On December 1, the Vice Chancellor of University of Calabr (UNICAL), Prof. Florence Obi, marked three years in office. A team of Journalists spoke with the VC on various issues ranging from her experiences so far, significant achievements and major challenges facing the institution. THE BEAGLE NEWS of Ndifreke BASSEY and Ebi COLLINS were there.
What has been your experience in the last three years?
In the last three years, I have filled me with a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction as well as full of experiences. When I say I feel fulfilled, it is in that I made history as the first female Vice Chancellor of the University of Calabar.
Remember I said during my inauguration that I have a date with history and I am holding this office in trust for the womenfolks. I feel fulfilled because right inside of me I know I have not failed my immediate constituency. But it has also been very challenging. Challenging in the sense that many people did not believe that I was going to become the Vice Chancellor. And even three years down the line, some are still finding it very difficult that I am the Vice Chancellor of the University. Some are still finding it difficult to work with me as the VC.
Some are just out there to criticise for the sake of being seen to be opposing the Vice Chancellor. The fact that I am the first female Vice Chancellor meant that I had to work very hard to convince people that a woman can actually do what the men have been doing for the past 45 years before my emergence. I have been on my feet, working extra hard, using everything humanly possible, time, energy and everything to make sure that we get results for the university. So, it has been quite fulfilling and challenging to me.
How have you been cooing with this issue of alleged extorting of the students?
They will always be some hawks in the system. They are people who are lecturers today by accidents. They are those who worked themselves to being lecturers because they love the profession. They love teaching, mentoring and imparting knowledge to the younger ones. Most of those who cannot find jobs anywhere, as it is today, just feel that it is the university they should run to. The university was the only industry, untill the federal government brought restrictions, where people who do not have business being lecturers walk into the university and become lecturers. Without even knowing the ethics of the profession, they do some unwholesome things in the system. They are still here today.
But what I can say is that we are managing them. They are gradually changing their mindsets, because the majority who understand the university culture, ethics and the fact that it is a centre for academic excellence are also working with me to change the mindsets of the so-called hawks as earlier quoted. So for me, we are all coming together to give our system the very best. Most of those who did not know the university culture thought the Vice Chancellor had brought so many policies that are alien to the system, but gradually,
they have understood that I have introduced no new policy but rather invoked existing regulations that govern academic excellence. Everybody is coming to terms with that reality.
Let me give you an example. Back then, people found it very difficult to teach and bring out results. Some, at the end of two to three years have not marked their scripts. Today, I think everyone is coming to terms with the fact that they have to teach, examine and bring out results within one month. I think many are complying. Right now we just finished exams and so many lecturers have uploaded their results. Gradually, we are getting there.
What should government do to stem gender-based violence?
What government should do to stem gender-based violence is to invoke the laws and make sure the laws are functional. We have laws. I know that our state has formulated some laws. At the national level, we also have laws. What we want is to see these laws working. Let those who go against these laws be punished accordingly. People should sit up. Importantly, let us start talking about gender-based violence. Let us agree that it is an aberration, it is wrong and we all work towards stemming the tide of GBV in our workplaces, church, school. Let us condemn it in entirety the way it ought to be done.
We must also go all out to build the capacity of women to speak out. If they do not speak out and say what is happening in their homes, they will continue to die in silence
and the issues would continue to plague the society. Some of them continue to tolerate it until it eventually gets out of hand. We have several cases.
Women must realise that they just do not have to accept anything because they are women. They must have a voice and having a voice means having a means of livelihood. Hundred per cent dependent on a man is no longer acceptable in today’s world. Women must begin to work towards empowering themselves. In their various endeavours, women need to assert themselves, speak out if they perceive any form of violence against them at work, schools, etc.
How were you able to deal with the issues of accreditation for most of the programmes in the university?
When I said it has been challenging, that was one of the times it was most challenging. We had about six programmes that started without National Universities Commission’s approval. I have said it before that for you to start any programme in a Nigerian university; you need to get NUC approval that you have the manpower and facilities to start the programme. NUC would come for resource verification and approve the programme for the university. We started these programmes without resource verification and NUC knowledge. So students got to year three/four when NUC should have come for accreditation, only for them (NUC) to be invited for resource verification and discovered that the students are going to 300/400 level. And typical of NUC, as embolden by the laws regulating Nigerian universities, they clamped down on UNICAL and directed that all the students return to year one, otherwise their degree would not be recognised.
Today, we have gone past that. All the programmes have gotten NUC approval, and even the last two that were not approved (computer and civil engineering) have gone through all the necessary requirements and the accreditation team for most of those programmes have just visited the university. All the engineering programmes, except one, have passed through all the accreditation criteria and we are only waiting for the result from the accreditation team. Mass Communication just did exit briefing recently, music, fine arts, physiotherapy have all received accreditation teams. We are expectant that we will get positive results from the NUC accreditation teams. Lessons learned are that we must go by the regulations. We should not start programmes without NUC resource verification and approval.
What are those significant achievements your administration has recorded in last three years?
