* Unilorin degree is earned based on character and learning – VC
* ‘There is no road that is trouble-free, we are surmounting ours’
By Kemi Kasumu
Professor Abdulganiyu Ambali, an Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), following his appointment in July 2012 as vice chancellor-designate of the University of Ilorin, actually took over the mantle of leadership in the nation’s most subscribed institution of higher learning from his predecessor, Professor Is-haq Oloyede, on October 16, 2012. Since four years ago, therefore, the professor of veterinary medicine and graduate of the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, has piloted the affairs of the 41-year-old University of Ilorin with fervor of a leader wanting to build tomorrow from today working hard to ensure continuity and improvement on existing road map of academic excellence and moral conduct among staff and students. During a fact-finding visit to the university between Wednesday 21 and Thursday 22 December, Professor Ambali, who is also the Chairman, Association of West African Universities (AWAU) in a press interview with The DEFENDER, listed some of the programmes and activities that his administration had put in place to ensure that University of Ilorin stands out among others in Nigeria and beyond. With the visit, this media can authoritatively bring to the fore that the allegation of a former Finance Minister imposing PC Tablets on students, as mentioned in the last Reporter’s Note published by The DEFENDER, have no connection with the reality on ground. To the VC however, since there is no road that is trouble free, whatever challenge that comes is part of the price he needs to pay as leader of a university that is most highly desired by all. Excerpts:
We have heard different angles to the PC Tables of your university. What exactly is the true position of things as far as that is concerned?
The tablets project is not the only projects we do in University of Ilorin. But to start with, the tablets project started four years ago when we conceived the idea to make University of Ilorin graduate well equipped to the outside world which they will soon face when they leave here. And because of that we thought we had to empower them with skills in ICT, coupled with the fact that the council chaired by Professor Okonjo was well inclined to making a difference especially when it comes to ICT. We started the project so as to key into what is already in existence.
For instance, our Senate business is paperless that is, when we conduct Senate business, we do not distribute papers. You would not see professors and Senate members carrying lot of pamphlets in their hands going to Senate chambers. UNILORIN was the first to start CBT, Computer-Based Test, in Nigeria. We started more than 10 years ago now.
So, because of that we have to give our students skills that will enable them to be compliant with what is happening here at the University of Ilorin. That was how the idea of PC Tablets came about.
In recent times, you could see that JAMB started CBT also, probably three years ago, whereas we started it a long time ago, which means that whoever wants to come to University of Ilorin has to be well skilled in the ICT. Not only because we do CBT when you come, even the process of getting into the University of Ilorin is ICT based, which means application, the uploading of your result, the post-UTME that we used to do before it was banned and payment of your acceptance of offer of admission and payment of schools fees, everything is cashless when it comes to payment. You don’t see people floating about with Naira on campus wanting to pay or wanting to receive payment in the university. So, because of that, you have to have that basic skill before you can feel at home here.
Again, we say okay, having paperless Senate, having cashless environment, the teaching and learning have to be ICT-based. So we had been giving our staff, lecturers training and re-training in the area of teaching using ICT, also known as e-teaching. We then say, if we have to do that, which means the students themselves must be upgraded to be able to catch up with e-learning too. It was on the basis of this, that we started the one-man one-PC tablet for students four years ago.
How successful has the experience been in those four years?
The first year it was successful, second year it was successful. The third year, which was last year, we ran into a hitch and it was a hitch that was not prepared for because, it was a national challenge. That was when Naira started being devalued because of pressure with the dollar.
How did the issue of Naira and Dollar affect the project since the third experience was done before it occurred?
When we gave a vendor the contract, we agreed on a price and we charged the student as normal, N25,000 and it had to be processed by the committee in charge and it had to pass from one committee to another; from there to the council and the council would approve. That was the gap.
When we started, Naira was about N150, N160. By the time we finished, the Naira started nose-diving and then we asked the vendor to supply. That was when dollar became N200, N300 and before we realised it, Naira became what it is today, N400 plus to a dollar.
