New Telegraph

Host Communities Mustn’t Be Allowed To Hijack Universities – Prof Olukoju

…says limiting age of applicants into universities may create more problems

One of the most cited scholars in the international arena, Professor Ayodeji Olukoju, is a professor of History specialising in Maritime History. Owing to his scholarly engagements he has received several awards both home and abroad.

Now a fellow of the prestigious Nigerian Society of Letters, he recently marked his 40th anniversary as a teacher and researcher. In this interview with OLAOLU OLADIPO, he spoke on his experience and how to make the university system more functional. Excerpts:

Congratulations as you recently celebrated your 40 years as a university lecturer and administrator?

Thank you very much.

Looking back at your illustrious career, what positive contributions have you made so far to scholarship?

I had the privilege of conducting research and attending conferences across several continents, giving University Convocation and Conference Keynote Lectures in Nigeria and abroad, and publishing articles in top-tier international journals and contributing chapters to notable books in my field.

All but one of my numerous foreign trips have been funded by conference organisers, host organisations or my university, and I have participated in several research projects funded by international fund- ing organisations. As a scholar based in Nigeria, I consider myself privileged to have had such opportunities.

From your experience and observation, what would you like to change in the university education system?

First, university teachers are poorly remunerated compared to their colleagues elsewhere. That has to change significantly. Secondly, the infrastructure of learning and research has to be upgraded to international standards. Something as basic as wireless internet connectivity in the offices and classrooms is lacking in most places.

Wherever I have been abroad, that is taken for granted, as it facilitates learning and research. Thirdly, we should emphasise quality, and not quantity in student enrolment, staff recruitment, publications for promotion and the number of universities. We do not need to have so many students on campus if we cannot accommodate them in hostels or classrooms.

We should invest in online teaching and learning to reach more people without exceeding the carrying capacity of facilities on campus. We should admit only those who are good enough for university education. Fourthly, we should emphasise skills as much as we promote learning.

Graduates should be proficient in one area of specialisation but also be competent in ancillary sub- ject areas, possess requisite ICT skills and working knowledge of an international language other than English. In my days at Nsukka, I studied French for two years.

We should encourage our colleagues in the Diaspora to share knowledge and ideas via virtual learn- ing and training platforms and get our students exposed via semester-abroad programmes.

Our governance systems in the universities should be transparent and fair. We should get rid of crass politicking on religious, primordial and campus-clique basis in choosing the best in scholarship, ethical standards, administrative competence, leadership skills and emotional intelligence. The Govern- ing Councils and the National Universities Commission should be alive to their responsibilities.

As a widely travelled scholar, what’s the difference between the Nigerian academic environment and system as compared to what is obtainable elsewhere?

I have alluded to some of these differences. No society is perfect but institutions of higher learning must provide a good learning environment – well equipped and decent classrooms and a neat campus.

If campuses can be kept neat and tidy, if student numbers in classes and on campus are kept within reasonable limits, if there is regular power supply, if lecturers attend lectures punctually, deliver quality lectures, supervise projects and grade scripts professionally, and if students demonstrate commitment to learning, we will be like those institutions that I have seen in other countries.

What’s your view with regards to the call for autonomy for the University system?

Autonomy means different things to different persons. It is often interpreted to mean absolute freedom from external control or even internal checks. Imagine a University Senate claiming that it could appoint Professors without the input of the Council, while ignoring the fact that Council has a say in non-teaching staff appointments.

We cannot have two systems in the same institution! The danger is that any Vice Chancellor that controls the Senate, as they all tend to do, could just make sinecure appointments or promote their supporters without regard for standards. There is no unqualified autonomy anywhere! There must be checks and balances.

Whoever funds a system must have a say in how it is run. That said, if universities can generate a proportion of their budget, they should be given a say in how the system is run to that extent. However, we should not invest too much trust in human beings to behave reasonably all the time.

In what other areas do you want to see autonomy in the university system?

Universities should have a big say in what they teach, to make the curriculum adaptable to changing circumstances and responsive to end-user needs.

There is no need for homogenising the curriculum across the country, as seems to be the case today. Let universities define their niche and let them be known for something, provided they can fund their programmes and get students enrolled in them.

Beyond that, universities must undergo periodic oversight visitations to ensure that standards of good governance, and quality teaching and research are sustained. We should guard against the capture of universities by host communities and religious groups who exploit the accident of location to appropriate national patrimonies.

