All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. -Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788-1869). The quote by German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer perfectly captures metamorphosis of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). The very concept of the institution sounded outrageous bordering on impossible several decades ago. Then it was attacked when it was first proposed on account of fears rooted in the belief that education must remain a traditional affair where a university must have classrooms and stack of books to dispense knowledge. Today, however, NOUN has been accepted as self evident and is even a preferred option for many in quest of higher learning.
The upside in NOUN’s growth since inception is the fact that it moved quickly through the stages to become one of the nation’s top leading 25 universities. This could only mean that there are a lot of things that have been done right by the Professor Vincent Tenebe led management of the institution since a lot of milestones were reached since he became the vice chancellor of NOUN. The way Tenebe runs NOUN has brought up some strong points for distance learning as the way to go if Nigeria must address the dearth of adequate admission spaces for higher education.
Pursuit of tertiary education abroad is a direct consequence of this shortage of admission spaces. Of course, the quality of education is another factor. Nigerians rushing abroad to study parted with N1.5 trillion in 2012 according to figures released by Exam Ethics International in 2012. This amount has implications for the economy as capital flight of this magnitude from one sector alone is mind boggling. The increasing quality and acceptance of NOUN in the recent years is therefore a welcome development as it could potentially reverse capital flight, the loss of manpower and loss of talents to foreign institutions. The amount of money kept onshore by reversing capital flight will certainly have positive impacts on the country as money can then be plough back into the system to further improve the quality of education.
But Nigerians, particularly aspiring students must understand and buy into the concept of learning in the 21st century. A lot of people are still locked in the old school concept and are yet to buy into what I have christened the ‘Professor Tenebe dream’, which has accessibility to quality tertiary education as its driving force. Sharing this dream requires the would-be students and the society to accept that the era when the edifice was the school is over. Now, the ivory tower is as much a concept as much as it is a physical location.
Although NOUN’s headquarters is one of the tallest buildings in Lagos, neither the building nor its imposing height defines the National Open University of Nigeria as an ivory tower. It is the knowledge that the university is imparting on students that counts and not its being located in one physical space. According to Mortimer Adler, “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live.” What thus defines NOUN and qualifies it as Nigeria’s leading model in the 21st century educational context is that it is at par with what obtains in many countries, where distance learning has taken the pressure off traditional universities. Through its study centers spread across the country and other teaching platforms, the university has made education available to many people who would not have had access for several reasons.
Top among these reasons is the inadequate number of available spaces in other universities that have persistently grappled with overpopulation, which put strain on staff and infrastructure. Curiously, when we discuss how the universities in Nigeria are burdened with inadequate infrastructure and dismal students to lecturers ratio we often overlook how the kind of open distance learning offered by NOUN has helped improve the schools in the other countries favoured by Nigerian students.
Incidentally, distance learning has benefits for students too. It is accessible to those who work as they are able to combine study with work. Distance learning also enables students to make connections with a more diverse range of people since the composition of any class or study group cuts across age, social status and other markers. There have been instances of students who have been able to change jobs or get new employments on account of the contacts they made during distance learning. Students of distance learning also have time to review their study materials without having to rush off to the next class – the personal study time that is available to the students makes them to cover extensive ground once they are able to marshal the needed discipline.
NOUN has been able to provide these advantages to the education sector and has proven that distance learning is the new usual and no longer a fall back option. In the 21st century where the concept of employment has changed significantly, it only normal that the concept of education should also be updated to reflect prevailing realities – people have to work and earn the money to pay their way through tertiary education; others want to combine other passions of life like career in sports with education; and there are those who study best under the flexible arrangement offered by NOUN.
Fortunately, even the nation’s highest lawmaking body, the Senate recognized the shift in contemporary education structure with its approval for graduates of NOUN to take part in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme like their counterparts from the traditional universities. In addition to proving that distance learning is the way to go, the Senate’s action is an endorsement of the way the affairs of NOUN is being managed by Professor Tenebe and his team. One can only hope that this Senate’s vote of confidence in NOUN would translate into legislations that will further strengthen and position it for the education challenges of the next century.
Ogenyi is a renowned human rights activist studying in the United Kingdom