Professor Rahmon Bello was acting vice chancellor of UNILAG for about six months before his emergence in a substantive capacity on November 12, 2012 as the institution’s 11th vice chancellor. LANRE ADEWOLE and MOYOSORE SOLARIN sat with the one-time Ogun State Commissioner for Special Duties to share his experiencesin the past two years.
It is almost two years since you emerged the Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos. Let us in on the ups and downs of managing the institution so far.
The management of an institution like this is quite challenging, not because one is not in the know of what should be done, but because of the extra issues that do come with the governance of such university. If it is straight forward, like it is in developed countries, you wouldn’t have much problems because one will be able to sit down and plan properly, but in here, you have to go ahead and plan for everyday issues, because you never know what will come up on a day-to-day basis. Today, with both staff and students organisations and unions, anything can come up from any of the perceived problems at any point in time. We also have to deal with government and sometimes funds do not come at the appropriate time; salaries must also be paid at the right time. We at the University of Lagos have been doing our best to ensure that staff get their salaries as promptly as possible.
Generally, you never can know; other things just come up at various times impromptu. An institution like this is an academic institute, and in that wise, your primary focus is academics; ensuring that you have the best of performances and be able to be reckoned with at the level you expect this university to be. Now putting that up with the challenges of social interferences and other things that come in, in a country like Nigeria are the real challenges that we face.
With UNILAG’s position in the latest NUC ranking, are you celebrating or ruminating?
In the 2014 National Universities Commission (NUC) ranking, UNILAG came second behind OAU. Webometrics ranking placed us at third. We have been the first for some time and our target is not only to be the first in Nigeria, but in Africa as well. The challenges are more than what we bargained for. If it was just academics, we may have been able to face it straight away and get there easily. But like I said, we have to worry about funding; we have to worry about everything being in place; we have to worry about the academic calendar and in Lagos, the challenges are far more.
Here, the last three months have been worrisome for students, the accommodation we can provide is less than 10 per cent of the student capacity and as such, it has been a big problem for the students to even settle down for the new semester. We have had to solve several problems with the students to ensure that they comport themselves and settle down to commence the academic calendar. So, that is one of our major challenges here.
Unlike the countryside where they have enough accommodation around the hostels, they don’t contend with that kind of problem like we do here. We have been trying to build more hostels and all other ideas coming up, but we are not there yet. That is why we are now looking at other ways of ensuring accommodation for our students. Once accommodation is ensured, security is assured and other challenges are addressed; you will find that we will be able to attract foreign students.
I am sure foreign students will know Lagos more than any other place in the country, but we do not have the right kind of atmosphere for them right now. We have been doing all kinds of things to attract them, but they are not coming,.Therefore, we don’t have enough foreign students in the institution to give us that kind of boost in the university ranking to beat most of our African counterparts and this is one of the reasons we are where we are today.
And it is not only us, all other Nigerian universities are really far below most of the universities in other African countries, not because we are not good enough because we are, in fact, better than them in most of the aspect, academics included. But in terms of the social interaction with the ranking, we are not because we are in Nigeria and cannot take ourselves out of the country, we have to be ranked based on the problems that are inside the country. I think these are the issues we contend with.
Is this acute shortage of accommodation about alleged wheeling-dealing among some unscrupulous members of your staff?
It is not so. What we are saying is that the problem here is an issue of supply and demand. When supply falls far short of the demand, anything can happen, whether we say its wheeling-dealing or a raising of the bar kind of thing. If we go to other schools for example, where there are far more hostels than the students want, nobody will go into the hostel. They will rather go get accommodation in surrounding communities and rent rooms at a far lower price.
But here, it is different. You cannot get rooms outside. So, people will buy hostels and then sell to those who don’t have at any price. So it is a supply issue. We have 8,500 spaces for 25, 000 students, so you can understand the situation. Normally, we try to give 100 level and final year students priority in hostel allocation, but we still cannot satisfy all the students that fall in these categories.
New students this year are 6,500. If we give that whole figure hostel accommodation, there will barely be anything left for all other students. Then, we have to consider other special students, athletes, handicaps, students who come from very far states and various other special cases we have to consider in the process of hostel allocation. So it is a big problem we are facing here when it comes to student accommodation unlike other universities in the country. So it is not an issue of wheeling-dealing thing, it is because of supply and demand.
With the drop in Nigeria’s university ranking, considering that UNILAG has always prided itself as the university of first choice, is the school no longer making that boast?
Of course we are. We are always the university of first choice. We are the first choice in many situations. When you talk about the university students apply to most in Nigeria, it is University of Lagos; go into JAMB statistics you will find out and it has been like that for a long time and we still remain the first choice till date. As regards the ranking, many things go into ranking and that is what you have to understand.
