The politics of university admission in Nigeria

The politics of university admission in Nigeria

When I applied for admission to the university in
the 1960s, I knew nobody. There was no
godfather or godmother. Neither my parents nor
my older siblings could assist me, because they
were all stark illiterates. As the first person in
the entire Akinnaso lineage to ever go to school, I
was virtually on my own. Without any guidance
whatsoever, I applied for direct entry admission to
the University of Ibadan and the University of Ife,
after passing the required General Certificate of
Education (Advanced Level) papers at the end of
my first year of the Higher School Certificate
class. I was admitted by both institutions, each
one acting independently and without recourse to
a superior authority. Ife, then, was a regional
university, while Ibadan was federal. I chose to
go to Ife to read English. The rest is history.
I told my admission story to a senior female civil
servant, who approached me last year for
assistance in getting her daughter admitted to
study law at the Adekunle Ajasin University,
Akungba-Akoko. She listened attentively to my
story and replied: “That was then, sir. The
country has changed. You have to know
somebody who knows somebody in order to get
things done.” I’m sure she did not like my next
statement: “It’s people like you, who beg around,
that caused the country to change”. She was not
done: “No sir, it’s the system”.

There really is plenty of blame to go round, just
as there are many sharers of the blame, including
the students and their parents; the Joint
Admissions and Matriculation Board; the
universities; the Federal Government; and the
society at large. But my focus today is the
government, which is now like that wild elephant,
reported in the media recently, which killed an
admirer who wanted to take a selfie with it.

The Federal Government has been known to be
the enemy of quality tertiary education in this
country. It has earned that status by (1) over-
centralising the institutions, procedures and
regulations governing the activities of the
universities and then starving them of the
resources needed to carry out those activities.
Even where some resources are available, such
as the tertiary education funds, the procedures
for accessing them are again over-centralised.
In a distinguished lecture, titled ‘Education sector
in crisis’, given by Professor Ladipo Adamolekun
at the Joseph Ayo Babaloa University in 2012,
over-centralisation was one of the three major
causes of the crisis in the education sector, the
other two being implementation failure – due
largely to inadequate funding – and the de-
emphasis of the value of education, including
quality decline in the teaching profession.
Adamolekun gave five examples of over-
centralisation, namely, the Universal Basic
Education programme; the establishment and
operations of the unity secondary schools; the
centralisation of the labour unions; the
establishment of the National Universities
Commission with its centralising functions; and
the allocation of the lion’s share of the nation’s
resources to the Federal Government.

Adamolekun rightly traced these developments to
over 30 years of military dictatorship, which
began its stranglehold on the nation’s universities
by federalising erstwhile regional universities.
Today, however, perhaps the most controversial
centralising agency is the Joint Admissions and
Matriculation Board, empowered to conduct the
Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations and
oversee university admission. Enough
controversy was generated recently between the
Director of JAMB, Professor Dibu Ojerinde, and
the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, to send
significant ripples through the university system.
There are three knotty issues. First, who or which
institution should admit students to the
university? It normally should be the Senate of
the university, which often delegates the
authority of processing the necessary papers to
the admissions office located within the
Academic Affairs Unit in the Vice-Chancellor’s
office. That was the case when I was admitted to
the university.
Today, however, JAMB has taken over this
function, while the admission offices of the
various public universities are being used as
clearing houses. After weeks of controversy as to
how this function should be performed, Ojerinde
issued this clarification recently: “The public and
all tertiary institutions should note that admission
will only be approved by the board after
appropriate screening of the candidates by the
Yet, the Education minister still believes that this
does not “in any way affect the statutory role of
the Senate of any university or the academic
boards of any tertiary institution conducting its
admissions.” It would appear that what the
minister understands as the role of the Senate is
reduced to shortlisting. According to him, the
universities will shortlist the candidates, using the
agreed guidelines and return the shortlisted
candidates to JAMB for verification of
compliance to the guidelines. JAMB will
subsequently issue admission letters to the
shortlisted candidates.
The said guidelines appear to be the minister’s
main target and it is the second knotty issue.
According to him, the admission exercise rests on
the tripod of merit, catchment area and
educationally disadvantaged states. The last two
criteria are intended to trump merit so that low-
scoring students from particular localities or
states could be admitted. This is not only an
affront to the Senate’s ability to control
standards in its admission; it also questions the
business of the Federal Government in the
admission of students to state universities. What
should my state government care about admitting
low-scoring students from another state because
that state is educationally disadvantaged? How is
educational disadvantage measured and who
measures it? Wasn’t this kind of admission policy
the killer of the unity secondary schools, where
standards plummeted because many under-
performing students were admitted?
The third and final knotty issue is university
autonomy. The Federal Government and two of
its agencies, namely, JAMB and the National
Universities Commission, have killed whatever is
left of university autonomy. The truth is that it is
JAMB which admits students, while the NUC
regulates everything else from the accreditation
of courses to curriculum guidelines and the
classification of degrees. The Federal
Government completes the process by appointing
Council members and ratifying the appointment
of Vice-Chancellors. Little wonder many a Vice-
Chancellor spends substantial time in Abuja these
To the extent that Nigerian universities are run
like extensions of the ministry of education, to
that extent will they continue to rot away like
that ministry where there is neither institutional
memory nor policy consistency. True, this
problem is not peculiar to the administration of
President Muhammadu Buhari. Nevertheless,
there are genuine concerns that his
administration has yet to have a grasp on

This university admission is the administration’s
second major foray into education. The first, the
school feeding programme, has yet to take off.
With the lacklustre handling of this year’s
admission procedure so far, it is unclear what the
future of education holds in the administration.
Certainly, the present Minister of Education has
yet to begin the bend in his learning curve.