Why are Nigerian universities disconnected from promoting ICT innovation?

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By Oluwatobi Opusunju and Chinedu James

In Kenya, East Africa, and in the Republic of South Africa, universities are increasingly becoming hubs for technology innovations and entrepreneurship to line up with trends in countries like India, Malaysia, USA, China, and Israel among others. In those spheres, students are provided with resources and the right environment to spur innovation for social and economic development.

But not so in Nigeria, where universities are still far from the start-line. Decision makers in the academic community appear still challenged with re-thinking their analogue orientation in a world about and around them that has gone digital.

Nigeria lags behind on Global Innovation Index

According to the recent Global Innovation Index (GII) of 2017, Nigeria is placed at the 119th position out of 127th nations accessed. Africa’s largest economy lags behind 19 African countries including Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, and Rwanda.

With 112 federal, state and private universities excluding polytechnics and colleges of education, and a policy thrust that consistently promotes education as a cardinal fulcrum of development, Nigeria’s disturbing bottom position on the GII worries stakeholders with critics blaming the wide gaps on absence of willpower by government, paucity of funds and little or no interest in raising the learning bars to become more innovative and more market-oriented.

“Government lacks the vision and willpower to pursue a remodeling of the entire education sector to reflect today’s needs and challenges. Education administrators lack the depth and the commitment to alter the status quo for the sector to make real progress,” said Abuja based educationist, Mr. George Daramola.

Daramola is right. The country’s current science and information technology (IT) educational curriculum exposes wide gaps between gown and town. The curriculum does not prepare students for existing trends and the emerging disruptive technologies. The university curriculum appears to not recognise that education has moved on and fast in the 21st century. “There’s a disconnection between what the university offers and how the industry exists now and how it is changing as well as how the market is changing skill needs and career requirements. So, you end up with analogue students unfit for the 21st century digital market,” said Daramola.

For Daramola, who has consulted extensively for the public sector education in Nigeria, the study guide in higher institutions is obsolete and does not reflect the modern realities of the industry. “That explains why we are at the bottom of the GII,” he added.

Analogue universities

Findings by IT Edge News reveal that the last time the university curriculum was changed was in 2012, about six years ago, and there are no plans yet in place by the National Universities Commission (NUC) to design a new one. NUC is the regulatory body responsible for setting the benchmark and designing curricula in Nigerian universities.

Director of ICT at the Benue State University, Mr. Terna Abdul, recently told IT Edge News in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, for ICT and innovation to find strong presence in the universities, the leadership of the academic community must have a more forward-looking approach to things that are consistent with the industry and market dynamics.  Abdul said the NUC needs to reset its priorities and design a curriculum that truly reflects the modern realities of the education industry in order to foster innovation and arouse the creative essence of  ICT research in students.

“The NUC must say what they want. The NUC must decide if they want the universities to encourage innovation, the curriculum used in teaching should be the basis by which this is pursued,” said Abdul in Yenagoa during a technology innovation conference.

Another leading light in the industry, who should know, Mr. Bankole Oloruntoba, argued that innovation uptake in universities is largely hinged on strong policy thrusts. Since the right policy with the willpower is lacking, universities remain groping in the dark. Oloruntoba, founder of Network of Incubators & Innovators in Nigeria (NIINE), a network of incubators and innovation hubs, said universities need new thinking, proactive educational strategies and partnerships to guide their digital walk.

Oloruntoba considers it imperative for regulators of universities and other stakeholders responsible for effecting growth in higher institutions to drive policies that will engender ICT research and innovation, especially through re-designing the curriculum that still teaches students obsolete programming languages developed decades ago such as Fortran, APL, ADA and other programming commands.

“Universities operate in an absurd vacuum where they find it difficult to draw from external knowledge on improving the stakes within the university system,” said Daramola who like Oloruntoba believe collaboration with private sector industry leaders can make the university system to leapfrog digitally.

Universities and industry must collaborate

“The NUC and universities must engage with the industry in curriculum development. Students just like products are meant to be produced by the university to fill a gap,” said Dr. Sola Afolabi, Chairman of Qitech Technologies Limited and former Director, ECOWAS Community Computer Centre at a recent symposium on industry- academia engagement.

Afolabi said the role of the industry in promoting innovative potential among students and producing graduates for the industry is one that is pivotal and cannot be downplayed. He argued that the industry on its own part requires seeing the need to assist the universities in providing new modules of academic content as essential for improving today’s workplace. According to him, until there’s a formidable synergy between industry players and the academia, it will be hard to leapfrog.

However, beyond the redesigning of the curriculum to suit the needs of the industry, it is also important for universities to channel funds allocated to them through government and private entities for the singular goal of promoting and developing ICT innovation in the country.

An example is the ICT driven OAK-Park in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), fully funded by the World Bank. If about 50 percent of the universities in the country could replicate this, there is no doubt that there will be a geometric increase in technological and innovative advancement, said President of Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), Prof. Sola Aderounmu who is one of the top drivers of the OAK-Park.

“Nigeria universities ought not to be complaining about funds because the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) is set up by the federal government to provide them with the necessary funding they need as long as they can show and justify it,” noted Oloruntoba. He said if the universities approach TETFUND around innovation hubs, it’s certain that they will fund their innovation programmes. But this is not happening because most universities are not tech driven.

Universities need fund and willpower

However, Abdul argued that in most cases where such funds as TETFUNDS are available, most universities find it hard to access it.  “We can see that TETFUND is trying to give research grants to universities. But when you go to most of these universities, you will discover that even where TETFUND is giving research grants, not a good number of universities can access it. Check the percentage of research grants, percentage of conferences, seminars and then post graduate training; you will discover that research grants are the least accessible. So we don’t have research grants and even when it is in place, people are not accessing it,” he lamented.

“For instance in my own university, I can’t remember when last they received the money given to run the universities. They don’t give them a dime. They ask us to go and source for fund. They depend on the school fees that students are paying for the running of the university,” added Abdul.

But even when some universities get to access the grants, innovation or technology diffusion is not on their list. In several cases, universities have been known to misappropriate research funds.

About 1.1million graduates are produced every year by Nigerian tertiary institutions. Half of that number is unable to find jobs because they lack the required skills to function in today’s workplace.

Oloruntoba is optimistic that a radical change in thinking is possible to remodel the university curriculum in such a way that Nigeria’s innovation index will rise up significantly. His words “once they are able to pick up in all these angles: research innovation and ICT development will blossom greatly.” Afolabi expressed similar optimism. He said the pace being set by OAU in technology research and innovation through the OAK-Park will eventually be repeated in universities across Nigeria to impact greatly on how universities engage technology trends and entrepreneurship.

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