For instance, the Webometric ranking, in this case, the school website is assessed, all the information on it is the main focus of the ranking. They do not come into the school to see what is going on, they only see the school and judge based on what is available on its website; so it is an IT driven situation. If your IT network, facilities and usage are not optimal, then you would not get well ranked and that is what is going on. It is only NUC that goes round the universities to rank or accredit institutions in Nigeria; but they did that for UNILAG so many years ago, so it is not a continuous thing.
Therefore, when you talk in terms of physical facilities on ground, that is not what is ranked. What is ranked is the activity on the website, academic interactions, how many people go to your website and so on. This is why I say, when you go into academics one on one with any other university in Africa, they cannot beat us. But because of current IT limitations and use, they are ahead of us, but we will get there, we will beat them to it.
Let us look at a challenge you had to manage recently which is over five months loss in the academic calendar. How much of this impacted negatively on the quality of teaching and learning? In terms of the quality of teaching and learning, that kind of thing does not impact negatively on these areas. What it does is reduce the morale in the students. For example, being at home for five to six months on strike, bringing them back to gear would definitely take a while. In terms of the academic staff that were also off teaching for some time, mind you, our work in the university is not just teaching, we have three major functions for every academic staff, which are teaching, research and community service. So teaching is just a part of every lecturer’s job. There are even some universities that are non-teaching, they are pure research universities. So, we balance our own between teaching and research, so while we are not teaching, we must engage in research, otherwise we will not develop; to advance academically, we must have publications.
This is also part of the things that were also considered in university ranking; they look at your publications, where you published, if it is a high class publication or otherwise. So, what a break does is to portray us negatively, it portrays the whole system and the nation negatively outside and it does not help us in terms of regularity in our sessions and that also does not allow external people to come into institutions in Nigeria because nobody wants to spend four, five years in the university when they should spend three years.
That is the negative social factor I mentioned earlier on. Those are the challenges we face; we cannot attract foreign students, we cannot attract more money from tuition foreign students will pay. Our own students go to Ghana and they pay for tuition at whatever rate because they believe there will be no disruption in the academic calendar. That is what such involuntary breaks do; it does not lower quality because the quality is assured. We have the competitive people here to impart knowledge. In fact, in University of Lagos, we do not employ anybody with less than a masters degree into the academics, we do not take graduate assistants. So, the minimum qualification to be employed as an academic here is with a masters degree, so from there you get your PhD because without a PhD you cannot be really reckoned with in the academics. So here, about 70 per cent of our staff are PhD holders, therefore the quality is there.
But with the advent of the strike, you had to compress the calendar to meet up with the months lost, right? No, we did not. If you add up how many weeks we did before the strike, with the additional weeks we did after we resumed from the strike action, you will find that there was no compression. There is a minimum number of weeks every university must put in every semester. When we go on involuntary breaks like that, it is the academics that punish themselves, because they will not have the normal breaks in the school calendar. Rather, the period that would have been used for research breaks and other breaks is what will now be used to make up for lost time. So, it is not that we compressed the calendar. Compressing it unduly will definitely bring protests from the students if the syllabus and other things are not completed.
As an academic, what would you advice regarding strike actions in Nigeria, because as it is, there is no assurance that we have seen the end of it?
As an academic, whatever it takes to forestall any kind of disruption in the academics should be explored and found, to ensure that we have a stable academic calendar in Nigeria. As an administrator, what I will advise is that whatever we need to ensure independence of funding for the university system in Nigeria should be explored, that is, for the public institutions, so that anything that would cause disharmony in the universities that is based on funding, capital infrastructure, allowances and the likes should be put to the background.
One of the liabilities you inherited is the controversy of changing the name of UNILAG to Moshood Abiola University. At what point is the issue now?
I will like to inform you that happily, the President of the nation and visitor to the university, President Goodluck jonathan, who announced the name change has also announced that the law should take its full course in terms of the change of name.
I will like to inform you, if you do not remember, that the University of Lagos was the first university to be established in Nigeria by an act of parliament in 1962, the name and everything about the university was by an act of parliament and so anything that would affect that change would have to go through the legislation. That is what the President has agreed should take its course. So it has been sent to the National Assembly and whatever the National Assembly decides is what the President said he will agree with. So, if the National Assembly takes it up and decides otherwise, we are waiting for that. But for now, the status quo remains the same: University of Lagos.
Even though your emergence was sudden, against the backdrop of the demise of your immediate predecessor in office, after acting for about six months before being officially appointed vice chancellor. Can we have a look in on your blue print to develop the institution?
