Vice Chancellor of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), Bauchi, Professor Saminu Ibrahim, explains why the university could not employ its graduate that built a drone.
Are you making any attempt to promote academic research?
The university started in 1980 with 100 students and at the present we have over 18,000 undergraduates and 4,000 postgraduate students. The student population is between 22,000 and 23,000 and one of the qualities of our strength is engineering, to the extent that all our engineering courses have been accredited. We are doing very well especially from the feedback we are getting from the end users of our products and we are making effort to improve. We have about 2,800 personnel out of which 1,000 are academic staff.
The National Automotive Council has visited ATBU and commissioned some specialised equipment it donated to the Department of Automotive Engineering. We are one of the first universities to start the course, as well as Mechatronics and Systems Engineering and Computer and Communication.
The university was set up by government with the capacity to carry 5,000 students because of the gap between researchers and entrepreneurs. We have a lot of ideas and inventions that ended only on shelves and we are trying to close the gap between the academia and the entrepreneurs with government providing enabling environment so that the inventions would end up as products for people to use. That is why the university has chosen to establish Science and Technology Park.
ATBU has taken membership of the World Technopolis Association (WTA) which would, together with similar bodies, play a part in the development of the park. We have also formed partnership with universities within and outside the country and most especially with the Chungnam National University (CNU), Daejeon, Korea, to strengthen research and development while a number of partners have offered to set up ICT hubs in the park.
Another organisation is helping us to establish an incubation center and with the support of the National Board for Technology Incubation (NBTI), we shall have something on ground.
Apart from the specialised courses you are supposed to offer, you also run management courses. Does that not distract you?
We offer accounting, information technology and business management. And what is happening is that there are a lot of interactions among the courses. If you look at Apple Technology Company for example, you will think it relies more on technology but a lot of art is going on in the development of ideas and the products of the company. There has to be a marriage.
Most of the time, unfortunately, scientists are not good businessmen, and that is why some our products are ending up where they are. So, you need those that are good in marketing and art to complement the scientists to move our products from the level of research and development into useful products that can bring some money to the nation. Again, you need to train people to manage resources and research activities.
Many universities tended to fail in research because they haven’t got good research management sections. You may have good researchers, but if you don’t have good units to manage the research, you would end up with good researches on the shelves, that are useless. The essence of the research is to change the environment and humanity.
The law establishing ATBU allows it to award degrees in technology, medical and allied sciences.
A researcher from the university studying in Malaysia recently said one of the major problems with technological and scientific research is lack of funds. How do you address that?
We visited the National Assembly where they are trying to amend our law. However, one of the first things is that we have to find a way of prioritising because we need funding in so many ways. We are trying to see how we can generate more funds for the university; we have discussed with some stakeholders. Certainly, if you look at the universities abroad, they don’t necessarily rely on government funds but on their alumni and endowments. One university abroad got an endowment of N1.3 billion from an organization to establish a college of medicine. These things don’t happen in our society. Even our own alumni, are only beginning to realize they have to help the system.
So, there is a big funding gap generally and especially for research. At a point we used to have what we called Research and Publication Committee, which does not exist now because it is not needed. At that point the government was giving some funds for research and that committee sat down to appropriate funds for people that have shown interest or presented some proposals. But with time, even the research institutes that are established for specific researches are only getting money enough to pay salaries. That made it very difficult for people to make progress because the development of a university is tied to research and paper writing. In fact, we have established a Directorate of Research and Innovation as one of the ways to coordinate ourselves and see how we can get more research funds. We have had some workshops on how to write fundable research proposals because there is a lot of money on research but if you don’t write a good proposal that can sell, you can’t get that money.
People don’t normally rely on internal institutional research funds because no institution has enough funds; you need to go outside and for you to compete outside, you need the ability to write good proposals. We have about five proposals with the World Bank.
You are among the first universities to install Automotive Engineering. What led to that decision and what are its benefits over other engineering courses?
This is a national priority. The Federal Government decided to run these three courses even though it coincided with our own thoughts. They started the pilot by choosing universities that they believed are strong in engineering and ATBU happened to be one of them in addition to two others. But few other universities are separately running the courses thereafter.
I believe the benefits would be enormous because motorized vehicles are important means of transportation for people and cargo. As it is now, we are consumers rather than contributors in the automotive industry and with the coming of these courses we shall have little input to humanity with regard to research and development in the industry. Students would learn how to build and maintain motor vehicles but most importantly develop their capacity to think and be innovative.
What type of academic partnership do you have with foreign universities?
Normally, you sign MoU on staff and students exchange as well as joint research. But our partnership with Chungnam University is on general research and the establishment of a technology park.
How do you deal with the large number of applicants for your programmes?
It has been a huge challenge because no university has the capacity to accommodate all its applicants in spite of the need for us to provide access to quality education. You would have between 15,000 and 20,000 applicants annually but you can only admit 4,000 students. We feel so bad because we really want to give much access to people but we are limited by the quota which we cannot exceed. Each course has its own student-teacher ratio and for courses that don’t need laboratories, it is between 30:1 and 35:1. For engineering and science programmes, where you need labs, the ratio is between 15:1 and 20:1.
Many people said today’s graduates are not employable. Why?
I don’t believe that, because our work in the university is to give general training and make students creative but it is not possible to teach somebody to fit into a specific job. Many employers are happy with Nigerian graduates. We have a student who graduated with a third class degree and has been able to build a drone and did his youth service with the military. Unfortunately, we could not employ him because our condition of service does not allow us to employ graduates with third class degrees, and we regretted it because we would have held on to this guy; he would have been an asset to us.
How do you keep peace within the university?
Promotion and maintenance of peace isn’t the work of the V-C alone, you have to have people to help you and I have been lucky. The council and the senate are vital in peace keeping because the senate actually handles student issues including discipline and award of degrees. Also, the university is based on committee system; everything from entry, matriculation up to graduation and convocation, has a committee. And that is the beauty of the university; you can rely on a committee if you have good people there. Other people that help to keep peace in the university are the Dean of Student Affairs, Chairman of Security Committee and the Public Relations Unit; it is a collective effort.
We are actually lucky because our students are well-behaved and engaged all the time.