TETFund … Re-igniting dying research culture in Ivory Towers

 
Sun Nov 15th, 2020 - Abuja (FCT)
 

When Prof. Abubakar Kundiri took the reins as vice-chancellor of the Federal University, Wukari (FUWUKARI), Taraba State, he presided over an institution with sparse infrastructure, which made both learning and operations arduous and cumbersome.

Like a determined academic and administrator, it was within his remit to transform the young institution into a conducive atmosphere for qualitative education.

Luckily for Kundiri, he a willing partner in the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), which weathered the storm with the institution, leading to the commissioning of at least 30 projects, including university library, laboratories; information and communication centre; student hostels; buildings for all faculties; sports facilities; convocation square; academic staff offices; academic staff quarters and municipal facilities among others.

At the inauguration of the projects, Kundiri remarked: “Through the support of TETFund, we have continued to transform the face of the university toward meeting our goals of developing into a world-class university that is dedicated to meeting the human resource and research requirements of Nigeria and the global community.”

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So unprecedented was the action in the life of the institution that the vice chancellor lauded the TETFund for aiding the transformation of the school into a true citadel of learning.

It was in similar vein that the Vice Chancellor, Federal University, Dutse, Prof. Fatima Batul Mukhtar, late last year confessed that TETFund has contributed immensely to the accelerated development witnessed in the school through its interventions.

She said: “I thank TETFund for providing the necessary funding to execute noble projects in the school. They have gone a long way in accelerating our development to the level that we are today, and securing accreditation for our programmes from the National Universities Commission (NUC).

“We would ensure that the university becomes a service to the community and to national development. I would like to say with all sincerity that establishing TETFund was the best thing that had happened to higher education in Nigeria.”

In January, the Executive Secretary of TETFund, Prof. Suleiman Elias Bogoro, commissioned four major projects worth about N5b at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), Bauchi State.

This year also, TETFund has sponsored the construction of faculties of management sciences, life sciences and physical sciences, at the Ambrose Alli University, (AAU), Ekpoma, Edo State, while Bogoro, late last year commissioned eight projects at the Umaru Musa Yar’adua University, Katsina State, including buildings in faculty of basic medical sciences.

Over the years, TETFund, which mission is to provide focused and transformative intervention in public tertiary institutions through funding and effective project management, has invested billions of naira in providing quality infrastructure for these institutions, thereby boosting giving the learning environment a boost.

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Established as an intervention agency under the TETFund ACT 2011, the body is among other things, charged with the responsibility of disbursing, managing, and monitoring the education tax to public tertiary institutions in Nigeria.

The Act imposes a two per cent education tax on the assessable profit of all registered companies, and the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), is empowered by the Act to assess and collect this tax.

The outfit, which administers the tax so imposed, disburses the amount to tertiary educational institutions at federal and state levels, as well as monitors executed projects with the funds by beneficiary institutions.

Intervention Agency Turned Major Projects Sponsor
DEPENDING on the prism that matters are viewed from, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) may sometimes be considered an irritant on account of its never-ending industrial actions, which have been of mixed blessings to tertiary education. But without a doubt, one of the best things that have come out of ASUU’s persistent strike actions is the creation of the defunct Education Tax Fund, which metamorphosed into TETFund.

Put differently, it would be scary to imagine what tertiary education in the country would be like without the agency’s intervention. Ranging from federal to state-owned universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, the TETFund’s imprimatur is boldly stamped across the country to the point that some state government-owned institutions seem to have abandoned capital projects in their schools to TETFund.

Since inception, TETFund, a classic case of what Japanese refer to as “good thinking, good product” has disbursed trillions of naira to better over 220 universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education that are within its purview. It is instructive to note that the agency’s interventions in the last three years and what it plans to spend in 2021 put together is in the region of N1 trillion.

Chairman of TETFund Board, Alhaji Kashim Ibrahim-Imam, who is leading the Board of Trustees on a tour of Nigerian varsities and other higher institutions in a pioneering move that promises to engineer a paradigm shift in its interventions, last week announced that going forward, e-learning would enjoy priority in the agency’s interventions across Nigeria.

Ibrahim-Imam explained: “TETFund has invested $360 million in science, engineering, and technology equipment for 73 universities in the past six years. However, it wouldn’t do for us to just be throwing money about. We want the money that we are spending to impact most positively on the academia; on the faculties; on the students; on learning, and on research.”

