Our conversion to university, a product of years of planning ― Rector, Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro

Rector of the Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro, Ogun State, Dr Olusegun Olanrewaju Aluko

Recently, the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria passed a bill converting two existing polytechnics in the country to universities of technology. The duo of FLORENCE OLUGBODI and ANTHONY NEWTON, speak with Dr. Olusegun Olanrewaju Aluko, the Rector of Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro, one of the institutions affected by the decision of the Upper Legislative Chamber, on the development, among other issues.

You have been on board for the past seven years now. How has the journey been sir?
The journey has been exciting and God made it easy for us. Since I became the Rector, we never had any issue of strike action or agitation that couldn’t be resolved. So, I think am lucky with my staff members and also with my students. Everything has been going on (smoothly), all the challenges have been surmounted and we are happy about that.

Your school appears to have carved a niche for itself when it comes to running a smooth academic calendar, majorly by not participating in strike action called by members of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnic (ASUP). However, you participated in the recently held industrial action. Why the vacillation?

Yes, those strikes you are talking about, what we do here is critique the issues involved. What are the issues that caused the agitation? Are they issues that are peculiar to us in this institution? For instance, if they (ASUP) claim Federal Government said we should pay some allowances and we pay here, but other institutions have or did not pay, and you want to embark on strike action as a result of that, we will take a critical look at the issues and make a decision on how relevant the issues are to us. We care so much about the welfare of our staff members and about our students. Once you take care of the welfare of both staff members and students, pay their entitlements as at when due, I don’t think there will be any reason for them to start unnecessary agitation.

We sacrifice to ensure that things that are not provided for them in other schools are provided here. We provide for our lecturers as well as our students. You know, students, if their welfare is tampered with, there will be agitation. There is water, electricity supply, despite the epileptic supply of electricity in the country and in the town, in particular, we ensure that at least we run our power generating sets and ensure we supply power. When students write exams, they get their results at the earliest possible time. When students are not molested, they are often calm; no sexual harassment; lecturers attend their classes; they write exams and after six weeks, results are out; students call for their transcripts, they get them under 48 hours. These are some of the things we brought on board that stands us out from the bunch, and also contributed to the calmness that you see on our campus. Study Leave is available to our lecturers; it’s fair and just, without any dint of partiality. Everything is done with fairness. Anyone that offends is adequately punished and everything follows the normal process. So we are bound to have a calm environment.

Now, to the other issue. It suffices that if any issue does not affect us directly, we don’t join (strike action). The last strike, what they were talking about was arrears of minimum wage, which ought to have been paid by the government because we have been captured by IPPIS (Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System). Abuja ought to have paid the ASUP members. They also talked about needs assessment, that is, upgrade of facilities in the polytechnics, which we know directly involve us. So definitely we will not be against the decision to embark on strike to press home these demands.

(Cut in). So what you are saying is that you have a grip on ASUP members in your school so much so you can decide when and when not to embark on strike action?

No, it is not a grip! You see, I am not interested…

(Cut in). Perhaps one can say you (management of the school), and ASUP members reason together.

That is it! I don’t interfere with their elections or congresses. But they are also intelligent enough to see that okay this man is really trying to ensure that we enjoy our welfare on this campus. So, as it is often said, one good turn deserves another. I believe they simply wanted to reciprocate, like saying ‘okay, let this man have his peace since we know that he is making sacrifices for us’. You can imagine for instance, when we are paying some allowances and some institutions do not pay for almost one or two years, and we continue to struggle to pay and to ensure that no affluence of anybody, let the system just keep running. So, they are bound to reciprocate.

COVID-19 came and was ravaging the world, your school came up with a ventilator which at that time was a scarce commodity across the world. But not much was heard of it afterward. What really went wrong, because it was expected that the world market would be flooded with your invention?

That is one of the disadvantages of, maybe, being a polytechnic anyway, because am sure if it were one of our first generation universities that come out with this invention, maybe investors would have taken them more seriously. And this is because we did all that is humanly possible, courtesy of our staffers and students, and we are able to come up with that ventilator. The Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) came, they saw it, the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 came, requested for it to be displayed and we all did all that. They talked about linking us up with investors and that is where it ended. Apart from being exhibited in Nigeria, we subjected it to international review in Q2 Journal and it was accepted for publication.