Of course we were talking with the vendor along the line. By the time it was getting to N400 to a dollar, we were talking to him to supply. He started supplying and we have some thousands of tablets that he had supplied. Of course also we said we wanted it to be completely supplied before we could start to distribute because, by the time it is not complete and we start distributing, all other students will become worried. That was what we ended up with.
How then did you handle the variation talking what the hitch had caused?
We had three options. The first option was whether to ask him, the vendor to stop but we also said no, the terms of agreement will have to be reviewed. The second option was to tell the students that when you paid, Naira was so, so and so to the dollar but now it has increased and so you have to add some amount in order to allow us to reach our destination. But again we also felt that would be putting undue pressure on their parents because, when they were coming, their parents had calculated what they wanted to spend. Few months later, for him to go back home and say he needs to collect, for instance, additional N10,000 to be able to collect his tablet, all of us don’t come from the same home, we know N10,000 to one family may mean like a million. So, we said okay, let’s see how best we can manage the situation without putting undue pressure on the parents. The other option, which is the third, was to say we will renegotiate and the university will absorb the difference. What we have agreed with him now is that he would be able to supply before Christmas (2016).
And because of that experience, we have to now come to a realistic market price. I think for this year’s fresh students we have asked them to pay thirty something thousand naira instead of N25,000 paid last year which was not able to take care of cost of the goods. We just passed the document through council yesterday (December 20). The council just approved the new price and from what I have learned, by the first week of January, everything will be here for the present fresh students to collect.
From what you have said, it means it is not deliberate that students who got admission and paid had not got their PC Tablets since 2015 that they came…
It is not deliberate. And it is a matter of what the whole country went through. That is the price that we have to pay. So many of our projects that were import-based were affected. Most of our contractors were begging that, “When you give me the letter, Naira was so, so and so but now it has increased.” So many of our projects were discussed in the council yesterday and everybody knows what is happening in the country and so we had to accept their excuse.
Where then is the disconnect, information gap?
Intermittently as we are discussing with the vendor, we are also discussing with the students through the students’ executive about the situation on ground. I was updating them as we are going and for this year, for the new price to be fixed, we carried them along. They are always in the negotiating team of discussion and that is why they are also showing understanding and I commend them for their understanding. They are also Nigerians and so they know what is happening all over the country as far as Naira is concerned with the Dollar.
If these things were manufactured in Tanke (students’ bus terminus in Ilorin metropolis) here, (laughs), it would have been a different thing. No vendor would give me an excuse of dollar issue and I would agree. No. Of course even the ordinary rice, the imported food stuff, is also affected. So, that is the practical thing as far the PC Tablet is concerned. And then of course we are telling the students’ executive to tell the students to tell their parents at home and of course the parents also know what is happening.
With the current challenges, what is on your mind?
Yesterday, somebody was asking me, ‘Do we abandon it?’ And I said no. We have a mission and we started four years ago. Because of hiccup you don’t turn back. I said if you turn back because of hiccup, it means that you didn’t prepare for it and it means that you don’t have a good grab of why you are doing it. We are not doing it for fun. We are doing it because we want to upgrade our students, to skill them so that by the time they leave here, if they find themselves in the US, in the UK, Saudi Arabia, in Germany, they will fit in. If they find themselves in Akwa Ibom, Borno, they will fit in. Because by the time you start having PC tablet in the classroom, outside the classroom, communicating and you are doing that for four years, you can’t compare that with somebody who bought a handset just for fun.
That is why our graduates stand out when they leave here. The report I’m getting both at the camp and the offices where they are employed is very heart warming, because the discipline is manifested, the ability to grasp whatever is being learned in that small office is being appreciated. And it is because of what we have been able to instill in them.
So, once you have a mission and it is well conceived and you know how to get there, any obstacle that comes on your way, you have to be able to surmount it. If you now want to run away because of a small problem on the way to achieving that mission, it doesn’t speak well. Last year, nobody prepared for Naira devaluation and so whatever happens upstairs, it trickles down.
“I am happy that we have journalist like you who will want to verify whatever is in here. Nobody is talking that for the last few years Unilorin staff have not gone on strike. They have been having the highest patronage. Nobody is talking about that. But they want to pick one obstacle that we are having…And which is not even an obstacle! Yet they make it look like an offence that we have committed and hammer on it. This is causing a challenge.”
