Finding the Boundaries of the Possible, Venturing Beyond | UNILAG Convovocation Lecture by Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu

Finding the Boundaries of the Possible, Venturing Beyond | UNILAG Convovocation Lecture by Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu

“Finding the Boundaries of the Possible, Venturing Beyond,” by Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, Managing Partner, GrandCentral Africa, is his special 53rd Convocation and 60th Anniversary lecture of University of Lagos (UNILAG).   

Let me begin by extending my appreciation for the honour and privilege of addressing you today to the Governing Council, Senate, Management, Staff, and Students and most important today, Graduands of the great University of Lagos – Great Akokites! Great Akokites! Great Akokites! I offer my congratulations on this 53rd Convocation and join your teachers, friends and family in celebrating your successful journey through this legendary institution.

As we commence, permit me also to acknowledge that many who have gone before us all here: incandescent intellects, brave hearts and sacrificial guardians whose lives have extended the bounds of knowledge and human endeavour, have made it possible by their dreams and individual quests for us all to be students, entrepreneurs, teachers, leaders and defenders of Education, the sacred trust of civilisation as this great institution of the University of Lagos continues to represent.

To them, we must pledge an unquenchable commitment to build through each successive generation a better world that their sacrifices may not be in vain.

The Better Half or the Whole?

It is all too often trite to give the nod to gender however I doubt that there is any man left in the modern world who will not recognise that a society does itself near irreparable damage when it intentionally pursues the folly of suppressing the latent capacity of women in all spheres of endeavour, and especially at leadership levels. I do not need to summon much courage therefore to adopt the tactics of the British to divide and rule with this borrowed assertion by one of my favourites, the multiple award-winning author, Ben Okri:

Men make laws, women make ways. Men build, women make the building live. Men know death, but women know life. If men make mistakes, women die, if women make mistakes a while tribe perishes. The folly of men is a stupid thing, the folly of women is of historical significance. Men can be stupid, and the world will not fall down; but if women are stupid the world comes to an end. The responsibility for women to be wise is truly great. The greatness of a people is a tribute to the wisdom of its women.’

I suspect that further scientific enquiry will validate Ben Okri’s assertion in other spheres of life however for me it is enough that as Mao Zedong said ‘women hold up half the sky’ ______. I believe they do and my presence here is a testimony to this truth.

Distinguished guests, I could not in all honesty escape from the reality that it took a woman to make the decision to ask me, a son of a late Professor, third of seven boys whose mother leveraged a primary school education to become a certified nurse, midwife and chef eventually earning a B.Sc. and MSc from Michigan State University in the USA with which she has then spent over a half decade and counting in social welfare work and education. Prof Ogunsola, you found me, spoke with me once for twenty minutes and bequeathed this great honour with only a face on Zoom and the recommendation of another awesome woman leader, Alero Ayida-Otobo, to go by. God bless you both.

Today, the University of Lagos graduates yet another cohort of leaders, not former students because if indeed they have learnt, it must be that they have learnt to be lifelong students. Since the dawn of time and the earliest beginnings of civil society, mankind has struggled with the problem of how to ensure wise and just leadership in the context of the commonwealth whilst simultaneously ensuring the ability of the entrepreneur to create wealth through innovation. It is the tension inherent in this evocative and perpetual dynamic that lies at the heart of socio-economic growth and self-actualisation in individuals and organisations alike.

In governance, it was Plato who offered that the solution to a just, peaceful and progressive society lay in breeding a cadre of philosopher-kings for the specific and exclusive function of governance that men may be guarded from themselves and the foolishness they would inflict upon the world. For this breed of supermen, Plato prescribed a rigid physiological, spiritual, and academic diet that would equip them adequately for the tasks of governance, so political power and intellectual wisdom may be joined in one.

In economics and commerce, it was men like Sundiata, Mansa Musa, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ted Turner and Noah Samara who redefined the so-called boundaries of their economies by dreaming and daring to sail for horizons when others held the earth was flat. They created paradigms by wrestling with the challenges of their times and not succumbing. They dreamt of new worlds, new systems and structures, new places and opportunities beyond the accepted possibilities. They recognised convention, honoured wisdom yet demonstrated courage in the pursuit of their visions. And in their wake, entire worlds moved.

It is fitting therefore that today we return to where it all started – the university, the place where knowledge and intellect commune and through a dedicated conjugal process, spawn, propagate and hopefully perpetuate mankind’s potential. Let us together embrace this vast, yet exhilarating opportunity of exploring, and perhaps triggering the co-creation of a visionary pathway along which this institution may proceed in fulfilment of its founding vision: to produce a professional workforce that would steer the political, social and economic development of a newly independent country. Let us venture then.

The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning

While it may be that some progress has been made in some of the universities, it would appear that we have travelled long, but not far because in many respects, we are at the beginning.

The Academy founded by Plato in 357BC was named from the Greek word Akademeia, the grove outside of ancient Athens where the philosopher taught his students with a belief that philosophy could direct people’s minds toward a knowledge of goodness and virtue, which, in turn, would benefit all of society. A place of discourse, it lacked the structure of what we now know as a formal institution but was in some ways, the first liberal arts higher educational institution with a clear leadership mission i.e. to ensure that only a properly educated ruler, who understood the true nature of goodness and justice, would have a genuine vantage point from which he or she could govern well.

Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, Managing Partner, GrandCentral Africa, delivering his special 53rd Convocation and 60th Anniversary lecture of University of Lagos (UNILAG) with the theme, “Finding the Boundaries of the Possible, Venturing Beyond.”    

Today, the University of Lagos graduates yet another cohort of leaders, not former students because if indeed they have learnt, it must be that they have learnt to be lifelong students. Since the dawn of time and the earliest beginnings of civil society, mankind has struggled with the problem of how to ensure wise and just leadership in the context of the commonwealth whilst simultaneously ensuring the ability of the entrepreneur to create wealth through innovation. It is the tension inherent in this evocative and perpetual dynamic that lies at the heart of socio-economic growth and self-actualisation in individuals and organisations alike.

Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, Managing Partner, GrandCentral Africa.

The Academy would train other thinkers like Aristotle and other scholars, laying the foundations of what eventually came to be known as universities. As an institutional structure, Universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which approximately means “community of teachers and scholars”, has its earliest origins in places that surprise: the four oldest universities in the world are located in – Tunisia (737 AD), Morocco (founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri in 859AD), Egypt (975AD) and Mali (founded in 989AD by Mansa Musa). Europe followed one hundred years later with its first university established in 1088, the University of Bologna. Africa should therefore not feel unwelcome in this space of learning and innovating what it birthed.

Fast-forward a thousand years later however and the data shows that a total of only 11 African universities are featured in the QS World University Rankings 2021, with the majority (seven) of these found in South Africa led by University of Cape Town at No. 220.The universities in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, failed to take even one slot of the 31 universities from the 1300 tertiary institutions listed in the 2022 QS World University Rankings.

This is sobering but unfortunately not new or even shocking to any casual observer however it must be noted that the University of Lagos ranked #601-650 in QS WUR Ranking by Subject 2022 for Medicine.

The truth is that there is a plethora of challenges faced by a university in Nigeria today. Our reality is that Tertiary Education in Nigeria has been the theatre of much conflict and attendant decay over the past thirty years. The consequences have been dire. The 2012 survey conducted by the Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities (CNANPU) covered 61 Universities and is probably the most comprehensive review of the conditions for teaching and learning in Nigeria’s universities in more than 40 years. Almost a decade has passed since the Report was published yet an observer of most universities today would recognise many of the findings as real today as they were in 2012.

