Vice-Chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria, Prof Abdalla Adamu, speaks with OLALEYE ALUKO and TOFARATI IGE on his life, career and the challenges of the university system
What are the peculiar challenges that come with being a NOUN vice-chancellor and how have you been able to overcome them?
The biggest challenge I face as the vice-chancellor is providing online education to one million students, because that is our target. When the university was founded in 1983, the target was to educate at least one million Nigerians. The only way we could do that was through online education and that is why right from the beginning, we were not designated as a distance learning institute. We were designated as an open distance learning institution.
There is a difference between distance learning and open distance learning. The former is where students stay at home and find a time to congregate and interact with the facilitators. The latter, which is our case, is where we provide students with study materials, and we have over 2,000 facilitators in every state of the federation.
If a student has any problem or challenge, he or she can call on any of the facilitators whose phone numbers are all listed on our website. A former president, Dr Olusegun Obasanjo, is one of our facilitators at the Abeokuta Study Centre. We allocated two students to him and they are working well with him.
The biggest challenge is how to sustain the tempo. How do we educate one million Nigerians? We are not talking about students per se, but Nigerian citizens, because we don’t have age barrier in open distance learning.
What are the administrative changes you have introduced in the school system?
When we started in 1983, we handled mainly civil servants while the younger people loved to attend conventional universities. They did not want to come to NOUN because they thought we were not a serious university. But when the post-Unified Tertiary Matriculations Examination came along, it was seen that out of one million candidates, a lot of them failed. And less than 30 per cent of them got the required cut-off marks to proceed to the universities. Some conventional universities also have quotas for admission because of limited facilities. The students started looking for alternatives and the only alternative was NOUN.
At the beginning till 2002, we were okay. But by the time students started running away from conventional universities to us, we had a huge number of students on our hands and we were caught unawares. We had to quickly mobilise and set up study centres all over the country. Our study centres were only located in the state capitals prior to that time. So if a state has a difficult terrain like rivers, hills and others, it means that this education will not reach people in those areas. That is why we then encouraged the idea of community study centres. We wrote letters to the chairmen of the 774 Local Government Areas, asking them to apply and set up community study centres in their areas.
In what ways have you been able to change the status quo in the way the university operates?
There are Nigerians who are locked up in prison that deserve to be educated; so we set up study centres in prisons. And we said any prisoner, who has the requirements, can study in NOUN for free. This covers the first degree to the Phd level. Right now, we have a prisoner who is about to register for his PhD and we have assured him that when he completes the course, he will be employed as a facilitator so that he will be able to help other prisoners.
It might also interest you to know that a large number of prisoners study Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies. We were surprised and asked them why the preference for that course. They said it is because they want to know why they are in prisons in the first place, and learn the skills of mediation so that they can go back to their communities and prevent trouble. We are providing a very critical service to the society because if these ex-inmates come out, they will at least become upright citizens and affect their communities positively.
Some people believe that public schools are losing their relevance because of the advent of private schools. Do you agree?
If the private universities are in the forefront in terms of standard and quality, it is because they have the money to do that. They charge millions. If public universities can be given the same amount of money, they will perform better because they belong to the people. Private universities belong only to those who can afford them. In public universities, education is practically free. The only thing that the government pays for is our salaries, overhead and capital expenditure. But remember that we now also have the Tertiary Education Trust Fund. They give a lot of interventions to universities. You need funding to be the best and to do your best.
What are your short-term and long-term plans for the institution?
Our long-term objective is to have one million students. The short-term objectives are already being achieved. These include self-sufficiency; we want to be a one-stop university. We are slowly disengaging from outsourcing critical services. For instance, we used to have our online portal created, maintained and managed by an external company; but now we do it ourselves. That way, we have been able to save a lot of money. This is because when you outsource, you have to pay and secondly, there are risks to the security and credibility of your information. We don’t know who may have access to our data, but now the developers and the managers of our portal are here with us and there is greater security.
Another short-term target is the printing of study materials. NOUN does not have conventional classrooms and there is no lecture. We interface with our students through study materials. We used to spend a lot of money on printing those materials because every student must have them. We then found out how much it would cost to build a printing press and we discovered that it was just half of the costs of printing materials outside the school. So we initiated the process. By November 2018, it will be ready and by January 2019, we will start printing our materials.
Now, we also print on demand and we can conserve materials this way. This has helped us to save the government’s money.
