In his Democracy Day address in May 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan declared, “At the tertiary level, it is the policy of this administration that every state will have a federal university.” This vision has been backed up by some action, as his administration has overseen the establishment of nine new federal tertiary institutions since 2011, raising the total number of universities in the country to 124. Each of the nine new universities received an initial allotment of $9.79m. The endeavour had been opposed by the Academic Staff Union of Universities on the grounds that existing universities were underfunded and the establishment of more would spread the education budget too thin. Although this could be of concern going forward, the establishment of new schools shows a renewed commitment to expanding access to tertiary education.

INCREASED DEMAND: However, even with the addition of new universities, it is unlikely the tertiary education system will be able to cope with increasing demand. In 2011, roughly 1.5m students took the University Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), a required examination for all high school students looking to enter university. At present, Nigeria’s university system is only capable of accepting 20-25% of university applicants; it admitted just 200,000 students in the 2008/09 school year, according to the Ministry of Education (MoE). Initial quotas for the nine new universities are just 500 students each, so while the additional universities are a step in the right direction, it is certainly a long road ahead.

PRIVATE STEPS: Of Nigeria’s 124 universities, 34 are private institutions. Private schools typically enrol students from more affluent families and those who have received government scholarships. As in most other countries, tuition and fees at private schools are markedly higher than at public ones, which are jointly funded by the federal and state governments; so, private universities have much more financial freedom to increase their capacity to meet demand.

One example is the expansion of Pan-African University’s Lagos Business School and its School of Media and Communication, which is developing a new $32m campus in Ibeju-Lekki. The campus is scheduled to be complete by 2016, with classes starting as early as 2014, according to vice-chancellor Juan Manuel Elegido. Elegido told OBG that the school’s tuition rates and philanthropic donations provide opportunities that are not yet available at public universities. But Elegido noted significant improvements in public tertiary education, saying, “Public universities have come a long way since the 1990s. The trajectory is definitely going upwards.”

One of the innovations in higher education is the development of distance learning degree programmes offered by public universities, such as the National Open University of Nigeria, which was one of the first universities to offer online distance learning (ODL) programmes. Accredited by the National Universities Commission, ODLs are becoming an increasingly popular method for attaining degrees.

IMPROVING STANDARDS: University accreditation standards are rigorous, but the methodology is sometimes unclear, given its use of a weighted criteria system. Individual programmes must also be approved by the NUC, which conducts a feasibility study to ensure programmes meet appropriate academic standards. Universities denied or stripped of their accreditation may reapply, pending the resolution of the issues that led to the decision. Indeed, the NUC has not been afraid to exercise its authority; in June 2012, it suspended all part-time degree programmes, citing suspicious part-time enrolment figures.

The establishment of the nine new federal universities, as well as the continued flourishing of private universities, bode well for the future of higher education. Growing demand for skilled human resources will keep pressure on both the government and the private sector to cultivate a domestic crop of educated workers to meet the country’s labour needs.