By Tunji Ajibade
I imagine that I am moderating a debate between the Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, and the former Rector of Kaduna Polytechnic, Kaduna State, Prof. Idris Bugaje. Journalists naturally play the role of moderator well but, I suppose, I’m at an advantage to even let my imagination run wild, since I’m also an award-winning playwright and fiction writer. Creative writers imagine things, including placing a governor and a professor on the podium to make them debate issues of national importance. This is what I do here, placing side by side Sanwo-Olu and Bugaje to debate the matter of turning polytechnics that are established to achieve one objective into universities that are established to achieve another objective.
Now, Bugaje, currently the Executive Secretary of the National Board for Technical Education, in Kaduna, always seems to speak up at the right time. When he feels strongly about a matter in the education sector, he has a knack for securing the appropriate platform to express his views while the matter is still trending. His last outing was making his view known about the latest fad in town, i.e. turning polytechnics into universities. Incidentally, his view was aired on TV, the same day Sanwo-Olu was signing the bill which turned Lagos State Polytechnic into Lagos State University of Science and Technology. The last time I pointed out what Bugaje was saying on this issue, it was when a lawmaker in the House of Representatives was trying to turn Yaba College of Technology, Lagos State, into a university.
There’s one difference between these two efforts though: the first has the approval of the executive governor of Lagos state. The second was alarmingly audacious in scope and execution. Here’s Yaba Tech owned by the federal government, and right under the watch of the minister of education, the appointed management of YabaTech, and some lawmakers were ganging up to turn the school away from the original purpose the government meant it to serve. I put the entire frivolous exercise down to some people trying to step up their status from what it is in a polytechnic — to what is obtainable in a university. That was how narrow the motivation was. I imagine education ministry officials connived with them in this disastrous jamboree of monumental proportion, when the threat that the effort constituted to the technical development of our nation was considered.
The existence of polytechnics is targeted at producing technical manpower for the nation at that level. How then could federal government employees be undermining the policy of the government with regard to the effort made that time to turn Yaba Tech and Kaduna Polytechnic into universities? At the time, Bugaje was presiding over Kaduna Polytechnic and he publicly said he wouldn’t be involved in the jamboree because he knew the dangers it would portend for our nation. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that as Lagos Polytechnic was being turned away from its purpose, Bugaje expressed his worries over such a move in any of the federal government-owned schools. It’s for this reason, I place him and the governor of Lagos state, on the podium, to have them debate the matter.
In the debate, I could imagine what Governor Sanwo-Olu would be saying in his preliminary remarks. He might say that pressure had been mounted on him by some unions and other relevant stakeholders in the state, and as a listening governor, he obliged them? He might say he had heard so much about how graduates from polytechnics were discriminated against, in the civil service, and that he wanted to change the imbalance by reconfiguring a polytechnic in his state into a university? Note that this measure has consequences for the destiny of this nation; it takes the bottom off the policy to consistently produce technical manpower at a time we need this more than ever before. Polytechnic graduates, who simply want two years of OND or HND, and after which they wish to establish their own technical-inclined private firms, would be significantly reduced. These talented, creative, and enterprising Nigerians in their millions, essentially power our economy with their small and medium scale enterprises. Now we want to obliterate the academic training they might prefer — compounding the unemployment challenge.
Furthermore, Sanwo-Olu might also quote the comment of some groups who had been commending him for turning a polytechnic into a university. The group in question, in its press release, said, “The establishment of the two new universities (a poly and a college of education turned into universities) will solve issues relating to admission of Lagos State citizens”. That’s the size of the vision of some with regard to turning a polytechnic into a university; the size of the argument that could drive us to obliterate polytechnics, as well as the technical manpower they produce for our nation. The last time some lawmakers were presenting a bill to turn Yaba Tech into a university in the House of Reps, the argument was that Yaba Tech was the first higher institution in Nigeria, and the only one of its type that had yet to be turned into a university.
These arguments are so pathetic that the best one could do is laugh at the size of our vision, the pettiness that drives some of the measures we take. Note that when the implications of these measures hit home, those who push them would shout the most at the government, insulting especially the federal government. They won’t recall their own contributions; how they want only universities that graduate millions of youth who have no viable skills with which they can earn a living by themselves.
On the other hand, Bugaje might argue that he was an academic, who knew what it meant to the nation’s development to have polytechnics, as well as universities. This lecturer would say he understood what it meant to train people who were theory-inclined, as much as those, who were technically savvy. One complements the other. I imagine Bugaje would say if there was any discrepancy in the treatment of polytechnic and university graduates in the civil service, the resolution should take place at that level, rather than overturn the policy focus of the government and destroy the technical base of the nation. In any case, all polytechnic graduates aren’t in the civil service; the majority is in the private sector where they provide technical services, which we all rely on, for even minimal comfort in our homes and offices. As such, Bugaje might ask, why should the argument of discrimination made by a handful of polytechnic graduates in the civil service be the basis for turning a fantastic policy on tertiary education to the wrong side up?
It’s so easy to overlook the negative consequences of these mis-steps in a nation where everyone like gets to blame the government. It’s what we like: insulting others for all the problems we collectively created. The other tribe – the other religion, is the reason the nation is not moving forward. In our own states, decision-makers at every level aren’t taking measures that could contribute to how this nation would be sent on the path of progress. This thing reeks of superficial thinking; some high-class hypocrisy, and only the Nigerian, who doesn’t read between the lines, won’t see it for what it is. The same thinking would make anyone applaud the turning of polytechnics into universities. It’d make anyone buy the argument that polytechnic graduates weren’t given the same treatment as their university graduates, as though the objectives for establishing the two institutions were the same. Anyway, if anyone wants to address the allegation, it shouldn’t be by closing down one of the few places where we still produce technical manpower.
Politicians and policymakers, who buy and sell frivolous reasons, and the basis for which they turn a poly into a university, are doing our nation great harm. In my last piece on the matter, I enumerated the fundamental differences between a polytechnic and a university, and the reasons we needed them in this nation. I won’t repeat them here, but let’s note that if we continue to undermine this nation with measures that are lacking in vision such as turning polytechnics into universities, we’d be in this together when the consequences arrive. That time, some of us, as usual, would tell those who blame the federal government for all the nation’s problems, to give us a break!