Reopening: What Happens to Private Universities’ Final Year Students?

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The Nigerian Government’s decision to reopen schools for students in exit classes and allow the country to participate in this year’s West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) is a welcome development.  It is also heartening to know that the ministry of education has finally come up with a comprehensive schedule for other national examinations. Of course, some people might say the ministry’s response was rather too late; it is better late than never. Some of us are simply excited that at long last, we are getting some clear signals from the managers of our country’s education sector. No doubt, past government’s contradictory pronouncements caused a lot of confusion among students and stakeholders alike.

Now, the education sector no longer appears rudderless. Besides, lots of burdens must have been taken off many people, especially schoolchildren, who, unfortunately, have become the greatest victims of the uncertainty that characterised the sector for the almost five months that schools have been shut over the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this stage, it is important for the education ministry to leverage on the progress it has made by henceforth driving activities in the sector holistically. Having settled the issue of students in exit classes, it is high time it started the conversation on the mode of assessing pupils in the other classes for promotion to their next classes. At least, by now it should be inconceivable that schools will reopen for other students this year going by the growing cases of COVID-19 across the country. It’s obvious that government underestimated the problem at the initial stage and this accounted for its message to schools not to commence the 3rd term.  With hindsight, we know that schools should just have been allowed to start their third term. Of course, the challenges would still have been there, but many of them would have been resolved.

I am aware that Oyo State government is using students’ continuous assessment tests to grade and promote them to the next class. The state has also officially cancelled the third term and released a time table for the 2020/2021 academic session. Just this Wednesday too, Lagos State said it was considering using the same method to promote its pupils. I think other state governments should make a pronouncement on the method they intend to use in promoting students to their next classes. This is likely to help many parents and guardians to take informed decisions.  Many of them have withdrawn their children and wards from the e-learning platforms of their schools with the hope that these children would still have a second chance of doing the third term in school. If they know early that there won’t be a third term, they can make alternative arrangements for the children to cover their learning gap.  Some could decide to enrol them in online classes, get them private teachers or ensure that they connect to the free learning platforms being provided by government.  That way, these children will gain something instead of missing a whole school term.

It is also surprising that the government has yet to speak about the resumption of classes for final year students in private higher institutions. Shouldn’t the Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajuiba, have talked about a phased resumption of classes in private universities too? Strangely, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 seems also to have completely forgotten final year students in these institutions. Let’s hope this is not a case of the government being carried away by the ongoing strike by members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, and inadvertently thinking that the whole university system has been paralysed. 

Otherwise, final year students of private institutions should also be taken into consideration in the government’s resumption schedule. Agreed, many of these students are on e-learning platforms, the complete efficiency of these platforms have been in doubt. There are problems of poor connectivity, huge data consumption and poor power supply among others. Some students have even said that their schools deliver lecture notes via Whatsapp. Such students will definitely benefit from classroom experience if they are allowed to go back to school under strict observance of COVID-19 protocols.

There are also students that need to make use of laboratories, workshops, clinics and other facilities that can only be accessed on campus due to the nature of their courses. Take for example, medical, engineering, and science students-these students do a lot of practical that online platforms may not be able to offer. E-platforms have their own limitations and their levels of delivery are dependent on what is programmed into them. I mean, how much of help can an ordinary Whatsapp platform offer. But then in Nigeria, it is also seen as an e-learning platform. Again, there are students that still require the input of their supervisors in their final year thesis. Allowing such students to return to school will help them. The government may now advise schools that could effectively use online platforms to prepare their students for graduation to go ahead and do so as a way of controlling the crowd on many campuses.

While I do not support situations that make students spend five years for a four-year course in our public universities due to different forms of strikes, such elongation is at government’s expense because the schools are more or less tuition-free. That is not the case in private institutions. Many parents are making enormous sacrifices to keep their children there.  Some of them would have probably preferred to put their children in tuition-free public universities but for the stiff competition for space that has made getting admission there a case of the survival of the fittest.  So, government will be doing these parents a great disservice if after making a huge sacrifice to keep their children in these institutions, the industrial dispute between it and ASUU would still elongate the years these children spend in school. 

Fortunately, private schools are not as crowded as the public institutions. They also have basic amenities and infrastructures that are lacking in many government-owned tertiary institutions. One can indeed confidently say that they are more capable of observing the COVID-19 Guidelines protocols that their colleagues in public universities due to their functional system and safe environment.

In terms of discipline, many of these universities enforce discipline more than public institutions. In most cases, their staff members and students live on campus. So, the risk of infection is minimised. In essence, the point being made is that these students are fewer in number, could be easily instructed, are more disciplined, live on campus, and do not have to take public transport to school. 

From all indication, private universities are better equipped to comply with safety procedures that have been put in place by the PTF. We should also remember that the students we are referring to here are in their final year. They are older than the pupils sitting the WASSCE and thus expected to behave responsibly.

Beyond this, these students need to exit their classes before the new students can be admitted. The Federal Government should not forget that these institutions have commenced admission for the 2020/2021 academic session already. Besides, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board has concluded the admission process for this academic year and looking forward to administering the 2021/2022 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME). We can’t afford any form of vacuum. These are issues that should be diligently examined with a view to taking a workable decision.

Government should go beyond being sentimental. It should begin to put the whole education sector into perspective. We cannot afford to pile up admission seekers in a country that does not have enough capacity to absorb students willing to go for tertiary education. Every year, less than a quarter of the candidates seeking university education get admitted. Of course, many factors determine who gets university admission in Nigeria, but the fact remains that many candidates that would have loved to be in universities don’t get there at the end of the day. And sadly, these candidates are far more than the few that are privileged to gain admission.

Finally, considering the fact that there are state universities that do not have problem with being paid through the contentious IPPIS, I think the government should ask every institution whose students are in the second semester of their final year to return to school. Those in solidarity with ASUU can decide not to obey government’s directive, but at least, the ones that are ready to work will have the opportunity to do so.

Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the editor-in-chief, Franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: bisideji@yahoo.co.uk

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