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Dr. Philip Nto
Dr Philips Nto, one time World Bank Consultant and Former Commissioner for Finance, Abia State is currently the Provost of Abia State College of Education (Technical), Arochukwu. In this interview with select Journalists in Lagos, he looks at the challenges confronting the education sector, current high unemployment rate among graduates and submitted that skill acquisition might offer solution to the problem. He also spoke on the academic and infrastructural revolution in ASCETA and Governor Okezie Ikpeazu’s education for employment initiative among others.
When I assumed office as Provost of the College in 2016, I encountered a lot of challenges. The College was in a state of total disrepair infrastructure wise, academically and also staffs were seriously ill-motivated and their morale very low. The entire place was overgrown with weeds and resembled an unkempt zoo. The perimeter fence was gone. There was no electricity because it was cut off from the national grid. It was more or less a no man’s land. To restore the environment and make it conducive for academic activities became my top most priority. Through the assistance and support of the Governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu we were able to fix a few things especially the power supply and adequate security was put in place. The College is today running on pre-paid meter. On Infrastructural development, we have achieved so much.
Almost three decades after the establishment of the College in 1993, no graduate of the College sighted the original certificate of the College because none was available before my coming. My administration has finally broken that jinx. We have signed the Certificates of all the graduates up to 2015. All our students now have the assurance that they will receive their original certificates once they graduate.
On accreditation, it is on record that before the present management, the College did not undergo any accreditation exercise for over thirteen years until I assumed office. Again, through the fatherly support and assistance of His Excellency, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, the College approached the National Commission for Colleges of Education (NCCE) for accreditation of courses. That exercise was successful as almost all the courses in the College were granted full accreditation.
Mind you that our goal has always been to ensure that students who graduate through this College can be proud to say that they had an all-round education. We ensured that all our first year students and the ones I met on assumption of office had the usual academic ritual of matriculation ceremony which was not done many years before I took over. I know you are a graduate and can relate to the excitement of a matriculation ceremony which the students of the College were denied over the years.
It is important to note that there is need for another round of accreditation of some new courses to beef the student population of the College and subsequently, the College’s internally generated revenue.
Let me quickly add here that I met a College that was blacklisted by the Tetfund because of diversion of funds. Thankfully that has been restored and we have sustained the goodwill generated by our handling of Tetfund projects in the College.
It is considered that you did well in your first tenure that necessitated your re-appointment. What exactly will you consider your signature achievement?
Like I said earlier, poor infrastructure was one of the major problems of the College because it looked like a glorified secondary school. Most of the buildings were those erected by the foremost educationist, Alvan Ikoku when the Aggrey Memorial Secondary School was founded in 1931 and were no longer habitable for human beings. However, I decided to tackle that problem head on. Today, we started and completed the School of Arts and Social Sciences Building, those of Business Education, the College Auditorium, School of Science Education as well as the College Library. Can you imagine, the College operated without a library? These buildings can be described as architectural master pieces. Currently, the School of Education and the General Studies Buildings are nearing completion alongside the landscaping of the College which is on the verge of being completed. We also renovated some existing buildings and hostels.
These buildings are fully equipped when completed. But before then, the College was blacklisted by TEtfund and we struggled to restore their confidence in us and from our performance so far we have sustained and leveraged on their confidence to attract more interventions to the College. Let me use this opportunity to commend Tetfund for all its assistance.
To answer your question, I believe that my signature performance is the infrastructural development in the College and the restoration of academic integrity and stability because we have literally eliminated industrial action in the College unlike in the past. In any case, some of these questions will be better asked the students and staff.
What will you consider to be the greatest challenge in your current position as provost of your institution generally?
My greatest challenge then was lack of infrastructural development and of course, the irregular payment of salaries but thank God that for a year and more, the State Government has tried and made almost regular the monthly release of subventions to the College. The Governor has since then been living up to the promise he made despite the dwindling revenue from the Federation account occasioned by low price of the crude oil.
Secondly, low student enrolment is another big challenge which makes it practically difficult to generate revenue through the IGR. You are aware that the College is located at the border town of Arochukwu; hence, most of the link roads were in deplorable condition and virtually not accessible but thank God that our Governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu has rendered palliative measures on some of these Federal roads to Arochukwu added to the rehabilitation of the Akwa Ibom side of the roads. In spite of that, we have achieved much more than we had hoped for.
Most institutions of higher learning in Nigeria are reeling under financial constraints. What is your experience so far?
