Vice-chancellors in Nigeria have agreed to set up a quality-assurance system in a bid to drive up standards and boost the Nigerian university sector's global standing.
At a workshop organised by the country's National Universities Commission (NUC) in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, late last month, the vice-chancellors agreed to introduce a national system of institutional accreditation, in addition to the 20-year-old system of accrediting individual courses.
The delegates, who received a presentation on the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings, set a target for Nigeria to have at least two institutions among the top 200 universities in the world rankings by 2020 - the so-called 2/200/2020 vision.
Opening the two-day event, Sam Egwu, Nigeria's Minister of Education, said: "The emergence of high-quality Nigerian universities will enhance the possibility of (their) being ranked among the best in the world."
He said that he wanted to see "a robust system that will leave no stone unturned" and would examine every facet of universities to drive up standards and ensure value for money.
He confirmed a new N42 billion (£190 million) Special Intervention Fund, under which six universities, three polytechnics, three colleges of education and the Nigerian Defence Academy will receive funding to improve their infrastructure.
The initiative will benefit one university in each of Nigeria's six geopolitical "zones": the universities of Ilorin (North Central); Maiduguri (North East); Ahmadu Bello (North West); Benin (South); Nigeria Nsukka (South East); and Ibadan (South West).
The minister said the fund would be the first phase of a wider intervention programme designed to "meet the best global standards". The second phase will be launched next year.
Nigeria's higher education sector has seen explosive growth, from one university in 1960 to 93 in 2008. Its annual public funding has increased from about N12 billion in 1999 to N62 billion in 2006.
However, according to analysis last year by the British Council and the Economist Intelligence Unit, the rapid expansion has "come at the expense of quality", with some domestic provision "likely to remain substandard" and drive students abroad.
Nigeria introduced the accreditation of individual university programmes in 1989. Peter Okebukola, the former president of the NUC, who presented the proposals for institutional accreditation at the meeting, said that Nigeria, the "giant of Africa, has woken up now".
He pointed out that when the NUC carried out individual accreditation inspections, it did not consider key areas such as a university's communications, health, power and sanitation facilities.
He said that institutions should provide a "clean environment - not bushy, or with the walls defaced by posters", with "well-behaved students, who dress well and have good comportment". But he added that there was no mandate for accreditation teams to look at such issues.
Institutional accreditation would "fill out the crevices" in the quality assurance system, "so we can look at the whole picture", he said.
Professor Okebukola added that institutional accreditation would not only enhance quality and stimulate efficiency, but would also promote accountability and bolster the university funding provided by their proprietors.
He said that "harsh" sanctions for failure, such as the closure of institutions, were required to persuade proprietors to release resources.
"If you do not indicate that you will reward good behaviour and punish bad, you are not likely to modify your behaviour. The sanction has to be harsh, but (we must) give them the keys to open the doors again," he said.
The delegates also agreed to pilot a system during 2010 with volunteers from the federal, state and private sectors. Institutional accreditation would run separately from ongoing course accreditation.
Broad criteria were agreed in principle at the meeting, with the details to be thrashed out by an NUC committee of vice-chancellors.
The audits are likely to consider information on institutions' "vision, mission and goals", governance and administration, resources, effectiveness and efficiency, including student dropout rates, financial management and stability, and relations with external constituencies.
Delegates agreed to consider the matter of "discipline/moral life of staff/students" under the criteria, and to add a specific measurement of research output to drive up Nigeria's standing in the world rankings.
Of the rankings, Professor Okebukola said that the sector had eight imperatives: to create a vibrant research culture; ensure that it fully discloses information; maintain a stable academic calendar; improve facilities; exterminate "cultism"; comply with student-number capacity; concentrate on strengths while avoiding duplication; and build strong international links.
Another speaker, Oye Ibidapo-Obe, president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, stressed how important it was for Nigerian academics to publish more in leading academic journals and to do more to ensure that their work was cited by other scholars - a common measure of research quality.
He said that academics must open up their work for discussion and collaborate more readily.
"Our publications must really be public," he said.