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He continued: “TETFund has designated the University of Abuja as a Centre of Excellence. We have 12 centres of excellence spread across the country, and we are investing N1 billion in each of them. But we have also, in consultation with the vice chancellors, decided that each of the universities will focus on one critical area. For Abuja, it is governance and leadership.

“For the year 2020, I am happy to inform you that by the time we are done this year, we are looking at spending a total of N10 billion on critical infrastructure in the University of Abuja.

“There is one very critical element that is the most important today, namely e-learning. So, TETFund, in consultation with the University of Abuja will be investing in laying the necessary infrastructure that will facilitate e-learning on this campus. Towards this, already as I speak, 20km of fibre optics are being laid across the University,” Ibrahim-Imam said.

The former executive secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola, is in sync with the leadership of the board over the paradigm shift in view of the gains doing so will bring about.

According to him, “the first step in determining the thrust of research, or serving a group of people, or an institution is to conduct a needs assessment. With respect to research, one of the critical questions in the process is: what are the challenges facing our local communities, our country, our region (Africa) and the world that need to be tackled through research? You cannot sit in your laboratory and dream up such challenges. You need to go to the field to collect data on where the shoe pinches. This is what TETFund is doing now that you have labelled paradigm shift.”

He continued: “Professor Bogoro and his management are not sitting in their cosy offices in Abuja and conjuring the needs of the stakeholders that they serve. The benefits of this approach, that is reaching out are legion. I will mention a few. It will lead to the identification and spotlighting of the exact areas needing intervention. This will ensure that money is not wasted on irrelevancies (the chaff), but concentrated on the actual areas of need (the wheat).

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“Second, since stakeholders are consulted, it will foster a sense of belongingness of such stakeholders to the tenets of the operations of TETFund. Third, it will project a good image of transparency and accountability for TETFund,” Okebukola, who is Council Chairman, National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) stated.

Confronting National, Regional Challenges With Improved Research And Development (R&D) Culture
THE importance and benefits of research to a nation are enormous, and they cut across every sector of its national life, ranging from economy, security, education just to mention a few.

Since mounting the saddle, Bogoro who has consistently preached that “raising the research and development (R&D) commitment of any nation means recognising the fact that research renews knowledge and enhances teaching/learning in every sense.” He also believes that “research and development propelled by higher education has contributed to the rise and expansion of the world’s knowledge economy.”

Bogoro first arrived at TETFund as executive secretary in 2014. Barely two years in office, he was, in 2016 removed due to alleged misappropriation of funds, by the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government. After a thorough review of the case against him, he was found innocent, and ordered to return to work by the president.

Not only has he furthered TETFund’s impact on federal and state-owned tertiary institutions, he is pulling out all the stops to deepen R&D, which he insists is one of TETFund’s “top priorities this year because proper research and development will fast-track industrial growth, thereby enhancing productivity and human empowerment in Nigeria.

Among other factors, his strong push for the realisation of this led to President Buhari approving an increase of the TETFund’s National Research Fund (NRF), to N7.5 billion for the year 2020, from an initial N3 billion. The latest approval makes the agency the largest holder of research grants in Nigeria.

That notwithstanding, Bogoro at the inauguration of TETFund’s R&D Standing Committee, in Abuja, made a case for the promulgation of a law that will bring into full force, a National R&D Foundation (NRDF) to deepen research in the country, as well as urged the Federal Government to increase its annual funding for R&D to $1 billion every year.

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In rating the effect of investments so far made by TETFund in R&D, and whether the country is getting value for money, Okebukola, a Professor of Science Education said: “For about 19 years, that is, since 2001 when I was executive secretary of the National Universities Commission, I have had some close contact with the operations of TETFund and its precursor entity, the Education Trust Fund (ETF). I am not sure of what your response scale is for this question. If it is on a 10-point scale from “no effect” to “highly positive effect”, I will pin the needle on seven; this gives us 70 per cent. If you ask me the same question in another five years, I speculate that my answer would be eight, that is 80 per cent. With sustained investment, this impact will keep hiking by the year. Reason? The effect of investment in research like dividends of investment in education, does not manifest the next day like planting maize and seeing it germinate in a few days. Research impact is seen over a long period of time, not the next day. The growing literature on demonstratable impact of research is replete with evidence that on the average, societal (national, regional, not village-level) impact of research is visible in about five to 10 years. This is so because, the typical sequence is to pilot run, adjust methodology on the basis of pilot study experience, and then implement on a large scale. Thereafter, you can start counting the eggs of the dividends!

