The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Abuja, Professor Abdul- Rasheed Na’Allah, who clocked a year in office on July 1, spoke on the journey so far and his effort to transform the university. The University of Abuja is reputed as having a national outlook, how have you been able to sustain that culture in the last year?
This is a national university and the only public university in the capital of Nigeria, that gives one many responsibilities. It was set up to be truly national. All other universities, like ABU, Ibadan, Lagos and others, are actually regional because they have catchment areas that they admit from. Even though they take a few from other parts of Nigeria, by their regulations, they are regional. UniAbuja is the only university that is mandated to admit from all parts of Nigeria; it is compulsory because of its national outlook. Even the staff have to be representational of the nation. That also means that it is a university that by destiny carries the national outlook that anybody that comes to Nigeria to see our president can easily walk into our university. In the last one year, that is my understanding of my responsibility. The history of our university, the turbulent years, the up and down of issues are things most Nigerians know. I don’t need to start listing them. In fact, my ears suffered a bombardment the moment I was appointed vice-chancellor. There was a lot I did not know I must confess. When I came in I heard so much and discovered so much, but that is about yesterday; this is a new dawn for the university that we are determined to be the leader in the Nigerian university system. I am so grateful to God almighty. Starting from TETFund, it is God’s saving strategy for the Nigerian university system, God put it there and put credible leaders in the organisation, and thanks to NUC and the Executive Secretary and staff who have identified with the University of Abuja and for telling the university ‘we are behind you because we must achieve the objectives’. Thanks to our students and staff who have since my coming here, one year ago, totally supported us. For every journey it’s either you do it alone or collectively, and what we are doing here is a collective job.
There is the belief that COVID-19 has come to stay. What are your plans? We are not just planning, we are executing and implementing. As I speak now, many of our students are already learning online. We have created a University of Abuja virtual classroom system in which many courses are being taught online. But for the strike by the academic staff, all our staff would have migrated 100 per cent online. Obviously, this has been part of the 21st-century university system; that you must have an electronic complement of what you’re doing. So we started thinking and developing the system as soon as the COVID-19 came about. We knew we must move very fast, so we set up the University of Abuja virtual classroom committee to develop this using in-house talents, students and staff, and within a short time we developed it. The strategy we’re using is to say, if you’re not a full-time member of the university, you are an agent, in which case you’re not a member of ASUU, you have to teach online. Because we know the strike was ongoing and even if you’re a full-time staff and think you want to teach, you do that. So foreign languages are being taught now, like Japanese and some other courses in different departments. Our goal, therefore, is that as soon as ASUU calls off its strike we’re ready to migrate totally – that’s if we still have COVID-19. As you said, COVID-19 has come to stay in terms of the impact it has on human beings generally. In Nigeria in particular, we’re still slow on the process but the university really has to be moving and spearheading research, delivering courses, and helping Nigerians to resolve some of the problems of the impact of COVID-19. We must be leading and that’s what we’re doing. We had the COVID-19 committee. We rolled out a lot of regulations; you cannot come into the university without a face mask, we’re putting sanitisers everywhere, we’re insisting on social distancing. We‘re also, as I said, earlier, created the University of Abuja virtual classroom system through which courses are delivered. Are we expecting any breakthrough in research from UniAbuja? Yes, definitely we are going to have a major centre in the university on infectious disease and right now, we have already challenged our students to begin to think and strategise on how to confront and resolve COVID-19 for humanity. As Nigerians, what is unique to us include our ways of life and characteristic. A drug that works in the US, might possibly work here but may not be 100 per cent effective because of our uniqueness. One of the things we have to do as Nigerians and as Africans is to take our uniqueness into consideration. We’re also looking at setting up a centre for traditional medicine because there are lots to learn from different aspects of our culture in which natural medicine will be available to those of us doing western, and they too will influence the delivery system into traditional medicine not only to confront COVID-19 but all the various medical issues we deal with in Nigeria. Why is it that most Nigerians run abroad when they are sick, ordinary people cannot do that. There is what we call medical tourism now which many Nigerians are doing though we have many teaching hospitals and tertiary institutions that can do research. One of our goals as a university is to be one of the leading medical research centres in the country. We want to train our people not just to take MBBS but to prepare to be medical researchers of the future for Nigeria. We are thinking of an MBBS PhD programme in which when you finish the MBBS you will continue and learn sophisticated research strategy. It is not going to be too many but few researchers that will be the nucleus toward helping us resolve some of these challenges we have in the nation. Again, working to become number one in Nigeria in this kind of medical research is what we must be doing. As one goes round the University, one can see that there are many abandoned projects. What are you doing to address this challenge? If you go round the campus today, you will see a lot of projects that are ongoing. We want to end the culture of abandoned projects on our university campus. You will hear me showing improvement to TETFUND and NUC. We have an understanding