AT the conclusion of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting in Abuja last Wednesday, Minister of State for Education, Professor Anthony Onwuka, declared to State House correspondents that the tuition fees currently charged by some federal universities in the country are illegal. In restating the Federal Government’s position, Professor Onwuka may have intended to provide clarification on an increasingly knotty issue. However, his statement only introduced further ambiguity into the debate.
After reiterating that “by law, no federal university should charge tuition fees,” the minister added: “We understand that some universities now charge fees per course unit and we are going to make sure that we investigate that properly and stop it. Students can pay other auxiliary fees, but not in excess. Various university councils and managements should be able to fix what fees students should pay that is affordable and acceptable to the students. That is the position.” He then concluded, a tad redundantly: “The Federal Government does not determine fees for private and state universities. It only takes responsibility for fees paid in the federal universities.”
Over the years, frustrated parents and other stakeholders in the education sector have argued that the Federal Government has no fixed and well-thought-out policy on how to fund higher education in the country. Unfortunately, because of the blatant illogicalities and contradictions in his statement, Professor Onwuka has given these critics further ammunition. First, having vouchsafed the Federal Government’s understanding that “some universities now charge fees per course,” the Honourable Minister asserted the government’s intention to “investigate that properly” with a view to stopping it. If the Federal Government has not yet conducted a proper investigation, on what evidence is its current understanding based? Moreover, what gives it the assurance that it is not going to like what its planned investigation might unveil?
Second, Professor Onwuka pointedly contradicted himself in the next breath when he conceded that students “can pay other auxiliary fees, but not in excess.” How much auxiliary fee is acceptable, and how does anyone know what is acceptable if they don’t know for sure who is doing the charging, and what students are being charged for? At any rate, what does the Honourable Minister mean by “excess”? Excess in relation to what?
Finally, having already threatened to sanction universities charging tuition fees, the minister concluded rather strangely that “Various university councils and managements should be able to fix what fees students should pay that is affordable and acceptable to the students.” If the universities are not allowed to charge tuition fees as a matter of principle, where would the freedom to “fix what fees students should pay” come from? Wouldn’t the universities be acting illegally? In any case, how does a university charge what is “affordable and acceptable” to students when affordability is philosophically at odds with acceptability?
The minister’s inchoate statement has fuelled longstanding suspicion that the Federal Government is clueless about the crisis of funding that continues to dog Nigerian higher education. More worryingly, it seems that the Federal Government is trying to have its cake and eat it at the same time. For those hoping for greater clarity on the direction of tertiary education in the country, last week’s statement was cause for alarm.
Surely, a government declaring tuition fees illegal in its universities has to be prepared to take up the challenge of funding them adequately. For a long time, the universities have been complaining of poor funding by the government. Since the universities, going by its latest pronouncement, are no longer permitted to charge tuition fees, the government is duty bound to take care of the funding shortfall that would be created by the new policy. In the absence of such a measure, the Federal Government would only have compounded the problems of the universities.