You were trying to say that there is more to University of Ilorin under your administration beyond the PC Tablet. Could you let us into that?
Apart from that, students’ welfare is what this administration in the university takes very seriously. After this discussion we will drive round the campus and I will show you all those things that we have provided for the benefits of the students. Their learning environment is very important to us and this tablet issue is just one out of many other laudable programmes and projects that we have been able to put in place for students to make learning environment conducive.
One is the issue of accommodation. When we started about four years ago, roughly just about three thousand out of over 30,000 students that we had were accommodated on campus. And as you are aware, sometime three years ago, the Federal Government banned building of hostels but we thank them, they later now gave us some money to build two blocks of hostel. But that is not enough as the two blocks were able to accommodate only 250 more students.
Is there any effort you making at improving this accommodation of situation of necessity in your capacity as Vice Chancellor?
The present administration under my leadership embarked on an advocacy to sell the university to friends of the university and attract them to come and build hostels on our campus under Federal Government’s directive of BOT, Build-Operate-and-Transfer. It took us time moving around talking to people, especially those that God has blessed with money. And one of our selling points is the uninterrupted academic calendar. Because for the past 16 years ending this December, we have never gone on strike. We have never closed our doors even for one day against our students. Come January 2017, that will be the 17th year that University of Ilorin will continue to be consistent in opening its doors to students.
So, from both overseas and within, friends of the university have responded and now we have doubled the number of students that we have been able to accommodate. Now we have over seven thousand students that are accommodated within the campus and more than 50 percent of those students are in private hostel accommodation under the BOT.
So, our image is very important to us because, at the end of the day just like the pressure on Naira and dollars trickled down that everybody is feeling it, once our image is good, it also trickles down to individual level because now the students are the ones benefiting from that response of hostels on campus. Now the number of students that we have been able to accommodate won’t be shuttling between campus and town and so, the risk is no longer there comfort wise and their ability to read till when they like on campus is now there.
Now, when we came in, once you go to a faculty, inbetween lectures you see students hanging around, some sitting on top of tables and things like that. And then we now thought we had to build students sit-out where they can sit inbetween lectures and do some academic work or relax till the next lecture, instead of hanging around inconveniently.
That is what we have been able to put in place to the admiration of other universities, because we just finished accreditation exercise last week. We had people from all over the country as resource persons through NUC, National Universities Commission, coming to accredit our programmes and a number of them expressed their admiration to what University of Ilorin is able to do. Some of them mentioned the sit-out that it is the first they would experience in the country. Some mentioned our uninterrupted power supply. That is another area that I will come eventually because, now we have on campus between 20 to 22 hours a day power supply. And you can’t find that in most universities. You can’t even find that outside the campus.
And what is the secret of that?
(Laughs) The secret is that, I mean about a year or so ago we thought that we were spending a lot of money operating our generators, buying diesel. Secondly no matter how much you spend on generator it can never satisfy you. Through the friends of the university and through the council we now submitted a memo that we wanted a dedicated line to the university. It cost us some money but now we are enjoying the dividends. And I am happy that when you come here in the night and you feel the environment, by the time you are going out, when you pass the gate, you will know that you have left the university environment. That is why most of the times I pity those of our students who are living off campus and that is why effort is still ongoing to attract more entrepreneurs to come and put up hostels on campus. Because that is the long term project that will benefit everyone especially the students.
Still talking about power supply, we thought that the light we are now enjoying will probably last for only sometimes. Hopefully, power generation will be able to improve, but Nigerian situation can change any time and that is why we are not resting on our oars and once we are used to something we don’t want to miss or lose. So, we now thought of alternative energy.
Alternative energy, how?
We went into green energy, which took us to the United States where we went to get a partner that would come here and put up a plant on our campus to generate energy. And luckily we have been able to get somebody who will be coming to come and establish a plant to generate 500 megawatts of electricity.
For the university?
Not only for the university but for Nigerians because, our own consumption within the university is just about three to four megawatts. So, the company will have 496 megawatts in excess.