If the truth must be told, the ugly trend is not limited to higher institutions of learning. Poor financial situation in the country cuts across all the sectors of the Nigeria’s economy so the tertiary institutions are not an exception. My experience in ASCETA is not different. However the Governor, Dr Ikpeazu, a renowned and former lecturer as well as an astute scholar does not play with tertiary education institutions in the State. Through his assistance we have sustained payment of salaries in the College.
There are fears that Colleges of Education certificate may no longer be relevant in the system. Is it correct? If so, what should be done to remedy the situation?
It is correct to say so but then for us in ASCETA we are being proactive. We have put structures in place and have initiated moves to invite the NUC to come for resource verification to solidify our relationship with the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike and the Abia State University, Uturu for the purposes of award of degrees in education. All these are being done with the intention of making Government convert the College to a University of Education, Entrepreneurship and Technology to cater for the teaching needs of our primary and secondary schools. This is also aimed to leverage on the entrepreneurship and technology skills of Abians. We are optimistic that we shall succeed in that regard.
Recently, there was this issue of impropriety raised against you. Can you react to that?
As a matter of fact, I had resolved never to join issues with that allegation from Nwokoro, which I hope it’s the one you are referring to. First I am only answerable to the State Governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu who is the Visitor to the College through the Governing Council. Secondly, I am currently focused on sustaining the legacy of infrastructural development and academic excellence I initiated in ASCETA since I assumed duties in 2016.
I had refrained from speaking on this matter of Jude Nwokoro allegation because I see him as my brother and that is who he is to me. However, since you have raised the matter, I have to make a few clarifications but what is happening is really worrisome in the sense that I can situate it to his appeal for One Million Naira for heart treatment he had intended to go for. He wanted me to raise that fund for him from Tetfund which was impossible because Tetfund funds are regulated and must be accounted kobo for kobo and allocated to specific projects. It can never be diverted for any other thing except what they are intended for. So it was extremely difficult for me to assist him at that time particularly when it was difficult for me to raise such huge amount of money from personal resources. Since then he has taken up arms against me and the College but I want to believe that it is history now. It is also important to ask what Nwokoro’s interest in the College is following letters he has been writing to me to give him detailed account of income and expenditure of the College since I assumed office. For a man who was the Special Adviser to the immediate past administration in the State on Projects, what project did he execute in ASCETA as to warrant this unnecessary and combative interest in the College? I don’t want to dwell on something like that which is targeted at distracting me. I am way too big to do what I am accused of. In fact it is impossible to loot or mismanage the College’s account. Salaries of workers are paid same day subvention drops to the College account. This is verifiable. Tetfund account is well-regulated so how can anyone loot or mismanage the fund and still achieve the numerous projects we have so far achieved?
How do you relate to the host community of Arochukwu?
The College enjoys very cordial relationship with the host community. Let me make this point. It is on record that Aro Kingdom has highly connected educated, responsible as well as intelligent men and women. These men and women have approached me at different times to inquire on how we can work together to bring out the best in ASCETA because they are conscious of the fact that a better ASCETA will benefit all at the end of the day including the youths. Although the relationship between the host community and the College was a bit frosty at the beginning, I must confess, currently it is very cordial judging by the level of support that has been extended to me. I hold all of them especially the traditional institution in high esteem. The youths are not left out.
I am grateful for their support on the efforts of my administration to reposition the College through a better performance. Many of them who visited the College during the last Christmas period were excited at what we have been able to achieve. All of them including Nzuko Aro National, alumnus of Aggrey Memorial College, have always asked how we can work together to give our best to the College. The synergy is, to say the least, very encouraging. That does not however remove the fact that there are those who will be envious of what we have achieved in life and in the College and have taken it personal and to achieve their aim taken to subterfuge, blackmail and unwarranted attacks. But these people are insignificant in number.
But I must say this, all over the world, tertiary institutions sited in communities are not answerable to certain individuals in that community. The youths who acted out of ignorance recently over a matter that was beyond their scope of understanding have apologized to me for the embarrassment to the College and the matter appears to have been settled.
Let Jude Nwokoro go to the court if he believes that his intentions for the College and Aro people are for their overall best interest. Failure to do that gives the impression like I said earlier was witch hunt because I did not accede to his request. May be he did that to other heads of tertiary institutions, as the former Special Adviser, Projects under Senator T.A Orji, but as Provost of ASCETA I know the implication of such an action having worked previously as the Commissioner of Finance. If I were to share the Tetfund funds as he wanted without following due process, that College would have remained the glorified College it was when I became the Provost.
How do you assess the performance of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu in terms of Education?
