Sixteen Nigerian universities have produced a total of 3499 first class graduates in the last five years, Daily Trust investigation has shown.
The first five generation universities graduated 1, 661 students with the first class degrees within the period, nearly half the total.
These are University of Lagos; Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile- Ife; University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Univeristy of Ibadan and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
Within the same period, seven private universities established less than two decades ago produced a total of 1,161 first class graduates. These are Covenant, Afe Babalola, Oduduwa, Babcock, Redeemers, Baze and Nigeria Turkish Nile University.
This means that 12 Nigerian universities have produced 2,822 First Class graduates within a 5-year period (2011/2012 to 2016/2017).
A few of the second generation universities, namely Universities of Jos, Maiduguri, Ilorin and Bayero University Kano, have added to the rising number with 677. Nigeria has 153 universities.
Data show that in a 20-year period stretching from 1978-1998, University of Maiduguri produced a total of 25 first class graduates, but between 2009 and 2015, a period of five/six years, the figure ballooned to 172 first class graduates.
In 2009, Ahmadu Bello University produced 17 first class graduates. But in February 2016, it graduated 89 with first class degrees.
Across the continent many universities are producing first class graduates. The University of Legon, Ghana, graduated 417 first class in its 2010/2011 set.
In 2017, the Makerere University, Uganda presented a record number of 260 first class graduates, and in 2016 the same institution graduated 286 with first class.
The trend has sparked debate in several countries over the quality of the degree, with, for instance one newspaper asking: “Why the big number of first class degrees at Makerere?”
A debate on large numbers of graduates with the first class degree is currently raging in the United Kingdom with concerned parties speaking of ‘grade inflation’ in the universities.
The Independent of UK, in a 2017 article titled ‘Record number of university students with first class degrees,’ states: 'The proportion of students graduating with top degrees has soared in the past five years, with a quarter of last year’s candidates leaving university with a first, a dramatic increase from just 17 per cent in 2012.’
A senior lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, who prefers anonymity, thinks that Nigeria is now, ‘a factory for the massive production of first class graduates.’ He said many of them are ‘unemployable.’
Professor Adamu Baikie, two-time Vice Chancellor of the University of Lesotho, describes some universities in Nigeria as ‘miracle centres of sorts giving out first class degrees like sausage rolls.”
“I am shocked at a university giving out a hundred first class degrees at a single convocation ceremony. In one year to have one hundred first class, may be a little bit embarrassing", Professor Baikie added.
But the retired educationist, who has been in academic circles since 1962, draws attention to the decay in the system.
"I know of many situations where some lecturers don’t mark the scripts, but they award marks, and some very clever and hardworking external examiners have seen this and brought it to the attention of the university authorities, and action was taken to the point of dismissing a staff from the university.
“In that case there was no indication of the scripts being marked, but the scores are there. Sometimes, the number of students in a given department are so many, that the lecturers are tired of marking the scripts.”
Baikie states that the rain of first class degrees has eclipsed the 3rd Class category. He, however applauds certain aspects of the private universities, “They are more competitive than the public universities", he said.
Professor Tukur Baba of the Usman Dan Fodio University said: “First class is becoming like the honourary doctorate which anybody can just go and get, if you have the right connections. One of the problems of the educational system today is this problem of visiting appointments. But corruption has crept into the system. A lot of the new universities have no staff, each lecturer is supposed to have a PhD. If you don’t have a PhD, it counts against you. The system is being abused. I think the NUC figure is that less than 60% of lecturers in Nigerian universities have PhDs, which is not good enough, for this means they are using people who are not fully qualified.”
However, Ibrahim Yakasai, Director, Information and Public Relations, National Universities Commission (NUC) states: “We don’t have evidence that anybody has bought a first class degree from any university, and I challenge whoever says so to produce evidence.
“We are investigating and we noticed that there is this upsurge of first class, and we want to find out why it is happening, and if we see any foul play anywhere, we are regulators and we will regulate effectively.”
But he added: “Our system is one of the best. No student from a recognized Nigerian university, regulated by the NUC will go anywhere in this world, and not fit. I have seen people with 3rd class from this country, going abroad to do post graduate studies with merit.”
Dr. Ayobami Owolabi, Director Corporate and Student Affairs, Lead City University, Ibadan, said: ‘It’s quite erroneous to say that these universities are just giving the first class degrees to them to boost the image of the university, or they are just giving it out to them on a platter of gold. That is not the case.’
Nigeria’s poor world ranking
This rich harvest of degrees comes at a time when Nigerian universities have done poorly on the 2017 Times Higher Education World University rankings, which put Oxford University at number one globally. These numerous ‘first class graduates emerge from a country which is largely undeveloped,’ says Tanimu Abubakar, former ASUU President and professor of literature at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU).
According to Professor Abdulrashid Garba of the Faculty of Education, Bayero University, Kano, people need to use the Bell curve to arrive at a correct decision.
“If the number of first class is more than equal the number of passes and failures, then we can say the curve is normal. But when the first class degree is significantly higher than the rate of pass degrees and failures, then we may say that there is something wrong in the distribution, and then we say that the curve is not normal,” he said.
Professor Salihu Ingawa of the Department of Educational Management, University of Abuja speaks of decline among the graduates from secondary schools.
“Many of the students at the tertiary level cannot even comprehend written examinations. They only prefer objective tests, and filling in the blanks is difficult for them. This is a very tasking job for them, because they cannot comprehend sentence structures,” he said.
On the other hand, Saleh Momale of Centre for Dryland Agriculture, Bayero University Kano cites positive changes in the university system, "There has been some significant improvement in university funding in the last 10 years.”
Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, ASUU President, speaks on the rise of the first class degree, “I would like to observe that it is not as common in public universities, as against private. You can possibly draw an inference here that public universities are still more cautious in the award of the first class degree. I would see that as part of the private universities effort to make themselves popular.”
Steve Abah, a 1975 graduate of the Department of Theatre and Performing Arts, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, reflects, “I am shocked. I am wondering, has the intelligence level really increased? And I don’t think so. I don’t think the intelligence level has increased. For me what it signifies is the absence of the rigour that characterized academic practice in the past.”
Abubakar Kari of the Department of Sociology, University of Abuja points out, “This flood of first class started with the private universities. In fact, it is a norm in the private universities, sometimes at least a third of their products graduate with first class.”
Kari added that the proliferation of first class degrees is not reflective of the objective reality in many of the institutions.
“Many of our colleagues hardly mark any scripts. Some of them ask others to mark for them and people are rushed. But the major reason why I find it quite interesting that many students will graduate with first class anywhere, is that actually the quality of students that are admitted into Nigerian universities, is abysmally low. You find that many of them write examinations in a language that is not legible or readable. They cannot put together a simple correct sentence.
But I don’t see how we can be producing geniuses in this kind of confused educational environment that is prevalent in most of our universities.”