FEATURE ARTICLE

Monday, November 15, 2021
chigachieke@yahoo.co.uk

PROFESSOR ISOUN: CREATING INNOVATIVE AND SUSTAINABLE UNIVERSITY

Introduction

The Isoun Trilogy

On 21st April 2018, Professor Turner Timinipre Isoun, Father of Nigerian Space Technology, delivered the 1st Distinguished Public Lecture Series of University of Africa Toru-Orua, UAT, Bayelsa State, titled, "The University of Africa: In Pursuit of an Innovative and Sustainable University, Responding to the Challenges of a State and a Nation."

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We followed up this event with two interviews where he expatiated on issues not adequately addressed in his lecture. The interviews qualify to stand as the second part of his lecture. Then his Punch newspaper interview of 8th September 2018, commemorating his 80th birthday, titled, "Since there were no Roads, I Swam across River to Attend School," beautifully summed what he began in UAT.

The Isoun Trilogy attempts the following questions: (1) Why does Nigeria find it difficult to create a world-class university not minding its hundreds of universities? (2) Our weakness is technology yet politics and religion occupy all the spaces leaving very little for science and critical thinking, why? (3) In the Diaspora Nigerian scientists excel. What is inside Nigeria that undermines their ability to attain equal excellence? and (4) Why is the Nigerian political class not able to solve our developmental problem through research and innovation?

Creating Sustainable and Innovation Universities

Access

Working with recent data, 1.5 million candidates applied for admission but only a third was admitted. The fate of the remaining one million convinces Professor Isoun to call for more universities, in addition to the 160 already in existence, for the unmet needs of young Nigerians. But access to university education goes beyond the admission of more qualified students. It also means that high performing indigent students are given merit-based scholarships by government and corporate Nigeria.

Funding

Science and technology are not liberal arts created from the mind. We need state-of-the-art laboratories, libraries and uninterrupted power. To build quality and relevant universities responsive to the visions and missions for which they are established, independent fund outside the control of politicians is necessary. He gives two instances of how universities are independently funded elsewhere.

One, America ensures research is driven by money from many sources including realistic fees, diverse grants, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, private and commercial institutions. More importantly, America guarantees these "investors" of reasonably returns from university researches capable of revolutionalising their productivity. For instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) formed many companies whose products peaked billions of dollars; money shared by them and the MIT.

And two, China funds its universities by incorporating them into the economic productivity system without divorcing them from their traditional role of research and teaching. For example, Nigerian Communication Satellites, built by the Chinese Academy of Space Sciences, was used in training Nigerian and Chinese scientists.

As Minister of Science and Technology, Professor Isoun struggled to establish an independent Nigerian National Science Foundation without success. Even the envisaged Nigerian Research and Innovative Trust Fund never materialized leading to the frustration of our scientific-minded geniuses. He indicts the Nigerian political elite for bluntly refusing to make available special fund for research and development in the past fifteen years. Only the preceding government of President Olusegun Obasanjo adequately funded researches as the data is there for all to verify. Without funds our inventors are condemned to die with their prototypes.

To change things Government must enthrone enabling policies encouraging corporate Nigeria to intervene in core Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). It could also allocate, at least, 1 billion dollars from Excess Crude Account to a fund for use by tertiary institutions. Such fund must be self-perpetuating requiring beneficiaries of academic researches to return part of their profits to the fund.

The problem is perception. If Federal and state governments see research funds as redundant "grants" rather than "investment" with potential for innovative application to products and services, then things can never change. Secondly, Professor Isoun draws attention to our over-reliance on religion. Religious minds are not scientific and would rather divert scarce resources to endless pilgrimages. This is counter-productive since our weakness is technology and not prayer.

Professor Isoun agrees with the leading thinkers of today, namely, Professor Wole Soyinka, Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II, Senator Ben Murray Bruce, Governor Donald Duke and Aare Afe Babalola, for sounding the alarm against the preponderance of religion over sound education and ideas. Emir Sanusi II, whose words are strong enough to start a revolution any day, wins his special commendation for denouncing governors who use public funds to sponsor pilgrims to holy lands while our students have no books, classrooms or future.

Sharing of Assets

The power of science and technology lies in information sharing. Lack of shared ideas and assets between Nigerian universities and international institutes is contributory to our poor performance in science. Bright minds are frustrated by loneliness, limited resources and collegiate apathy.