Thank you. The death of the former vice chancellor was a rather unfortunate incident for the university. I will like to inform you that I was with him as deputy vice chancellor for over two years since the inception of his tenure and so we are part and parcel of his administration. We were architects of all that he tried to do and we understood each other enough to be able to proceed with whatever he tried to do during his tenure. May his soul rest in peace.
Now, coming on board, we are putting in our agenda which is continuing the very good things that we started together and now putting in focus other things that we believe would put the University of Lagos at the apex. Our target is that by the end of our tenure, the University of Lagos would emerge as number one in Africa, in terms of whatever it takes: research, quality of work and all, and we have been working assiduously towards that. We have so many things that are targeted; research-wise we are building a capacity for improvement in research currently.
I told you earlier on that we have not been doing PR on our achievements, but you will be seeing the result of our efforts as we move on. We already have established an office of research and innovation which is supposed to assist us to push research in another dimension because what really makes a star university is its research base and that is what we are working on currently.
The central research lab that was oncoming is now being completed and that would complement research work for all the facilities for general high class research that is expected of a university of our standard. This is already now being put in place in our central lab, as well as other things to ensure first class research, both in science, technology and the humanities. So, by the time all these are in place, our research focus will come to where we expect it to be.
In terms of infrastructure, we are developing new infrastructure for the university and we thank God we are having the resources to be able to do that with all the interventions that are coming in.
Being an urban university, the most urbanised university in Nigeria as of today, we are in a corner, so, we are limited in terms of space. Therefore, we had to evolve a new policy of development, one is that because of the limited space, we did agree that any new infrastructure that we will put in place should have a foundation to carry nothing less than 12 floors.
This university started in 1962, but then all that were put in place, all the solid structures that were designed were built for a capacity of 50 to maximum of 100. But then, we cannot do anything to go vertical, we do not have land to go lateral so we just have to take our destiny into our hands. So now, the new buildings you will be seeing soon will all be high-rise structures. Even if we cannot erect all of the floors at the moment, they will be in modules. We can start the first five floors and then add more with time, but the foundation would have been put in place to accommodate nothing less than 12 floors.
So, for the next 50 to 100 years, the school will still have these facilities to use and it will meet their demands because all the ones we started with are now too small for the capacity that we have as at today.
With all these plans, the colouration of the university will change. The profile will change in another year or two and you will be seeing what we really need to have in an urban university, in terms of infrastructure.
We are going to be ensuring that the facilities for both academic work and other aspects here are revamped and made international. Like I said, I am not interested in PR. Probably we would have asked you to come back in another year to see for yourself the things I am talking about now. I want to say that we have our template for both academics, for research, as well as infrastructural development and these are ongoing and at the end of it all, we will see a renewed University of Lagos that will be at the fore front like our founders intended for it to be.
International collaborations assist the international perception of a university. How much of these are you involved in? If I gave you a count you would be amazed. Whether we like it or not, we cannot stand on our own, not only internationally, you also have to collaborate with all other institutions around you. So, we have both national and international relations; we have an office that deals with that aspect of the institution’s affairs.
We have collaboration starting from the far East, in China, to the far West, in the United States of America, even in South America for both research and academics.
Let me give you an instance. Starting with this academic session, we are starting a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chinese Studies and University of Lagos, is the first to start such in Africa. This is borne out of the need to satisfy the growing Chinese influence in our society today. Whether you like it or not, go to any state today, you will see at least one Chinese company and we must be able to take advantage of that and let our people partake in the businesses. So, n by offering a course in Chinese Studies here, those that will study it will be able to understand the Chinese language and culture and will be able to interrelate between the Chinese that come here to invest and Nigerians. We are doing this side by side with a Chinese institution, even though we have an institute here for people who want to study the Chinese language, which is just two to three weeks of Chinese study and its rudiments. This one we are just introducing is a degree programme, so with that, we are ahead of everybody, considering the growing influence of the Chinese in the world today.
We have joint research works with top Chinese institutions, such as BIT and so many others. In the USA, we also have collaborations with various universities there. Our staffers go there almost every summer for two to three months’ interaction in research work.
In Europe too, we currently have so many joint research work going on now between colleagues in Europe and colleagues here studying African issues and other related issues. We also just got an invitation from the military in the US with some of our organisations here to study some of the things that are of interest to them.
Like I said, I am not ready to blow our trumpet, but we will give you information anything you seek to know. The point is there is no way we can be this developed or known if we do not have the right international and national relationship. Even here in Nigeria we have universities that we mentor.
As a professor of Chemical Engineering, would it be safe to say that your experience of human management and administration is honed on the job?
I am a process engineer, you know what that is? A chemical engineer is a process engineer, and he is one that handles production processes from the raw materials up to the finished product. And when you handle that, you are not only handling the materials and machine, you also handle the human beings that belong to the process. So, we are a complete package as it is.