I don’t like answering questions on the performance of my boss. Ordinarily, people will believe that I will be biased but then the answer is obvious. He has tried so much especially in his Education for Employment policy initiative. Secondly, on the exploits of students from the State in the WASC examinations as well as other national examinations, the Governor has done so much. The support ASCETA has received from him is a further indication of how much he has succeeded in advancing development in education. To support moral education and as well focus our youths on things of God, Governor Ikpeazu recently promised to assist the College build a house of God in the College. No Chapel or place of worship existed in the College for over three decades of existence. Summarily, his education policies and programmes are working even the opposition politicians within and outside the State can attest to that. Recently a nearby State Government came and copied the education for employment policy of the State Government. They also visited ASCETA since our Governor made it a pilot centre.
How do we address the issue of graduate unemployment vis-a-vis the institutions of higher learning?
There is a serious unemployment challenge in the country which has led to increase in social vices like terrorism, banditry, internet fraud, kidnapping and armed robbery, etc. All these are traceable to inherited colonial curriculum which is no longer useful in the present day Nigerian society. We inherited study of English, mathematics, Chemistry, etc. They were good then but no longer relevant to the needs of the society. Nigerians are supposed to be talking about skill acquisition and individual talent development but that is not what we are doing currently. There are so many graduates who studied English, mathematics and chemistry, etc but they are far from getting employed because they were not developed skill- wise as a result of the curriculum foisted on them by the colonial masters in the tertiary institutions. Our curriculum should be structured in such a way that the talents of our youths are identified and developed irrespective of what they studied in the tertiary institutions. I call on all tertiary institutions administrators to make skill acquisition a compulsory study in their institutions while talents should be identified and developed along with the course of study. That is why in ASCETA we have made it compulsory that no matter what course a student studies, skills acquisition must be compulsory either in catering services, landscaping, leather works, metal works and fabrication including computer repairs and food preservation, painting, wood work, mason etc. On graduation, the student must have a skill that will make him an employer without waiting to be employed by government jobs that are elusive. He doesn’t need to look for jobs but be an entrepreneur. So in ASCETA, we train job creators and not job seekers. It is true that some universities have entrepreneurship scheme as a course but it should go beyond theoretical framework. Graduate unemployment has been a recurring issue in our national life as a nation. It became more serious or shall I say intractable with the poor economy of the country. We can only address it if we create graduates with the technical and vocational skills.
Do you subscribe to the suggestion that we should halt the establishment of tertiary institutions and what are your reasons?
Nigeria as a country doesn’t have enough tertiary institutions whether private or public. From my little findings, we have fewer than 600 tertiary institutions which are grossly inadequate for a country with close to 200 million population which has more of the greatest population among the youth that are still doing their first, second and third degrees. Compared to the US which has a population of fewer than 400 million people but with tertiary institutions of close to 6,000; this is grossly inadequate.
Somebody may say that those we have now are grossly underfunded which is true but the level of infrastructural decay especially in the public schools is immeasurable but let me use this opportunity to call on the FG to increase the education tax from one percent to five per cent because the one percent which is used to fund Tetfund, the only education funding window for tertiary institutions is inadequate. With this, Nigerian tertiary institutions would no longer have much funding problems.
Also I recommend that budgetary provisions on education be increased by both States and FG to fund research especially in these institutions. Telecommunication companies should be charged to increase their tariff so that the additional funds can be used to fund university education especially ICT for the possibility of curtailing physical contacts in lecture halls and embrace online lectures in line with Covid-19 protocols and regulations.
Another area of concern is the proliferation of universities by some politicians. These universities are set up not necessarily to adequately impart knowledge but as a mark of status symbol. This is not a good sign. I pray that what is happening to public primary and secondary schools in the country should not happen to the tertiary institutions. This is an area the NUC should take a critical look at. Tertiary institutions should be established to impart skills and train our children in skills that will guarantee their future instead of politicians to be opening same to massage their ego.
Conscious of the above, I do not however personally advocate the idea of establishing more universities when the ones we have are still underfunded even when some of them are not adequately utilized in terms of student enrolment. There is no institution in the country with a student population of up to 60,000. Opening more will entail spending more in the payment of staff salaries, allowances and other recurrent expenditure, thus increasing the running cost of these institutions in the areas of labour while they serve same purposes. Some tertiary institution have as low as 500 students which is far below their carrying capacity and you need the same number of administrative and line officers to run them despite the number of students. Rather government should fund the ones we have adequately and increase their capacity to train more students like we have in some universities in nearby African countries.