World Education Market 2002: <br> Ready to blossom at a distance

May 17, 2002

Nigerians want to quench their thirst for study and distance education may do just that. Tunde Fatunde reports

Nigeria's first attempt at establishing an open university - in 1983 during the second civilian republic under the leadership of Shehu Shagari - came to nothing when the regime fell in a military coup.

"Several military administrations never bothered to reopen this project because education was not their priority," Alex Kadiri, a senator and a former official of the National University Commission, said. "We are therefore several years behind other nations."

The project has now been revived by the civilian regime of Olusegun Obasanjo. Efforts to resuscitate the project accelerated when Gajaraj Dhanarajan, president and chief executive of the Commonwealth of Learning, visited Nigeria to finalise how the agency would help.

The Nigerian authorities were eager to get the project off the ground as quickly as possible. Nigeria had experienced problems with the satellite campuses of existing universities, which were all closed last year.

Ade Borishade, federal minister of education, said: "This new alternative would replace the less desirable brand of distance learning programmes through satellite campuses reputed for poor training facilities, mindless exploitation of unsuspecting candidates, profit-making and bastardisation of tertiary knowledge.

"Existing higher education infrastructures have not been able to cope with the demand as shown by the fact that our traditional universities are able to absorb only about 20 per cent of candidates who sit the university entrance examination."

Mr Borishade said that Nigerians thirsty for higher education had been denied the opportunity to study because of occupational, environmental and family circumstances.

"Full-time studies and timetable constraints are neither feasible nor suitable for such people. For them, learning must occur at a time and place of their choice and in a manner that suits their circumstances. This can be achieved only through distance learning."

Immediate steps included the appointment of Olubgenro Jegede as coordinator of the NOU. Professor Jegede has previously worked in open-university centres in Hong Kong and Australia.

"Open and distance learning accomplishes a number of goals, including access and equity in educational opportunities; meeting the special needs of workplace training; internationalisation of tertiary education curricula; and ameliorating the effect of the brain drain on tertiary institutions," he said.

A $4.8 million (£3.3 million) contract has been signed by the federal ministry of education and Rank Xerox to build a digital book factory in Abuja. It will produce cheap instructional materials for the scheme.

The Education Tax Fund, through which national and foreign companies make financial contributions, has made available a grant of 200 million naira (£1.2 million) for the NOU. The federal government has sent a take-off grant of 4.9 billion naira to the National Assembly for approval, and there are indications that legislators may soon approve 3 billion naira for the project.

More than 125 experts from Nigeria's universities have just completed a one-month induction course with facilitators from the CoL, during which participants wrote 183 courses, and adapted 253 others in 54 programmes for a launch scheduled for September.

Programmes and courses are tailored to suit Nigeria's growing service sector, in which many self-employed and young unemployed graduates are eager to improve their knowledge and skills.

Professor Jegede said: "Distance learning could accept the entry qualifications of and adopt the admission process of conventional universities. We may also admit candidates who lackbasic qualifications and provide them with the impetus to meet the standard. It is a flexible system."

Undergraduate programmes are likely to be three years, while postgraduate and diploma programmes add a further two years.

Professor Jegede said he expected that in future, the NOU would offer science-based programmes with laboratory experiments carried out in existing colleges and universities. But he did not say how students would be supervised online.

Students from the closed satellite campuses are already sending in requests for admission to the NOU.

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