BY IBRAHIM SHEME
We read, with dismay, some unfounded half-truths and innuendos peddled by possibly an aggrieved commentator who seemed altruistic on the surface, especially with the recognition that the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) is in the good hands of Prof. Olufemi Peters, the Vice-Chancellor whom he described as “a square peg in a square hole” and someone who “has a sterling track record in academics and administration”. That was what one Abdulmojeed Adio did in his piece titled “National Open University: How Not to Attract Good Teachers” (The Guardian, February 1, 2022).
However, the writer conveyed a mixed bag of half-truths, and mis-representation of some issues in the university. This is not surprising since he was probably fed with incomplete information about the real challenges a large institution like the NOUN faces in its daily and dynamic operational activities.
First, in giving the history of the university and the Federal Government’s good intention for establishing it, he claimed that the institution has “less stringent entry requirements”. The truth, as everyone who seeks admission into the university knows, is that we will not and cannot admit any candidate without the requisite requirements of five credits, two of which must be in Mathematics and English Language. NOUN is diligent on this set requirements of the National Universities Commission (NUC).
Second, the writer highlighted a need for the university to recruit “thousands of lecturers than it can employ full-time” due to the sheer size of its student population – the largest in West Africa. Desirable as this is, this is not the concept upon which open universities all over the world are based. NOUN is a university that does not have or need many “lecturers” because it operates an Open and Distance Learning (ODL) mode of imparting education which minimises physical engagement between tutors and students. As such, there is no need for the sort of teacher-student ratio which would require the need for the type of mass recruitment of teachers that the writer has proposed. As a matter of fact, the university has core academic staff in all the disciplines it offers. It also has what we call academic facilitators, who are mainly drawn from sister universities and are engaged to facilitate learning of our students that are domiciled all over the world. As could also be expected, the core of our academic staff take part in an array of academic activities such as content development in both print and electronic media, facilitation, assessments and examinations, in addition to the noble services of academic research and community service.
Now, where Adio’s piece further veered off the mark is to insinuate some notions about the university’s relationship with its academic staff, both internal and external, that is, facilitators. His principal claim is that the retention of good teachers at NOUN is being threatened by lack of a motivation. However, nothing can be further from the truth. He cited three stories to illustrate his argument, all of which were not supported by verifiable facts.
In the first story, he said NOUN “has more full-time members of staff supposedly ‘studying abroad’ than it has on the ground at the university”. This of course cannot be true. NOUN, like every other university in its growing stage, sponsors academic staff to further their education both within and outside the country. Quite a number of these are also sponsored by the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). While some have completed their studies and returned, others have overstayed due to some challenges. This is a normal occurrence in most universities. What is paramount to note is that NOUN applies the conditions for granting study leave to each staff strictly on merit. Even so, no university (including NOUN) can have even up to 1% of its academic staff on study leave abroad or anywhere else, as the writer claims.
Therefore, even his narrative that a huge number of academic staff sponsored by NOUN “have been away for more than five years, yet consistently draw monthly salaries from the institution” is very far from the truth. The fact is that only a handful of NOUN staff are currently studying in overseas universities. A few of them who were affected by the disruptions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic have secured extensions from the university authority to complete their studies before returning to the institution.
Another incorrect story Adio pushed out was that the university employed academic staff and refused to pay them. According to him, NOUN “lately employed lecturers to fill some vacant seats across departments” but denied them their salaries since January 2021 (his version of “lately”). The last recruitment exercise of academic staff by the university was in 2020. And anyone so employed has been captured in the IPPIS system and has continued to be paid salaries on a monthly basis since then. The Federal Government, which pays all its university workers, does not owe a single NOUN staff any salaries as everyone is paid uniformly without discrimination.
Now, the third story on which Adio seems to put so much premium is the alleged non-payment of allowances to the university’s facilitators. Like the others, this allegation is not true. First, there is no ‘Directorate of Academics’ in the university as he stated in his piece. The case is that the university has a mechanism for vetting claims of facilitators for work done on behalf of the university whether physical in time past, and more recently for virtual facilitation. The claims, once vetted, have always and will always be settled by the university. Verification mechanisms may take a long time, due to the size and spread of our facilitators, but the facilitators are paid their dues. The online training that he cited as one whose participants were not paid for was organised in order to equip the facilitators, both internal and external, with the latest online facilitation skills – an integral attribute for imparting distance learning. All the participants in that exercise were paid their allowances in good time, contrary to Adio’s allegation.
Clearly, Adio’s campaign maybe a calculated attempt to impugn the image of the university and the unflagging reputation for excellence that it has built over time. Since becoming Vice-Chancellor a year ago, Professor Olufemi Peters has made the training and welfare of staff as a cornerstone of his tenure, and has maintained a firm grip on all issues in the university. No doubt, Adio could have verified some of the information his informants fed him with simply by contacting the university before rushing to the press. The university is nevertheless grateful for his piece as it has further enabled the university to air some basic administrative processes it daily undertakes to ensure quality in all its processes.
Sheme is the Director, Media and Publicity, National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN)