I’m in a hurry to grow Abia Polytechnic –Onukaogu

Elder A.A. Onukaogu, Rector of the Abia State Polytechnic Aba, is widely known as a man in a hurry to build his institution.  He has since 2007, driven its transformation so that Abia Polytechnic is now seen as the fastest growing technical /vocational education centre in Nigeria. In this chat with Ojiaku Kalu – senior Analyst, Education, he extols the state government’s support for his efforts. Excerpts:

So far, how would you describe your second tenure?

Very exciting, especially as I did not have to confront any obstacle in being reappointed; particularly because the proprietor and the people of Abia State were very happy with my first tenure. But it is also challenging in a way that if I was reappointed because they expect so much, then the challenge is that I must not disappoint them. That has been my guiding principle, not to disappoint those that have reposed so much confidence in me.

What are the highlights of the Chief T.A. Orji’s policy on education, and how are they being interpreted in your institution?

The founding fathers of this institution did not make a mistake when they located it in Aba. The idea was that we should harness the technical skills of the people, polish them, and then re-inject them into the society. So that they would not just produce, they would also produce quantitatively and qualitatively. But you see, after they evolved that philosophy and cited the school here, there was virtually nothing done before we come in, to translate such lofty goals into practical reality; because the polytechnic, before 2007, was not more than a business school. In olden days we would call it a commercial school.

But since 2007, and the good thing is that both of us – the governor and I, came into office the first time in 2007. Since then this institution has been transformed from a monotechnic, commercial school, to a full polytechnic that commands respect among its contemporaries.

It now offers various courses in science, engineering, and all other technological areas. So, when I say all these coincide with his being a governor, it’s another way of saying he has  turned this place into a real polytechnic, so that we are now in a better position to meet the  lofty goals of the founding founders of this great institution when they located it here in Aba.

How do you presently stand with the accreditation of your programmes?

We are very, very current. In fact, we have invited them to resource inspection for our engineering sciences: Welding engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering and computer engineering. So, we are ready. The buildings are there, the equipment have been procured.

Besides the engineering sciences, we have also invited the NBTE for resource inspection for our food science, for our catering technology and hospitality management. Today, tourism has become a very high – yielding aspect of the economy. We don’t want Abians in particularly and Igbos in general, to be left out of this aspect of our national growth. Everything is ready for take off. Besides, the aforementioned, every other programme here is accredited – either at ND, HND or both. We have no deficit in terms of accreditation; and this is because the patronage of government in this regard is very high.

Compared to the last time we were here, there is a great deal of development on your campus. What happened?

Thank you very much. If you come in the next six months you will see even greater differences, and these differences have become a challenge. You can see the Faculty of Engineering block, massive structure, the Hospitality block, massive structure. There is also by the gate, what we call Book House, there is the sports complex, all coming in one swoop. I have pleaded with the governor to come so we could name one of those structures after him. But being a very humble, modest person, he seems to be shy about this type of publicity. Our thinking is that, given his high support for education, we should show appreciation to him. Again, you see the pedestrian crossing which the governor built for us.

In fact, I didn’t even request for it. But I know that as a governor who sees and knows our pains, he must have passed there once in a while and seeing the congestion, the risk the condition posed to our students, he decided to save the situation. And on his

own, I got a letter from him informing me that the contract had been awarded and that the contractors were coming to see me. A day after I got the letter, the contractors visited us and indeed, started work on the site three days later. Within a period of four months from date of inception the work was completed and handed over.

You can see that it has enhanced the aesthetic value of our surroundings. But beyond the aesthetics, there was the risk to lives as well as the congestion; but all those have now been taken away. So I think am a lucky rector to be running the polytechnic when an education conscious governor is on the throne.

Given your vast cognate experience in the sector, what have you seen as major problems in the management of tertiary education in Nigeria?

Well, the problem I see in tertiary education management generally is actually that the raw materials that we hire and admit, all over the country, are generally deficient. Because education at the primary and secondary levels has not been given adequate attention, the materials we take in find it difficult to cope.

As a result, instead of being lecturers, we are now teachers. Imparting knowledge at the tertiary level is such that the emphasis is on training the students to be able to research, to be research – minded. That is why we lecture, and at the end of lectures, you give a list of books, referring them to the libraries.  But because the students, upon admission these days, virtually have nothing substantial from the secondary and primary bases, you are forced to become a teacher, instead of maintaining your appropriate position as a lecturer. This is indeed, because out of sympathy, you go back to making up the deficiency, filling the void created at the primary and secondary levels.

When you as an instructor are forced to do at the university what should have been done at the secondary school within the same period of time, the quality of tertiary education definitely will be affected.

Let me give an example. For the past five to 10 years, the NUC has only allowed to come into being, what they call universities of science and technologies. Add that to the polytechnics, colleges of education and other allied institutions, and note also that the conventional universities still run programmes in the core science / engineering areas. When you have this in mind, and the government insists the emphasis at the polytechnics should be on science and technology at the ratio of 70/30 in favor of science and technology, the picture begins to form.