Describing its findings as “factual, graphic and in some cases grim”, the CNANPU Report found that physical facilities for teaching and learning in Nigerian Universities “(are) Inadequate, Dilapidated, Over-stretched/over-crowded and Improvised”. In addition, the Committee found that most of the universities in the country are:

▪ grossly under-staffed

▪ rely heavily on part-time and visiting lecturers

▪ have under-qualified Academics

▪ bottom-heavy (with junior lecturers forming large chunk of the workforce)

▪ only a few of them attract expatriate lecturers

▪ have no effective staff development programme outside TETFund intervention and, potentially, the Presidential First Class Scholarship programme.

▪ ‘closed’ (homogeneous staff – in terms of ethno-cultural background)

▪ Teaching Staff in Nigerian universities published heavily in local journals (over 80%) majority of which have no visibility in the international knowledge community. This has a detrimental effect on the reputation of Nigeria’s academics.

▪ No Nigerian academic is in the league of Nobel Laureates or a nominee of Nobel Prize.

▪ There are only 2 registered patents owned by Nigerian Academics in the last 3 years. It also identified other problems of Nigerian Universities to include:

▪ Students sitting on bare floor or peeping through windows to attend lectures

▪ Over 1000 students being packed in lecture halls meant for less than 150 students

▪ Over 400 students being packed in laboratory meant for 75 students

▪ Students cannot get accommodation, where they get they are packed like sardines in tiny rooms

▪ No light and no water in hostels, classrooms and laboratories

▪ Students use the bushy areas of their campus for toilet because lavatory facilities are too hazardous to use

▪ Academic culture is dying very fast

▪ Library facilities and services are archaic and comatose

▪ Many laboratory equipment are only known to students in theory (never seen many of them not to talk of using them) ▪ Broken furniture everywhere

▪ Unkempt buildings and dilapidating facilities

▪ Over-worked, untrained, and inadequate teachers, etc

In the ten years since the report was written this litany is as true today as it was when documented so vividly in the 181-slide deck that has become the bone in the throats of successive political administrations till date, and the refrain of the ASUU dirge, sung lustily in its perennial strike actions over these decades. While the rehabilitation and/or construction and equipping of facilities in our universities is critical to create a conducive, secure, and healthy environment for learning, there is much more systemic change needed to make them relevant and competitive in the 21st century.

We need to significantly increase the capacity of our tertiary systems. Reflecting a 35- year national trend, the carrying capacity of the tertiary system averages about 35-40% of demand, as estimated by the number of qualified candidates seeking admission to the various institutions. By implication, about two thirds of applicants who take the yearly admission examinations, set by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), do not get a placement in any Nigerian university.

Interestingly, by way of comparison, the CNANPU Report found 1,252,913 students in the 61 of Nigeria’s 74 Public Universities in 2012 while the NUC figures for 2021 indicates approximately 1,890,000 students enrolled in 170 universities in Nigeria (79 private, 43 federal universities and 48 state universities). Despite increased number of federal and private universities therefore, the system is characterised by a growing gap in unmet demand. Yet, comparatively, while gross enrolment in tertiary in Nigeria was reported at 12.1 % in 2018, the figures for other countries of interest include Ghana 18.2%, South Africa 23.8% and Egypt 36.2% and the United States was reported at 87.89 % in 2019 according to the World Bank. Without discounting population, the data points to “strong relationships between GDP per capita and gross enrolment ratio for the universities (tertiary education) based on the Human Development Index data, a dataset collected within a project run by the United Nations (2018). One can notice the pattern showing that an increase in university enrolment tend to coincide with the rise of GDP per capita…” (Vyacheslav Volchik, Anna Kurysheva and Tadeusz Olejarz, Higher Education as a Factor of Socio-economic Performance and Development November 2018)

NUC is reportedly processing over 200 pending applications for new private universities. However, we must note that while the biggest growth is in the number of licensed private universities (currently at 79) they still only account for approximately 5.35% of gross enrolment. This points to a consideration for advocating a strong bias in the registration process towards the type of institutions that should be encouraged. Hybrid or virtual universities, which are less focused on the infrastructure-heavy, municipal services offered by brick-and-mortar universities can accommodate a greater number of students with learning technology greatly advanced to ensure quality. The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) for example, with a current enrolment of 515,000 students dwarfs that of older more established brick and mortar universities in the Nigerian educational system. We will return to this later.

We need to radically re-imagine our curricula. There is consensus that there are challenges with university curriculum, “ranging from outdated course content, inadequate internship periods to dearth of practical courses amongst others”. National Universities Commission recently restructured the Benchmark Minimum Academic Standards (BMAS) of 2007, introducing in its place in 2021, the Core Curriculum and Minimum Academic Standards (CCMAS), to reflect the 21st Century realities by expanding the fourteen existing disciplines to seventeen CCMAS structured ‘to provide for 70% of core courses for each programme, while allowing universities to utilise the remaining 30% for other innovative courses in their peculiar areas of focus.”. In addition, general Studies courses were streamlined while Entrepreneurship courses such as Venture Creation and Entrepreneurship, and innovation were introduced.

Likewise, the challenge of funding tertiary education is a real and present danger to the system. Even where education budgets are increased, the trend in which the recurrent component captures 60-70% of expenditure, does not allow for the requisite investments in infrastructure. Nigeria’s universities therefore need to streamline and optimise their education management supply chain; and drive increasing efficiency in the management of its resources.

The foregoing is known to most if not all education stakeholders. What may not be so well publicised is the conclusion of the earlier reference CNANPU Report:

“These ‘problems’ are actually SYMPTOMS of the real PROBLEMS. The real problems of the universities are:

▪ The quality of Leadership and Governance in the Universities

▪ Prioritization of Resource Allocation

▪ Limited Resources (Some proprietors have abdicated the responsibility for funding of capital projects to TETFund)

In universities where councils/managers:

▪ Spend millions to erect super-gates when their Libraries are still at foundation level;

▪ Expend millions to purchase exotic vehicles for university officers even though they lack basic classroom furnishings;

▪ Spend hundreds of millions in wall-fencing and in-fencing when students accommodation is inadequate and in tatters;

▪ Are more interested in spending money on creation of new programmes instead of consolidating and expanding access to existing ones;

▪ Are more keen to award new contracts rather than completing the abandoned projects or standardizing existing facilities;

▪ Expend hundreds of millions paying visiting and part-time lecturers rather than recruiting full-time staff and/or training existing ones;

These universities cannot possibly be in a different situation than they presently are. To address the Needs of Nigeria Universities, there is urgent need to, prima facie, address the issue of provision of quality leadership and governance in public universities.”

The above quote from the Report is put before us here not to point fingers but rather in the tradition of the teaching of the philosopher, Aristotle who is said to have stated: that the truth once discovered is inviolable and exists independent of the perceptions and interpretations of man. By acknowledging truth however, we can begin to work with its implications.

The breadth of the challenges faced by the Education Sector in Nigeria is perhaps matched only by the heights of its promise as the real bastion of hope for our nation to fulfil its manifest destiny as a global force. It is by prioritising, resetting and repositioning our education sector for a world in which all people may aspire to reach their full potential. This is how we can attain this destiny. It should be expected that the change will be massively resisted in this post-Covid 19 pandemic world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Exponential rewards exist however for those who dare to venture outside their comfort zones to explore the new ways. Purposeful, results-oriented, transformational leadership will need to make smart choices about the options for doing more than just keeping the lights on or making cosmetic changes to the status quo.