“On the matter of value for money, having not conducted value-for-money audit of the investment of TETFund on research, I have no empirical data to provide a direct answer, but I will speculatively say that we are getting value for money based on what I gleaned from the research activities going on in our universities. My speculation, by the way, derives from the 2017, 2018 and 2019 NUC’s State of Nigerian Universities report, by Prof. Abubakar Adamu Rasheed, who is leading the revitalisation agenda known as the Rasheed Revolution. In these reports, all universities report their teaching, research and community service activities. In the research segment of the reports, all the 170 universities that reported in 2017 and 2018 attest to the grant from TETFund being the lever for most of their success stories in research in addressing a number of national and regional challenges. That said, I am sure we do not have 100 per cent value from the research investment. I point to three hurdles- low capacity of some of the researchers to conduct high-quality studies; infrastructural incapacitation of the system especially power, and compromised level of accountability in the utilisation of research funds,” he noted.

Experts believe that without a multi-discipline research agenda/plan, especially in the sciences, engineering and medicine, the country may not make a lot of progress despite having so much research grant available. Okebukola corroborates this point.

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He said: “The world of today and of tomorrow is one of multidisciplinarity not “cocoonisation” (I coined the word in 2003 to mean operating in a lone, self-delusory world). If research is to make significant impact at the national regional and global levels, several disciplinary actors must be called to duty. If, as an agriculturist, you are researching a problem relating to food security, you need to probe its impact on the economy and sociology of the community. So, you will need an economist and a sociologist in your team. I am always suspicious of single author research publications, especially from our side of the world. Experience has shown that data from such research are of doubtful integrity. However, with many more scholars in the team, chances of fudging or cooking data are near zero, except of course, if all members of the team are of the same crooked ilk. I was unable to attend the research meeting called by TETFund about a month ago on account of some engagements that clashed with the meeting date, but the feelers I got were that TETFund is encouraging multi-author, multidisciplinary research.”

On when the country would begin to reap the benefits of TETFund’s National Research Fund (NRF), especially now that it has been jerked to N7.5 billion, Okebukola, who is the President, Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi-Africa) said: “We have started reaping the benefits, even now, though in trickles. But in the next 10 to 20 years, the benefits will come tumbling down on us like rain. Professor Elias Bogoro has never ceased to amaze me. The Bogoro-led TETFund took a giant step in focusing, as Nigerians would say “shining his eyes” on research. The reason is simple. A major defining attribute of a good university is its research standing. When Nigerian universities are blamed for poor showing on global ranking league tables, it is largely because we are research Lilliputians. What is important is to sustain, indeed, significantly increase the regime of research funding and ensure that we follow a clearly-defined and cohesive research agenda that will address socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-political challenges battering us from right and left.

“I find it amusing when people refer to N7.5 billion as huge and massive research grant. This money will only scratch the surface of serious research that address some of our scientific and medical challenges. It is less than the grant to support research by a small research team at MIT or Harvard! What Nigeria should do is to take the TETFund grant as a component of the larger purse of grants available nationally. If we reduce corruption and leakages in the financial system, a lot will be available to Nigerian researchers, and we would not have to depend on TETFund as the major, indeed the sole financier of research in our universities. Also noteworthy is that our researchers should be equipped with skills to write grant-winning proposals to access the huge funds available for research in the global donor space,” the Chairman of Council, Crawford University, added.
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Also asked to hazard a guess on when the country would begin reaping the benefits her investment in R&D, a Distinguished Professor, University of Lagos, Ayodeji Olukoju said: “If the funds are disbursed objectively and expeditiously, and targeted at specific national issues, there is hope that this will be achieved. But that will take time and also require necessary supporting infrastructure – up-to-date libraries and laboratories; motivated personnel (the poor pay of tertiary education workers is demoralising and distracting); stable academic calendar and a conducive national political economy. Good research costs money and takes time, and the process of translating findings to measurable impact beginning with patents also takes time. We should note that even when research findings point to a solution, it requires a proactive private sector, or government agency to convert research findings into end products, while relevant end users need to convert them into policies and products. My hunch is that government and the private sector prefer foreign sources, and look down on local research efforts and findings.”

