University Autonomy and Good Governance – Keynote Address to Committee of Pro-Chancellors






















       JUNE 10-11, 2014





The Chairman of the Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities- Prof. Kimse Okoko, Members of the Executive, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen.

I consider it a great honour to be invited to address you on this very important gathering of prominent stakeholders in the Nigerian higher education sector.

The Committee of Pro-Chancellors plays a crucial role in providing a platform for the cross-fertilization and exchange of ideas on how to reposition Nigerian Universities to attain global recognition and excellence. This Committee whose laudable objectives I have always identified with, provides more than just a platform, it provides an intellectual space for exchanging and discussing common issues cross-cutting to all Nigerian Universities. Issues such as inter-university cooperation, sound administrative practices, maintenance of academic standards, staff recruitment and exchange, sporting competitions, students’ affairs, etc. This two-day conference is another excellent opportunity for all stakeholders in Nigerian University education sector to come together, reflect, take stock, explore and learn new strategies for furthering the development of sound University education system in Nigeria. I congratulate the Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities for their excellent efforts and for bringing us together once again.

As you all may very well know, one of the greatest aspirations I hold very dear to my heart is to see the Nigerian higher education system become the best in the world. I have a personal commitment to do all that is humanly possible, to make the Nigerian university system the best in the world. It was this commitment that spurred me to initiate a vast array of reform programs during my tenure as the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman, Governing Council of the University of Lagos. Many of the achievements we recorded during that period have been lauded globally and remain a reference point till today. This same vision led me to establish Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti in 2009. Since 2009, ABUAD has grown astronomically in reputation and has won several national and international awards and recognition as the fastest growing University in Africa and as a shining beacon of University education in Nigeria. Based on my experience as the Former Pro-Chancellor and Chairman, Governing Council of UNILAG; and as the Founder of ABUAD, I hope to share with you practical points on how the Nigerian University system could be strengthened to return to its glory days.

The topic of university autonomy and governance which you have asked me to comment upon is one of the most crucial foundations of many successful University systems in the world.  Important issues of how to strike the proper balance between universities and governments; how to address tensions between a reasonable accountability of universities for the public funds that sustain much of their activity on one hand, and the abilities of University officers to take key decisions on the other hand; as well as questions about the proper distancing of universities and their freedom to pursue what universities know best. These questions cannot be detached from the quest to reform and reposition University education in Nigeria. A complex paradox and dialectic faced by many University reformers is the challenge of how to balance University autonomy and freedom, with public accountability and transparency. Despite the complex nature of this question, it does not call for intellectual surrender. My goal today is to offer some practical suggestions on how both goals can be appropriately balanced to achieve a high quality University system in Nigeria.

Meaning of Autonomy

What does University autonomy mean? Does it mean, for example, that the government must take no interest of any kind in university governance? Does it mean, on the other hand, that the government can impose a strategic direction, merely allowing universities to choose methods of implementation?

The word Autonomy is coined from the greek words auto nomos (auto meaning self, and nomos meaning law). Put together it means to give oneself one’s own law. Contextually, it is the capacity of an individual or institution to make an informed, un-coerced decision by its own self, it is the state or condition of having independence or freedom to decide a course of action. The European Universities Association for example, defines it as including organizational, financial, staffing and academic independence of Universities. The 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, contains an elaborate elucidation of the concept of University Autonomy. It defines University Autonomy in Paragraphs 17-21 as follows:

Autonomy is that degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision making by institutions of higher education regarding their academic work, standards, management and related activities consistent with systems of public accountability, especially in respect of funding provided by the state, and respect for academic freedom and human rights.

Autonomy is the institutional form of academic freedom and a necessary precondition to guarantee the proper fulfilment of the functions entrusted to higher-education teaching personnel and institutions.

It places an obligation on countries to protect higher education institutions from threats to their autonomy coming from any source.

According to UNESCO, there are three essential components of meaningful University Autonomy: Self-governance, collegiality and appropriate academic leadership.

Self governance refers to the ability of a University to exercise internal control or rule over itself. It refers to internal integrity and the ability of an institution to derive authority for its key decisions from within. Collegiality refers to shared power and authority vested among colleagues. In an autonomous university, decision making powers are exercised amongst scholars, students, staffs, and stakeholders in the academic environment in a fair and democratic way. As such, those decisions are autochthonous (i.e home grown) and derive legitimacy from within. The third aspect of University autonomy is appropriate academic leadership which refers to leadership at all relevant department levels of a University by the most qualified members of that University community. It refers to a meritocratic system in which the most qualified scholars are promoted to occupy leadership positions, based on the fundamental belief that power should be vested in individuals according to merit.