Abyssus Abyssum Invocat (Deep calleth unto Deep)

If there is a single overarching variable in the equation for solving the true challenge before the tertiary education system, it is Transformational Leadership. Education should enable its learners acquire the fundamental skills required to be participants in the 21st Century Fourth Industrial Revolution, not the 19th century Industrial Economy. Transformational leadership will recognise that as home to a burgeoning digitally native, youthful population, Nigeria will require to future-proof its education investments from infrastructure to curriculum to delivery. The technology-driven 21st century features rapid, constant change requiring a hitherto unprecedented agility in response to digital transformation. Nigeria must leverage the opportunities inherent in the pervasive use of technology in education to deliver learning at the point of need; capture data on the performance of role players within the system; synthesize the data and gain valuable insight to how to continuously improve the system in the interest of the desired learning outcomes. Therefore, discussions on a roadmap to reimagining tertiary education would necessarily consider the following:

1) Nigeria, Education and the National Purpose

2) Evaluating and Strengthening Value Propositions in Nigeria’s Tertiary Education

3) Considerations on Universities as Enablers of Digital Economy Opportunities

4) Institutional Frameworks & Enabling Environments for the Sustainability and Growth of Tertiary Education

5) Reinventing Universities – the Critical Role of Leadership

6) Aligning and Surpassing Expectations – Restoring Market Leadership

7) Funding the Education that We Want

Each of the foregoing, could and probably should, be the thematic anchor for a gathering such as this. Permit me therefore to challenge the University of Lagos to lead the convening of a sustained national conversation where the outcomes of such discussion would hopefully be to develop responses to these issues in the form of pragmatic programme of action.

Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, Managing Partner, GrandCentral Africa, seen of photo, with General Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria at the UNILAG convocation ceremony.

The simple logic is that unless the factor inputs for educating a graduate are predominantly local, and significantly abundant in Nigeria, the cost of a university degree should not differ so widely if the end product is of the same stuff. Everyone in this audience, especially the graduands if the truth be told, is aware of the trend towards migration, or ‘japa’ which suggests that some of output we produce in our universities has some measure of global acceptance. ‘Japa’ is irreversible presently because of two fundamentals (1) we are subsidising the development of our best talent, and (2) we are comparatively under-rewarding them especially with regard to quality of life. Indeed, the migration of Nigeria’s talent should not affect the economy negatively.

Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, Managing Partner, GrandCentral Africa.

As a rider, and I make this last point gingerly, knowing fully well the complex socioeconomic implications of the issue – the nation must decide on the how Education will be funded in the future. At the 49th Convocation Ceremony of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the former Minister of State for Education bluntly stated that the Government cannot afford the amount of funding needed to revive the country’s educational system, advising that universities should also leverage other funding sources. Understandably, no mention was made of the elephant in the room viz, that this must include cost-reflective fee structure otherwise known as TUITION. The graduating class of today is special in this sense – it may realistically be the last class to pay approximately $600- $1200 to obtain a degree over four years in the Law or Biochemistry, the same degree that costs a minimum of $250,000 -$350,000 in the US.

The simple logic is that unless the factor inputs for educating a graduate are predominantly local, and significantly abundant in Nigeria, the cost of a university degree should not differ so widely if the end product is of the same stuff. Everyone in this audience, especially the graduands if the truth be told, is aware of the trend towards migration, or ‘japa’ which suggests that some of output we produce in our universities has some measure of global acceptance. ‘Japa’ is irreversible presently because of two fundamentals (1) we are subsidising the development of our best talent, and (2) we are comparatively under-rewarding them especially with regard to quality of life. Indeed, the migration of Nigeria’s talent should not affect the economy negatively.

I have pointed out in other fora that the hysteria over the migration of Nigeria’s graduates and top professionals abroad has been less than 0.7% of the population annually over the past twenty years (Institute of Migration 2019) yet is having a disproportionate impact on the national economy because of what we are not doing for the 99% that do not leave. It should be positive because the burden of human capital development shifts to the hosts, while the proceeds thereof can be freely transferred back in the form of remittances or repats returning with skills, network and knowledge they would otherwise not have gained. If we are not seeing this dynamic in our society, it can only be because leadership has failed in its obligation to transform, and probably lacks the capacity to do so.

The Triumph of Mediocrity?

Let me make another confession at this point: I have chosen to deal with the extant challenges of Tertiary Education in order to get them out of the way. It is my contention that we while indeed the speculum provided by a view of the past is useful to calibrating our present, it has limited value in plotting a trajectory to the future.

While the past lies waiting for all who may care to luxuriate in its flora and fauna, it is the future that lies in wait for all who dare to explore it. In this regard, I am unabashedly a wanna-be viz. I want to be like the graduands gathered here toward, eagerly waiting for the end of this last lecture to “Just Do It!” To Just Do It, we must break through a fog that threatens to deny us a view even of the boundaries of the possible, and the frustrate the resolve to venture thereafter into the potential that lies beyond.

Ben Okri reminds us in Starbook, that: “Dying things appear to thrive. Without new dreams we will surely die.” In Starbook he tells the story of an ailing society whose malaise is reflected in the artistic work of its ancient craftsmen. In his observations elsewhere, he continues the reflections stating,

‘That’s the way it is. If you believe in something your very belief renders you unqualified to do it. Your earnestness will come across. Your passion will show. Your enthusiasm will make everyone nervous. And your naivety will irritate. Which means that you will become suspect. Which means you will be prone to disillusionment. Which means that you will not be able to sustain your belief in the face of all the piranha fish which nibble away at your idea and your faith, ’till only the skeleton of your dream is left. Which means that you have to become a fanatic, a fool, a joke, an embarrassment. The world – which is to say the powers that be – would listen to your ardent ideas with a stiff smile on its face, then put up impossible obstacles, watch you finally give up your cherished idea, having mangled it beyond recognition, and after you slope away in profound discouragement it will take up your idea, dust it down, give it a new spin, and hand it over to someone who doesn’t believe in it at all.”

I think back on our country and its unarguable descent into a place of pity and peril, and in every flickering frame of my memory, there is a shadow, a character, that ‘someone’ Ben Okri refers to but do not name – the Mediocre.

The inherent danger in speaking of Mediocrity is that its adherents and acolytes do not take kindly to being identified by their faith, and its subjects do not take kindly to being publicly embarrassed by their acquiescence and service to its cause. For anyone who presumes to disrobe Mediocrity, the obvious punishment is to be derided for an assumed arrogance, even conceit in distancing oneself from ‘them’. If only the commentators would separate the act from the capacity, it would become clearer.

To be mediocre is to commit to being average, to reject the striving for excellence, to embrace the ordinary and celebrate it. It is quite different from intellect. Indeed, a person of average intellect can be excellent in many other dimensions. What would bring the world to a shuddering, confused halt is the appearance of a Mediocre that inexplicably delivers excellence. Thus far, the world continues on its orbit with every dawn, so it is safe to assume that this phenom has yet to make an appearance.

