Mere possession of a half-baked (or even unbaked) Ph.D. is academic corruption of the highest order, since it creates the false impression that its possessor has done original work on a subject-matter which has contributed to knowledge in that field. I know of someone with a Ph.D. in English Literature whose internal assessor complained that the work was redolent with mistakes in the use of tense and in other basic elements of English grammar and usage. David-West hits the nail on its head by claiming that “Some PhDs are rubbish.

”I’ve got lecturers that are Masters or BA or B.Sc. that are fantastic.” As a consequence of irrational obsession with Ph.D. by NUC (a body headed by professors), unnecessary pressures and lobbying from both the candidates and senior academics on supervisors and assessors has already increased, with some low-grade universities metamorphosing into rolling mills or factories for cloning Ph.Ds. Many professors usually send the Ph.D. theses of their favourite, not-really-brilliant, candidates to their aburos, sometimes with the tendentious suggestion that the latter should “take it easy with the candidates.”

Someone told me of an incident where, in less than two weeks a busy professor had finished reading a thesis of over 300 pages sent to him by a friend in another university – of course, the verdict on the work was highly favourable. Overemphasis on journal publications for promotion is killing not only the motivation for excellent teaching and for writing good books but, more importantly, has encouraged unscrupulous lecturers who are desperate to become professors to steal or clone the ideas of other colleagues.

Furthermore, in the sea of “cut and paste” writings that are becoming the norm in the system as a result of the wrongheaded ideology of “publish or perish”, great ideas are submerged in the flood, ideas that are rare and precious.

To be concluded.

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