The Africa Centres of Excellence (ACEs) are beacon lights to the Nigerian University System (NUS) that should be in their hundreds, not tens, for the country to grow its economy and take its proper place in the comity of nations. This was the submission of the Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission (NUC), Professor Abubakar Rasheed, while fielding questions from the Excellence team of Adebukola Olatunji and Yvonne Orekyeh, recently.
Professor Rasheed, who also chairs the ACE National Project Performance Review Committee (NPPRC) said “We welcome the ACEs because they are beacons of light and have potentials, but looking at the Nigerian population, the number of universities and the number of existing research centres, we need Centres of Excellence in their hundreds, if we must make the desired impact in the long run.”
According to him, “out of the 50 most innovative economies in the world, three are in Africa (Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa) and they are not so because of oil or any natural resource, but because they invested heavily and wisely in education, particularly in research and development. We must do the same so that Nigeria can move from a natural resource-based economy to a knowledge-based and innovative economy.”
The Executive Secretary urged each of the big universities to aim at having no less than 10 Centres of Excellence. NUC, on its part, will explore the possibility of engaging governments, indigenous entrepreneurs and all its strategic partners to duplicate these centres in various universities, whether public or private, across the country.
While expressing hope that Nigeria gets 10 more Centres as planned under ACE III and also some additional funds to support some of the existing centres, the Executive Secretary disclosed that one or two of the new Centres would focus on pedagogy in higher education, because a new approach to pedagogy in higher education would produce more professionally and better trained facilitators for the NUS.
Professor Rasheed noted that Nigerian universities have had research centres for the past 50 years and many of them are doing well. For example, Bayero University, Kano (BUK), where he served as Vice Chancellor, before he was appointed Executive Secretary, NUC, has more than a dozen of such centres in Biotechnology Research, Advanced Medical Research, Infectious Diseases, Gender Studies and Renewable Energy Research, among others. However, the focus and implementation of the ACE Project, he said, make it a model to emulate.
With support from the World Bank, the ACE Project focuses on postgraduate training and applied research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Health and Agriculture. Programmes in these thematic areas must seek to address local, national and regional challenges. The release of funds are also tied to results or Disbursement Linked Indicators (DLIs), where the Centres have to show the milestones that they have attained to earn more funds. Such milestones include the number of students enrolled for Masters, PhDs and short courses, the number of regional and female students, transparent accounting procedures, among others. The regular grants also enable the Centres to purchase state-of-the-art equipment for research and capacity building of their personnel.
As Vice Chancellor of BUK, when it won one of the 10 ACEs in Nigeria (Centre for Dryland Agriculture) and now Executive Secretary, NUC, which oversees the Project in Nigeria, Professor Rasheed was asked to rate the overall performance of the Project and its impact. He said, “Yes, I was the VC in BUK when we assembled a team of researchers to develop the proposal. The Committee included scholars from other universities and research institutions in Nigeria, Egypt and Isreal. We had the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Sasakawa Africa Association, etc. That in itself was an achievement. I told the team that even if we did not win, it was a worthwhile exercise and a great achievement.
“What marks this Project out is that the partnership with the World Bank has made it very successful. The Centres have received technical advice, finance and help with the management of that finance. A good lesson that we have learnt from this Project is to better understand our own problems and brainstorm on the possible roads to take and not to take in solving these problems.
“One of the important benefits of the ACEs is the gradual re-internalisation of Nigerian universities. Of course, those of us, who were in the Nigerian Universities in the 60s and 70s know that our universities were international. I had classmates from different countries within Africa and beyond. Many students and lecturers were international. But for some two to three decades, we lost that.
“The ACEs are helping to re-invent the NUS and market it across Africa because a true university, all over the world is an international gathering of intellectuals. A university is not a local or tribal gathering. It should be able to promote the culture of tolerance, welcome and accommodate people who speak different languages, dress differently and practice different religions.
“Nigerian ACEs have welcomed students from about 10 countries in West Africa and plan to receive more from Central and East Africa since one of the aims of the Project is to bring together African scholars and researchers to train Africans in Africa, in order to boost their capacity and retain them. By promoting communities of researchers and scholars, they will live together in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.”
“The NUS is likely to have greater visibility in the continent and be able to enrol more foreign students. This is a pleasant development and we hope to see better results. We agree that expectations are too many, but we should not expect a revolution. These Centres are catalysts. We are happy with the impact they are making and will continue to make in the coming years.”