So, on our part, we have done what ought to be done. The rest is now left for investors. We are not asking for money from anybody, all we are interested in is for our name to be on it. Even if you want to manufacture, simply say ‘designed by Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro’. That is all that we want. We are not saying we want to sell the franchise or ask anybody to bring money, but they could come, mass produce it but give the glory to our institution. Even without paying us, an ordinary mention of our name as the inventors is okay for us. We are indeed helpless in the circumstance. Maybe it is the discrimination being a polytechnic that does not attract them because I believe that if it were one of the first generation universities that invented it, I am sure the narrative will have been different.

Aside from this ventilator, has there been any other invention by staff and students of your institution?

So many! There are even some that we have patented. We have a patented Palm Kernel Producing Machine that will turn palm kernel nuts into palm oil. We have a patented Electronic Mail Box that gives you alerts. Like the pigeonhole in your office, if anybody drops a mail for you, your phone will alert you (anywhere you may be) that there is a mail-in your pigeonhole. We always attend exhibitions with the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN). Indeed, there is hardly an exhibition that was organised by MAN without extending an invitation to Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro, to display our latest inventions.

There is also Fruit Juice Extractor. In fact, when we attended the last exhibition by MAN, we sold about two or three of the extractors. We also have Smoking Klin for those engage in dry fish business. This can smoke fish with coal, gas, or any form of energy that you require.

All those things we have, and we are still working on so many others. Specifically on COVID-19 intervention, if you go to our main gate now you will see a number of disinfectant booths that those coming into our premises must pass through. It was fully manufactured by us so that our students as they come in, the machine automatically disinfects them before they go to their various classrooms. This was fully done by us here. And so many others, which was why we said okay, the level we are, let people come and see whether all these things are real. And to the glory of God, we know they are real.

It was a cheering news sir that your school and Yaba College of Technology will, in weeks, become universities of technology. When the news filtered in, how did you receive it?

We were excited but we are not surprised because the story started some years back when former President Olusegun Obasanjo said he wanted to make some polytechnics affiliates of universities proximate to them. Then I was the ASUP (Academic Staff Union of Polytechnic) Chairman. We said “No”. But one does not just say no without justifiable reasons. So what we did was to examine ourselves, what did we have in terms of manpower, in infrastructure. We looked at them and discovered that most of the things we had in terms of infrastructure were not available in UNAAB (University of Agriculture, Abeokuta) especially in the area of engineering. So how do you make us an affiliate to a university that we know that in this line they are inferior to us in our manpower and infrastructure and you want to subsume us under them?

When we look at what they had, we concluded that it was not going to be an added value to the system. So we said no. We made our compilation and we forwarded the same to the presidency. Although it is a government idea, if you give a cogent and convincing reason, they will listen. So we did our presentation and they bought into the idea. We then decided that in order to sustain it, we just have to continue to improve on the system here. So we told our staff members to be prepared, we geared them up. Those without PhD, we encouraged them to start pursuing it. And we also kept on improving our infrastructure to make sure that at any point in time, if there is any opportunity to convert any polytechnic to university, we must be part of it. So when this issue came up, all we did was to simply document all those things that we have and present them to the Senate, because the only area where they often capitalize on is that we don’t have professors. What qualifies one to be a professor? One, such person must have PhD; all others are papers and then promotion. And I am very sure that if the papers of some of us here are assessed, you will see what we are saying. One of us went on sabbatical to a university and was given Associate Professorship. Another retired here and he was given Associate Professorship and it may interest you to know these persons, I just talked about, do not have more papers than some that are still around here.

So what we are saying is that if they want to convert us to university, yes we are ready, they should come, apply the university criteria and promote those that are supposed to be promoted. There are so many chief lecturers here that, with university criteria, they are supposed to be either professors or associate professors with international publications, Q2, Q1 publications, journals, etc. But since polytechnic cannot award professorship, they had to stop at Chief Lecturer that, however, doesn’t mean that they are not qualified for it. That’s exactly what we are saying. And to the glory of God, 25 per cent of our workforce here already have PhDs. Not everybody that teaches in the university has a PhD, they don’t have PhD 100 per cent in the universities, they develop over a period of time. Even the last publication of NUC (National Universities Commission) puts it at 42 per cent. So if as a polytechnic, we have achieved 25 per cent now, definitely by the time this programme starts, we will get there. Most of the private universities around don’t have the facilities that we have here. How many state universities have the facilities that we have here.

You are now going to be a university of technology and at the moment there are about 10 universities of technology across the country. How do you intend to survive sir?