that the University of Abuja is a unique university, because it is the national university and that all stakeholders must work with us to resolve the problem of abandoned projects. Yes, one year is a lot of time, but if you go round you will see our vision is very clear, there’s no ambiguity and every goodwill that we need, we are getting from TETFUND, NUC, the Presidency, Minister of Education and everybody that matter because they all understand the position that this university must hold. We have not finished completing all the abandoned projects but we’re in the process and we’re looking ahead with hope. I’ll give you an example, CBN came to this university and decided that it was going to have 6 or 7 projects for us, and they started – a medical student hostel, faculty of science building, faculty of law, postgraduate school – but they abandoned all the buildings. When you go round, you’ll see some of the abandoned projects belong to CBN. So is it because they don’t have money to do it, or are there other issues? We found out there are issues, we have pushed and I’m telling you that the CBN has now put in place aggressive strategy to complete them. We’re in contact with them and have agreed that January 2021 is the completion deadline. If they finish these, by the time you come here it will be a totally different story. So these are part of the strategies not to have abandoned projects; making sure that each project is completed. The ones that are currently in place, like the building here, are renovated and to ensure that we create a tradition in which this university will be beautiful and present us respectably, and the students will love to stay around throughout the day and night because they enjoy their campus. We want to turn things around and we’re working very hard. With your appointment, people said it would no longer be business as usual. They said already some lecturers have been sacked. How has that posture helped the university? It is already moving the university forward. The truth is that those academic staff (professors that were expelled from this university or sacked) were caught with one infringement or the other – sexual harassment, some other manipulations – and we are saying no, this is a university of integrity. This is a university of culture. We’re dealing with young people’s lives, you’re moulding life. Every certificate we give is about learning and character, we cannot afford to have a university where people will collect money from students, where you come here to do your programme that is one or two years but you spend 10 or 11, where lecturers will not come to the classroom until maybe one week before the examination and begin to teach, where sexual harassment is at the peak, either you give your body or you give money, where students cannot even be sure of what grade they obtain. I can go on and on. Those are some of the experiences of our past. The actions you have raised are actions to say no, it is not business as usual and I’m telling you all of us are mobilised. This university, today, is not the same as those things you heard in the past. Students are working exceptionally hard, sexual harassment has been minimised to a large extent. If we hear any story we follow it to the end. People teach, people go through their classrooms and teach and we monitor all of it. I personally go round quite often to know what is happening in the classrooms around the faculties. We have an online system in which a student can report sexual harassment. When they report it comes straight to me and action is taken instantly. What I’m trying to say is that we put our mouth/pockets where our heart is; we’re not just saying this for talking sake. We’re determined to make those changes and because of that our standard is improving dramatically. The quality of the degree of the universities in Nigeria is capable of competing with any degree anywhere and that is the goal. What are you doing to change the narrative of extending the duration of postgraduate programmes? These are things that will never happen again. We are now saying the postgraduate programme for Masters is one year. If you must spend more than that to do your thesis and finish your writing within the stipulated one year, you will come back and be given more time to do so. We are now saying that for every student there must be a committee of three that are doing supervision and people should be able to change supervisors very easily; it shouldn’t be a very big deal. If I can’t work with you for a certain reason or you are not ready, then you should change. That is the reason we initiated the process of changing the supervisor. The goal is for postgraduate studies to be delivered within the stipulated time; it means that there has to be clear demarcation between part-time and full-time programmes. One of the problems we discovered in this university is that some people apply for part-time but they admit them into full-time and they end up spreading out. Admission pressure in this university is growing. How do you cope with the thousands of candidates struggling for the few spaces available and, some months back, admission was said to have been suspended by JAMB, why? What happened was that because we’re in the nations capital, you have everybody thinking they can walk into the university and say admit my child. People from the National Assembly, people from agencies, people from ministries, from embassies, everybody. But we do have the mandate to admit from all over Nigeria, and to do that you have to follow the laid down criteria; you have to be strict in implementing the criteria. What we did this year was to make sure we eliminated it completely – 100% OR by at least 99%. We made sure students came in here for post JAMB. We get their results, we looked at all the parts of the nation. Even parts of Nigeria that do not typically get admission into this university this year, got admission. I will say that every state of this country got admission from this university this year. We were not able to do that in the past. And we made sure there is no money changing hands; we ensured that students could not just come and lobby; and as people were coming and putting pressure, we checked that too. It cannot be eliminated totally because every university in the world also has its criteria. There was no time that JAMB really stopped admission, what happened is that there were discussions we were having because they