On his findings during his tour of all the 10 Centres in the country, Professor Rasheed said the visit had helped to better understand the challenges of the ACEs. “They are doing very well, but some are better than others. In terms of performance relating to strategic goals and how they align with the university community and immediate environment, they all seem to be well-conceived and working on areas with huge impact on their immediate and wider community.
“Each Centre has registered some improvement after the visits and we hope to revisit them to gain a better understanding of what they are doing, share their challenges and frustrations as well as bring their stakeholders together to discuss the Centres’ sustainability plans, beyond World Bank funding. We interacted with the Centres, their Faculty and students. We also held discussions with the management of the universities. We are happy that some of the observations made are being addressed.”
The NPPRC Chair also recalled that “NUC dispatched some teams of credible Professors to visit the Centres last year and at the end of the day we accredited more than 90 percent of the courses that they are running at the masters and the PhD levels across all the universities.”
While declaring open the ACE Regional Workshop that was held in Lagos last May, the Honourable Minister of State for Education, Prof. Anthony Anwukah, had stated that the Federal Government was considering adopting the ACE Project’s DLIs method of project implementation. The Executive Secretary was asked if this was possible and how it could be done. He said, “if funds will be made available for the projects, it is possible. But it is not realisable if funds are not there. NUC will commission a study/research into the governance style and project implementation of the ACEs and come up with a policy brief, which would be discussed with the universities. It is not every element of success that is tied to finance. Some of it is attitudinal. NUS may set up a Committee to visit all the ACEs to study their operations and develop a blueprint/proposal for the coordination of research in Nigerian universities.”
The Project was scheduled to wind down at the end of the year, but recently got a one-year extension. Professor Rasheed was asked what the sustainability plans were for the Centres beyond the World Bank support and he said: “This was a point I emphasised when I visited the Centres. I sat down with the Vice Chancellors, Centre Leaders and other stakeholders in each university to remind them that this Project, these Centre do not belong to the World Bank. Each of them belongs to the community of that university and for the benefit of the immediate and wider communities. They must own the Project. So we got the universities’ consent to share the concept, the goals and the aspirations of the Project. We have agreed that each and every university will take over 100 percent of the personnel cost of their Centre.
“For us in Nigeria this is the most critical element in the sustainability plan. If you can ensure that the salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff of the Centres are paid by the University, you have built in a serious parameter in the sustainability plan. Next is to ensure that all the Centres in public universities are properly captured in their Universities’ capital and recurrent budgets, at least from the beginning of 2019. Private universities also have to make such provisions.
“The Universities should take advantage of the fact that the core staff of the Centres are being exposed to international best practices, especially in grants proposal writing. So part of the Universities’ budgets should be used to secure additional grants by funding proposals to various grants awarding organisations around the world. They are everywhere in Africa, United Kingdom and the United States. Some of them are already doing that, successfully. In all honesty, if any of these Centres, after three to four years of World Bank support cannot apply for and win some additional grants, whether big or small, from local and international organisations, I don’t think we will consider them successful.”
On the NPPRC’s plan for the ACEs in the coming year, the Chairman said he hoped to visit all the Centres again soon. We are closely monitoring them. There has been an increase in disbursement to the ACEs. Most them are fully consolidated, all programmes have fully taken off. From the NPPRC perspective, we hope to see more activities during the year. We hope to be able to review the operational plans and achievements and will continue to work together to achieve more results. We need to hold a workshop with the ACEs on possible sources of funding, depending on their focal areas. If all options are explored, there is no reason why they cannot sustain themselves.
Concluding with a message to the Centres, Professor Rasheed said, “They should consider themselves lucky to be part of the elitist group of Centres of Excellence in Africa that are benefitting for this grant and do everything possible to sustain the life, vibrancy and vitality of the Centres, by deploying skills acquired in trainings and conferences. They should focus on national and regional integration by building strong networks through staff and student exchange. They should also continue to collaborate with others within their Universities.
“The future is bright. Of course, there may be some little problems of transition from a fully-funded Centre to a partially-funded one by their Universities, but if the staff will muster their courage and intellect, they can get more grants for their Centres and sustain themselves. We have also warned them to be realistic and not too ambitious. There is no point in a Centre starting 40 PhD programmes at the same time. How do you want to sustain them?”