On gains so far received from investment in research, Olukoju, a former Vice Chancellor, Caleb University, Imota, Lagos State said: “I have not studied TETFund disbursements and the impact of its intervention. But my observation is that grants are duly disbursed and research conducted on a regular basis. Value for money depends on certain parameters: rate of completion; retirement and reports; outcomes in terms of publications, impact on public policy, patents, etc. That will require independent research on its own. So, I cannot be definitive. In the interim, I will say that, prima facie, it has fulfilled its mandate.”

In April last year, Bogoro deplored the alleged low capacity of Nigerian professors to write fundable research proposals hence their inability to access global grants for impactful research works. Asked to weigh in on the issue, Olukoju said: “As a pupil teacher many years ago, my headmaster used to say, ‘every trade has its own secrets.’ This applies here. The skills for writing academic papers differ from those required in writing grant-winning proposals. Prof. Bogoro’s assessment is fair given the rate of failure of proposals submitted to TETFund. To be sure, even well written proposals fail for some other reasons, because stiff competition is involved in the selection. Here at the University of Lagos, and I assume elsewhere as well, regular workshops are organised to build capacity, and there is a specific Research Unit that chaperons applications for TETFund grants. That accounts for our high rate of success in recent years. In the end, only a limited number of grants can be funded at any time and this means that applicants need special training to develop competitive applications, which also comply with applications guidelines. It is also clear that one may not always win a grant at the first attempt.”

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Baring his mind on why most professors are discouraged from accessing research funds, the Vice Chancellor of Christopher University, Mowe, Ogun State, Prof. Friday Nwankwo Ndubuisi said: The truth is that most professors are discouraged from accessing research funds because of the frustration associated with it most times. It is sad that you would spend your time and resources to present a good proposal only for it to be rejected at the end of the day for non-justifiable reasons. But it is interesting that there is a new spirit and dynamism in TETFund now. With their emphasis on partnership and corroboration, more professors are showing interest in research now.”

Investment In e-Learning As Next Frontier for TETFund
LIKE most other stakeholders, both Olukoju and Ndubuisi are united in their views that TETFund is making great strides in the area of infrastructure in the area of research. But they want a lot of attention paid to e-learning and other critical areas.

Said Olukoju: “My impression is that TETFund (and ETF before it) has invested heavily in physical infrastructure as seen on many campuses. This is commendable though questions have often been asked in respect of how contracts for such projects were awarded, and the quality of work done, as well as the rate of completion. In other words, projects should be audited to avoid sub-standard, abandoned or incomplete projects. Beyond that, attention should be paid to the maintenance of such facilities, which is often not the case. As regards e-learning, it should be clear from our COVID-19 pandemic experience, that we should invest more in e-learning platforms and Internet bandwidth.

“First, it is necessary in anticipation of a similar situation in the future, where virtual or distance learning is necessitated by public health concerns. Second, well before this pandemic, it was increasingly clear that we could not possibly provide enough physical classrooms, laboratories, libraries and hostels to accommodate millions of prospective learners on our campuses. This makes investment in e-learning the next frontier for TETFund.”

On his part, Ndubuisi said: “I think there are many areas that TETFund can intervene to make both research and learning not only interesting, but also rewarding. For instance most of the equipment in science and engineering faculties are either obsolete, or in bad shape. This obviously slows down research. For instance, I am sure that no public university in Nigeria has high-performance computer sets not to talk of supercomputers. They are expensive to acquire, but in universities in the West have them and they are in fact, a necessity for research.

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“Aside this, most public universities lack e-libraries, and in cases where they have, they are not up to date. These are critical areas in information technology that TETFund should look into. Without a doubt, TETFund is interested in the quality of the services that it renders. I have also seen the quality of structure that they deliver in many institutions, including the University of Lagos. This is why I make bold to say that TETFund is a great idea, which should be encouraged further to move university education in the country to enviable standards. But the Act should be amended to accommodate private universities and scholarship awards, especially locally to deserving students.

Accommodating Private Varsities Is In Nigeria’s Interest
AS stakeholders continue to call for an amendment to the TETFund Act 2011 in order to accommodate the interest of private tertiary institutions, Olukoju, a former vice chancellor of a private university and the current pro-chancellor of another maintains that he has been “an advocate for government’s assistance to private universities, especially in the critical area of research. I am convinced that investment in human capacity development benefits everyone, as academic staff and researchers migrate from public to private universities, and vice versa. Hence, no investment in human capital development is lost as its beneficiaries are retained in the tertiary education sector, all pursuing the same objectives, and their products are injected into the same pool, the national economy. Till date, virtually all the Pro-Chancellors and Vice Chancellors and a vast majority of academic staff in the private universities are products of public universities. So, it makes sense to bring private universities under the big tent of TETFund’s intervention in academic research.”