Many great persons have stared the true enemy of progress in the face.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle asserts that “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” This would be a tedious but relatively acceptable situation if only it ended there. Alas! we are guided to the very reason why though the battles may be won on occasion, the war is lost in the end Another powerful insight is proffered by Todd Henry rather matter-of-factly, “Mediocrity doesn’t just happen. It’s chosen over time through small choices day by day.” Look around the country and society in which you live, love, work and play asking yourself how often you are seemingly compelled by the unseen hands to compromise on your standards and principles to “manage it like that” or “MILT” as Editi Effiong smartly coined it.

“All too often, the security of a mediocre present is more comfortable than the adventure of trying to be more in the future.” – Tony Robbins

Winning back our world is a fight against the darkness of ignorance and illiteracy that envelops the minds of men, high and low. It is also an existential battle against Mediocrity which is hardly, if ever, benign but has a particularly malignant form that has evolved in Nigeria, and it is a Mediocrity that does not know its name.

Today, this day is not the day in which we accept to stay mired in the place of consequence determined by mediocrity. Together, we should agree that it is indeed better to find ourselves “stumbling towards greatness (rather) than sprinting towards mediocrity.” (Matshona Dhliwayo, Canadian-based Philosopher, Entrepreneur, and author). To the graduands especially I say as you go forth into the world, remember that you must never allow the enemy to call you by name – it is up to you to first define who you are, what you are, and what you purpose to be, then be exactly that.

The March of Progress

How do we proceed? In some respects, the entirety of this lecture can be subsumed in the philosophical underpinnings of the (in)famous colonial publication, The Economist.

Published since September 1843, it gives itself the lofty and possibly unattainable mission, to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” Let us assume, having found our way through the debris, that this is the current landscape for Education. To recognise the debilitating shadow of the true enemy, Mediocrity, we can seek a new opportunity and frontier by ‘pressing forward’, not backwards. How then is progress to be defined?

Education is the currency of the 21st Century and nations today compete largely based on the quality of their human capital. It comes as no surprise therefore, that all nations are grappling with establishing strategies for education to meet and exceed the demands of the Information Age, and drive development. Education, as a system of generating and transmitting knowledge, is unequalled in its power to help individuals, and the society, by empowering socio-economic engagement, encouraging collaboration, and creating jobs through entrepreneurship. It also enhances the development of social interactions, drives civic activism based on an awareness of rights, supports improvements in health and well-being as a conscious intent, and reduces poverty through economic inclusion and income generation.

Studies have shown conclusively that the likelihood of a child succeeding in life is still largely determined by their family’s income and social position which in turn mostly determines their access to quality education. It is no surprise therefore, that given the importance of education as the gateway to better life-chances, every parent desires the opportunity to send their children to a good school, every teacher wants to work in a good school, every principal wants to lead a good school; and every government wants intelligent skilled and productive employers and employees to improve its performance in governance across all spheres.

A quality education is today defined as one that ‘prepares students for the present and future by teaching them 21st century skills and by expanding the concept of literacy. The three R’s – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – are more important than ever, but are no longer sufficient!’ In addition to being skilled in these core subjects however, contemporary thinking made popular by Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap), also identifies 7 ‘Survival Skills’ that are critical to the ability of the learner to leverage the knowledge acquired: (1) Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving, (2) Collaboration across networks and Leading by influence, (3) Agility and Adaptability, (4) Initiative and Entrepreneurialism, (5) Effective Oral and Written Communication, (6) Accessing and Analysing Information, and (7) Curiosity and Imagination. A holistic approach to learning outcomes for an education system must not only encompass all the foregoing but. should expand literacy to include Financial Literacy, Ecoliteracy, Media Literacy, Emotional/Social Literacy, Arts and Creativity as Literacies, Physical Fitness and Health Literacies, Cyberliteracy, Visual Literacy and Aural Literacy. Taken together, these competencies and content knowledge support the development of 21st century skills and attitudes that makes content knowledge a powerful driver for individual’s self-actualisation.

With approximately 1% of its population enrolled in the university system, any meaningful roadmap to reform begins with recognizing that despite its youth bulge, Nigeria is currently failing to provide the human capital needed to drive its sustained economic growth. There is no absence of views regarding how best to address these challenges, yet the issues remain and the system regresses with every passing year. We believe this is because the difficult underlying issues of a scalable and sustainable model have remained unanswered.

We have stated earlier that nations all over the world are grappling with aligning the performance of their educational systems to the needs of a fast-changing world. Earlier, I made it clear that I favour the argument that the overall challenge of Education Sector Reform and the critical questions our experience in Nigeria raises is inextricably linked to transformational leadership. This alone can explain why we are still without a meaningful strategy when most of the world has long since begun the reimagining and transformation of their educational systems in an increasingly competitive global Knowledge Economy. The Covid-19 pandemic has left no-one in doubt that technology in education is a pre-requisite for achieving operational reform in the Education Sector. However, an educational system comprises of three main elements: curriculum, students, and teachers. The efficiency and effectiveness of this system depends on the cohesion among these three elements. If one has some deficiency or weakness in performing its role, reduced productivity and enhanced lethargy will result within the educational delivery process, perpetuating the somnolence of Mediocrity.

We have seen the boundaries of our possibility as circumscribed not only by our circumstance but also by losing the fight against the Defenders of Mediocrity who desire only perpetuate their suzerainty. We have come to know the outlines of those boundaries are really set by the scale of our ambition, our resolve to reach and cross  them; and our capacity to execute on the new opportunities that we co-create with innovative minds.

A refreshed vision for the university system should therefore begin with a review of the National Philosophy on Education and its articulation in the institutions that drive and protect it. It needs to reimagine the Nigerian Education system in the context of the intensely competitive and global 4th Industrial Revolution ensuring students from Early Childhood to Tertiary are skilled and prepared for 21st century realities. It should be grounded in technology, driven by innovative leaders who have rejected Mediocrity as their temple, it should be fired by the energy of the young people such as yourselves that are graduating today……smart, intelligent, more worldly than any other generation of Akokites, more digitally savvy, more global, and perhaps, yes, more fearless in your willingness to dare to go beyond the known, the boundaries of the possible.

What Lies Beyond our Boundaries

What does the university of the future look like? I think the question is best inverted: what does the future for which the university is a relevant and fully participatory cocreator look like? Even this in itself is at best guesswork because as Prof. Vijay Govindarajan, Coxe Distinguished Professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College reminds us, the future is inherently unknowable. Still, while it might not be possible to plan for the future, it is certainly possible to prepare for it because we can always see and project the knowns already signalling us. So, let’s discuss perspectives on the signals we have today and how we can prepare for the future that universities will have to be relevant and participatory in co-creating.

By most accounts, Africa will be the youngest continent on the planet between 2030 and 2050 depending on whose data you use. Between 2023 and then, the continent will either fracture or surge. If the former, it will be wrenched violently apart by the uncontainable forces of food insecurity, plunging health, social dislocation, rural to urban surges, functional illiteracy and a dysfunctional education system, an expanding digital divide and negative technology penetration, crime/cybercrime and other vices.

If the latter, it will be because Africa’s business, political and social leaders have found a way to harness, energize, and channel the incipient forces of its youth towards solving its myriad problems. Creating in the process, innovative and dynamic products, services and organizations that transform the continent. This is the burden which you graduands carry as we send you forth – an entire continent rest on your shoulders. No pressure.

