5th June, 2013
Professor Hope Eghagha is the Delta State Commissioner for Higher Education. In this interview with ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, EROMOSELE EBHOMELE and JETHRO IBILEKE, he speaks on the achievements of the Uduaghan administration in tertiary education
There is the Ministry of Higher Education and another one for Basic Education. Why the split?
Delta State has seven tertiary institutions with 10 campuses. We have a university that has three campuses, we have three polytechnics and we have two colleges of education and a college of physical education. We have very many primary and secondary schools. It became clear that we needed a ministry that would be in charge of higher education and bring the attention of government to issues about tertiary education. It was against this background that the Ministry of Higher Education was created in 2009 and I took up the position as commissioner.
We are fully occupied in terms of organising intervention programmes on campuses, in terms of attracting funding to the campuses, in terms of bringing the very relevant issues about unions, the new laws, all of these to the attention of government. So the Ministry of Higher Education as it were, stands as a bridge between the institutions and the state government.
We want you to explain more about funding, which you just mentioned.
The state government has different ways of intervening in campuses. Of course, the very first is that we pay salaries. To the university alone, there is a monthly wage bill of about N500 million. For the polytechnic, it is about N200 million and for the colleges of education, it is about N100 million. So every month, we pay almost a billion naira as emoluments. The government also intervenes in terms of building infrastructure, building hostels, building lecture theatres, building offices and all of that.
We also release capital grants to the institutions. For this budget year, the total budget is N1.3 billion. That was what was appropriated as capital grant to the institutions. So, in the course of the year, the state government will release this in bits to the institutions. It consists of capital grants, accreditation funds, and research.
There is a bursary system in place, which entitles every Deltan who is in a tertiary institution and has a CGP of 2.20 and above to N20,000 per year. The Scholarship Board is under this ministry and we run that scheme to ensure that our students get the bursary and scholarships. This is not restricted to only the institutions we have in Delta State. We have about 160 institutions in the country where you have Deltans studying and we have introduced an online payment system where our undergraduates register directly with the Scholarship Board and their accounts are directly credited by the Scholarship Board through the banks.
We also have scholarships for our first class products. Any Deltan who graduates with a first class is entitled to a scholarship to read up to any level in the world; the value is about N5 million every year. We have about 160 beneficiaries in different institutions of higher learning now. This year, about 100 persons have already applied. That’s part of the programme which Delta state government runs through the Ministry of Higher Education.
We are running to develop the human capital base of the state. And we realise that the youths are crucial to national development. One of the ways to do that is to provide funding for them.
Talking about intervention in the area of infrastructure, how many projects did your ministry inherit?
We inherited quite a number because at a point, there was an interim management committee that was running the institutions, that is, the polytechnics, and they started quite a number of projects. These were awarded way back in 2006 and 2007. Since we came, we haven’t awarded so many contracts on the campuses. The other day, I was just looking at the university and I said since I came in 2009, we have awarded only three contracts in the university. What we are trying to do is to build on, continue and complete those old projects.
On the polytechnic campuses, there are quite a number. Recently, I was at one of the sites where I put pressure on the contractors doing the very big lecture theatre and I told them they must complete it by September. So, we have quite a number on the campuses and we are working on them to ensure that they are completed and available to use.
The state government has three polytechnics and it is proposing to add four more. Why?
You see, in 2009, shortly after I took over, we had an education summit and one of the things that became obvious at that time was that whereas over 25,000 candidates applied to the polytechnics, they couldn’t admit more than 9,000 at a particular time. And the question is: where would these people go to? In the university last year, over 45,000 Deltan candidates made DELSU first choice and then if you added second choice, it went up to about 90,000. Every year, we can’t admit more than 3,500. What do you do with the rest? One of the ways is to increase the carrying capacity, which is what we are trying to do and we have achieved to some extent in the university.
The other day, the Minister of Education gave statistics showing that 1.3 million candidates wrote the UTME and they were not going to admit more than 300,000. The question is: what happens to the other candidates? So, there is a need for more campuses, for more institutions. As I have always said, we must provide an avenue for the teeming youth population that we have to go to school, go higher, let their minds be broadened and it is better to have an army of educated youths who are not employed than to have army of uneducated youths that are not employed. The idea is this: when you train somebody through tertiary education, that person is able to open up the mind and perhaps do other things. You can empower yourself.
