By Dr. M.S. Abubakar
I would like to congratulate Farooq Kperogi for his brilliant two-part essay on the Degree/HND dichotomy which appeared in the 19th and 26th December issues of the Weekly Trust.
By a fortunate coincidence, the illuminating expose is coming at a time the federal government is set to implement the Roadmap for the Education Sector which contains many excellent provisions to address the daunting challenges of the polytechnics and technical/vocational education generally.
The account of Mr. Kperogi’s American experience is most refreshing, especially for those of us associated with polytechnic education, even if it only confirms what many polytechnic lecturers have known all along, or were actually privileged to partake in the course of their careers.
The purpose of this write-up is mainly to thank the author for his incisive views which I share almost completely, and which I believe will be most enlightening to the general public, especially in view of the general low esteem accorded to technological education and the poor awareness of the international dimensions of technical/vocational institutions.
There are, however, a few areas where I entertain some reservations. The first is whether the writer’s suggestion for wholesale conversion of polytechnics to universities, as UK and a few other Commonwealth countries did, is indeed necessary or even desirable.
The second pertains to the feasibility of ‘consolidating’ the polytechnics with the contiguous universities. Now, the author did not use the word ‘consolidating’, which had come to assume some notoriety since the former Minister Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili, used the term for merging the Federal Polytechnics and Colleges of Education, with neighbouring universities, in her proposed ‘reform’.
But let me at the onset fully express my support for the columnist’s recommendation for the retention of the National Diploma (ND), to serve as foundational qualification into the bachelor’s degree, which is very much consistent with the views expressed at various times by the NBTE and the Council of Heads of Polytechnics and Technological Colleges in Nigeria (COHEADS).
The broad definition of polytechnic is an institution that teaches both academic and vocational subjects, with focus on applied education for work, and root concentrated on engineering and applied science. In the Nigerian context, polytechnics are post secondary institutions designed to produce career-ready graduates who combine practical competence with theoretical understanding.
They work closely with industry to enhance professional effectiveness and productivity. Nigerian polytechnics achieve this within the limits of enabling material resources and human capital.
Advocates of conversion or merger to universities tend to underestimate the difficulty of retaining the essence and character of polytechnics under the tutelage of universities. There will always be focal drift towards popular bookish studies in line with our penchant for easy paper qualification. Consequently, when polytechnics, or similar institutions like the South African technikons, are converted or merged with universities there is a backlash in the form of skill gaps. UK had of recent been experiencing skills gap, to the tune of 84% in some professional areas, necessitating a variety of intervention measures to increase workforce competence through intensification of National Vocational Qualifications and Apprenticeship training.
In Nigeria, there is quite often a tendency to speak of conversion or merger of polytechnics to universities without adequate attention to the differences between our educational system and that of other Commonwealth countries that have done so. In the first place, the UK polytechnics began to run degree programmes up to doctoral level, albeit under the supervision of CNAA, as far back as 1965. Thus by 1992 when they were converted to universities, as Mr. Kperogi observed, they had been running degree programmes for 27 years.
In South Africa, the technikons began offering degree programmes up to the doctoral level, following the 1993 Technikon Act. Their merger with universities came in January, 2005. But it should be noted that South African Higher Education Merger initiative was informed by the need to address gross social and educational imbalances, some dating back to the Apartheid era.
The South African Higher Education Mergers had been on for five years now and hardly anyone judges them as a great success. In fact, according to a comprehensive study by South African Technology Network, authored by Roy Du Pre, the merger initiative scored a very low grade. A major finding of the study is “that the transition of technikons to Universities of Technology presents many challenges… The development trajectory of the University of Technology sector was severely hampered by the advent of mergers in higher education.”
This reminds me of a visit to South Africa, late in 2004, when the mergers were about to come into effect. Speaking with one of the professors at Port Elizabeth Technikon, which was about to be merged with University of Port Elizabeth, to become Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, our Study Tour team asked him what he was expecting from the mergers, and his Socratic answer was, “ had there been any successful (school) mergers in history?” I am afraid none of us could venture any satisfactory response!
The Nigerian Polytechnic sector had over the last three decades developed a quality assurance system that is unequalled in the country. While the sector had languished for so long from the ‘parity of esteem’ that Mr. Kperogi described, it is necessary to note that considerable progress has been made lately towards resolving the inequities. The recent approval of CONTISS 15 for Chief Lecturers and Principal Officers of the Federal Polytechnics and Federal Colleges of Education is a landmark achievement of the Yar’adua administration, for which the Hon. Minister of Education should feel justifiably proud.
Similarly, the effort to eliminate the HND/Degree dichotomy has reached an advanced stage, just awaiting formalization by the National Council on Establishment. And to cap it all, there had been, as far back as 2007, a Presidential directive for the Award of Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech) by polytechnics in their core competence fields. This directive has been fully integrated in the Roadmap for Education Sector approved by the National Council on Education and Federal Executive Council, since May, 2009. It may be deduced from the fore-going that the question of conversion or merger for polytechnics is now largely outdated.
Indeed, even from the perspective of quality assurance, there is a major difference between the ways university and polytechnic academic programmes are accredited. Furthermore, in some localities the polytechnics are far larger and better equipped than the neighbouring universities, and a merger would be a case of the tail wagging the dog.
The move to degree awarding status by Nigeria Polytechnics has taken a very long time. Things started to take shape with the Yabani Committee of 1998. The Committee was to look into the modalities for mounting degree programmes in selected Polytechnics and Colleges of Education.
After very exhaustive consultations within the sector and references to numerous documents, the Committee recommended, among others, that: Nigerian Polytechnics and Colleges of Education, with requisite human and instructional resources, be mandated to run degree programmes in their special areas of expertise, but the degree should be distinct in content to reflect their practical and professional nature. Moreover, the institutions should have autonomous status for awarding the degree and should continue to run their traditional programmes.
It is curious that no more was heard about this matter, after the submission of the Committee report in March 1999. It therefore came as a delightful surprise when President Umar Musa Yar’adua directed in 2007 that necessary arrangement be made for polytechnics to start awarding their degrees in their fields of core competence. This directive, which has since been integrated in the Roadmap for Education Sector, is to expand access to tertiary education by increasing the institutional base, and finally bring to an end to the perpetual HND/Degree dichotomy.
This unique presidential directive to enhance access and equity in education is an eloquent testimony to Mr. President’s keen interest in the development of skilled and competent workforce, which had been quite evident from the university he established, and from the unprecedented moral and material support he extended to his State Polytechnic as Governor of Katsina State.
I hope that these brief notes have provided a little elaboration to the excellent article of Mr. Farooq Kperogi, and would convince many a sceptic that Nigerian polytechnics need not be converted to universities or merged with contiguous universities to be able to award degrees in their fields of core competence.
I would also appeal to the National Assembly to amend the relevant educational laws so that Polytechnics and Colleges of Education with requisite human and material resources can start awarding their degrees as autonomous institutions.
Dr. M. S. Abubakar wrote from Liman Chiroma Close, Kaduna, Nigeria, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org