When Larry Jones-Esan, director of studies at the London Academy for Higher Education, Stratford, London in his keynote address at the convocation ceremony of the University of Ado-Ekiti in 2007 disclosed that no Nigerian university featured in the top 5,000 according to the World Universities ranking, it came as a rude shock.
More shocking to his audience was the fact that even in Africa, no Nigerian University featured in the top 40. The highest ranked university at the time was the Obafemi Awolowo University, which was 44th in Africa and 5,834th in the world.
What was however more worrisome was the fact that universities in some African countries, which are far less endowed than Nigeria in terms of resources, were rated ahead of Nigerian universities. Though the ranking of Nigerian universities is much better today, still they are rated behind universities in countries like Ghana, Uganda, Kenya among others.
The statistics is a contrast to the 70s when Nigerian schools attracted the best brains from Europe and the USA. This was the time the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan was ranked among the best five in the Commonwealth.
How did Nigerian institutions become so bad in a few decades? Jones-Esan said the decadence of the Nigerian universities is as a result of over reliance on government funding.
The height of decadence being the era of the military rule of between 1984 and 1999 wherein up to 40 percent of the country’s budget was devoted to security. The budget for education dwindled and a lot of things went wrong including the calibre of graduates produced from these schools.
And indeed, when one looks at the barrage of problems confronting tertiary education in Nigeria, they are mainly traceable to poor funding. Of all the problems, infrastructure inadequacy ranks very highly and one of the major reasons which triggered a five month long strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities. Though the government and the academic union have since reached a compromise, it is yet to be seen how this agreement will impact on public tertiary institutions nationwide.
Basic components of an ivory tower worth its salt, such as well-stocked libraries and well equipped laboratories have continuously dropped on the priority list of most Nigerian universities in the face of inadequate funds to keep services running.
The role libraries play in an academic environment cannot be over-emphasised. Libraries lie in the heart of outstanding academic pursuits for both students and lecturers. When libraries are not updated with recent information derivable from recent books, the quality of learning and teaching is compromised.
The truth is that students and lecturers in most Nigerian universities survive on obsolete information sourced from books procured decades ago. In such situations, the class notes of students remain largely the same across several years following lack of information updates.
Very many university libraries are indeed in appalling states. The way out of the problems facing Nigerian universities according to Jones-Esan is public-private partnership.
The MTN Foundation, the corporate social investment vehicle of MTN Nigeria seems to be thinking along the same line, with the initiation of a project it tags UniversitiesConnect, wherein the Foundation, under the auspice of its education portfolio, is providing digital libraries for public tertiary institutions across Nigeria. MTN Foundation is already quietly making big strides in this regard. The Education portfolio, by the way is the department of MTN Foundation which is saddled with the responsibility of improving the learning and teaching conditions of schools-from primary to tertiary- across the country.
The Foundation apparently opted for digital libraries because that is where the world is now headed. Libraries have evolved over time with technology. In the beginning, manuscripts of people’s writings and teachings were preserved for future use. With the advent of printing press, it became a lot easier to preserve the knowledge in the form of printed documents.
But now, traditional libraries containing a large number of printed documents are being transformed to paperless libraries, with capacity for limitless volume of information contained in digitised format. These libraries are not only digitised but have also been networked.
This is what is called virtual libraries. Virtual libraries are libraries without walls through which the user has access to information anytime, anywhere in the world by using Internet-enabled computers.
This is what the MTN Foundation’s digital library project in each university is about. It provides unlimited access to materials published for courses such as Law, Architecture and Medicine to Arts, and Engineering. The virtual libraries are currently in four universities, namely University of Lagos, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; University of Nigeria, Nsukka; and the University of Benin.
Each virtual library consists of 128 networked computers, three servers, two high capacity printers, one sound-proof 100KVA generator, VSAT equipment and internet connectivity with a 2-year subscription. The Foundation also pays the subscription fee for electronic resources such as e-books, journals, magazines etc, covering all subjects.
The UniversitiesConnect libraries are connected to 5,000 electronic libraries across the world, thus providing near endless stream of resources such as journals, books, reports and so on for users.
The Foundation has also made available in these libraries a software by the name JAWS with which blind and visually impaired students are able to access resources they need.
JAWS an acronym for Job Access With Speech is a computer screen reader programme that allows blind and visually impaired users to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or by a Refreshable Braille display. With this software included, the blind students are able to match the academic pace of their counterparts in other climes.
Hamzat Ahmadu, the chairman of MTN Foundation, recounts that UniversitiesConnect project was conceived for the purpose of advancing education and arming the youth with the requisite skills they need to excel in the ever dynamic world.