The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin (UNIBEN), Edo State, Prof. Lilian Salami in this interview with CAJETAN MMUTA, speaks on the institution’s giant strides in the past 50 years of its establishment, challenges, COVID-19 pandemic and the ASUU’s strike
The University of Benin (UNIBEN) is 50 years old, would you say that the institution has lived up to its founding fathers and people’s expectations?
The university came into existence in 1970, at the Bendel Institute of Technology, but in 1971, the Federal Government took over the institute and in 1973 it was transformed to what is today as the University of Benin.
The vision of the founders of the institution was to produce manpower for technological development of the state and country. But, beyond that, it was expanded to include the production of quality, marketable and innovative graduates.
And, indeed that vision has continued till date. As the 10th substantive Vice-Chancellor, it means that nine former Vice- Chancellors had come before me. In fact, all the Vice-Chancellors had worked tirelessly to sustain the vision and bring the university to where it is today. Of course, the number of students at inception was 108 with staff strength less than 20. But, today we have over 45,000 students and staff strength of over 8,000 workers, comprising academic and non-teaching staff members.
Then, with only two departments, the academic programmes were designed to meet the technological demands of the country. Again, with only two departments at take-off, currently we have well over 15 Faculties, a College of Medicine, three Centres of Excellence, and three institutes.
Thus, in terms of growth, we have grown more than 300 per cent from where we started in terms of academic, students’ enrollment and staff strength. So far, in the last 50 years, UNIBEN has produced over 350,000 graduates and many of these individuals have excelled in their various chosen careers.
The university has produced ministers, governors, chief executive officers, successful entrepreneurs, and many more. We have and we will continue to sustain the vision of setting up the university.
In specific terms, what have you achieved almost one year as Vice-Chancellor?
In the past 12 months, although COVID- 19 has kept us all locked down, this administration has continued to work based on the pillars that we have decided to drive the university.
One of which is to fund and source funds to drive the university since the resources from the Federal Government cannot sustain us, as a university. And in all modesty, I think we have been doing well in that area. We have also looked at the aspect of infrastructure because we believe that unless we have the state-of-the-art infrastructure and modern facilities, we cannot achieve the training of globally marketable graduates.
So, we have done that as well. We have through collaboration with different bodies and established healthy relationships with our alumni. This is because we realise that prestigious ivory towers around the world are driven by alumni initiative.
Right now, those who were here a year ago, and if they come back now they will notice that the university is wearing a new look and this is because we have tried as much as possible to synergise and interact with an alumnus of the university that has been very generous to us.
The university’s resources have been very low as a result of the pandemic, and the students, who account for about 90 per cent of our Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) have not been on campus. In fact, what we have been doing is self-help. After all, we have reduced award of contracts since we could no longer afford it. We now use our internal employees to drive the system.
That is the reason for most of what we have been able to achieve. We are waiting for the university to reopen so that we can emphasise the teaching and learning processes.
What do you think is the way forward from the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike?
Well, ASUU has its own reasons. But let me say here that the moment you become a management staff, you are part of ASUU and at the same time you are no longer because you are now on the side of the administration.
I think they have articulated the issues that needed to be tackled and I am sure that the discussion is ongoing between the union and the Federal Government. I know that once they reach an agreement we will be able to get the universities to function much better. I believe the issues will be resolved, and once that happens universities will reopen and activities will begin in earnest.
How would you rate the nation’s education system considering the incessant strike by staff unions?
Sometimes we tend to look at other countries and use them as our yardsticks, but we should note that many of these places we used as parameters also went through the problem we are presently going through. If you were in my generation and you look back you would realise that we have achieved a lot.
The issue is that most times we want to compare ourselves with those that have done much better than us. Indeed, we are not doing badly, but at the same time, we can do better. I think part of the problems that have brought us to where we are is majorly funding, otherwise our universities can compare favourably with those in other parts of the world. Whatever you want in terms of quality, the input must be commensurable.
No matter how articulate your mission may be, the driving force is funding. Yes, we have the best professors and lecturers that can measure up in any part of the world, but sometimes the tools to make them work efficiently are lacking and I think that is where our issues are.
Once this is addressed, we should be able to get to where others that we use as yardsticks are. I am sure that soon we should be able to get there.
With the celebration of 50th anniversary of the university, what has the university to showcase, in terms of special projects and again are there dignitaries to be honoured?
Any man that has attained 50 years of age, that is the golden age that most of us aspire to reach, there is the cause and the need for us to celebrate. UNIBEN has come a long way in the last 50 years of graduating over 350,000 students, and most of them well placed.
So, there is a cause for us to celebrate. We have had wonderful Vice- Chancellors that have taken us to where we are today. We have staff that are dedicated, and that also calls for a celebration.
However, this time will not allow us to roll out the drums as we would have wished, but having discussed with all the stakeholders, we feel that it will be necessary to postpone the event till 2021. Besides, we also feel it is crucial that we mark that day and that is why we had interdenominational thanksgiving on November 23, 2020.
This is just to symbolise and mark that day. However, by the year 2021, we had already lined up various activities to celebrate and recognise our former Vice-Chancellors for writing the history from where we began as a mustard seed that has grown to become people’s pride and envy.
We would bring them together to celebrate where UNIBEN is today. We cannot do that now because COVID-19 has greatly affected us economically, socially and in several other ways that will not allow us to celebrate.
By the time you complete your tenure as the second female Vice- Chancellor of UNIBEN, what legacies do you intend to leave behind?
When you are just starting a race you still have a projection of where you want to get to. What this administration would want to be remembered for is that it is an administration that brought to bear policies that will run and allow us to have a better university.
Thus, to achieve this, we are looking at some of the university’s policies with a view to fine-tuning them.
Again, by the time we are done with this administration, we should be graduating students that can compare technologically anywhere in the world. We want to graduate students that are innovative, creative and can add value to the manpower development of this nation and beyond the shores of Nigeria.
We also want to create an enabling environment where everyone should be able to pride himself or herself as staff and student of the university.
In terms of research, what are breakthroughs recorded or achieved by UNIBEN in the last 50 years?
The university has many professors, who have won prizes for their excellent research work and breakthroughs. I may not be able to mention many of them, but I know Prof. Ewadudem, among several others.
There are other PhD holders, especially one that was singled out during presentations to the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) in 2019, who won the best research output.
Many of our researchers can compete anywhere in the world and they have done so much to contribute to knowledge in their areas of specialisation. A lecturer/researcher at UNIBEN developed the software for Computer-Based-Test that is now being used by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) and other external examinations. I think that is kudos to the institution.
How prepared is the university in terms of compliance to COVID-19 protocols in order to receive the students when they return to campus?
In terms of preparedness, we have put in place necessary facilities and equipment that are needed in case our students are to resume today. On our part, as management, we have set up a COVID-19 Committee, headed by the Provost, College of Medicine.
For our students, our proposal before was that we were going to resume in phases so that we do not overwhelm the system, especially for those who are resident on campus. And, if we were to resume today, we would quickly amend where there is a need to amend, but we are very much ready to welcome our students.
However, that is not to say that we have not had challenges in trying to put these in place. We have the challenges of adequate funding. Yes, we realise the things we must put in place, but it would have been better if we have adequate funds to match all these. Unfortunately, we do not.
Like I emphasise, most of our IGR come from the students’ charges and if we have not had students on campus since February, then, of course, we are almost dragging and at a point where we are almost breaking for lack of funds.
But, within the little resources available to us, we have been able to put all plans in place and now that the whistle is blown that students should return to campus, we will do that.