We are also looking at the students’ use of tablets during examinations to replace the pen and paper examinations. We want to have a software programme that will capture the answers straightaway; that tablet can be used for several years for several courses. Another revolutionary thing we are trying to do is to cut off the costs of printing scripts.
What are some of the most difficult decisions you have had to take as VC?
Yes, there was one. When we decided to stop the use of outside vendors for our online portal, it caused a lot of problems for me. This was because the portal is the main gateway through which the students come in but they woke up one day and the portal was gone. They could not access their results and every other information. Instead of gradually creating a new portal, we just switched off the old portal and there was nothing in place; I was told that was dangerous. I said I knew what I was doing because I taught System Analysis for 15 years at the Bayero University, Kano State. I know about the system of conversion, which stipulates that if a new system is about to be introduced, it is supposed to be gradually replaced, but we did not do that. That decision was what no textbook would recommend but I did it deliberately. This is because if I was to allow a parallel movement from the old to the new, I did not have any guarantee that I would not be sabotaged. I was cutting off a source of income for a large number of people and I did not care. All I knew was that the university was losing large sums of money to outside vendors and it needed to stop because we could do the same thing on our own.
My objective is to make NOUN the best Open Distance Learning in Africa. To me, making use of outside vendors for what the university traditionally should do was an anomaly. There were social media attacks on me but I was undaunted. Civil societies came to me and I explained to them that we were losing a lot of money. I asked them to give me an alternative.
Do you think Nigerian universities have the manpower and tools to compete globally?
Why not? Being global is about knowledge, knowledge economics and the generation of knowledge. I can tell you that Nigerian universities are in a better position because we have the data here. Most of those speculative economic theories are based on what outsiders think Africa is all about. But here, we are in the centre of it all.
For instance, you talk about the Chinese interventions in Africa and someone in Harvard University will just tell you things that he thinks he understands. But our professors see these things here and they write about them. Of course, we have our challenges. But we are improving.
Do you think the Nigerian university system, as presently set up, encourages innovation and research?
Yes, it does. TETFUND, for example, has been providing funding for research and conferences. In fact, they came up with a policy that tightened up the whole process. For instance, if you want to go anywhere in the world to study for a PhD, you have to go to any of the 20 top universities in the country of your choice. You cannot just pick any university in that country and finish your doctorate in one or two years.
So, if you have to go to Harvard University with its expensive fees, TETFUND will sponsor you. We now have the capacity to compete globally. Now, we are forced to produce journals ourselves. We have cut out attendance of junk conferences and junk publications. We have strengthened quality assurance.
What are the factors mitigating against the National Open University from being one of the best in the world?
If I say we want to be the best globally, that is a vision and a mission. There are facilities that we don’t have and there are networks that we don’t have which other universities outside the country operate.
An example is that in NOUN, we cannot run Engineering programmes because they require the students to be inside workshops and interface with machines. They have to have hands-on experience. We are presently battling with the science students because we say that every study centre must have a laboratory with functional equipment and chemicals, among other things. We initially said we would enter into agreement with the local universities and use their laboratories. But that didn’t work. Right now, we are creating laboratories and equipping them.
How would you describe the relationship between the students and the management of the school?
The nature of our university and the nature of our law, which is the Act created in 1983 and currently being amended, does not really give us the permission to establish a students’ union. So, we don’t have a student union. We could not do that because we don’t have any control over the students. In a conventional university, you have gates and students go in and come out; they have hostels or houses around the campus. In other words, the university can control the inflow and the outflow of students. And when the students form a union, they have a particular location and the university can supervise because the university is actually some form of local parenting.
But in NOUN, we are spread all over Nigeria and we cannot take responsibility for anyone’s behaviour in Akwa-Ibom, Niger or Lagos.
What do you think are some of the factors that encourage exam malpractices among students?
Some of the examination malpractices are caused by people within the system. We had once identified six of them and they were arrested and dismissed.
So long as we deal with Nigerians, there will always be issues of examination malpractices. But we now have a solid network system that makes it almost impossible for anyone to hack into. Nobody even knows where our servers are located. They have tried to hack them in the past. Some people tried to locate the Internet Provider address and there were leakages here and there. But now, we have tried to curtail them.
We have also involved officials of the Department of State Services and we relate well with them.
What do you think can be done to curb the incidences of sexual harassment in ivory towers?
On cases of sexual abuses and harassment, I do know of one. We sent a very strong warning to that person. In NOUN, we don’t even have lecturers attending classes and there is no reason for students to see lecturers unless that student is being supervised by the lecturer.