So you have a background that prepared you for what you are doing now?
Well, I thank God that I had experiences in various capacities before I was called up for this assignment. If it is managerial, I am sure we have enough people to do this job that we are doing. What I am saying is that my chemical engineering background is even equally preparatory for any assignment of this kind because I could go into the industries like a lot of my colleagues, with some of them also in the human relations aspect as well. The discipline is not what is really critical, what really matters is how you evolve and the experience you got over the years.
With the spate of insecurity being experienced in the country, what measures is your administration taking in ensuring safety for students here in school?
We thank God that insecurity in the nation has not generally spread into this zone because the cities are difficult to manage. We can see what happened in Abuja recently in spite of the presence of all the security apparatus. With this kind of guerilla tactics it is difficult to predict who exactly is involved in what and we pray that Nigeria will overcome this insurgency problem very soon, so that we can resume our normal operations and continue to grow. Because without peace, Nigeria will not be able to develop in whatever we do.
As regards UNILAG, we thank God so far that we have a secure environment. God secures everybody, but we put in enough resources here to ensure that relatively, the environment is secure and our challenges are minimal. Government has assisted and is doing well in terms of ensuring the security of people in the state and that is one of the things that we rely on. We have the complementary support from the state security apparatus and they complement all our efforts internally to ensure that we secure ourselves. People feel so much secure coming in here and we appreciate that and we will not rest on our oars because we are going to deploy more resources to security to ensure that life and security are secured as necessary.
We would like to know how far the 15-story female hostel building Dame Patience came to lay the foundation recently, has gone?
The project is that of the University of Lagos Parents’ Forum, it is not the school management’s project. It is an idea conceived by the institution’s parents’ forum to assist the university. So they got a piece of land from the university and put on their concept. However, anything happening in the university is still part of our affairs, so we have to assist them to realise the objective. They chose to name the hostel after Dame Jonathan and she came to lay the foundation for it. So, the Parents’ Forum is doing all it can to ensure the realisation of that project and we are giving them all the support we need to give them to ensure the completion. Because once it is finished it is going to be used by our students and it will ameliorate hostel accommodations issues, particularly among the female students who are more prone to abuses without adequate hostel accommodation.
You are widely travelled, and you may be aware that in the US, if you do not have sufficient number of students for a certain class, the lecturer in charge will not be paid for that class. Will you say that university education is more expensive there and relatively cheaper in Nigeria?
In terms of cost, as you know there are three categories of universities in Nigeria, which are the Federal, the state and the private, and each of these universities has varying fees for the same degrees, even though the quality might change from here to there. Then we go through various disruptions in our academic calendars which the private universities are absolved from, you can therefore see the distinction.
So in terms of cost, university education is not expensive in Nigeria. Right now students in the Federal universities enjoy tuition free services, so government is paying for virtually everything in the federal institutions, whether that is okay or not is a different thing. But it is what is currently in place. In fact, there is no other country in the world today that has it as cheap as it is in Nigeria. Whatever students pay in federal institutions today are just service charges. It is definitely the cheapest you can find in the world.
As an administrator, is this realistically sustainable from your point of view?
I mentioned earlier on that as an administrator, I will advice that the funding arrangement for education should be properly looked at. What the administrator wants, as far as this is concerned is to get what funds he needs to run the system, once that is there, the problem is half solved.
But in a situation whereby you will now have to expect whatever envelope you can get annually, there is a limit to your planning and how you can succeed with whatever the plans are.
Of course, you know what you will like to have, that is why you can see some private universities evolving fast and developing in quality and everything. This is because they have their destiny in their own hands. They know how many students they can take and how much is going to come from that, what exactly they need to do, and it is working for them. At least two or three of them having that advantage are fast moving upwards.
But then you have to balance politics with reality. When you look at the number of students that write JAMB versus the amount admitted, we take less than 10 per cent of the people that apply to us, and that is why you see a lot of students finding themselves in schools with lesser standard than what you will find in Nigeria, and even pay whatever amount required. So it is a whole complex situation. Yes, it is very cheap to go to the university in Nigeria but is that the ideal situation? That is another issue. So we have to look at an arrangement for that and see how best to help the country in that regards.
Do you share the sentiment that fees should be introduced in federal institutions?
Well that is a political arrangement. What is important for the administrator is to get money to use for the system, whether it is free education or not. What I will advocate (I am not saying fees should be charged) is that if I knowhow much it is to educate a student in a programme and I get the equivalent of that, whether I get it from government or from the students, it does not matter to me. All I want is for that money to come to me so that it can be used to train that person and consequently improve the system, that is what my own business is as an administrator.
( Courtesy Tribune & UNILAG VC …….. Source ……. Our Freelance Contributor in Lagos)