Historically, Nigeria’s University system had all these three trappings of being autonomous, collegial and self-governing. The Nigerian University system was in its early days influenced by the classical British system. For example, when the University College Ibadan was established in 1948 as Nigeria’s first University, its composition and structure was meticulously patterned after elite UK Universities such as the University College London and Oxford University. In the UK systems created in the thirteenth century and surviving more or less till date, the classical British university was a feudal institution grounded on the UNESCO model of an autonomous, collegial and self-governing system. As the former UK Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli, once famously remarked “A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning”. The classical UK University was controlled solely through a democratic system operated and run by tenured Professors and scholars. It was a compact system of organization in which leadership and responsibility were decentralized on the basis of expertise in scholarship. The classical university also was funded on a very restrictive base through private endowments, or benefaction by the wealthy and by the missionary with whom the university was closely allied in its origins.

This model of University governance began to fade globally after the Second World War; the influence of which continues to shape what we have in Nigeria today. After the Second World War, there was an exponential growth in the so-called welfare state idea. The warfare state recognized the benefits of public investment in the conduct of advanced learning, research, technology development, foreign policy and war. Governments began to recognise the relationships between a country’s war strategies and its abilities to produce technology through research. There was a therefore geometric rise in the level of relationships between governments and the universities. The result was the evolution of Universities and learning centers funded directly by governments. With increased funding came a sharp rise in governmental influence in key decisions on admissions, access, enrolment, faculty composition, tenure and the election of principal officers.  

The breakdown of the elite classical model of University education continued at an exponential rate with the take over of governments by military dictatorships in many parts of Africa. With military leadership in Nigeria came the added impetus for military authorities to curtail student demands and protests, checkmate University Staff Unions and influence key decisions such as governing council constitutions, university quotas, policies and structure. In the periods between 1966 to 1999 when Nigeria was under military rule, Nigerian University systems therefore became increasingly less autonomous, less collegial, and highly dependent on government for funding and for decision making. Government involvement increased with controls over the constitution and membership of Governing Councils, direct control over the appointment of key administrative officers of Universities; and financial controls. Simply put, Government became a key stakeholder and decision maker in Nigeria’s University systems. These relics of military rule are unfortunately still present today. As such, the reality of University education in Nigeria today remains that of perpetual demand by University authorities for more autonomy to internally decide, run and execute their own programs and policies.

Why is University Autonomy Important

Before I consider this question, I want to introduce you to the theoretical teachings of one of the greatest University reformers of all times- Sir Robert Menzies- the former Prime Minister of Australia- who is credited to be the father of University education and reform in Australia. When Menzies first became Prime Minister of Australia in 1939, there were six universities in Australia and 14,236 University students, in a country with a population of seven million. By the time he retired in 1966 there were 16 universities and 91,272 University students. One of the key principles advocated by Sir Menzies is the importance of  University autonomy. In an address on his first day as Prime Minister in 1939, he asked the questions, ‘What are we to look for in a true university? What causes should it serve?’. He then put forward answers in response to these questions.

In his words, the University must be:

·         a place of pure culture and learning;

·         a training school for the professions;

·         a liaison between the academician and the ‘good practical man’ (i.e a bridge between theoretical learning and its practical application);

·         the home of research;

·         a trainer of character;

·         a training ground for leaders,

·         a custodian of the unfettered search for truth; and

·         an autonomous institution.

Sir Menzies was emphatic in his words, that it is:

utterly undesirable that any government in a free country should tell a university what and how it is to teach…

He also noted:

I prefer to think of academic freedom as a precious and shining example of that kind of freedom which all thinking men and women want for themselves, and will not abandon without a struggleUniversities … are accorded a high degree of autonomy and self-determination on the ground that the particular services which they render, both to their country and to mankind in general, cannot be rendered without such freedom.

Sir Menzies advocated that the way to a strong higher education system was to create the conditions that allow universities to thrive, and to give them the freedom to chart their own course and then get on with it. 

