Professor Oye Ibidapo-Obe, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos and Federal University Ndufu Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State, speaks with TOFARATI IGE about the educational sector and other issues.
Do you think Nigeria learnt lessons from the Ebola virus outbreak that can help us deal with coronavirus?
I would say we did but this is a totally different type of infectious disease. With Ebola and Lassa fever, which are spread by animals, we could do something about it by cleaning and disinfecting our homes. But coronavirus is a disease we are yet to fully understand. We just know that it kills and it has claimed a lot of lives. We don’t know when it is going to end and that is the main challenge.
For the government, I think they have done the best they can. A lockdown is the best thing to do for now but not the optimum because people cannot stay home without food. Quite a lot of people in developing countries such as Nigeria would rather die fighting than die at home with nothing to eat. I think a better way is to get everybody to wear masks, use sanitisers and keep social distance as much as possible, while going about their day to day activities in search of food.
People in other countries have turned to academics and scientists for vaccines and ways to deal with the pandemic but that seems not to be happening in Nigeria. Why do you think that is so?
I think people (in academia) are working. In terms of getting vaccines, people are working in the universities. At the Institute of Virology, they are working. On the other hand, people are also working hard to nip the transmission of the disease in the bud. As we speak, a group is developing models on the optimal way to cure the disease. Within the University of Lagos and the University of Ibadan, groups are working to combat the disease. Prof Wale Tomori, a top virologist, is also working. I’m also certain that the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control is trying to figure this out. The results may not be ready yet but that does not mean they are not working. We need to encourage more of these people to come out with vaccines. I understand that research is currently ongoing on how chloroquine can be used against this disease. I believe that very soon, we would ‘break the back’ of the disease.
There have been lots of donations from wealthy Nigerians to the government to fight this pandemic in the past week. Some people feel those monies could have been used to equip research and health facilities before this time. What’s your take on that?
That is correct. A lot of money should be devoted to quality research.
However, the donors are worried about the effect the pandemic could have on the country and have done something good. It now depends on government, especially the Ministry of Science and Technology to get some of this money to the people who are doing serious work within the academia. And if they don’t find, they could place advertisements for people to bring ideas. I believe a proportion of the money should be dedicated to research. It is quite a substantial amount of money and we should thank the donors.
As an academic, what are some of the changes you would like to see, going forward, in terms of dealing with pandemics?
One of the things I have been concerned about is the level of sanitation in society. There is a need to improve on that.
Another issue is the ability to anticipate some of these problems. This has taken us by surprise and when things happen like that, it means the level of our research has been very poor and we need to heighten it.
As a professor of systems engineering, what would you say is the place of systems engineering in nation building?
Systems engineering allows us to develop models which we can use to better understand problems.
What were some of your highlights in office as the VC of the Federal University Ndufu Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State?
While I was there, I had the opportunity to create policies because it was a new university. The institution seems to run well, even though I left the place four years ago, because the policies are from ground-up. At the time of setting up the university, the Federal Government fulfilled their promise. Of course, there were some things that happened then that we did not anticipate such as the expansion into other areas of learning that we thought was very unnecessary at that time. The idea was to complement what was available in state universities at the time. But then, that is the nature of human beings. Over all, it was a worthwhile experience for me. I was able to know people and work with them harmoniously.
Please expatiate on some of the areas of expansion you mentioned.
When the university started, it was meant to focus on Arts and Science. Because of the peculiar nature of Ebonyi State at that time, we felt we should also offer Medicine (and subsequently, Engineering) so that it could bring succour to the people of the state. We weren’t going to offer courses such as Education and Agriculture, which we felt the Ebonyi State University was capable of handling. That expansion had its price because as of that time, all payments within the university system were done on a single ‘envelope’. So, if we overshot the ‘envelope’, it would bust and there would be problems of paying salaries and things like that. So, we were very careful to make sure we followed our master plan.
It is widely believed that Nigerian universities do more of theory than practical when it comes to teaching science. What do you feel about that?