The UAT and other institutions could collaborate with the Odi Bioresources Development Centre, BioDeC, equipped with modern laboratory for DNA and gnomic research. If the laboratory is adopted by visionary scientists with complementary skills, possible benefit will include (a) The isolation of indigenous and genetically modified micro-organisms relevant to bio-remediation (breaking down) of hydrocarbons and pollutants threatening our biodiversity (b) Identification of crude biomarkers against illegal refinery and bunkering, and (c) Identification of specific source of soot and other pollutants.

Specialisation

Nigerian universities must be equitably supported to excel in disciplines where they have the highest capacity and expertise. Specialisation saves resources while encouraging collaboration, quality teaching and research. Foreign experts must be recruited where the requisite skills are lacking locally. But recruiting foreign experts becomes an uphill task with a weak naira. The foreign currency challenge moves the esteemed academic into calling on Diasporan Nigerians to intervene.

Western-based Indian and Chinese experts are reverse-engineering non-military technologies back home, for instance. Their solutions save their home countries billions in expensive consultancy fees while lifting Asians out of poverty. If our expatriate scientists can adopt Nigerian universities, or start their own research institutes back home, such arrangement would facilitate technology transfer. The multiplier effect will also set some of our universities on the trajectory of excellence.

Quality of teachers

Dominated by a mindset with entrenched fixed tradition, the teaching profession is resistance to change. Teachers are dogmatic and inflexible with a sense of entitlement. Their impenetrable hierarchies ultimately undermine the latest ideas and ways of doing things. The end result is systemic failure evident in young Nigerians going abroad for their Doctorate than be yoked with local supervisors with an obsolete mindset.

We get around this through the introduction digital technology into the classroom. Our academics must be armed with laptops to enable them access the social media in addition to catching up with their own students no longer limited by time and space. What we are talking about is unfettered intellectual freedom.

Curricula

We need innovative and updated curricula that prepare students for work place best practices or "traineeship." Technical skill must be superimposed on entrepreneurship for the best result. After course work students should be exposed to the practical aspects of their studies that come with experience. The right curricula, therefore, should breed intelligent, self-motivated and curious students confident enough to do things differently.

University curricula need not be uniform as that could lead to misplaced priorities; since none can predict job demands for the next ten years. They should tease out "curiosity and motivation" from students as knowledge acquired on your own is more lasting and easy to expand than an imparted one. Our universities must be inculcated into the world of "internet of things," artificial intelligence and robotics.

As the first Vice-Chancellor of Rivers State University of Science and Technology, now Rivers State University, Professor Isoun created in 1979 an institution that guaranteed his students sustainable livelihood. He did this by actively involving them in developmental projects at state and federal levels. The UAT, as a new entity, has the advantage of creating a community of open and enquiring minds.

Infrastructure

Nigerian universities must provide adequate academic and residential facilities. A viable transport system within and without is a must. There must be shared facilities for sports, continuing education and multi-purpose exhibition not limited to theatres for drama, debate and music. The campus should be a multi-faceted environment for diversity consistent with common humanity while boosting healthy interface with host community.

Conclusion

Rather than critical thinkers, Nigeria is breeding a gullible generation hooked on gambling, religion and the blame game.

Command and control latent in our national life is partly responsible for this sad state of affairs. The Nigerian graduate is afraid to unlock his mind not to make mistake. So he tows the well-beaten track of job market. His poverty of ideas soon translates to penury. Like the tragic Unoka in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," he visits prophets to know why misfortune dogs him.

To break the stranglehold of conformism that tends to emasculate him, he must be steered to research and innovation. This new thinking challenges him to create wealth using his head as traditional fields like accounting and pharmacy are no longer the money spinners of today. The STI triumvirate that created the Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world is. But using his head means that what is imparted to him as student must be the right stuff. It is for this reason that Professor Isoun's lecture is recommended for Nigerian universities as our primary and secondary schools expected to shape the minds being admitted into the university.

We call on the UAT Acting Vice Chancellor Professor Valentine Aletor and other Vice-Chancellors to implement Professor Isoun's recommendations, especially in changing mindset. We won't be creating something new, even with adequate funding, if the latest ways of doing things are frown upon by lecturers or undermined by the untenable lifestyle of students.

Eke: chigachieke@yahoo.co.uk. Dr. Tuodolo: okusbaba@yahoo.co.uk.

First Published 18th November 2018 by Business Day Sunday (BD Sunday) Newspaper of Nigeria.

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