I align with these highly cerebral views of Sir John Menzies. Adopting the previously quoted words of  Benjamin Disraeli, a University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning. Academic liberty and autonomy is a pre-requisite for true research and learning. Universities must be free to innovate – to try out new approaches to teaching and learning, and to research, untrammelled by excessive regulation or other burdens. Many Nigerian Universities are weighed down by
the bureaucratic demands of political correctness, reporting and regulation that stifle productivity and capacity to innovate.

University Scholars must also be free to air out results of findings without fear of backlash from funding agencies, governments and authorities. Of what use is knowledge that cannot be freely disseminated? The freedom to disseminate research knowledge is often hindered by internal screenings and vetting to avoid regulatory backlash thereby diluting the very essence and key findings of many important research endeavour.

Autonomy is also important to promote a culture of merit and fairness within the University system. In an era whereby many key University appointments and decisions are made from outside the University, meritocracy is eroded and replaced with nepotism, god-fatherism, lobbying and political patronage. The result is a system whereby the most eligible are often frustrated and left without promotions. This has led to the unsavoury situation in which the best currently do not thrive within Nigerian University systems. How can Nigerian Universities compete with the rest of the world when the best are not rewarded? How also can we demonstrate the virtues of hard work and merit to students when these values are not in demonstration within the walls of the University?

Autonomy is also vital to reduce the perennial tensions, clashes and strikes between Governments and University hierarchy. University authorities must be given the freedom to chart their own course and then implement without undue manipulations or interference by governments. When University authorities are allowed to design their own programs and empowered to execute and deliver them, they are morally bound to ensure that such programs succeed. This will lead to an increased sense of responsibility and ownership by Universities thereby eliminating some of the root causes of the recurrent strike actions in Nigeria. Like Judges, University officials must feel a sense of independence and job security while executing their sacred functions of knowledge dissemination to the country. A situation whereby government interferes in appointments, dismissals, promotions, tenure and administrative roles erodes Universities of their abilities to independently perform their primordial functions and roles without pressure.

Closely intertwined with this is the fact that Universities require autonomy to be able to attract and retain the very best minds. Many Universities in Nigeria are unable to compete with their foreign counterparts in recruiting the most qualified Professors and teachers, some of whom are Nigerians, but are now scattered in foreign destinations. To stem the tide of this brain drain, Universities must have the budget, freedom and financial independence to be able to recruit the very best at all times. For example at Afe Babalola University, we continuously scout for the best talents and recruit them. This is because we do not have to seek any governmental approval before doing so. It is this independence that allows a young University like ours to have recorded many landmark success within the last five years. Without financial independence, a University’s wings to fly is clipped and it is left to walk, or at best crawl.  

Autonomy is important to allow innovation and excellence. So many roads lead to the same destination, the ultimate destination for higher education is to have Nigerian Universities that can compete in terms of quality, standards and products that can compete neck-to-neck with other universities in the world. Universities must be allowed to internally innovate different ways to get to this destination. Universities are better placed to determine the problems they face and to develop solutions to them, after all there reside some of Nigeria’s finest and most talented minds. Nigerian Universities cannot be regulated into excellence. It is only through respecting the autonomy of universities that we can have the competition that drives the excellence, diversity and innovation that we need.

How then can we achieve true University Autonomy in Nigeria?

Essentials of University Autonomy

To answer the question posed earlier, when we speak of autonomy, what is the ideal situation. Is it a situation where the government must take no interest of any kind in university governance? Does it mean, on the other hand, that the government can impose a strategic direction, merely allowing universities to choose methods of implementation?  The answer lies somewhere in between these two rather different propositions.

Autonomy cannot mean that the government has no stake in universities and that its leaders should mind their own business; that would suggest a level of independence from anyone’s oversight that no other public body in the Nigerian society, whether public or private, enjoys by law. On the other hand autonomy, if it is to mean anything, must include the right of a university to determine its own strategy, taking into account the public interest. Simply put, autonomy for Nigerian Universities  should mean the right of a University to enjoy the core privileges of: academic freedom, substantive independence, and procedural self-governance, subject only to public accountability. I will briefly discuss these three elements.

1. Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is the right of the scholar in his/her teaching and research to follow the truth wherever it leads without fear of punishment for having violated some political, social or religious orthodoxy. For comparative purposes, Section 14 of the Irish Universities Act 1997 provides an excellent analogy of academic freedom, It states that:

A member of the academic staff … shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions, and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.

