By Farooq A. Kperogi
If you are a university graduate who has been socialized to disdain polytechnics as inferior higher education institutions, think about this: Albert Einstein, the world’s most renowned physicist and one of the most influential thinkers of all time, graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic (now called the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich) in 1900 with a diploma in mathematics and physics.
Unlike in Nigeria, his diploma wasn’t a handicap to his pursuit of advanced degrees. He studied for and earned his Ph.D. in experimental physics from the University of Zurich, five years after his diploma.
If a polytechnic produced one of the world’s greatest thinkers, why are polytechnics so low on the totem pole of post-secondary education in Nigeria? Why do we reserve ice-cold derision for polytechnic qualifications?
Well, the answer lies in the different philosophies that informed the establishment of polytechnics in different countries. In the United States, as I pointed out last week, “polytechnic universities” and “institutes of technology” are, and have always been, similar in rank and structure to conventional universities. So they don’t have the reputational baggage that our polytechnics have.
But the UK tradition of polytechnic education, which we inherited in Nigeria, intended for polytechnics to be no more than intermediate technical and vocational schools to train technologists and lowbrow, middle-level manpower. So their mandate limited them to offer sub-degree courses in engineering and applied sciences.
In time, however, they ventured into the humanities and the social sciences and then sought to be equated with universities. This request was grudgingly granted only after the British government set up the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA)—composed wholly of people from the universities—to examine and validate the quality of polytechnic qualifications.
However, in spite of this elaborate institutional quality control (which had no equivalent for universities) the higher national diploma (HND) was treated as only the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree “without honors.”
In university administration lingo, only a “pass” degree—the lowest possible rank in British degree classification—is considered a degree “without honors.” This means that first-class, upper-second-class, lower-second-class and third-class degrees have “honors” and that the HND is only equivalent to a “pass” degree.
That’s why, traditionally, British universities did not—and still do not— admit HND graduates to master’s degree programs (even if they had a distinction in their diploma) without first requiring them to undergo a one-year remedial postgraduate diploma program—just like people with “pass” degrees must undergo a remedial program before being admitted to master’s degree programs.
This invidious discrimination against polytechnic graduates and manifestly preferential treatment of university graduates, often called the “Binary Divide” in UK higher education parlance, predictably gave rise to pervasive feelings of deep and bitter anger and ill-will in the system.
So in 1992, under the Further and Higher Education Act, the “binary divide” was abolished and all the 35 polytechnics in the UK were elevated to universities and given powers to award bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees. There are no more polytechnics in the UK.
Most other countries with British-style binary divides also eliminated the distinction between polytechnics and universities to varying degrees. In Australia, polytechnics were elevated to “universities of technology” in the 1990s. Hong Kong, a former British colony like Nigeria, upgraded its two polytechnics—The Hong Kong Polytechnic and the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong—to universities in 1994 and 1995 respectively.
New Zealand also merged all its polytechnics with existing universities and allowed only one—Auckland University of Technology (formerly the Auckland Institute of Technology)—to transmute to a full-fledged university in the 1990s. Greece abolished its polytechnics and upgraded them to universities in 2001. In South Africa, from 2004, polytechnics were either merged with universities or upgraded to “universities of technologies” although with limited rights and privileges.
In Germany, polytechnics can now, in addition to diplomas, award bachelor’s and master’s degrees in technical and vocational subjects (and in some humanities and social science courses such as communication studies, business and management, etc) but cannot award PhDs.
In Sierra Leone, where polytechnic education began only in 2001, the country’s three polytechnics award bachelor’s degrees in a limited number of courses, in addition to awarding diplomas and certificates. Even Kenya has started upgrading its polytechnics to universities from this year.
What the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Hong Kong, Greece, etc achieved in the 1990s and 2000s— that is, the abolition of the often unfair parity esteem between polytechnic and university qualifications—had been achieved in Albert Einstein’s polytechnic in 1909, five years after he got his diploma there. It was, like most other polytechnics in Switzerland, elevated to a full-fledged university, although it is still fondly called “Poly” by its students, staff, and alumni.
Now, only a shrinking pool of countries retains the binary divide between polytechnics and universities, viz. Nigeria, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Ghana, and Malaysia. We have no business being in this lonely company.
So this is my recommendation: The HND should be abolished. However, the OND should be retained to supply the nation’s middle-level manpower needs and to serve as a foundational qualification for entry into bachelor’s degree programs. Smaller polytechnics should be merged with contiguous universities and be given the power to award OND and bachelor’s degrees. Big, resource-rich polytechnics like Yaba Tech and Kaduna Polytechnic should be intellectually upgraded and then converted to full-fledged universities.
Having taught mass communication on a part-time basis at the Kaduna Polytechnic 10 years ago, I frankly think that the distinction between polytechnic and university curricula, at least in the humanities and the social sciences, is like the distinction between six and half a dozen. In other words, it’s a distinction without a difference.
It’s time to bridge our own binary divide.