called my attention to certain things and I myself asked my committee to stop until we resolved everything and we did that amicably. So at the end of the day, we had one of the best relationships with JAMB. Some of the radical decisions you took on assumption of office, such as the sack of professors and rusticating students, are untouchable areas in some institutions. What gave you the courage to delve into that, especially as your appointment was also trailed by criticism and petitions? First, my intentions were very clear, which is to develop a university that the whole of Nigeria can be proud of. I have no ulterior motive other than to get the best system in place. It is either you do it or you don’t. You either have a university where discipline is number one, a world-class university that is making an impact in all progressive areas, a university where all staff work and respect their obligations, where character and learning have true meaning, or you are out. As somebody who is experienced, a higher education institution administrator, when I came here it was very clear to me that I needed to get to work immediately; that there was no time to waste. So I made sure that I mobilised the whole campus. I discussed regularly with staff and students. I energised and re-strategised, letting them know where I was going and the staff were participating. Did you face any threate while taking your decisions? I don’t look at that; I have to get things done. If you begin to look at threats then you are a coward and you cannot get up when you fall. I just look at my intention, integrity is number one for me, honesty is at that number, clarity of purpose is actually at that same level and when all these things are there I go all the way. The truth is that we are so horrible as Nigerians that even what we do, we will be finding ways to blackmail ourselves out of it, it is so unfortunate. You are caught red-handed and you will still be giving reasons why what they saw was something different. So if you are going to allow those things to keep you down, you will never go anywhere. We expected some protest and demonstrations, what happened? We kept talking to everybody and showing why we did what we did. Communication is number one in this university. Within the last one week I have communicated many times to the whole campus, and already this morning. There is a law on sexual harassment passed by the National Assembly. I have sent it to every student and staff. I let people know what should be, in this university of the 21st century. With the internet, if you don’t send out information, by the time you get up people must have left you behind. The law passed by the NASS, was it a surprise to you vis-a-vis the decisions you have taken? We knew that NASS might actually come up with a law especially given the fact that there is a lot of publicity on sexual harassment, but we were already far because it is difficult to see any discussion I have in my campus without talking about sexual harassment, without telling students to come forward that we will protect them. It was on my second day here that I initiated the process and said let’s go all the way. My point is that yes, we are very far ahead but it is good to have some kind of backing. We are not going to wait for NASS whether or not they pass the law, we are not going to be deterred as a university and every university should not wait for it but must move forward. Parents send these young people to us so that we can help them, you don’t destroy people’s lives. Rape is total destruction of a person’s life; that person will never be the same again throughout her life. If she thinks about what she has become and the torture she went through and she just remembers her university was a part of it, that is very bad. Universities should be known for the great things they have done in their students’ lives. Yes, we see the law passed by the NASS as a kind of backing and supporting what we do. Sir, amid the COVID-19, report has it that UniAbuja has increased fees. If yes, don’t you think the burden will be too much on parents? One of the things I believe is, whether you are rich or from a poor background, you should have access to the best education. It is not acceptable that some people will go to the classroom and there is nothing to teach them. Some will go to classrooms and there are no consumables to do research. What we did was to say look we have a place where some people loot state money for students and claim that it is about critical expenses which never happened. Some collect money from students in the name of handout and some will claim it’s for consumables. The first thing we did was to stop that and we invited them, department by department to find out what they claimed they were charging students for and we now listed them. On what some people called increment of fees, what we did was to first and foremost ban all the fees that were collected by every department which were not accounted for and say no more. We now picked those that are genuine and say if they can defend them before the council, we will approve them. Some were N10,000, some N5,000, some N3,000. These were what we established, and if you have to buy any consumable you have to apply for it centrally. We have intelligence to make sure it is purchased and implemented. That is what we are doing and that is exactly what has happened. How far have you gone on the issue of accreditation? It is incredible; virtually every programme in this university, with the exception of one or two, is accredited. We recently had a visit by NUC to 15 programmes and about 10 got full accreditation and four got interim accreditation. Our difficulty is in one which we out that there were found matters we needed to look at. We are ready to go. Things are really turning out great and this university has been turned around. The narratives of the past are nothing but the narratives of the past; a new life is in this university. Our mission in this university is to develop a world-class university. University of Abuja is going to be a university that every Nigerian will be proud of, not just for the structures we are going to have but creating a university that works and where students love to come back to, where industries love to collaborate with, where agencies of government and people in the non-governmental sector will love to collaborate and work with for the achievement of their different objectives.