Justice Frankfurter’s opinion in the US Case of  Sweezy v New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250, 77 S.Ct.1203, l L.Ed.2d 1311, 1957, also illuminates what academic freedom entails. he noted:

the four essential freedoms of a university are– to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.

A University should not be coerced to make admission and tenure decisions based on political, federal character or other non-academic basis. Academic freedom encompasses the rights of the University to determine academic issues based solely on what it considers the most meritorious. A University should have the capacity to decide on overall student numbers on the criteria for selecting them.

Academic freedom is not just an idea for publicly funded Universities. Rather it is a value that should be recognized and practiced in any university, public or private, that wants to claim the title of a University. Universities must remain the place for unadulterated research and learning. A situation where Universities are coerced whether directly or indirectly into making admission, tenure and appointment decisions on non-academic grounds is an affront to autonomy. Furthermore, a situation in some countries whereby truth is distorted or teachings are altered, academic freedom is also eroded. For example in China and Libya where there have been allegations that Universities are forced to indoctrinate students on the supremacy of the President or where academic publications are altered and doctored by University authorities to avoid the wrath of the government, University autonomy is eroded. In an autonomous system, scholars and faculty members are accorded primacy in academic matters.

2. Substantive Independence

To determine the level of autonomy enjoyed by a University, the first source to examine is the enabling Act or law establishing the University. This spells out the level of regulatory or governmental involvement in the day to day running of the University. Typically, many enabling University Charters in Nigeria vest the Government a strong influence and control over routine University decisions and issues. Substantive independence deals with enabling and empowering the University to carry out its roles and mission without overbearing governmental influence. This includes: Freedom to select University leadership and holders of key administrative positions; Freedom to allocate funds (within the amounts available) across different categories of expenditure. Including the freedom to keep surplus money from budgets; ability to borrow money; ability to decide what to charge as tuitions for foreign nationals; Freedom to select staff and students and to determine the conditions under which they remain in the university and the capacity to decide on salaries amongst others.

For example in many UK Universities, Chairs of Governing Councils including Visitors and Pro-Chancellors are elected by staff, students and other stakeholders. Even if we currently do not have the structure to implement such a process in Nigeria, University leadership should at the least have strong inputs in the selection of members of the Governing Council who ultimately go a long way in shaping the destinies of the Universities.

Similarly, Universities must be free to decide divide and distribute their funding internally according to their priorities needs without restrictions.

3. Procedural Self Governance

Autonomy is as much a matter of how universities are constituted, as it a matter of how they are led. Procedural self governance refers to independence and freedom of Universities to formulate and design their own strategies and to freely implement them. This is different from the freedom to choose appropriate management methods to implement the strategy put in place by the government for Universities. In an autonomous system, the University formulates its own strategies and decides exactly how it hopes to carry out its programs and missions.

The tasks of University Governance should be wholesomely formulated by the Governing Council, on paper and in practice. The Governing Council should without undue governmental influence be given the freedom to formulate growth strategies for the University. The Governing Council should be directly responsible for overseeing the institution’s activities, determining its future direction and fostering an environment in which the institutional mission is achieved and the potential of all staffs and students are maximised.Council should be the final arbiter on rules that determine the appointment and dismissal of key administrative heads of the University without interference or final approval by the Government.

3. Balancing Autonomy with Accountability for public finance

One of the key questions that reoccur is that public universities are funded by the government and by public monies, should the government not then have a right to oversee how public funds are spent, and to decide how government strategies are implemented in those public institutions. I hasten to mention that accountability for public and private funds is entirely compatible with autonomy. Autonomy does not mean the absence of regulations. Indeed, accountability for public funds is essential to continuing public support for the substantial investment of public money in a system of essentially autonomous universities.

The answer to this is internal integrity and transparency by University officials. As mentioned earlier, the only permitted variation to the right of a University to enjoy the core privileges of: academic freedom, substantive independence, and procedural self-governance, is public accountability. Universities must promote a culture of openness in order to justify continued autonomy. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis a famous former Justice of the US Supreme Court once noted while speaking on transparency:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

Accountability is the obligation to demonstrate that a University and its resources have been administered and utilized in accordance with agreed rules and standards and to report fairly and accurately on performance results vis-à-vis mandated roles and/or plans. The 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel provides a definitive answer on how to balance University autonomy with public accountability:

In view of the substantial financial investments made, Member States and higher education institutions should ensure a proper balance between the level of autonomy enjoyed by higher education institutions and their systems of accountability. Higher education institutions should endeavour to open their governance in order to be accountable. They should be accountable for:  

(a) effective communication to the public concerning the nature of their educational mission;

(b) a commitment to quality and excellence in their teaching, scholarship and research functions, and an obligation to protect and ensure the integrity of their teaching, scholarship and research against intrusions inconsistent with their academic missions;

(c) effective support of academic freedom and fundamental human rights;

(d) ensuring high quality education for as many academically qualified individuals as possible subject to the constraints of the resources available to them;

(e) a commitment to the provision of opportunities for lifelong learning, consistent with the mission of the institution and the resources provided;

(f) ensuring that students are treated fairly and justly, and without discrimination;

(g) adopting policies and procedures to ensure the equitable treatment of women and minorities and to eliminate sexual and racial harassment;

(h) ensuring that higher education personnel are not impeded in their work in the classroom or in their research capacity by violence, intimidation or harassment;

(i) honest and open accounting;

(j) efficient use of resources;

(k) the creation, through the collegial process and/or through negotiation with organizations representing higher-education teaching personnel, consistent with the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, of statements or codes of ethics to guide higher education personnel in their teaching, scholarship, research and extension work;

(l) assistance in the fulfilment of economic, social, cultural and political rights while striving to prevent the use of knowledge, science and technology to the detriment of those rights, or for purposes which run counter to generally accepted academic ethics, human rights and peace;

(m) ensuring that they address themselves to the contemporary problems facing society; to this end, their curricula, as well as their activities, should respond, where appropriate, to the current and future needs of the local community and of society at large, and they should play an important role in enhancing the labour market opportunities of their graduates;

(n) encouraging, where possible and appropriate, international academic co-operation which transcends national, regional, political, ethnic and other barriers, striving to prevent the scientific and technological exploitation of one state by another, and promoting equal partnership of all the academic communities of the world in the pursuit and use of knowledge and the preservation of cultural heritages;

(o) ensuring up-to-date libraries and access, without censorship, to modern teaching, research and information resources providing information required by higher-education teaching personnel or by students for teaching, scholarship or research;

(p) ensuring the facilities and equipment necessary for the mission of the institution and their proper upkeep;

(q) ensuring that when engaged in classified research it will not contradict the educational mission and objectives of the institutions and will not run counter to the general objectives of peace, human rights, sustainable development and environment.

Autonomy therefore does not mean freedom from accountability and internal integrity. Universities must be ready to play their own part by promoting public disclosure mechanisms through which budgets, spending, policies and practices are proactively disclosed to the public and to governments. This would include the need to establish  public disclosure systems to release such information on a regular basis, even when governments or the public do not specifically make requests for such information. Internally, there is a need to establish a comprehensive information management system that allows members of the University community to receive the latest and most up to date information about programs, funding, tenure and promotions. The aim must be to reduce the culture of secrecy in governance and to ensure that the right to receive information is not only reactive, but also proactive. University authorities must demonstrate that they have established a system of publishing information suo motu (proactively) on their own volition.  

Strong accountability system will place a requirement on University Administrators to outline a strategic plan and an agenda, and to bear the responsibility for reporting publicly on that agenda, consulting on it, and disseminating progress reports on it . The requirement here is to publish and inform the public about the University’s strategies and mission as soon as such information is available, even when members of the public have made no request. Examples of information that should be constantly released through public disclosure programmes include operational information, budgeting and costs, policies on promotions, procedures for public input, and the details of decisions taken regarding issues affecting the public for example admission policies etc.

Such disclosure serves the purpose of bringing the University community together to engage in a very public dialogue about what the priorities in the institution should be, why they are the way they are, how resources are allocated, why we want strong solidarity and support from the public around these priorities and resource allocation, and about what progress we are making in terms of managing change to achieve set targets and objectives.


In conclusion, Nigerian Universities need academic freedom, substantive independence and procedural governance which will greatly assist university governance including appointment of university governing councils, empower universities to raise the much needed funds from sources other than government as practised in other countries thereby enabling public universities to cope with the multifarious problems affecting public universities in Nigeria.

One thing is certain; Nigeria has the requisite human and capital resources to boast of the strongest, most collegial and the most autonomous University system in the world. I look forward to working with you to make it happen.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you once again for the opportunity given to me and for your time.




President and Founder, Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti

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