While blaming the shut out of scholars from private varsities from TETFund’s research grant on the agency’s mandate, he added: “From my experience, serious research is undertaken on the PhD programme, even though findings are often tentative or inchoate. This is why we have post-doctoral research grants schemes. It is understandable if the current mandate of the Fund does not include graduate training because TETFund cannot possibly cover everything under the sun. Ironically, it is at the PhD level that many good candidates need help and quite a number have had to drop out for lack of financial support.

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Others spend many more years on the programme for the same reason.”
TETFund appears to be disposed to the idea of Ph.D holders in private and public universities partnering in the area of research, just as there there is also a post-doctoral research that even private universities could benefit from, especially for fresh Ph.D holders. Commenting on why private universities are not taking advantage of this foray into new research areas, Olukoju said: “The idea of a post-doctoral research grants scheme is laudable as it enables PhD holders to be grounded in research, while making career choices in the first five years after graduation. Postdocs in foreign countries have helped many of us in building a career in academics. That said, it is premature and unfair to expect private universities, many of which are struggling to survive and establish a reputation, to be jostling with much older and better-funded public universities in research. This is an unfair comparison and competition. However, I am aware that some private universities, Redeemer’s University being a well-known example, have won big international grants as centres of excellence. The truth is that excellent research can be conducted anywhere a conducive environment (institutional good governance, adequate funding, research facilities, relatively light teaching load, good remuneration, etc) is provided, and experienced and committed researchers are clustered.”

Ndubuisi on his part is displeased that despite several calls for the agency to patronise private universities in R&D, there is yet to be positive response on this.

He stressed: “It is necessary for the agency to listen to the voice of reasons to patronise private universities. They can insist on joint researches between private and public universities. The truth now is that most private universities don’t just have erudite scholars now, they have both good environment and facilities for good researches.

It is time really to amend the act to accommodate private universities especially in the area of research and development. They can also be assisted in the provision of infrastructural facilities. Private universities have assisted immensely in decongesting public universities and making university education available to those that have the capacity and can, at the same time afford it. By extending assistance to the private universities, there will be strong moral grounds to plead with them to reduce their fees to more affordable levels. I know Nigerian professors are not only sound academically, they are hardworking and can compete internationally.”

Knocks By Aggrieved Stakeholders
ONE of the major criticisms against TETFund by stakeholders, which has continued to linger is its “unusually stringent guidelines” for accessing intervention funds by beneficiaries, even as the failure of many academics to secure funding for their research works after many trials is becoming a recurring challenge, which has forced some scholars to look at the agency as a very frustrating outfit.

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However, in an earlier interaction with The Guardian, Bogoro explained that, “the issue of slow access to intervention funds by beneficiaries was the first challenge I met upon assumption of office …. Working with the board of trustees, we quickly rallied round stakeholders in an attempt to address the issue. We told the stakeholders to assess us honestly and point out our areas of weakness. We also told them to be prepared to hear our frank views. That meeting led to the emergence of an improved version of our guidelines. But there were no major changes because the guidelines of TETFund were well thought out and very detailed. The point though has to be stressed, and that is, our guidelines are rigid because we want to protect public funds, and our robust and effective guidelines help us to achieve that.”

Not considering private varsities for assistance, as well as not extending research grants to doctorate degree holders in these institutions is another factor that riles many, who are quick to point to the fact that the education tax is largely sourced from private business outfits.

TETFund always maintains that it is very sensitive to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). But a seven-storey building library building it is sponsoring at the University of Lagos collapsed not long ago, and the development is now questioning the integrity of its projects and monitoring departments.

Asked to comment, Olukoju, who is also the Pro-Chancellor, Chrisland University, Abeokuta, said: “As a committee is investigating the matter, I cannot possibly comment on it in the absence of a report.”

Ndubuisi, while defending the stringent guidelines by TETFund said, “it has reasons for this, and I think because it wants to ensure proper accountability and proper usage of funds that are at its disposal. While I encourage the agency to patronise PhD holders in private universities, it is important to be careful in order not to patronise those that will not make proper use of the funds granted them.”

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source: Guardian