That has always been the problem. I remember when I was the VC of UNILAG, I took special interest in ensuring that the people we trained to be secondary school teachers were properly educated. We established secondary school-level laboratories in the faculty of education. We made sure that they used the same type of laboratories as those doing pure science. That way, we believed we prepared them for what they were going to meet on the field. When they started doing Physics, Chemistry and Biology without practical, I knew there was trouble, and that was when the emergency started. You cannot do those courses without practical. In our days, even if you had an ‘A’ in theory and ‘F’ in practical, you would fail the course. That shows that practical is essential. The government should have made sure that the laboratories were well equipped. In our time (as students) we had ‘nature study’ and ‘hygiene’ corners. And that was one of the ways we were made to better understand science. Unfortunately, I don’t think those things exist anymore.
Having headed two federal universities, what do you think are the factors militating against the growth of the country’s educational system?
I would like to see the population of some of these universities regulated. During the tenure of Prof Peter Okebukola as the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, he tried to ensure that the facilities on the ground in universities matched the number of students in the schools. What is the point of having students in the university, yet they don’t have any one-on-one interaction with lecturers? That is not knowledge-sharing. They should have just done online courses then.
What are some of the factors that you think should be considered before setting up a university anywhere?
The resources must be available. The students to be admitted into universities are not in short supply. And resources don’t mean money alone; there is also the issue of training. Most teachers are not properly trained. There must be quality assurance in anything that comes out of our universities and lecturers must also be paid handsomely.
How did you feel about the BBC report, last year, in which a UNILAG lecturer was alleged to have solicited sex from an admission seeker?
I know the place called the ‘cold room’ and it is a thoroughfare; not an enclosure. It is difficult to believe that such a thing could happen in the ‘cold room’.
Also, I felt the journalist should have discussed the matter with the university authorities before going public, so that it could be factual and certain doubts could be cleared. I am not saying things like that don’t happen but that particular incident should have been researched more.
But the lecturer in question was shown on camera saying that the ‘cold room’ is used for such nefarious activities.
I never met that lecturer. But I think the university did what they were supposed to do. The lecturer was suspended while investigations were being carried out.
What is your reaction to people seeing the University of Lagos as a ‘cash and carry’ institution where admission is for sale to the highest bidder?
I ran the university for seven years and I can tell you that during that period, we established standard. Not a single person could tell me that they had to pay for admission. The cut-off marks are published and anyone that meets the criteria comes in. The only problem was that there were some courses where we didn’t have enough people, so candidates are then requested to decide whether or not they want to go for those programmes. That was where chaos came in and a few things could happen that was beyond the knowledge of the management. I believe the University of Lagos is the centre of excellence and we just have to support the people who are there now to do a good job. They also have to be vigilant because there are people who could be taking advantage of the system.
You graduated with a first class. Were you a bookworm while in school?
I take my work very seriously but I was not a bookworm. As a student, I was a member of the students’ parliament. However, I had a system and I always told students this during matriculation. Every day, after classes, I always revised the lectures and I used the library regularly to ensure that I understood what I was taught and internalised it.
What are the things you enjoyed as a student that are no longer available?
A lot of things have changed. Even with scholarships, we paid fees and because we paid, we were fed. We got meal tickets and we got good food. The catering officers were dedicated and I cannot forget some of them, such as a certain Mrs Otedola. They encouraged us and behaved like mothers. The teachers were good and well respected. If we admit the population of students we can adequately take care of, things will actually go back to how they were.
You once mentioned that none of your children is interested in becoming a professor. Why do you think that is?
Incidentally, some of them have shown interest in doing that now. My daughter has a PhD. My other daughter is a specialist in Medicine. I also have a son who is doing extremely well in the petroleum industry. And another one is in transportation.
Is any of them a lecturer?
No, but they are researchers.
How do you relax?
I socialise a lot. I watch football, play table tennis and belong to a few clubs.
What is your favourite football club?
I think Liverpool is doing well.
How did you meet your wife?
I met her at a small party.
What qualities attracted you to her?
It was love at first sight. I felt she was a good wife material and my prediction has turned out to be correct.School closed? Get access to Complete Secondary School Education (JSS1-SS3) CLICK HERE!
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