Nigeria’s higher education system stands at a critical juncture. In the Times Higher Education Ranking of 2023, only two Nigerian universities made it to the top 500 worldwide— a ratio that falls far short of the country’s potential, writes Abiodun Egbetokun.
Some have argued that the ranking is unfair because it ranks universities in latecomer countries like Nigeria with those at the frontier, such as the United States. To compare like with like, Times Higher Education created the Sub-Saharan Africa University Rankings in 2023. Only one Nigerian university appeared among the top ten in this ranking, with the next one trailing behind in 26th place. It is noteworthy that, while they may not be perfect, these rankings assess fundamental areas in which universities should excel.
The poor showing of Nigerian universities suggest that they are weak in most—if not all—of the fundamental areas. Yet, these universities have the potential to be strong. What can they do to unleash their true potential? The challenges facing Nigeria’s higher education system have been extensively discussed.
From incessant strike actions to inadequate funding and dilapidated infrastructure, our universities have been held back from reaching their zenith by numerous systemic issues. The good news is that most of the systemic issues can be progressively addressed from the bottom up. It all begins with universities knowing what to do to transform themselves.
I propose an approach that taps into the power of the Matthew effect, where success begets further success. This strategy requires visionary leadership and unwavering commitment, and it can revolutionise the trajectory of Nigerian universities. The Matthew effect, as coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1968, reveals that initial success creates a positive feedback loop, propelling institutions to even greater heights. Donor funding plays a pivotal role in advancing universities’ capabilities. Both local and international funders are keen to invest in institutions that have already demonstrated excellence and established visibility. This is where the Matthew effect comes into play—a leading institution becomes a magnet for attention and funding, driving progress and recognition. How do we get there?
The key lies in focusing on strong programmes rather than attempting to excel in every discipline. Nigerian universities must strategically allocate resources and attention to specific areas of expertise, thereby gaining recognition and attracting funding. By identifying strengths and weaknesses using esteemed subject rankings such as those by Times Higher Education, universities can concentrate efforts on building world-class programmes.
For instance, if a university excels in computer science, it should channel resources to fortify this programme, attract exceptional faculty and students, and forge partnerships with industry leaders. Such excellence will generate additional resources that can be reinvested to bolster other programmes within the institution, gradually fostering competitive programmes across multiple disciplines.
Building on this foundation, universities should prioritise the establishment of long-standing research programmes. In some countries, research programmes and projects that run for decades are commonplace. These programmes create an environment conducive to innovation, attracting talented researchers and addressing societal challenges. They fuel a positive feedback loop, where research outputs enhance the universities’ reputation, thus increasing funding opportunities.
The best example I know of in Nigeria is the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) at Redeemer’s University which has been running since 2014. ACEGID’s focused research in genomics has made significant contributions to understanding and managing infectious diseases globally, placing Nigeria on the map of genome sequencing. By nurturing similar long-term research initiatives, Nigerian universities can elevate their global reputation and secure donor funding.
Implementing these strategies requires a significant flow of funding, at least in the beginning. This is where the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) can play a pivotal role. Based on a detailed assessment that I recently undertook for an international donor, I can say that TETFUND is presently underperforming in many ways, although it has a unique opportunity to plug capacity deficits in the university system.
It could, for instance, elicit certain positive outcomes through its funding programmes. This can be done in several ways, such as establishing an objective ranking of Nigerian universities and linking funding awards to it or curating a database of high-quality publishing outlets against which research publications will be benchmarked. This kind of intervention will incentivise the emergence of excellent universities.
However, excellence alone is not enough. Universities must effectively communicate their activities, achievements, and milestones. This will help to enhance their visibility and attract potential donors and partners. Appealing and functional websites, active social media presence, and regular publication of research highlights are essential tools to showcase achievements and ongoing projects to a wider audience.
It is disheartening that many Nigerian universities lack appealing online platforms, and their absence from social media is glaring. Simple actions like highlighting outstanding staff performance on Twitter and LinkedIn can significantly raise the profile of these institutions.
It is time for Nigerian universities to unlock their true potential. By adopting an approach based on the Matthew effect, focusing on strong programmes, nurturing long-standing research initiatives, and implementing effective communication strategies, Nigerian universities can attract substantial donor funding, enhance their global reputation, and contribute significantly to national development. The journey to excellence begins now, and with the support of institutions like TETFUND, the universities can ascend to unprecedented heights and pave the way for a brighter future.
Egbetokun is a Senior Lecturer in Business Management Leicester Castle Business School De Montfort University, Leicester United Kingdom