Meaning that your administration of University of Ilorin will have attracted additional 500 megawatts to power general in Nigeria if this plan succeeds?
That is correct. And then the constant power supply will be guaranteed because, we said you can’t be in a university like University of Ilorin where you carry out researches and some of these scientific researches can’t do without constant, stable power supply. If you have post-graduate students who are time-bound, any disruption in their experiment means couple of months delay. And the longer the power outage continues the longer they stay on their programmes, which will not be good for them.
The staff, if they have stable power supply, will be more dedicated and stay longer in their offices and then they will be able to work and be more productive as far as their output is concerned.
The students also will be able to read, recreate, they will be able to socialise, they will be able to feel comfortable and the learning environment generally will be conducive as far as they are concerned when you have constant power supply.
What is the state of discussion between you and the power generating company you got from the United States and when are they likely going to start work?
All along, they were waiting for government’s approval to guarantee them that they (Nigerian government) are going to buy the excess of 496 megawatts that they are going to generate here in the university. And I am happy to tell you that last week or last Thursday (December 15) they were able to secure that guarantee as they were granted the licence. Now they are in Abuja trying to tidy up the process. I was with them on phone this morning (Wednesday December 21) and was told that they will be coming by the end of this week. Siemens will be coming with a solar panel…
That means you have started already?
We have started already. We have to be forward looking in order to be able to get to where we are going safely. This licence thing took us two months or more. In fact we had to station somebody in Abuja to be following up the thing. But that is history now.
What we are saying is, just because we have delay in the last two months, do we abandon the power project? We said okay, what is the problem? We were told what the problem was and we said the best thing we would do was, “Let’s reinforce your team.” And we sent one of the friends of the university with them to get this thing (licence) out. The man was there with them for two months and now they have got it.
So, there is no road that is smooth or trouble free. The road to heaven, you have to work for it. If you are a Muslim you have to pray five times daily, you have to fast and you have to, in fact, abide by the five pillars of Islam. If you are a Christian, it has its own protocol. It is not easy to be able to achieve that. So, do you abandon five pillars of Islam and you say okay you still want to get to heaven? Or you say okay you won’t do anything and you want to go to hell? There is no journey that is trouble free and there is no journey you must abandon just because there are few obstacles? Even God Himself asks in the Qur’an, “Do you think you will be left on because you say you believe without you being tested?” You have to be tested and every test is not easy to the person facing the test.
So, as I was saying, as far as students’ affair is concerned, even our classrooms we have been able to upgrade and make the environment conducive for them. We have been able to support our staff for training and retraining in their chosen fields so that they can be able to interact with their colleagues all over the world as far as upgrading their talents is concerned so that, whatever they are teaching the students, they will be able to do better.
On Internet service
And to couple with that, we have been able to improve on our internet service. Initially we were on ATM1 but now we have been able to upgrade to ATM4, which means four bandwidths because we have empowered our students with PC Tablets so they can go to internet and do most of their jobs.
We have been able to upgrade our laboratories where our students are able to carry out their practical so that they will be well skilled in their chosen programmes as far as both practical and theoretical courses are concerned.
Again training our staff at post-graduate level, both within and outside the country, is being encouraged and is being sponsored and supported because we have to measure up to the international standard.
We have central laboratory where we concentrate those equipment that cut across disciplines so, rather than duplicating equipment, we now have central laboratory where common equipment are jointly used by departments.
We have a laboratory animal house where those into biomedical research, which needs animal house can source, instead of going to Jos, Ibadan, Nsukka, Port Harcourt to buy rat, mice and guinea pea for their experiment. You could imagine the distance between each of those places and Ilorin and jams that those animals will be exposed to before getting to this place and then before you now subject them to the experiment that you want to do.
All those things have been cut off. You can just walk across, book the animals that you want and then take them straight to your laboratory across the road and then you can have your experiment comfortably.
So, those are few things that we have been able to put up over the years which stand University of Ilorin out.
Most subscribed university
And consistently for the last four years, we have been the most subscribed university in the country with over 100,000 student applicants wanting to come to University of Ilorin. Unfortunately our capacity is just about 10 percent of that. So, you can imagine us disappointing 90,000 students every year.