We believe that there are too many of our young men and women that are idle. So we believe that we want to create space for them. And building these schools would create employment opportunities for our young men and women. Those are the main arguments and then you begin to talk about the tangential ones, the fact that when you create these schools, they would have a kind of multiplier effects on the economy of the place. Indeed, the political, social geography of Ife is completely transformed because of the presence of that university. Instead of the laid back area that Ife ought to be, it is cosmopolitan now. Any community where you have a huge population of the young and educated is completely transformed. Home owners automatically have tenants. So it has an effect on the economy of the place and the culture of that place changes.
Analysts argue for the introduction of vocational studies in tertiary institutions. How does state government view this?
What we are doing is encouraging entrepreneurial studies because we believe that when you go to school and you don’t know how to manage yourself or how to do business, that itself can be a problem. We are not doing vocational studies in the university. But at the polytechnic level, we do have elements of that. Indeed, the OND and HND are supposed to prepare graduates for the vocational at a higher level. But at the university level, what we have been able to do is train our young ones in entrepreneur studies so that they can develop business skills and then can market whatever skills they have. If they are empowered, they could go into certain areas that they could develop.
Now, vocational at the university level raises a question mark because the very basis of the university stresses the theoretical more than the practical (70 per cent to 30 per cent) because in the university, the tradition is to develop your mind, the ability to think and apply your thinking to society. At the vocational level, you do thinking quite alright because all human beings must think, but that’s the pragmatic, the practical aspect of it so that once you go through a polytechnic or a vocation, you are able to fit into the practical aspect of daily living; you can be an artisan, a carpenter, all of those.
For the university person, you grow and initiate policy, formulate and implement it for those vocational minds to implement. So, we cannot turn the universities into vocational institutes.
There is a skill acquisition centre that has just been built and what we are doing is to send graduates there to be vocationally trained. After school, you go there and spend six months learning practical things. After six months, your level of comprehension is higher than one who stopped at the SSCE level. Once you achieve that, you can go into the industry and then make it.
What is the relationship between the government and the private institutions in the state?
We have two private universities in the state. We have the Western Delta University in Oghara and the Novena University in Ogumeh. In my capacity as Commissioner for Higher Education, I have paid official visits to those universities and we have a good relationship with them. We attend their convocation ceremonies and that is because we produce for the same market. The Delta State government gave a grant of N100 million to Novena University early this year. There is a good relationship and the idea is that those private universities operate within the state, they train graduates from this environment and they train these graduates for this environment because they are going to ultimately be in the labour market. And because the private universities are very expensive, it’s only few people that can go there.
Do you have any modulating effect on how much they charge?
No, no, no, we don’t. We don’t regulate the private sector in terms of how much they charge.
What about standard?
Standard is done by the National Universities Commission, NUC, and it is this body that accredits programmes. We don’t meddle with that but when there are issues that arise, we also know how to raise it to the Governing Council or to the management.
You spoke about the computerisation of disbursement of funds to beneficiaries of scholarship. But are there mechanisms to prevent fraudsters from crashing into the system?
When we came on board in 2009, it was a manual system that was used to pay and whereas the state government used to release a lot of money. I was teaching in UNILAG and for my two kids who graduated from there, there was never a time they had access to their bursaries. That’s because sometimes, certain persons in the chain did funny things with those funds.
So from 2009, we decided as much as we could to deal directly with potential beneficiaries. In so doing, we destroyed a certain cabal, certain institutionalised areas of tampering with the system. And then they started fighting back. Right now, we are proud to say that more Deltans studying in the institutions benefit from the funds than they used to do. It is not 100 per cent fool-proof. In the first year, this will surprise you: when we did the online thing, there were 33,000 fake names and when I addressed the press after this, I was surprised two days later that students came to demonstrate in this town claiming there was fraud in the Scholarship Board. I couldn’t believe what happened.