Now I’m not sure we have up to 60 sound technical colleges the whole of Nigeria, but we have nearly 200 tertiary institutions that will be recruiting from these supposed feeder technical colleges. Even the conventional secondary schools do not have physics/chemistry labs. There are so many vacancies in those areas which governments are not filling because they don’t have the money. So, you see that the quality of products from that area are low. If they had been well groomed before coming into the higher institutions, then you lecture and expose them to self study. But because they come with no foundation on which you could build, you are forced to start teaching all over again; and unfortunately, you will be required to achieve the expected result within the same period of time.

The other challenge is I’m not very comfortable with the frequency with which industrial actions are embarked upon at the tertiary level. Why I am so worried is that the reason given for the incessant actions has always bordered on lecturers remuneration. And I know that the universities and polytechnics are places where staffers are better paid now. People are now leaving other jobs – including the banks, to come into lecturing.

Given this constant agitation over pay, academic calendar is hardly completed, and this in turn, affects teaching and learning at that level. I think governments are trying, but they should also make available more resources for equipment – especially for the old universities and polytechnics. They should be constantly updated with modern facilities. The facilities for teaching engineering now are not the facilities used 40/50 years ago. If they are not replaced, productivity will be affected.  Not only in engineering, same goes for medicine and after disciplines.

I find it annoying that our people go to faraway India to do small procedures in surgery. A very close friend of mine, a former member of the governing council of this institution, just returned from treating asthma in India. It is so worrisome! And to think that just 30-40 years ago, these people were roaming here begging to be allowed to do menial jobs. But today they are much more focused and ahead of us.

Just imagine the airfare alone; and you know that anybody going for such medical tourism needs some people to accompany him/ her to ensure adequate welfare. Besides the cost of treatment, cost of airfare and feeding is unimaginable. But our medical schools and tertiary health institutions could be well equipped with this financial wastage and still, treatment will be cheaper.  So, those are some of the challenges we have in the management of tertiary education in Nigeria, and I wonder how they are going to be addressed.

Being located in the commercial city of Aba, are you taking advantage of the environment to instill entrepreneurship in your students?

I will tell the PRO to take you to our Entrepreneurial Centre where we teach our students shoe making and fashion business. We have a very large centre and in there, we are constantly developing new business ideas that will be of benefit to our students. The idea is that besides our normal academic programmes, our products get extra trainings in entrepreneurship.  There is the shoemaking, fashion, fish farming, welding (Aba is best known for fabrication in the West Africa sub-region). We want to give some quality trainings to people around here. So, we are integrating some formal education into their technical skills, so that they on the outside would earn dignity for their street knowledge.  We are establishing also, a Computer Village – with full internet facilities that would take in 2,500 persons at a time. We are getting integrated into the community; making ourselves corporate citizens that are also responsible to our immediate environment. As I told you earlier on, the founding fathers of this institution had that in mind, and we are now fulfilling it.

Entrepreneurial education has become part of what we do here. And while it is good to give the students that much needed aspect of education, it is beyond merely desiring to do so. The enabling environment and conditions must be put in place in order to ensure its sustainability. Would they be able to access take off capital; what would be the cost of energy; plus the regularity with which it would come? If somebody has a capital of N60, 000 and he buys a generator with N25, 000, you know what would have happened to his capital – even if he was establishing a barbing saloon. These are some of the perceived challenges. But we are doing our own very best in the area of entrepreneurial education and are fully exploiting our location in Aba.

What is left (still) unattained in your set goals for Abia State Polytechnic?

I had said that if at the time I left this place and there is no engineering school here, I would regard my stay here as wasted. I have accomplished that. And since I still have three more years, I would still think that I would have disappointed the people if at the time I’m leaving I have not taken possession of the second campus and developed hostels.

My students don’t have hostels and it worries me because it exposes them to security, morality and cultural problems. There is a difference between somebody growing up in a university environment. That person grows up with a culture of civility. Many of our students live in the slums of Ngwa Road areas, and it is difficult to teach them standard gentleman and lady behavior. So, as soon I get certificate of occupancy, we begin to develop hostels – the drawings and the bills of quantity are ready. I would indeed think I have failed if by the time I’m leaving I didn’t hand over at least six hostels to my successor.

What is the security situation presently in Aba?

Aba that used to be terrible is now the most secure major Igbo town, and Abia State, the safest Igbo state. You know, when people point at what is happening in other places, they tend to overlook their history. No meaningful development can take place in an atmosphere of chaos and insecurity. Some two years ago, there was capital flight, human capacity flight; everything flew out of Aba; so that even if you had 20 million U.S dollars to invest, you wouldn’t look the way of Aba.

Now Aba is so very safe, everything is returning. When people see the soldiers maintaining security, they only applaud the Central Government, but the vehicles used by the soldiers are provided by the state government, plus their allowances and accommodations and medical treatments. It is the state government that picks those bills.

The present administration has made enormous financial contributions to ensure there is peace in the state, and we are enjoying it.  We in the academic community are grateful to the executive governor for his sensitivity towards ensuring peace and development on the campuses.  I personally thank him, on behalf of my people at the Abia State Polytechnic, and urge him not to relent in his support for us – especially as there are palpable evidence to show for every kobo given to us.

Copied from Daily Independence