Wednesday, 30 October 2013

(77): Killing the lice on your eyes

Kashe kwarkwatar ido (literally translated as killing the lice on your eyes) is a common Hausa adage which can perhaps be explained in English as satisfying your curiosity. Travelling around the world is one of the greatest opportunities to kill the lice on your eyes. People tend to like hearing stories about other places. This time around my destination is Washington DC, the United States which I visited in the middle of October 2013. It is my third visit in five years. To many people, among the famous places to visit in order to kill the lice on your eyes would include the White House, the US Congress etc, especially when the country was engaged in the debate over the government shutdown. For me the most interesting places to visit could actually be outside the famous symbols of power which we see on our television screens almost on daily visit. In fact the best places for me are the bookshops; where you will find series of publications, even on topics you never think someone will write about.
a portion of the Berlin Wall displayed in the museum

Before departing for Washington, someone posted a book review on the Nigeria Muslim Forum discussion list. An eye catching review on a book recently released, entitled “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders” written by Professor Denise A Spencer. According to Professor Spencer, “by the time Congressman Ellison was elected and swore his private oath of office on Jefferson’s Qur’an in 2007, I thought as a historian that I might have something to contribute”.

You might recall that in 2007, when Mr Ellison was elected as the first Muslim into the US Congress, there was serious controversy when he suggested that he wants to take his oath with a copy of the Qur’an owned by former US President Thomas Jefferson, the author of the declaration of US Independence, first Secretary of State and third President of the United States. As someone who is interested in the study of multiculturalism and representation of identity, this is definitely an important literature. It is a book that explains the role of Islam and Muslims in the evolution of the United States. But my curiosity does not end in getting a copy of Jefferson’s Qur’an, I already have list which I was eager to purchase, and gladly I did.

As I settled in my hotel, and checked my email, I saw a message from my good friend Malam Habeeb Idris Pindiga, the Editor of Daily Trust Newspaper. Habeeb was a year ahead of me at Bayero University, Kano. He was responding to an email I sent to him earlier. You know as a Public Relations Practitioner, you have to be friendly to journalists, it is even much better if the journalist is already your friend (I am sorry Habeeb, I know your paper has strict rules over brown envelop, so let me exonerate you quickly, this is not a bribe).

After some correspondence we agreed to meet outside the World Bank headquarters. I told Habeeb about the series of books I purchased, and the ones still on the line. I knew definitely that I will learn something from him, because three years ago, it was him and Bashir Saad Abdullahi who recommended another book to me, Flat Earth News written by the investigative journalist Nick Davies. It is a book I will suggest everyone who reads the news or watch television must read. If you do, I assure you, you will never be the same again. Because it will be clear to you how journalism has been penetrated by vested interests, and how stories are planted in the media to mislead the public.

Do you trust the press?
But Habeeb’s gift to me this time around, was not a book. “Have you been to the news museum?”, he asked “No, in fact I never heard about it. In my previous visits to the US I never had time to come to Washington”, I said. The following day we visited the News Museum owned by USA Today. It is an important information hub for anyone who wants to kill the lice on his eyes. There is a record on almost every important story that happens around the world. The museum has a section that features the front pages of other newspapers around the world. In fact, they even brought the remains of the Berlin Wall, part of the antenna at the top of the World Trade Centre, destroyed on 9/11/. A section is dedicated to the pictures of journalists who died on the front line. Other sections simply feature the front pages of key global stories, think of any?

Habeeb has mastered this museum; he took me to every section and explained the historical artifacts in the museum. There was an interesting quotation in the museum I found interesting, it says in times of disaster, everyone runs away, except journalists and emergency workers. But the one I keep thinking about was a poster with the following bold inscriptions: CAN THE PRESS BE TRUSTED? What is your opinion?



Monday, 21 October 2013

(76): University education and generational change in Africa VI

The second source of funding that will help universities in Africa is inter-regional consolidation. If you take countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and emerging oil economies like Angola, they do better in comparison to other African countries. Equally important are the free trade zones, as well as lack of travel restrictions among African regions such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Southern African Development Community (SADEC) provide ample opportunities for exploring the potential of African universities, and generating more income. Institutions like Bayero University, Ahmadu Bello University or the University of Ibadan have every potential to explore the educational market in neighboring countries like Benin, Niger, Chad, Cameroon etc. the expansion of market and economic activities should not just be restricted to material goods and services, education should be the  most important commodity that should be transferred across borders.

The good news is that there is thirst for higher education almost everywhere, what is difficult is affordability, so if you take these institutions to the door step of these neighboring countries you will be in position to consolidate your income, and most importantly provide educational services. It is not as easy as it sounds, but when you have chief executives that have the foresight to pursue long term initiatives that will bring both quality and income, it is doable. The University I was teaching until few months back, Northumbria University in North East England, is now the largest provider of university education in Hong Kong, and making similar in roads in Singapore. These are countries in faraway Asia; and that business strategy started not long ago. Within short period the university saw its income rise, and began to recruit top class academics around the world, and began to compete with the best universities in Britain.