Whatever scenario plays out, the central role of the Education System stays the same. Any African of working age (18-65) is challenged by the same things his counterparts the world over are: relevant skills/competencies and opportunities for self-actualization. The former is delivered by a functioning, relevant Education ecosystem (as distinct from school building or teachers alone); while the latter is delivered by visionary and execution-oriented leadership, in both the public and private sectors. With arguably few exceptions, both of these necessary conditions are non-existent in Africa’s 53 nation-states.

In Nigeria, where the sector has been in crises for decades, we have to change our picture for education or sink under a population of 350m largely ignorant and dysfunctional people by 2050AD. If we must overcome, we must pass through to a new understanding and vision that is driven by a purposeful plan anchored on best practice, but cognisant of the uncertainty that pervades the world around us.

The university is now more than ever before, the ‘temple’ ensconced in the Tower that not only archives, preserves and transmits our knowledge, but is also the architect of our values and builder of our aspirations.

Based on the foregoing alone, therefore, in fulfilling this sacred trust of civilization, there are many options? strategies? for interventions in the Education ecosystem that are desirable for reform and transformation, but few have the potential of technology. Studies in information ecology has shown that Technology is almost unique in its vectors – it catalyses, accelerates and multiplies simultaneously. That is its true power. Technology is the promise, and ultimately, the final hope for Africa’s youth. Tech will not replace skilled teachers and administrators, but neither will they be relevant in the 21st century without an above average competency in technology.

In an Oct. 20, 2020, article, titled, After the Pandemic, a Revolution in Education and Work Awaits, Thomas L. Friedman is somewhat hyperbolic in asserting that, “The good Lord works in mysterious ways. He (She?) threw a pandemic at us at the exact same time as a tectonic shift in the way we will learn, work and employ… When we emerge from this corona crisis, we’re going to be greeted with one of the most profound eras of Schumpeterian creative destruction ever — which this pandemic is both accelerating and disguising. No job, no K-12 school, no university, no factory, no office will be spared……You’re going to see some amazing stuff emerge, some long-established institutions, like universities, disappear — and the nature of work, workplaces and the workforce be transformed.”  

In my opinion, the university will not disappear if it chooses intentionally to transform. In Friedman’s interview with Ravi Kumar, the president of the Indian tech services giant, Infosys, Kumar points out that the Industrial Revolution produced a world in which there were sharp distinctions between employers and employees, between educators and employers and between governments and employers and educators. He argues that the pace of technological change, digitization and globalization is obsoleting skill faster than the industrial mode of the Education system can replace them, for the new career path of “work-learn-work-learn-work-learn” requiring a more modular structural shift — from degrees to skills — to “just-in-time learning,’’ offering the precise skills needed for the latest task at hand.

If this sounds discomforting, it is best I also share this: in a bid to reduce the huge number of university graduates with similar academic degrees competing with each other for the same jobs, China announced in 2014 that it will turn at least half of its public universities (six hundred) into institutions of applied learning or polytechnics to produce more technically trained graduates. In 2014, 7.26 million students graduated from China’s universities, with one province Guangdong producing 710,400 graduates in 2022 – more than the entire output of all Nigeria’s universities across all courses of study.

In the webinar, COVID-19’s Impact on the Future of Higher Education: What University Leaders Should Be Thinking About Now presented by Prof Govindarajan, he made the compelling case that three external forces have come together to create a perfect storm for American colleges: The cost of higher education has been skyrocketing, a new generation of digital technologies — such as mobile, cloud computing, machine learning, AI, AR, and VR — have matured, so immersive and personalized education can be provided online at scale at a much lower cost than that of conventional education, and parents, students, faculty, and university leaders have significantly lowered their psychological barriers to online learning.

He then posed three questions about higher education’s business model and the accessibility of quality college education: (1) Do students really need a four-year residential experience? (2) What improvements are required in IT infrastructure to make it more suitable for online education? (3) What training efforts are required for faculty and students to facilitate changes in mindsets and behaviours? In answering these questions, he referenced a prediction by the President of a research university that by the year 2070, about 10% of the universities in the US will survive, 90% will shut down, as technology drives the system to consolidate around three models: (1) augmented, immersive residential which is what has become conventional but is extremely expensive so will in the future be available only for courses that require deep human connections like medicine, engineering, nursing, etc., (2) hybrid on-campus/off-campus, which is where the pandemic has clearly shown there are courses that allow transfer of knowledge and experience without 100% face-to-face interaction at dramatically lower costs, and (3) fully online, where all the amortised costs carried by the student in the traditional learning model are completely taken away, creating the ability to deliver broad, almost limitless course options just-in-time and on-demand over a shorter period at near zero marginal cost to scale.

In my view, these innovative, forward leaning perspectives and strategies in the US, China, and India, to mention 3 examples, stand in stark contrast to the antiquated views of the ASUU which continues to insist that online learning is impracticable for Nigeria. This is because its leadership sees only one pathway, a binary that ultimately bets the survival of Education on a gamble of a single throw of the dice.

One is left to conclude respectfully, that for ASUU venturing beyond the boundaries is the greater challenge than overcoming the technical difficulties in delivering this irreversible reality. Could we be limiting ourselves for fear of getting lost? Rather than reject the irreversible reality the rest of the world is preparing for what if the entire university community sat together to figure out what strategic options exist for the inevitable future? What if we challenged ourselves to come up with local strategies that work for all, not some, to the exclusion of others? What if the University of Lagos leads in redefining and pushing the boundaries of these possibilities?

The Courage to Venture Beyond & Get Lost

The boundaries of our possibilities are set by (1) structures and infrastructure, and (2) by processes and the cultures that we build around them. The first is easy and known – build a digital environment for collaboration. To compete, all HEIs must offer and implement a vision and an IT architecture designed especially for higher education institutions to establish a relevant, contemporary learning environment. In this space we solve the infrastructure challenges leveraging pervasive technologies existing today, and still to come. We connect all actors within the ecosystem, we give them access to a means to share, we open up the channels for the flow of data, we build and interrogate the collective brain of the community, we learn asynchronously and exponentially aided by AI for example; we reset our expectations based on the near infinite permutations made possible by the boundless environment of hybrid learning.

The second is more complex and is the major challenge that we face, and it begins with a question: Does the university have a clear enough view of its long-term value to society that permits it to adapt to unexpected shifts in priorities from generation to generation. Or is it so wedded to the short term that it is unable to adapt? The answer to this all-important question will in turn answer another: where does your pride lie? If you are to be called out in a crowd of strangers, by what name or title would you be known? To answer this question, I wandered the grounds of this great institution speaking to staff, faculty and students randomly asking in a different way a single question – what is your purpose of being here, in this one university? I heard quite of lot of the expected – to get a degree, to become a professor, to stay close to my family, to do what I love – teach, to improve my chances of getting a job or go abroad…. It was outside the university, speaking to an alumnus that I got the answer that pivots the next sixty years.

To paraphrase my friend, brother and an alumnus, Bimbo Olayinka, he said “I chose Unilag because of my late father, Prof. M. S. Olayinka who was to me the image of excellence – an uncompromising pursuit of knowledge, the desire to share it, and the commitment to use it to build a better society through people. Money was never his focus.” He also recounted a story of the legendary mathematical genius, the late Prof. Chike Obi, a giant intellect who well into the term realised that he had been teaching complex Differential Equations to second-year students, a class that his teaching assistant should have been handling! Reflecting his passion and belief in the unlimited potential of his students, he left them with an aspiration to solve a mathematical problem: ‘Find the equation of the top of the top of a table, an imaginary space’. Thirty years on, the equation remains elusive, yet the aspiration lives on in his students to reach the boundaries of the known (the possible) and venture beyond. This is to my simple mind, the ultimate purpose of the university.