I was with the Minister sometimes and he asked me that, “Why does everybody wants to come to University of Ilorin?”
And did you have an answer as a Vice Chancellor?
(Laughs) As a Vice Chancellor, I had to give an answer. But this year, we have put machinery in place that we want to ask the students themselves, ”Why did you choose University of Ilorin?” And we are doing that with the hope of being equipped with the actual reason most Nigerian prospective admission seekers want to come to University of Ilorin. So, we shall continue to improve on all what we have. We want to know our selling point as far as the university is concerned, hopefully within one, two months I will be able to get an answer.
I have had parents telling me, “Please help me to get admission for my child because I have asked him, “Why don’t you want to go to a particular university in Nigeria and he said no, it is either University of Ilorin or you send me abroad.”
Can I tell you some of the reasons that I know?
Oh, yeah go ahead.
Some say your consistency due to the fact that you don’t go on strike and secondly moral conduct.
Yes. In fact that is another area that I have stepped down a bit. We value the moral conduct of our students.
But you said you stepped it down a bit. Why?
I mean step down in telling you because I know I would still have to say it. When our students come in, we don’t tolerate indiscipline. If you violate our dress code we punish you. If you violate our dos and don’ts, for example you don’t fight on campus, you don’t cheap in an exam and you don’t behave rudely either to your colleagues, mates or to somebody else once you are on campus.
What would you say inform the need for setting such moral standard?
We feel that we are producing people that will shape our tomorrow and such people should be morally upright. And our degree is earned and is earned based on character and learning. So the character aspect, we also enphasise on it apart from you getting A, B or C in the classroom, it has to be reflected in you outside the classroom.
Do you fear anything if this is not included in management concern?
Oh, because if we don’t do it, all of us will reap it tomorrow. You may be in charge today because of your position, but tomorrow you become a retiree and whatever happens will be any action taken by these graduates because by then they will be in charge. If you train them wrongly, either morally or academically, they will still come back to you. What goes around comes around.
So, that is why we lay emphasis on moral conduct because we feel that whatever we are doing, we are doing it to ourselves indirectly not to anybody. Of course to everybody in general, but more importantly know that whatever you sow you reap. And when we go out around the country or abroad and we meet graduates of University of Ilorin, we feel satisfied that, yes, we have been able to contribute our quota a bit on the world economy, so to say.
So, like you said that you know why they choose to come to University of Ilorin, but I want to have a scientific evidence based on the students perspectives so that we can have documented proof and it won’t just be that a journalist told me but I got it directly myself (laughs).
May be you have done what I ought to have done long ago. But I thank God for the opportunity given to me to lead this university. In University of Ilorin we have great people, both staff and students, because majority of them are well behaved. They know why they are here and they don’t have time for trivial things. They just want to get the job done and graduate and then go out there and contribute to the society. And I am happy all our staff also have that inclination. They are great people and I am happy to be their leader.
Still talking of moral conduct, we were in Code ‘Ivoire and we saw dress code in a practical form. Here we allow student to dress decently. We instruct student to dress in a particular manner. If you are in the faculty of education for example, we go in suit. So when you see anybody on the campus in suit, you know he is from the faculty of education. The girl student goes in skirt, blouse smart. We are modeling them to be able to be presentable to the larger society they are going into. Same thing also occur to the Accounting student. They have their different colours.
Sometimes, discipline, when started early, becomes part of a student’s life and there is no amount of energy we can put into moral discipline that will be too much and at the end of the day, both the people that are doing it and the nation in general will benefit.
I am happy that we have journalist like you who will want to verify whatever is in here.
Nobody is talking that for the last few years Unilorin staff have not gone on strike. They have been having the highest patronage. Nobody is talking about that. But they want to pick one obstacle that we are having…
(Cuts in) Which is not even obstacle for real, I mean still talking about the PC Tablets issue.
(Cuts in) And which is not even an obstacle! Yet they make it look like an offence that we have committed and hammer on it. This is causing a challenge. Unilorin did not do anything to devalue the Naira. It happened like that and nit is not only this tablet that it is affecting. It is affecting every other thing that we do on campus but we are also surmounting all that.