By Ibrahim Sheme
When Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu reported for work as Vice-Chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) in February 2016, he came cracking several jokes. One of them was that he intended to take the university “from noun to verb” – clearly playing on the word ‘noun’ which, written in capital letters, meant the varsity.
Five years down the lane, that pun has assumed a palpable reality. The university, founded by the Shagari Administration in 1983, suspended a year later by the military regime of General Buhari and re-invented by the Obasanjo administration in 2002, was impacted in many ways by Adamu.
Appointed by the Buhari government from his base at Bayero University, Kano, he retires as NOUN VC this week, exactly on February 10, 2021. The double professor of both Science Education and Media and Cultural Communication has completed his statutory five-year single term.
Those of us that worked with him during this past half-decade are acutely aware that an eventful era in the history of the only single-mode Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institution in the country has come to an end. These days he must have been surveying the space he is vacating and nodding in self-satiation because, to arrive at the junction where he stands today, he had hit the ground running from day one until he has attained his pitch.
He had seemed to be a man in a hurry, eager to accomplish plenty before his time was up. The moment he came in, the first remarkable thing he did, in my view, was moving the headquarters of the university from Lagos to Abuja. Even though the plan had been in the pipeline prior to his appointment, actualising it was a courageous move which set the tone for his admin’istration. Today, NOUN stands on spacious grounds befitting a tertiary institution of learning. It boasts of several structures constructed by him: a new faculty building, a state-of-the-art e-library complex, a media centre, a printing press, a central store, even relaxation and games spots, among others.
When the transfer of the headquarters to the nation’s capital was completed, he had quickly moved to consolidate on that initial gain. His target was to attain excellence in imparting knowledge through strong structures that were necessary for the purpose. The university was blessed with skilled and motivated staff, as well as the financial muscle needed to pull off the changes he wanted to see.
Across the years, the VC also enjoyed the support of government through the various statutory agencies and bodies that provide oversight functions, including the university council, the National Universities Commission (NUC) and the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), as well as the education committees in both chambers of the National Assembly. He marshalled this combined resource effectively, deploying it together with his sense of mission, in order to seek success. Once everyone had come on board, Adamu began to purposely steer his ship in earnest.
He succeeded in two major ways: one, he changed certain internal policies and, two, he provided structures and equipment. Added to these, he practised an open-door policy towards everyone, staff and visitor. Policy-wise, he worked to “normalise” the university through upgrades and realignments. For example, he changed the nomenclature of Schools to Faculties (hitherto, the Faculty of Sciences was known as the School of Sciences, et cetera). He streamlined the academic courses the university was running in accordance with stiff NUC regulations by jettisoning any course that lacked NUC approval. Related to this was his introduction of new courses that were floated only after getting their BMAS approved by the regulatory body. In doing so, his catch-phrase was, “We’re more NUC than NUC”.
Adamu also established new study centres in many states of the federation and rehabilitated many of the existing ones. This he kept doing, knowing that the study centres are the pillars of the university, the first port of call by “customers” – the students. Even last week, several new ones were opened in some states in both the north and the south.
He also upgraded some departments to directorates. For example, media and publicity unit and the security section were uplifted. New directorates such as the Management Information System (MIS) and the Learning Content Management System (DCLM) were introduced in order to strengthen the institution’s basic function as an ODL body.
Due to a number of interventions, NOUN has become better known to the general public in the last five years. It is even better respected. Hitherto, many people regarded it as a lesser institution compared to the conventional universities in terms of the quality of learning and acceptability. But when they came closer or the university was taken to them, they recognised that it was as good as or even better than some of the other universities.
The result of added visibility and confidence was a phenomenal increase in the number of students. Also, the Covid-19 pandemic has alerted many people to the fact that NOUN is an alternative institution where learning is unfettered by the attendant lockdown. Today, over half a million students are studying at NOUN, making it the biggest university in West Africa in terms of student population.
Because NOUN puts premium on quality of its services, Adamu ruled that nobody without a minimum of PhD would be recruited as academic staff. He also discarded the past practice of academicians seeing the university as a “resting place”, one where they would saunter into to relax; Adamu says NOUN is no longer “a low-hanging fruit”; one has to work extra hard in order to earn one’s pay.
One source of big headache for staff and students was the refusal of the Nigerian Law School to admit NOUN graduates due to a legal loophole. Adamu reckoned that it was a public image disaster which should not persist; it supported the wrong perception that NOUN was indeed an underclass in the university system. To solve the conundrum, he attacked it from the base – change the NOUN Act. He actively engaged all the parties involved – the National Assembly, the Council of Legal Education (CLE) which operates the Law School, etc. A public hearing was held, the Act was amended, the President assented to the Bill and, finally, the CLE agreed to admit NOUN’s Law graduates to pass through it and become lawyers. It was a strenuous exercise which turned out to be worthwhile.
The amendment of the NOUN Act, which led to the decision by the Law School to accept the university’s graduates, was for Professor Adamu the icing on the cake with several positive takeaways. It was a measure which at once rebuilt public confidence in the university and gave it a better image.
Such synergy with sister institutions was not limited to domestic bodies. Under Adamu, NOUN maintained collaborations with many institutions abroad. They included his alma mater the Sussex University, the African Council for Distance Education (ACDE), the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), and some other open universities. At a point, he considered opening a study centre in Niger Republic and other countries in the sub-region. NOUN necessarily came to be counted among the leading educational institutions in Africa, what with its drive for excellence and innovative policies, such as its tuition-free education for prisoners and indigent women programmes.
No wonder when news of his imminent departure was announced, Adamu was hailed by the Commonwealth of Learning, the world’s only intergovernmental organisation solely concerned with the promotion and development of distance education and open learning, as someone who expanded access to education.
In a letter signed by its president and chief executive officer, Prof. Asha Kanwar, the Canada-based COL told the outgoing VC: “Under your leadership, NOUN has expanded access to quality educational opportunities for the most marginalised, including girls in remote locations, people displaced by insurgency and natural disasters, as well as some of the poorest members of society. It has successfully channeled the potential of open, distance and eLearning to meet human-development needs on the African continent and has become known for its openness and inclusivity.”
This valedictory endorsement is significant in the sense that Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu’s performance as VC is recognised not only locally but internationally.
It is not possible to list all of the 65-year-old, debonair professor’s accomplishments at NOUN within a short essay like this. Suffice it to say, however, that he has taken the university to the next level from where he found it. He has changed not only its topography but also its psyche. It might have been a mere noun to some people, but it is now a verb as he intended it to be, not some nebulous concept. A verb, according to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a word that characteristically is the grammatical centre of a predicate and expresses an act, occurrence, or mode of being, that in various languages is inflected for agreement with the subject, for tense, for voice, for mood, or for aspect.” That, exactly, is what NOUN is today.
Sheme is the director, media and publicity, National Open University of Nigeria, Abuja