To the graduands: the University of Lagos chose you, you reciprocated. As you go forth today, you enter into a world that is changing so fast that adjusting to it will be your primary challenge – live this way.

Buckminster Fuller who created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve” noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to IBM, the build out of the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. A transition from the linear growth of human knowledge to the exponential growth of human knowledge has taken place.

According to researchers, dealing with this information will necessitate the development of vastly more complex software, shareability, and artificial intelligence. Author Clem Chambers, in a Forbes article on Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” believes, leading edge computer technology will be combined with artificial intelligence allowing collective problem-solving on a larger scale and the creation of vast amounts of data. This has already happened: in the last month alone, a phenomenon has swept the world in the form of applications built on Artificial Intelligence Language Models. Like every other one of the 1m users that ChatGPT has amassed in its first five days of public availability, I was curious to figure out just how good it was. Before I could though, I was informed of a new AI-driven browser, so I started a chat with it beginning with the question: Q: How will AI change learning? What follows are excerpts from its 379-word response generated in 15 secs.

“The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) into the education sector has sparked debate on how it will affect educators, students and their learning outcomes. While some fear that AI-driven language models will threaten jobs for educators and reduce student learning to shallow levels, others argue that these technologies can be used to strengthen educator roles while providing more expansive and accurate educational experiences. In this essay I will explore both sides of the argument in order to provide a balanced perspective on how AI-driven language models may change the education sector.

On one hand, there is concern about job losses for educators as AI takes over certain tasks such as grading essays or providing personalized feedback based on data analysis. This could lead to fewer teaching positions available which would undermine an entire….

However despite potential downsides posed by introducing automation into education settings , proponents suggest that if properly implemented , AI driven technology can help make learning more accessible while simultaneously freeing up teacher’s time so they can focus on activities where they add greater value ….This opens up opportunities for interactive digital platforms where students receive real time guidance from virtual tutors during problem solving exercises allowing them develop skills faster without relying heavily upon instructors all times

To conclude although concerns remain regarding implementation of new tools powered through machine learning techniques its clear benefits outweigh risks when approached cautiously yet effectively enabling educational institutions harness power modern computing capabilities whilst maintaining essential elements provided only experienced professionals

I stopped chatting. At least for that moment. I should let you know that in the last week, a 20yr old student has developed an app that uses AI to expose essays written by AI.

The world you are entering is as incredibly exciting. It is filled with the potential to extend the power of knowledge and intellect to solving the greatest problems of our world, and even creating new versions of what we have known as the boundaries of our possibilities. In your lifetime, man will land on Mars by 2030, cars will levitate like aircraft, commercial flights to space will be routine, medicine will reverse once terminal ailments, food will be grown inside your homes not outdoor gardens or farms, and just-in-time rapid learning will be available by download, …

Do our universities have a clear enough view of its long-term value to society, which permits it to adapt to unexpected shifts in priorities from generation to generation or is it so wedded to the short term that it is unable to adapt? Mordecai I. Brownlee, St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, Texas says “If academe were honest with herself, she would see that she has so far failed to evolve at the pace necessary to ensure the growth, sustainability and vitality of the communities she serves”. Forbes in a 2021 publication also highlighted the issue stating that “Industry has shifting market demands and desperately needs higher education to step up and pivot in alignment with its needs. Failure to do so will not only lead to fractured relationships between colleges and employers, but rather than depending upon higher education to prepare its workforce, industry will design its own curriculum and ignore the traditional higher education structure.”

In spite of ASUU’s oft-repeated insistence that online learning cannot work in Nigeria, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be an accelerator of many trends. Institutions experiencing financial hardship pre-pandemic are now experiencing more financial hardship. Citizens looking for learning opportunities to secure their financial futures pre-pandemic are now looking for more fast, engaging and creative learning opportunities to address their skills gaps and career desires. Universities looking to address the needs of their current and future students must ensure faculty are prepared for this next frontier of learning. And they must change at a pace on par with industry demands to ensure students are equipped to meet the present and future opportunities in our markets. Institutions must commit to innovating beyond theory. The growth and sustainability of our country depends on our ability as educators to transform our learning experiences.

Ravi Kumar argues that

In the future, lifelong learning will be done by what I call “complex adaptive coalitions.’’ An Infosys, Microsoft or IBM will partner with different universities and even high schools. The universities’ students will be able to take just-intime learning courses — or do internships — at the corporations’ in-house universities, and company employees will be able to take just-in-case humanities courses at the outside universities. Both will be able to “learn, earn and work,’’ all at the same time. It’s already beginning.”

Perspectives on the Horizon of 21st Century Tertiary Education

There is no ‘sustainability without Human Capital and the system that ensures a constant and relevant supply of this is the Education Sector. Education is the Currency of the 21st Century – nations compete largely on the basis of the quality of their human capital, and all nations are grappling with establishing strategies for dynamically connecting education to the demands of the Information Age in order to drive development.

It is a harsh reality however that the 2020 Global Innovation Index ranks Nigeria 117th out of 131 countries. The diagram below benchmarks the country against Lower Middle-Income Countries, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Global Top 10.

Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, Managing Partner, GrandCentral Africa, delivering his special 53rd Convocation and 60th Anniversary lecture of University of Lagos (UNILAG) with the theme, “Finding the Boundaries of the Possible, Venturing Beyond.”    

We posit that there is an urgent and massive investment in the technologies and competencies that support a 21st century Education ecosystem; to equip, retool and stimulate the youth, to empower them with capacity to realize their full potential. The 21st century is the Age of the Entrepreneur. Nigeria’s youth will enter the workforce earlier as both employee and employer, they will work in diverse sectors in different functions for much longer than any generation preceding them.

Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, Managing Partner, GrandCentral Africa.

While there is much to do across all seven dimensions, the biggest deficit is clear: Human Capital and Research which is directly related to Knowledge and Technology Outputs.

Leading thinkers in reimagining education systems such as Clayton Christensen and Michael B. Horn note that, “[Our] current education system was designed in the early 1900s for an industrial-based economy that needed a standardized system for processing students in large batches with a fixed amount of time for each stage in the process of assembling an educated person—time is the constant, and learning is the variable. Online learning is a disruptive innovation that has the potential to help transform the current monolithic, factory-model education system into a more affordable, student-centric system for the 21st Century. Policymakers must avoid replicating the old factory-model system online and shift to new metrics for the emerging education system.”

The key question is how to use the unprecedented access to, and volume of information (often freely available) to create new, disruptive value chains and opportunities for economic growth and global impact. That this challenge exists in the more developed economies in which research and development, technology and enterprise is pervasive and integral to society’s functioning only amplifies the requirement to be deeply thoughtful and analytical in harnessing the significant opportunities that lie in reimagining our education system in the midst of the current crises.

In the 21st century, we will see flipped classrooms, anytime-anywhere learning environments, personalized learning plans, multi- and cross-disciplinary curriculum and learning paths, borderless educational institutions with students attending several ‘schools’ under tutelage from teachers they will never meet face to face and collaborating richly with classmates that do not speak any language they are familiar with.

