By Christopher John Akor
A thousand apologies to Professor Louis J. Munoz for using the title of his book, The Past in the Present: Towards a Rehabilitation of Tradition (Spectrum Books Ibadan, 2007) for this rejoinder. Munoz’s book title summarized by position after reading Levi Obijiofor’s , Living in the Present, Dying of the Past, which appeared in the Guardian (Friday, May 15, 2009). The piece was an attempt to demonstrate, using the educational sector as an example, how economic and other conditions in Nigeria have been in constant decline for the past 30 years. In doing that however, he chose to employ the old and now boring approach of ‘university bashing’ and the ‘my days were better’ approach.
Happily, most of these ‘old schools’ are leaving the scene and one would have expected the practice to stop. But alas, people like Obijiofor and so many others who represent the second or is it third generation of university graduates have decided to take over from the ‘old schools.’ I guess it would not be long before those who graduated in the 1990’s and early 2000’s (the worst period of university education in Nigeria) join in this practice which is fast becoming a favourite past time of many people, since in Nigeria, the past is always assumed to be better than the present.
Obijiofor attended the University of Lagos in the late 70’s and early 80’s and described life in the university then, quiet modestly as he claimed, as ‘golden’. But he may be surprised the ‘old schools’ may not agree with him. For most of them, the glory days of the universities were already lost by the time Obijiofor passed through the system. He explained that very good food was sold to them at a very cheap price of 50 kobo on Sundays. He needs to be reminded however that in the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, meals were free. In fact, our old professors used to regal us with the story of how they went on rampage when the school authorities reduced the size of the chicken they gave to each student on Sunday by half. What was more, Obijiofor conceded that in his days, some lecture halls were actually “filled to excess capacity with students sitting on the floor and others standing outside the lecture halls…”Though he did not mention how many they were in a room or the living condition in the hostels, I would assume they were not too comfortable and the practice of squatting would be prevalent in his days in UNILAG.
By the standards of the ‘old schools’, this can never be ‘golden’ as Obijiofor want us to believe. It was an obvious sign of decline of the system. In the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, there was nothing like congestions in classrooms. Accommodation was one per room. They also enjoyed laundry and room–cleaning services and had porters at their beck and call – all for free. Enough of the ‘old schools’ and their ‘glory years’.
I also think, going by Obijiofor’s descriptions, and quite unlike the ‘university bashers’, that the present university system, at least the one I attended (University of Ibadan from 2004 – 2008), is far better than that of the past (at least of the 80’s and 90’s). Let us make comparisons. In the past, there was the problem of student population explosion and the consequent strain on facilities. Then, two man rooms were occupied by an upwards of 10 students. Also because of the constant strikes and dispute between government and ASUU, students take longer time to graduate. What was more, facilities were in total decay no thanks to the neglect of the system by the military. But these could not be said of the University of Ibadan today. Student population explosion has been controlled by a deliberate policy of not admitting more than 3,500 students each year.
Classes are never congested and to add to our comfort, most of the classes are fitted with air conditioners, plush seats and white marker boards. Even, many lectures are now delivered with projectors. I can not remember seeing any lecturer carrying chalks about. The hostels are also well maintained so that it is now even more convenient to live in hostels than rent a room outside. In UI today, there are one-man, two-man, three-man and at most, four-man rooms. Squatting is an illegal offence that may lead to rustication. This cannot be said of Obijiofor’s days.
Talking about food, UI also offers good food at cheap prices, say for N100. In fact, in my days, you could eat with N40 or N50: three wraps of fufu goes for N30 with N10 or N20 fish or meat. As for the luxury of ice cream and coffee, we have since learnt to do without that.
More importantly, we had one of the best concentration of teaching staff with some departments boasting of an upwards of 15 professors. We were well thought and except for people like Obijiofor, I do not know what a hand-out means because we were given none, and in most cases, not even class notes. The lecturer ‘lectures’ and it is our business to read up what was taught and make further researches. I count it a great privilege to be taught by great academics like Professors A.A.B. Agbaje, Eghosa Osaghae, Alex Gboyega, Fred Onyeoziri, John Ayoade, Rotimi Suberu, O.B.C. Nwolise, Bayo Okanade, and countless others who were clearly the very best in their fields. How could one accuse these lecturers of giving us hand-outs? Class lectures were not all. We had a rich tradition of organising seminars, debates, colloquia, public lectures, symposia, etc where we meet and interact with great minds both within and outside the country. How would Obijiofor claim we did not receive good education?
Admitted that access to new books and current journals are now limited. But in UI, there can be no shortage of relevant materials to consult. To solve the problem, faculties, departments, units, institutes now have their own libraries and these, I must confess, are well stocked and attract students and scholars from all over the country and beyond. Beyond that however, we had something Obijiofor never had in his days – computers and internet technology which has revolutionalised learning so that from the comfort of one’s room, one could access virtually any information he/she requires. I give example. When my project supervisor and I agreed on a topic to write on, I had thought it would be difficult to come by relevant materials since it is a field (police research) that most Nigeria academics spurn. However, thanks to the internet and several online journals, I had difficulty sorting through the mass of research materials I gathered.
Finally, modern day students face far greater challenges, manage far greater information and are expected to learn far greater things than students of previous generation. For instance, during Obijiofor’s day, it was the GPA system of grading that was in use. Then a student could afford to play for the most part of his/her years in school and get serious at the later stage and still make a First Class. Now with the CGPA system, this is impossible. A slip even in one’s first semester in year one can end one’s ambition of graduating with a First Class no matter how serious he/she later becomes. What is more, a check on the curricula and course outlines in use during Obijiofor’s days would make one laugh at the sheer shallowness of the contents. So instead of proving to us that his days were better, Obijiofor could well channel his energies towards looking for solutions to country’s educational problems.
Mr. Akor is a youth corps member, serving in Igbinedion University, Okada.