In some cases, it is the lecturers or the facilitators who initiate this issue and in some cases, to be very frank with you, it is the students. A female student can come and plead that she is ready to pass by whatever means. When such female meets a weak facilitator, there will be issues of abuse.
We also have a committee that monitors such cases among our students and facilitators.
Have you always wanted to become a vice-chancellor?
According to a book published in 2017 by Prof Peter Okebukola, which is a directory of Nigerian professors, I am the only Nigerian with two professorships. I became a professor of Science Education in 1997 and I became a professor of Mass Communication in 2012. After I became a professor of Science Education, I shifted my research focus to media, communications and journalism. By 2005, I had been employed in the Department of Mass Communication as a part-time lecturer. So, I am privileged. Why would I want to be a vice-chancellor? Five times I was asked to be a VC, and I refused.
Bayero University in Kano State once sent a team and they (members) said they wanted to see my Curriculum Vitae because they were considering me for the post of VC. I gave them a rejection letter.
The reason I rejected the offers was because I am an academician and a researcher and that was all I wanted to be. I have attended 200 conferences and been a visiting professor in the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany and other countries. I think as an academician, I am fulfilled and I don’t need to become a vice-chancellor.
But suddenly, I found myself in a place I had been rejecting and that is why I took this office as a covenant with God. That is why I have to excel in the office and do my best. It was never my dream to become a vice-chancellor; I wanted to become a professor and I attained that dream in 1997. I was 41-year-old and I was enjoying myself.
It was the Executive Secretary of TETFUND, Prof Abubakar Rasheed, then the Vice-Chancellor of Bayero University, who said he had not seen someone combining professorships in two different fields and he lent his voice to (the decision to make me VC).
Basically, I didn’t want any pressure from the university which a typical VC faces.
What are some of the qualities a leader must possess in order to succeed?
I tell people; be yourself and know your limits. Don’t allow anybody to control you. Don’t live somebody else’s dreams. I say this from experience because my father wanted me to become a medical doctor and I told him I didn’t want to become a doctor.
I didn’t think I was good enough then to become a medical doctor; I knew my limits. Thankfully, my father understood, and he allowed me. When I completed my PhD, I showed him the certificate and said, “Now, your son is a doctor. You can go and tell your friends.”
Which people have made the most impact on your life?
There are three of them – my mum, dad and an uncle. Anybody else who claims to have made an impact on my life is just joking. My father is a PhD holder. It might interest you to know that I helped him to supervise his dissertation because I got my PhD before he got his.
My mother inspired me in prayers; she was always praying with me. And my uncle made me love newspapers because he was always buying newspapers and magazines for me. He could not read them but he got them for me. This aroused my interest in the media.
My father and my uncle are still alive but my mother is late.
How did you meet your wife?
Up North, I grew up under a particular culture where you just don’t talk to a girl. You were not allowed to do that. I was even too shy to do that. Meanwhile, there was a girl I liked that lived in the same house with my friend but I was too shy to tell her that I liked her. When the time came to marry, I was in London doing my PhD; I just told my friend that I was looking for a wife.
He then told me about the girl who is partly Arab and Nigerian, but I replied that I didn’t know whether she would like me or not. She is very beautiful and intimidating really. My friend told me that she likes me too, because she was always more active whenever I visited their house. That was how we eventually got married.
I never had any girlfriend or courted anyone.
With the demands of your office, how do you ensure balance between your work and family life?
I have my personal house which I built for about 14 years, and we have two living rooms in it. When my wife realised that I was mostly with my computer and would not abandon it, she did the most wonderful thing any woman could do. She moved her things to the room I was using. So, she would sit and I would be on the computer. If there is any long discussion, I would stop and we would discuss and then I would continue. That was it and we have been married for more than 32 years. There are no problems really.
I don’t visit friends and friends don’t visit me.
Is any of your children following in your career path?
No, when you talk in terms of education. My first daughter is 31-year-old and she is a computer programmer. My second daughter has just completed her programme at the law school. She writes poetry and she married a computer programmer too.
My third child is a boy, who is studying computer engineering. My last daughter is 11 and she wants to become a medical doctor.
I don’t choose any career for my children. I allow them to make their choices and enjoy it.
How do you relax?
I relax by walking. For instance, I don’t play football. When I was in the secondary school, they made me a goalkeeper and we conceded six goals on that day. The games master then said, there was no more football for me. I also listen to music and surf the Internet.
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