We posit that there is an urgent and massive investment in the technologies and competencies that support a 21st century Education ecosystem; to equip, retool and stimulate the youth, to empower them with capacity to realize their full potential. The 21st century is the Age of the Entrepreneur. Nigeria’s youth will enter the workforce earlier as both employee and employer, they will work in diverse sectors in different functions for much longer than any generation preceding them.

The key to this is to empower them with capacity – knowledge, tools and competence – to create economic value for themselves and the community in which they live. Every aspect of their lives will be mediated through technology and digital literacy and fluency will be the critical determinant in their self-actualization. The drivers of reform are visible from a branch and root analysis – the roadmap to meaningful reform must recognize that despite its youth bulge, Nigeria is currently failing to provide the human capital needed to drive its sustained economic growth.

The technology-driven 21st century features rapid, constant change requiring a hitherto unprecedented agility in response to digital transformation. Consequently, Nigeria will need to future-proof its education investments from infrastructure to curriculum to delivery.

We are in a crisis and incremental approaches will not deliver us from the disaster foretold. We must face the issues with a sense of urgency and decide to act to bring about a change. In doing so, we must benchmark globally and adapt locally we must see the world as it is, project into the future that is possible, then build the bridges that will take one to the imagined future.


▪ With over 86% of our youth unable to access a pathway to tertiary education, we have a legacy of 40yrs and counting to overcome if the weight of their unemployment/under-employment is not going to sink society. Education Reform for jobs and wealth creation is not an agenda item – it is the only agenda.


▪ The trend towards practical knowledge and capabilities is irreversible as traditional learning is transited to automated processing and less at-risk skills assume a greater importance to the economy. Leaners must acquire skills and competencies much earlier than ever to become economic agents.


▪ Many educators insist on face-to-face learning, yet the evidence is overwhelming that this is impossible to achieve using the existing models. For much of the current curriculum, the on-premises model has moved to redundant and will be obsoleted as e-Learning advances


▪ There are approximately 120 million people who need to be in a ‘classroom’ for most of the year. That means 3m classrooms holding 40 students. It also means at least 3m teachers at 1 per classroom. How many classrooms and teachers do we have and will we ever have as many as we need?


▪ Each year, our population grows by between 2.6-3% which means that we add about 5m to the learning population each year i.e., by end of this year, we will have over 125m and must provide an additional 125,000 classrooms. This is the reality that faces all of us, but in particular, Public Education where between 70-95% of our student population belong.


▪ When we think ‘school’, it cannot be what we currently see in our heads. The model must change, the costs must change, the outcomes must change, and the facilitators must change.


▪ The traditional hardline between public and private education is no longer sustainable as national governments are increasingly unable to fund the growing needs of the lifelong Education demanded by the 21st century. Enter the private sector but in what way?


▪ The reality of the 21st century is that longevity is being extended while access to economic opportunity is coming at a younger age, and the pace and frequency of change is unrelenting. Work will not wait patiently for Education – it should not.


▪ In all of the above, there are a growing number of innovative solutions mostly developed by Nigerians for Nigeria, leveraging global technology and best practice. Education is an industry – own it.

I would agree with the Australian Chief Scientist (The Chance to Change, 2000) “The universities have huge potential to play a central role as dynamos of growth in the innovation process and be huge generators of wealth creation”. They will not be able to play this role without a massive and urgent intervention from Government in partnership with the private sector. Mariana Francesca Mazzucato, a professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London and founding director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) is the author of the bestselling book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. In this book published almost a decade ago, she argues that the United States’ economic success is a result of public and state funded investments in innovation and technology, rather than a result of the small state, free market doctrine that often receives credit for the country’s strong economy. She asserts in her other book, Public Purpose that the “the public sector can and should be a co-creator of wealth that actively steers growth to meet its goals” lifting the veil on the myth of a wholly private sector driven economic powerhouse of capitalism.

One of the distinguishing features of the post-colonial state and the neo-colonial economy it births is the crippling of private enterprise and state capture by an elite in public and private sectors. Capital formation is via access to state coffers and the true capitalist entrepreneurs are always weak and vulnerable. In Nigeria, the role that Mazzucato describes is not an option – it the option.

Therefore, anchoring on the centrality of the university in the socio-economic development of the society, I would dare to say that the ranking for a university must include a specific measure of its rated impact on the society, how and to what extent the growth of the society can be linked to the university. Going from this thesis, I argue that while universities may be said to grow its student enrolment or faculty population, perhaps its most important indicator is its equivalent of an innovation index. On the basis of research and work that I have done in the innovation ecosystem design, I offer a 5-Stage Maturity Model that is inspired by a great quote:

“If you want to build a great city, first build a great university and then wait a few hundred years.” – Pat Moynihan, Harvard faculty member and distinguished public servant.

This is much the same for a nation – if you want to build a great nation, first plant cities of learning, putting knowledge at the centre of all enterprise and endeavour, then watch it become. As you reflect on the ecosystem dynamics therein, I invite you to also step beyond your boundaries and reset the expectations for this university.

1. Recruit and establish the linkages to the ecosystem players

2. Experiment and iterate the dynamics, expanding the capacity of the engines

3. Promote cross-group collaboration around research, innovation and commercialisation in the intersects.

4. Expand the capacity of the ecosystem pushing knowledge, innovation, products, services and human capital to boundaries.

5. Reset boundaries through external collaboration and resource mobility to create new value.

In summary, I am suggesting that as the university’s innovation activity expands, it directly and indirectly catalyses, accelerates, and multiplies the pace of development of the society that hosts it. Ergo, the overall purpose of a great university is innovation and the innovators it develops and propagates through the society – you, the graduands we celebrate today. Those who come behind you over the next fifty years will ask of what you leave behind – how did your presence in this great institution shape their world? I hope you start today to answer that question as you go forth.


In conclusion therefore, I will direct my closing comments exclusively to you, the Graduating Class of the 53rd Convocation.

Arguably we face the greatest challenge to our aspirations for nationhood and a continued hope for a greater tomorrow than we have in our nation’s existence since 1970. This time we face more than political, social and ethnic divides – we are confronted with schisms in culture, values, digital inclusion, financial inclusion, educational attainment, employment and employability, gender, diversity, faith and yes, economic empowerment. A nation born of, and unified by its diversity is today fighting to preserve the very essence of its promised greatness.

Yet, when I think about our country, I do not see the sweeping negativity that is common to the popular discourse. I believe our people are gifted with an indomitable will to win, an irrepressible call to become, an irrevocable capacity to confront adversity with an intention to overcome, and most important, an unquenchable thirst to attain height after height, after height. In reflecting on Nigeria, I have come to realise that when stories are told about our exploits, it is usually a story of overcoming, of facing the odds and reaching for the strength that lies within. Like many of my generation, I have learnt to embrace with vigour the rich diversity of our people in every corner and corridor of the land, the good and the bad, realizing that the latter manifests and proliferates only when the former lie in retreat or in passivity. I believe in Nigeria, and nearly 40 years on, it is crystal-clear that more than any other period or institution in my life, it was my experience at Federal Government College, Enugu that made “Nigeria” a reality and a permanent frame of reference for my life. And despite all that has come against this in the ensuing 40 years, Nigeria endures as the promise to which I must live up to.