Other Universities from United States and the United Kingdom are opening campuses in Malaysia, the Gulf Region, China and North Africa. African universities should explore the potential within them, otherwise within short period, with the proliferation of private universities, and the European and American Universities seeking ways to maximize their incomes, our universities, which at the moment are attended by our brothers and sisters only, while the elites send their kids abroad, will become like public primary and secondary schools. I hope it never happens. About nine years ago, one of the Professors in Nigerian Universities, currently holding an executive position told me that, there is every possibility that in the next few years our universities will become like public primary and secondary schools.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw some pictures on the state of Nigerian campuses published recently in the Newsletter of ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities-Nigeria). Without exaggeration, some refugee camps are better equipped than the condition students learn in our universities. And these graduates are expected to compete with those in the Ivy League universities around the world.

The final strategy to help African universities is the need to create regional educational hubs in Africa. Here I mean, in each region, from the North to South, East to West and Central Africa, top class universities need to be produced that will serve the economic needs of that region. To do that, a political decision needs to be made. The African Union should be the one to make that political decision. In this regard I will suggest, that All African Heads of State agree to a Marshal plan on the development of education which will support these educational hubs to develop for at least 20 to 30 years, until African Universities are in the position to compete with  other universities around the world. One great mistake that Africa will make is to allow the current state of higher education to continue as it is.

Gone should be the days when universities simply produce glorified-literate individuals who can only join government services and append their signatures on documents to release money or approve contracts. African States should think of universities that produce innovators along our value system. In coming up with this Marshal plan, African philanthropists should be involved, and we are not short of them, many are racing to feature in Forbes  list of dollar billionaires. Left to me the effort of people like Mr Mo Ibrahim to give award to African leaders, which in recent years are difficult to find, I will rather suggest he gives that money to one African university to develop its infrastructure; that way good leaders can be produced who may not even need an award, but who see service to humanity as their reward.

Note: Please visit my blog:  to read the previous editions as I have made some modifications especially to some errors my attention was drawn to after publication.




Tuesday, 8 October 2013

(75): University education and generational change in Africa V

The strength of Harvard University’s endowment fund is quite exceptional, because the $30 billion that the university makes from its donors is more than the entire amount spent by British universities, as a BBC report in 2011 indicated. The Harvard University endowment fund is an example of where private effort is made to generate funding for university education.

Here is an example of government effort to establish a world class university. As reported by Global Higher Education, the King Abdallah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah started with an investment of $12.5 Billion. This is just one university that is at the moment in transition to compete with the best universities in the world.

So to return to our main subject, universities in Africa need to device creative means of financing their activities, some of these means are not beyond reach. For this reason this column will suggest three different alternatives to seek additional income for universities. The first solution one would propose is intra-regional consolidation which has various elements. A common trend you find in some African universities is multiplication of effort. For instance you can find three universities in the same region receiving funding from the same government, yet each of these universities would have chemistry department, biology department, sociology department etc. Yet at the end of the day neither department possesses enough staff strength and modern equipments to the highest standard. Instead of having three or four similar departments producing so many half-baked graduates, the universities should collaborate with each other and produce centres of excellence with each university focusing on its areas of strength. 

Let’s take some universities in Nigeria for instance. What is the key difference in terms of specialization between Ahmad Bello University, Bayero University and Usman Dan Fodio University? How does the University of Lagos, the University of Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo University differ from each other in terms of the quality of the courses they offer and the nature of their specialization? Running a university in this age is a serious business that requires a lot of strategic thinking in terms of the local and the global positioning of the institution.

If you take for instance the United States, you can see the point I am trying to make when you look at some universities in the same region. Both Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are located in Boston, yet each of them is different in its global positioning. Similarly, the Colleges of the University of London such as University College London (UCL), Imperial College, and the School of Oriental and African Studies have a clear global positioning such that students clearly know why they apply to these universities. Employers clearly understand what to expect based on the specialization of such institutions. Governments requiring policy input know exactly which institution has the uniqueness to address their concerns.

In essence, African universities need to create a brand for themselves. This will help in coming up with better ideas for income generation. If you revisit the list of the best universities in the world as mentioned earlier in this series, one thing you will notice is that almost each one of them has an identifiable brand. The creation of this scholarly brand is essential in attracting the best into the universities. These students would eventually take policy making positions; some of them will run successful individual businesses etc. when a university succeeds in producing high quality graduates, it must follow that up with a strong alumni programme, by making sure it remains in touch with each student from graduation to retirement.

Alumni associations are not about annual gatherings. They are about unlocking the potential of your graduates, following their career development, and utilizing their experience as well as resources for the benefit of the university. In universities elsewhere, it is not uncommon to find departments getting free teaching from their students who have amassed so much experience in their field, and running classes free of charge. It is not uncommon to see key university infrastructure in various universities built by their alumni. The alumni are equally the best starting point for establishing a strong endowment fund for universities.

These kinds of initiatives are part and parcel of creative investment. A key area of investment for universities is housing within the region of the university. Just take a census of students living in university surroundings, paying exorbitant amount for rent, yet the very universities in whose neighborhood these students are living do not benefit from anything economically. A lot of our universities actually have enough land to build houses and give it as rent to the students. Anyone who studied in British Universities will tell you how substantial part of the houses surrounding the universities are owned by the universities. These are investments that do not require deep thinking before they could be initiated.

To concluded