They end up promoting mediocrity and impunity. We should also monitor chief executives who often go rogue after capturing the organs of the university.

What is your opinion with regards to limiting the admission age of applicants to tertiary institutions to 18 years?

That policy creates more problems than it solves. It assumes that chronological age correlates with the level of maturity. I beg to differ, citing my own example. I left secondary school at 15, worked for two years and matriculated at 17. I was thus fully prepared for university education at 17 as a mature, motivated and responsible young adult.

What is required is good home training, self-discipline and a high sense of responsibility on the part of students at all levels. I was under my parents’ authority even after graduation at 21 and never had a bad record. Indeed, I graduated top of a Faculty that produced two First Class Honours graduates.

It was a choice that I made, and young people should take responsibility for their lives and have a focus on their future, while parents, mentors and religious leaders should instill sound morals and show good examples.

Finally, what would you like to be remembered for as your contributions to scholarship?

I probably should leave that to those who will write my epitaph. But it is gratifying for me that my colleagues in 2012 presented to me a festschrift in my honour entitled The Third Wave of Historical Scholarship on Nigeria: Essays in Honour of Ayodeji Olukoju, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, edited by Professor Saheed Aderinto and Dr Paul Osifodunrin (my PhD supervisee, whose death is still an open wound). The book contained contributions by notable Nigeria and foreign-based scholars using my career as a turning point in Nigerian historical scholarship.

In addition, Professors Lynn Schler and Babatunde Decker wrote journal articles highlighting my contribution to knowledge. I do not know whether I deserve these accolades but I am very grateful for the appreciation of my modest contribution to scholarship. That said, I am pleased that I achieved my career aspiration, encapsulated in the slogan “Ph.D. and P.o.P.” I obtained the Ph.D. in 1991, after a decade of trials, frustrations and near-abandonment.

The “P.o.P.” or Pile of Publications (in key outlets) has also been achieved in two ways. First, with the exception of 1990, I have had publications every year since 1987- authored and co-edited books, monographs, chapters in books and journal articles, numbering over 160.

Second, and more significantly, I have published over 50 articles in more than 30 leading international journals published in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, India, South Africa, Senegal and Ghana, as well as chapters in books published outside Nigeria every single year since 1991.

Moreover, I was the first Nigerian historian to specialize in maritime history with publications in global outlets on seaports (port engineering, port administration and port finances), port-cities, maritime trade, shipping, seafaring, maritime security, the litto- ral and comparative maritime history (Nigeria and Japan). I am currently at Stellenbosch University as a STIAS Fellow, researching seaports and development in Nigeria and Angola.

I was the first African to serve on the executive committee of the International Maritime History Association (IMHA) in 2008- 2012. My profile was published in the IMHA Newsletter alongside that of my great mentor in the field, the Canadian Professor Lewis R. “Skip” Fischer of Memorial University of Newfoundland, who was editor-in-chief of our flagship journal, the International Journal of Maritime History (IJMH) in which I have published seven times between 1992 and 2020.

My book, The Liverpool of West Africa, was also featured in the Roundtable of the journal, a privilege accorded outstanding books in the field. Beyond my narrow specialism in maritime history, I have published across the breadth of economic history – business history, monetary history, transport history (maritime, railway, inland waterways, aviation and road) – and social history – urban, labour, waste management, crime, alcohol and infrastructure (on which I have authored two books).

I have had the privilege of co-editing books with colleagues, including a festschrift for my Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Wale Oyemakinde. I have served on the boards of leading journals, such as Journal of Global History, African Economic History, Journal of African History, Afrika Zamani and History in Africa: A Journal of Method. I have been a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters since 2011 and served twice on its executive committee.

I am a Life Member of the Lagos Studies Association. I have also won the research fellowships of the Japan Foundation; Institute of Developing Economies, Tokyo; Henry Charles Chapman Foundation, Leventis Foundation, DAAD (Germany), and Residency of the West African Research Association (WARA) at Emory University, Atlanta.

I have also given back to society in terms of contributing to human capacity development. I have supervised six Ph.D. candidates as first or lead supervisor and served as second supervisor to several others. Over a forty-year period, I taught at OSU (now OOU), University of Lagos, Osun State University and Bayreuth University. A member of the pioneer set that we produced at OSU is a Professor and former Dean of the Faculty; two of my former students at UNILAG have served as Heads of my Department and Philosophy.

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