We live in a world in which the only truly scarce capital is human capital. Financial capital moves at the speed of light. One region no longer needs to be wealthy in terms of — or well-endowed with natural resources to be rich. It’s the ability to aggregate and concentrate and create human capital that determines the wealth of nations and regions. And what the great research universities do is exactly that. Universities are not going away, not dying – they are one of the institutions that have existed for thousands of years outliving many other structures. However, they are being reinvented most often not by themselves. To quote one commentator, Geoffrey Boulton of the University of Edinburgh:

“It could be said that changing a university is like moving a graveyard – you get no help from the people inside!”

There is a lot of work to do if the potential of Nigerians and Nigeria is to be realised within a generation. History teaches us that every generation faces a core challenge that it must overcome if the next is not to face exponentially worse conditions.

‘Every generation comes and goes; each must leave changes!’

                                                   -Esiaba Irobi, the Minstrel of The AntHill

A generation with an assignment to fulfil over 40yrs that fails to progress along the timeline simply shifts the burden of catching up to where it was to have started its own race to its successor. As the generations go by in this manner, the promise of the potential grows dim at the edge of a receding horizon. This land, our land, is green and its promise is inextricably tied to the fortunes of its over 109m citizens below the age of 30. If we must be all that we can be, realise our fullest potential, we must answer to the needs of these seeds. Our Tomorrow is nothing without them and our Today must be about how we create a fertile environment for their emergence even as we secure the heritage of our elders whose sacrifices cut the path through the wilderness to open up the verdant fields ahead. Little else matters, and our journey must begin at the beginning, with a radical, urgent and comprehensive transformation of the education space.

What do we do? Where do we begin to make up for the years lost? Our generation, placed by Fate at the birth years of a new nation, needs to sacrifice what time is left to us by committing 200% to doing today what we should have done yesterday. Can we rise to this?

‘At the outskirts of our vision, lies the carcass of our nation!  

                                                                   – Esiaba Irobi, the Minstrel of The AntHil

All things big are comprised of many of the small. Where the small are frail, brittle and few done well, the big either never emerges, or it collapses in on its faulty foundations. My thoughts are that we should commit to doing the small and let the big take care of itself. We need the One Thing to be done in many sectors that inter-connect, aggregate and accelerate vertically and horizontally.

So, here is a simple goal, One Thing that is within our grasp as a generation: can we each commit to raising the socio-economic well-being of our villages by 10% in 10 Years by looking inwards, not outwards? I have decided to make this personal, to take it personal and get this done – without, and in spite of government – because I can but also because as Steve Maraboli puts it succinctly: “I want to live my life in such a way that when I get out of bed in the morning, the devil says, “aw s**t, he’s up!” (Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience). That is what a life of consequence should mean to us if we must be the difference in a generation.

The world watched as the hatch on Blue Origin closed on a crew that includes a man who built an empire over twenty years, transforming the world in fundamental ways with his vision for humanity, in the process becoming the world’s richest man in history with a private fortune of $200bn, yet 19 minutes away from launch on a dangerous mission I to space in furtherance of the next frontier for mankind. I think of all that we struggle with here, all that has occupied and continues to occupy us as a people, and wonder…One is humbled, and for me, that is the only lens with which to view the aspirations and actions that animate my every day – what are the possibilities that I am gifted with each breath I take, how does my life serve the vision of the Creator?

Permit me to begin to close with the unspoken agreement that we have forged here by our dreams: this thing we must do, raise our heads even if the storms blow strong and fierce; strengthen our resolve even if the quakes and rumblings portend collapsing walls; reaffirm our manifest purpose to pursue excellence even if the fog of mediocrity thickens and swirls; and seize the days of a renascent 21st century Africa even if the barbarians have desecrated the temple.

Thirty years ago, almost to the day one of the finest minds that Nigeria has ever produced addressed this Convocation delivering the 30th Anniversary Public Lecture titled “Crisis in the Temple” that went into legend. On 5th March 1992, the late Dr. Pius, Nwabufo Charles Okigbo, BA, BSc, LLB, Ph.D., DSc framed the conundrum as follows:

The Temple in the title is the temple of learning. It is to be found in the universities and polytechnics. The high priests and guardians of our temples are crying out so loud these days about the desecration of the icons and values they represent. They attribute this to the decay in our social values, to the insufficiency in funding of our tertiary institutions and to the lack of a coherent higher educational policy by the political administration. They do not admit, at least not publicly, that they, too, as guardians of the temples, contribute to the malaise.

Against the backdrop of a historical recounting of the establishment and development of the university system in Nigeria, he sets out the ‘principal sources of the decay: the Political Crisis of 1964-66, the Civil War, the Oil Boom , the Explosion of Numbers, the Military Government, the Academic in Government, Secular Education, the University Government (including the Council, the Vice-Chancellor and the Academic Staff) concluding that the University is a mirror of society:

The University community, everywhere in the world reflects and mirrors the dominant values in the society in which the institutions operate. Our higher educational institutions cannot be different. Thirty years of disorder of the public mind and intellect can only produce a regime of intellectual chaos that now seems endemic. No one, but no one asks himself whether he is competent for the position he aspires to within the Temple; everyone considers himself adequate to run a University. It is readily forgotten that ordinary administrators are very common; they are produced every day. A great administrator thinks not merely of the day but of the morrow.

Since the avenue to money, power and glory now appears easiest at the top of the political ladder, the same attitude dominates the race for the conquest of the state. One has only to survey the aspirants for the highest offices of the land today to appreciate either the height of vacuous vanity or the depth of the lack of introspection among our political class.

It is a privilege of near unimaginable proportions to be able to stand before you in the shadow of such an intellectual giant and quote his words. It is a tragedy of our collective that I can do so thirty years on and if the eyes were shut tight against reality, it could as well be the student miming the master’s verse. How can it be that we are still here in this place, in the midst of a desecrated temple and unable to rebuild as a generational mandate? The answer lies in the realisation that your battle, our battle, begins in the mind where knowledge is both spear and shield. It is with our minds that we thrust open the frontiers beyond the known boundaries of our possibilities. It is with our minds that we shield the future nursed in the wombs of today to seek the light of their full potential. Ergo, the battle must begin with us.

We must never tire to ask ourselves if today, this day and every day that comes after, we can say Yes to four things of our yesterday: did I discover something new that I did not know; did I share what I learnt that I did not know, did I think about what my discovery means for humanity, and did I do anything with what I learnt.

It is only at the outskirts of our known possibilities that we can find our true purpose, and I daresay, power as I turn once again to Dr. Pius Okigbo:

“…the key to lasting power is knowledge. None of the people that represented the icons at this time had any other preoccupation save the pursuit of knowledge; and the route to it lay in diligent hard work, the discipline to utilise every opportunity that offered itself to improve one’s knowledge, a and a passion for fine thought.”

Great Akokites! Great Akokites! Great Akokites! Let it be known to the world from this day forth, that your alma mater is not just a place where knowledge is shared, and a degree awarded. Let the world know you as… [fill in your chosen identity]. This is up to you: what is the limit of your aspiration, how do you define your true purpose? Let the great work begin. We will know it has ended when we look from everywhere to the horizon to see the great, pulsating light that rises and never sets over this campus.

As you set out on this journey to a uniquely manifest purpose together, students, staff and leaders, it would serve you well to keep in your hearts that:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”  

                                                                                                 – Albert Einstein

The light is within you – reject the smothering cloak of mediocrity and let your light banish it. Be all that you are meant to be, shine and let the world turn to you then rise, rise and rise in awe.

Thank you for this privilege.

Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu Lagos | January 2022

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