Later we got to hear that they invested money. There was one guy who registered 77 times. He would register as Hope E.O., UNIBEN with an account number, Eghagha O.H., UNILAG with the same account number. They didn’t know the system would check them. We produced a huge document of these fake names. We treated them the way we treat students in the institutions, but those boys started terrible articles attacking the Scholarship Board, alleging that the board put those names. As I said to everybody, at the time it came to my notice, the state Exco had been dissolved. I was on my way out when the Secretary of the Scholarship Board came to me to inform me of the fake names. I said if it was the board that put it, they wouldn’t come to tell me. I didn’t even know I would return as a commissioner in 2011.
So what we have tried to do without pointing our fingers is that we have minimised the level of fraud. What we are saying is, let this money get to the beneficiaries. For some students, N20,000 is a lot of money. The general thinking is that we ‘chop’ money in government. Monies meant for students? The first year, we returned N18 million to government as unspent funds. Second year, we returned N180 million and that’s because at the time we opened the site, 53,000 students registered and after elimination, 33,000 got removed. What was left, we disclosed to government.
We have tried to minimise fraud. There are challenges like what is going on currently in which some students entered wrong account numbers, some make mistakes, some used the old account numbers, and some used the old swift or sort code. I was looking at it. So far, the Scholarship Board has sent about 15,000 names to the banks for payment. Of these, 13,000 have been paid and we can confirm that monies have hit their accounts. About 1080 have been returned to us that they have challenges. We want to publish that in the dailies. We will publish the ones that have been paid and the ones that have challenges. We are trying to eliminate areas where we thought people were trying to come in through. This year is better in the sense that the level of fraud has reduced. Only 27,000 registered. The one for first class graduates is very transparent. We actually give out the cheque in an open, public ceremony; we invite them and give them their cheques of N5 million each or credit their accounts and give them the ATM card. And after securing the admission letters, we monitor them wherever they are and get their academic records. For the first time this financial year, we are planning to visit some of these campuses. I refrained from doing that before, but now we are proposing that some members of the board, along with the commissioner, would visit some key institutions where we have our students, interact with them, know some of their challenges; some of them are already saying N5 million is not enough to cover them for one academic year. They are suggesting we should go up to N7.5 million. We’ll do a kind of study and give our report to government.
Elimination of fraud is a big achievement…
But they fight you back.
Now, let’s put our hands on figures. How many have benefited in each of these categories?
For the bursary, last year we paid 23,000 students. This year, we hope to pay 27,000. For the first class, 160 are in different institutions studying. For 2013, over 100 have applied, but when we looked at the budget, we said we can only give to 100. But the governor has a way of saying: “Realign the budget and give to everybody.”
We have the figures for the physically challenged that we give scholarships to. Annually, we spend about N1 billion on scholarships. This is an intangible service to society, to mankind. We are building people who would drive society and development in years ahead.
What has the government been able to do to curtail controversies and crises?
The very first and important point is that the state government meets its obligations to the institutions. We try also to put a very effective management system in place, using competent persons to manage institutions. In this ministry, we have a very healthy relationship with the unions. I told them my doors are open 24 hours. They come to my house before 8am without notice. What is the problem? Of course, I was a unionist while in school and I understand the language of the unions and I speak it. So when they are dealing with one of their own, I think they recognise it. So, issues that are apparently controversial are reduced and treated with dispatch. For the national strike that they embarked on, I invited the unions here and reminded them the state government is not indebted to them. The state government has met all its obligations and instead of joining the strike, they should go and tell the national body that they want to stay out. That has not yielded any fruit because, as you know, the union motto states that what affects one affects all. So, what we are trying to do is to manage the situation.
Apart from the fact that government meets its obligations, we engage in wide consultations to ensure things don’t get out of hand. In these ways, we minimise conflicts on campuses.
In what ways has the governor made your job easy?
The governor understands all the issues. He’s been in the system for a long time. He was a commissioner, then he became Secretary to the State Government, and now he is governor. As Secretary to the State Government, your eyes see almost all the documents that go through the channels and you have experience in security, you know how the ministries function and you understand administration itself. When you become governor, people don’t need to make too many arguments; they don’t need to come and fight and struggle. Once the issues are straightforward, the governor understands. He’s made my job easy because he understands the challenges we have in education. Remember that one of the development agenda that we have is human capital development and education is key to that. It is true we have challenges everywhere. Funding is not as it should be. In Nigeria today, funding of education is a big challenge because there are contesting issues calling for attention.