You see, our background is what is going to work for us. Those universities of technology have backgrounds different from ours. For example, if you go to those universities now, how many technologists have they in their laboratories? The practical content of university is applicable to them because they have not developed the culture of practical. But here we are now, we know the amount of practice that goes into electrical engineering students as HND (Higher National Diploma).

So when it becomes a university, we are not ready to jettison those practical aspects of the curriculum. I gave an analogy which was captured by one of the newspapers that if the university says for this particular course, there should be three hours of lectures and one hour of practical, in our own case, we will accept three hours of lectures and also insist on three hours of practical.

So we are envisaging that the graduates that we will turn out from here will be quite different from those of the conventional universities of technology because we have enough manpower in the area of practice that we are not going to ask them to go away, but they must work. If you go to any of our labs now, you will meet about four or five technologists there handling different aspects of practice. So, we cannot say because we are now a university, we ask them to go away, no, because we have something called local content in every curriculum. Our local content to those curriculums will be our practice so that when they go out, they are good in theory and sound in practice. That is why I am very sure that if this experiment succeeds, it will encourage the government to do more in that direction because all the polytechnics have a culture of practice, and it must be done.

Talking about facilities sir, this is not evident here going by what we saw on our way here vis a vis extant universities. Do you think you have enough to migrate to university status in terms of facilities?

You see, that is what we are saying. Maybe you have been to some universities that started earlier. Some of them don’t have what we have, but they build on it over time, because funding for the university differs from that of polytechnic. You will be surprised that half of what universities take from TETFUND is what polytechnics take. So with the conversion now funding will be different, then we can now build on the facilities. We have classrooms, we have about four lecture theatres here, I am very sure some universities don’t have more than two or three. If you go to our laboratories, you will see some of our equipment; you will not believe that some universities close to us here have been using our facilities for the training of their students in practical, before we stopped them, although I will not mention their name. If they want to do some experiments and practical, they come here before we stopped them because those equipment are not found in their system but they are here and we are using them. I believe the facilities we have is enough for us to take off.

Looking at the universities close to you sir, Ogun State has nine universities, five are privately owned while four are government-owned. Now you are joining the list.

We are joining the list with a difference.

In the ranking of polytechnics National Board for Technical Education (NBTE), your school was ranked third in the country.

(Cut in) which one?

The NBTE.

The NBTE ranked us second.

From what I saw on the NBTE site, your school is third behind Auchi Polytechnic and Yaba College of Technology.

That’s what am saying because since they did the last ranking, they’ve not done any other one. One thing I know however is that the Webometrics ranking for 2018/2019 ranked us first, for 2020, it ranked us third, which is what you are seeing now, which was late. But the good thing is that we have always been within first and third. And if you look at the one that ranked us first, on the ranking of all higher institutions in Nigeria, we were ranked seventy-fifth. And if you look at the number of universities in Nigeria they are about 170. So there are about 100 others behind us.

Of course, you are ranked the first to third as regards the polytechnic ranking, now you are going to be a university, how do you hope to maintain that standard of being at the top?

That is what I am saying that even when you juxtapose our ranking and those of universities – they ranked all tertiary institutions in Nigeria; we are ranked seventy-fifth, which means there are still some universities behind us at our own level. But when we become university now you will see what we are capable of doing. Manpower will be attracted to this place; professors will be attracted to this place. Those will bring in new ideas that will improve our visibility and ranking.

We are not saying just convert us to university, no! We are saying convert us to university, equip it with facilities that will make it full-fledged university. Maybe they can employ at least one professor for us in each department. The professors will be able to train those that are even ripe within the system and as they continue to rob minds together the school will continue to move forward. What we are saying is that once this issue is resolved, it will attract people, funding, intervention from even bodies outside government. As I said earlier, if our ventilator was invented by a university, don’t you think it would have attracted investors? It would have! But they say polytechnic, maybe they copied it or something. The kinds of things that will relegate people, which are demeaning and condescending, are what you will hear. But we know the amount of energy we put into it before we got to that level. You will not believe that we camped about 14 staff members and students for one month in our guesthouse, they didn’t go anywhere, to be able to arrive at that invention? But nobody will know this. They might say, maybe they copied. Those we camped including medical doctors. They left their family members and I was with them each day to encourage them, telling them we can do it, and we did it. When we were done with that, we again encouraged them to do another thing, the disinfectant booths, and they did it. We told them, ‘don’t let us go, since there is lockdown’. The disinfectant booths are what you see at the gate.