Repositioning the University for Academic Excellence, which is the core role of the institution? We have gone past the stage where students were not reading and thought that paying in cash or kind was the in-thing. There was a time we were known as Uni-Sort. But thank God we have gone past that time. Students now work for the grades they get. That aside, I think our examinations now have a lot of integrity. Our exams now go through all the due processes. Our answer booklets are customised every semester. In the past, we had answer booklets in the hands of business people, where students get them to their houses, clubs and hotels to write examination. Today, it is a thing of the past. It cannot happen in the UNIAL of today. We have also been able to digitalise the result system such that our students can see their results from anywhere in the world at the comfort of their homes with a click of the button.
Back then, it was not there. It was difficult for students to know their results. Some students realised were withdrawn from school after they had finished school already because of such anomalies. Today, our students are mobilised for National Youth Service Corps as at when due. Today, serious students graduate within the given time because they themselves are serious. We have very hard working lecturers, but because the system was in a state of decay, it was business for everybody. Today, it is no longer business as usual. UNICAL is a very serious academic environment and everybody is sitting up. It has returned to its pride of place as a centre for academic excellence. Our quality assurance is superb; our disciplinary committee is there to keep everyone in check. Students now know that if you go against the university’s rules and regulations, you will be punished accordingly. They all know that the certificate we give them is in character and in learning. Both students and staff are sitting up.
We have also improved on the quality of facilities in the university. Teaching and learning equipment have improved significantly. The science disciplines have been well equipped. What we used to have as equipment maintenance centre is now a directorate. Many years ago it was not functional, but today, it is topnotch, going from department to department running workshops on equipment maintenance; all thanks to TETFund. Outside having equipment, we have also built the capacity of staff on the use and maintenance of these pieces of equipment.
We have also improved on classroom facilities for our students. Then it used to take us from six to eight weeks to conduct exams because of shortage of venues. Today, the last exams we had took us just three weeks because we have surplus classroom spaces in the school. We have pulled down ramshackle structures and replaced them with befitting buildings and pavilions.
Do not forget that our university started in a secondary school setting. And we are intentional in improving the facilities. At the main campus, we still have so many structures that were used by the secondary school students. We are carrying refurbishing interventions on some of those buildings, one of which is the old audit building, now housing agric and education Technology. Since it was built by the colonial masters, it became so dilapidated. Today, it is one of the beautiful structures on campus.
Yes, we had a structural defect with our library. But we have moved on. We are having 39 programmes on accreditation. The fact that we do not have a physical central library has not affected us in any way because we were proactive enough to immediately set up faculty libraries and concentrated on our electronic library. And that has helped us a lot. Our electronic library is of international standard. Our students can access educational materials anywhere in the world through their cell phones. We have digitalised almost all the books we had in our physical library. We have done a lot.
Today, we have very good road network, with beautiful solar-powered street lights. We are also working very hard to complete some of the abandoned projects. And more importantly, we are working with our students and grooming a new generation of students that can compete favourably anywhere in the world. Our entrepreneurial centre has also been repositioned to equip students with various entrepreneurial skills. With our students learning a lot of skills, I am sure that by the time they graduate from the university, they will be able to set up their own businesses.
We also bided for the National Universities Games (NUGA) and won the hosting right. So we are working round the clock to upgrade our facilities to host NUGA 2026. A lot has happened to UNICAL. Today, we have UNICAL Radio on the airwaves, we have revamped the medical centre, our Mass Communication building just came on board and it is second to none. It is one of the best, and we are going to very soon, have one of the best Television Stations there.
TETFund has already funded us and we have ordered for the equipment which will arrive soon. We have built the first workshop for our engineering. The second one is coming up shortly. We have also built the faculty of law, completed micro-teaching laboratory to groom teachers with the necessary skills for contemporary teaching. We are looking for funds to furnish it. Once it is done, our students would be good to go. I am glad that we are doing well.
Do you think universities can be self-sustaining given FG’s idea for full autonomy?
Yes, we have gotten autonomy many years back. People say autonomy and full autonomy, but universities are autonomous. We are governed by our governing councils. The governing councils make laws for us and they are our employers. Federal Government is not our employer, governing council is. So we got this autonomy long ago when governing councils started appointing Vice Chancellors. Before then, when governing councils started doing interviews, they send the list to Federal Government to pick one person. But now, the Vice Chancellor is announced by the governing council. It is that autonomy act that gave governing councils such powers. So, we are autonomous, but this autonomy is not financial autonomy. We do not have financial autonomy because we are still being paid by and get support from the Federal Government.
TETFund still supports us with a lot, so that is why we cannot be said to have financial autonomy. Federal government has said it will grant us autonomy, but that autonomy cannot without telling us that university education is not free. So long as university education remains tuition-free, there cannot be financial autonomy. Tuition-free education means that students do not pay tuition. Federal government also does not give universities appropriate funding. We are not properly funded to be able to run the university.
So, we resorted to charging students some service charges like examination, medical, ICt levies, etc. These subheads, cumulatively, are what we use to run the university. Federal Government gives us overhead of 12 million naira monthly. It is grossly inadequate. That is what is used to pay for the university’s energy bills in a month. The hue and cry was against government’s 40% remittance of internally generated revenue. And I am happy that good counsel prevailed at the end of the day and President Bola Tinubu intervened and rescinded that directive. There is no way that universities could have been paying 40% to government. It would have been the end of public university education in Nigeria. But we are glad that Mr. President intervened. So inadequate funding has made public universities resort to extra charges to aid the day-to-day running of the institution.
Culled: the beagle