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A Comparison of Nigerian and American University Teachers (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. This was first published on January 25, 2014 in my Weekly Trust column I think it’s appropriate to begin ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This was first published on January 25, 2014 in my Weekly Trust column

I think it’s appropriate to begin this piece by admitting that a comparison of Nigerian and American university teachers is necessarily imperfect. For one, America is the world’s most prosperous country. Although Nigeria is an oil-rich country, its wealth pales in comparison with America’s.  For another, unlike Nigeria, America does not have federal universities; it only has private and state universities. For yet another, unlike Nigerian universities that are characterized by a mind-numbingly mechanical uniformity, American universities have vastly different character, traditions, and conventions.

Nonetheless, a contrast of the university traditions of both countries isn’t entirely misplaced, not least because Nigeria consciously mimics American universities and because Nigerian university lecturers like to invoke what they say obtains in countries like America to justify their demands for better remuneration.

So let’s start with a bird’s eye view of American universities. In America, all university teachers understand that their jobs entail a commitment to research, teaching and service. Research intensive universities (called R1 universities) place more emphasis on research than they do on teaching while liberal arts colleges and comprehensive state universities (called teaching-heavy universities) place more emphasis on teaching than on research. 

Many universities try to strike a happy balance between teaching and research. But all universities expect service commitments from all teachers. This includes serving on departmental committees, reviewing articles for journals/conferences, advising and mentoring students, supervising theses and dissertations, serving on thesis/dissertation committees, etc. No one gets –or expects to get—any monetary reward for service responsibilities. That’s why it’s called “service.”

In research-intensive universities, teachers either publish or perish. Their productivity, and thus desirability, is measured mostly—but by no means only— by the number and quality of their journal articles or books. Teaching-heavy universities, on the other hand, don’t expect their teachers to publish; they judge teachers on the effectiveness of their teaching, which is valuated by a combination of student evaluations and peer observations. Teachers in research-heavy universities don’t teach many courses because they need time for their research. Teaching universities, on the other hand, impose heavy teaching responsibilities on their teachers.

Nigerian universities, for the most part, have no clear demarcation between research and teaching universities.  Every university aspires to the same ill-defined goals. A University of Ibadan teacher is expected to have the same aspirations as a teacher at the newest university in town. And that’s where the problem lies. 

A Nigerian university teacher once told me that the “excess workload allowance” that Nigerian university lecturers demand from the government is justified because lecturers in countries such as the United States don’t teach as many students in a single course as Nigerian university teachers do. “Can a lecturer teach 300 students in a course without a graduate assistant in the US?” he asked.

I said “yes.” He was shocked. But the truth is that in teaching-heavy state universities in America, one teacher can teach as many as 300 or more students in a single survey class. Of course, such a teacher will have no access to a graduate assistant because, well, many teaching-heavy universities don’t have graduate schools; they have only undergraduate programs. And in community colleges and some state universities, a teacher can teach as many as five or six courses per semester. And they don’t get any “excess workload allowance” for that, except that they are not expected to publish scholarly research to move up the academic ladder.

In any case, here in America, most people teach because they love the job, not because they want to be affluent. University teaching isn’t the cushy, financially rewarding job that many people think it is. It can guarantee a middle-class lifestyle, but it isn’t on par with the salaries of politicians and business people. (I will say more on this in the coming weeks.)

Anyway, to get back to the point about heavy teaching load, it isn’t  at all true that high student –teacher ratio is a Nigerian university peculiarity, although I must admit that, in general, American university teachers teach far fewer students in a class than their Nigerian counterparts. But the high student-teacher ratio in Nigeria seems to me to be partly self-inflicted since many university teachers usually actively participate in the admission process.  University teachers administer “post-UME tests” and recommend students for admission. Of course, not every Nigerian university teacher does this, but many do.  So the question is: why do teachers admit more students than they have the capacity to teach and then turn around and ask for “excess workload allowance”? In America, university teachers don’t participate in undergraduate admissions in any direct way. 

Whatever it is, it seems clear to me that part of the reasons for the turmoil in the Nigerian university system is that universities haven’t clearly articulated their missions. University teachers want to—or are expected to— simultaneously be teachers and researchers but many end up being neither.  

 Universities that define their missions as centers of excellence in undergraduate teaching should not expect their teachers to publish to the same degree that research universities should. And teachers in teaching-heavy universities shouldn’t complain—and certainly shouldn’t expect to be paid “excess workload allowances”—if they have a heavy teaching load since they are not expected to publish.

I certainly don’t want to be misconstrued as begrudging my colleagues in Nigeria for their pay raises and sundry allowances. On the contrary, I think it’s a good thing that Nigerian university teachers now earn decent wages. However, the improved living conditions of university teachers should come with more responsibility and accountability. As I write this piece, there is no formal mechanism to evaluate the pedagogical effectiveness of Nigerian university teachers. 

To be continued

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