So, we challenged ourselves but I am very sure if it were to be a university that did it, everybody will have been excited, but because we are a polytechnic tucked up somewhere in the bush here nobody reckons with us. But God reckons with us.

How has the welfare of your staff members been?

We cannot say we are perfect, but we have been able to do enough for them to appreciate us. They appreciate us because they know that we are trying our best.

Since you come on board as the Rector, can you share with us some of your achievements sir?

The achievements will have to be in these key areas, infrastructure, curriculum development, and staff welfare.

In terms of infrastructure, I know that during my tenure we have constructed about four auditoriums, a number of classrooms, workshops, an international conference centre, and guesthouse, etc. In fact, just look around they are still fresh, a mass communication studio and radio station.

In terms of curriculum development, we have added almost about 20 programmes since I came on board, new courses that we are doing now, and we are still working on lots more. What we do is that we move with trends. Now, the world is shifting towards robotics and drones. We want to have a drone village here where we are going to teach people how to manufacture drones. One of our students has done it successfully and we hope to build on it. We believe there are various kinds of drones, even students in secondary schools can do drones. If you remember in those days, we use to do kites and be flying them in the air while holding on to the strings. It’s part of drone development.

So we believe that Nigeria needs to encourage this kind of skills in all areas. Hence, we are going to get something done in form of workshops. Here, we always move ahead of others. For instance, we are the only school in Nigeria now that has a driving school, and the reason is that our students that read marketing when they get employed, the first thing they will ask them is if they could drive. If you cannot drive, you lose your job. Even as a reporter, if your boss asks if you could drive and your response is negative. Tell me, how much is the salary that they will have to employ a driver for you? So we said okay there are some courses that before you leave you must at least have a driving license. So we made it compulsory for students studying marketing and mechanical engineering. You must know how to drive, because how can you be a mechanical engineer without knowing how to drive the car you want to repair.

So those are the things I am saying concerning the peculiarities of our institution here. For example, if you are studying Building Technology or Civil Engineering, you must be able to make and lay interlocking blocks. So if you go round our campus, all those interlocking blocks are laid by our students in Building and Civil Engineering.

When you go to town, anybody doing interlocking work is our ex-student. So they create that employment for themselves so we are trying to make sure that at least, all of them get skills. For those of them doing Mass Communication, we procured a studio for them to broadcast. In fact, there is a student in ND1, Damilola Adekunle, when she is casting news, you will think she’s a professional. Those are the things that we do here that make a difference and it has become part of our culture to do it.

We created another school entirely, the School of Communication, Information, and Technology, where we have Music, Mass Comm, Office Technology Management, and Library Science. So we have been able to achieve a lot by the grace of God.

What attitude does the institution take towards improving and maintaining the quality of higher institutions sir?

Yes, you see we are really working on it and we have been successful on it. One, we encourage our staff members to attend conferences, and we also encourage them to publish in well-known journals before promotion can be given to anybody. Then we make sure that our students are taught and engage in the practice. We take practicals seriously here because we have a quality assurance department here that goes around every semester to find out how many percentages of practical the students have covered because I know it is easy to go to lectures, teach them and go but practical if you don’t monitor it very well, it becomes difficult.

So they go round to monitor the number of practical and the evidence. And this has helped us a lot because I know that there are none of our students that have been employed somewhere that they give us bad feedback on. In fact, what we heard is that when they get to interview, they are treated specially, because they know that if you are from Ilaro (polytechnic), there is something on your head.

By the grace of God, our security has been top-notch, with no sexual harassment, no cultism. You can’t hear any criminal news about us, no matter the medium you chose to watch, listen to, or read from. We know ourselves very well, our students work round even at 2 am, nobody dares harass them. We have a very good relationship with the people in the town. I told them that if any of my students offends you, feel free to report them to me. Don’t beat them, if you beat them I will take you to court.

On a final note sir, pretty soon, next year I suppose, you will leave this position. What is your next line of action, where should we expect to see you?

I want to go back to my village and farm. I have said it but people don’t believe me.

(Cut in) You wouldn’t be going back to the teaching profession?

By the time I will finish my tour of duty here, I will have one and half years to retire, and after that, I will go back to my village to engage in farming, I want to rest. I am not young any longer, I will retire at the age of 65 and it is very close.

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