Lagos v-c: Nigerian universities must hustle for funding

Folasade Ogunsola discusses her country’s battle with brain drain and universities’ search for ‘creative’ ways to combat funding shortfalls

September 21, 2023
Folasade Ogunsola vice-chancellor University of Lagos
Source: University of Lagos

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In 2003, Folasade Ogunsola was on the cusp of giving up her academic career. But then, in the midst of Nigeria’s military regime, she received a research grant. For days afterwards, she recalls, she had a “spring in her step” as she made her way to her clinic by the beach.

At the time, the infectious diseases expert was in her early thirties. Alongside her university teaching position, she worked in Lagos as a researcher and doctor with a local community of HIV-positive sex workers, who had been pushed closer and closer to the water on the fringes of the expanding coastal capital. Decades later, Ogunsola, who is now vice-chancellor at the University of Lagos, credits this early work with keeping her in academia.

“When you’re doing pure clinical microbiology, you can do it alone,” she says, noting the contrast with fieldwork, which requires knowledge of various branches of science, including epidemiology and sociology, and a sense of “how you enter into the community”.

After starting out as a medical doctor, Ogunsola received her three-year research grant funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study HIV. The work helped her to understand what gets her fired up: “people-centred” research that has an “end point with a problem to solve”.

For Ogunsola, her field experience contained a valuable takeaway. She realised that when research is trying to answer questions that affect people directly, diversity is important and that for “different perspectives, you need different experts”.

She recalls an instance in which patients stopped visiting her clinic in favour of traditional birth healers. Ogunsola then brought in a sociology professor who engaged with the healers and convinced them to direct their charges to the clinic if they did not improve. The number of patients turning up to the clinic doubled.

In 2022, when Ogunsola became the first woman to lead the University of Lagos, following earlier roles as the deputy vice-chancellor and, previously, the first female provost to run the institution’s College of Medicine, she had already faced a hefty dose of the sector’s challenges. During her first year at the public institution, she saw almost three staff leaving each week, a symptom of the brain drain ravaging Nigeria’s higher education system.

This mass exodus, known in the country as “japa” – the Yoruba term for “run” or “escape” – is especially prevalent among young people in fields such as medicine, engineering and financial technology. Popular destinations include the US, the UK and Canada. The loss of talent, Ogunsola says, has been “really scary”, reaching a peak in 2022. It is the first thing that comes to mind when she speaks about the challenges to the institution’s research capabilities.

“Earlier this year, I would have said we’re haemorrhaging staff and students – staff in particular,” she reflects.

Still, she’s hopeful that this will improve. This June, Nigeria’s president Bola Tinubu, who recently came into office, signed a bill allowing universities to collect student fees – a big change for a sector that has spent years relying on government funding without charging students. A loan system for students who cannot afford to pay for higher education is also in the works, with universities awaiting the details. Ogunsola expects it to bring more financial stability for institutions.

But even if the relentless pace of emigration has somewhat slowed in recent months, there are plenty of reminders that it’s a “real and present problem”. In the week Ogunsola speaks to Times Higher Education, she receives two letters of resignation from staff moving abroad.

It’s not just that young researchers are leaving; universities are also having a hard time making ends meet, says Ogunsola.

“You’re working with one hand tied behind your back,” Ogunsola says. She believes the situation has made leaders like her “creative” in the hustle to find more revenue streams.

In the current environment, universities are looking to alumni to provide financial support – a move that was unheard of just two decades ago. There is a push to secure funds from industry and universities abroad. The fruits of such collaborations can already be seen on campus. For instance, Lagos has a new fabrication lab thanks to funding from the French government; it also boasts a design laboratory, set up in collaboration with Rice University in the US.

To supplement revenue, the university has also created a number of businesses. Water sourced from a deep borehole on campus is bottled and sold under the “Unilag” brand. Also on site is a bakery that produces bread for sale. During the pandemic, the university started building ventilators and filters. Other ventures include a pharmaceutical company, a printing business and an enterprise selling fish from ponds belonging to its department of marine science and fisheries. Most recently, it has built its own electric cars, which it is looking to market.

Ogunsola finds herself juggling her aim of keeping education standards high with having to “run around quite a bit” to secure funding. Still, she believes the struggle has forced her and her peers to be quick to adapt and innovate. She wonders whether perhaps it is this resilience of vice-chancellors that has made the financial pressures seem smaller than they are. “Maybe if we had just sat down and allowed [our universities] to crash, somebody would have rescued us earlier,” she jokes.

But even with more funding, high-end journals and equipment are often out of reach.

“Some grants are so specific and would require some equipment that you don’t have access to,” the vice-chancellor says. Even Ogunsola, an institutional head, often calls on friends and colleagues at universities in the West for institutional access to an article in a journal.

She compares the reality in Nigeria to doing her PhD in the UK, at the University of Wales.

“When I was in Cardiff, you could get equipment on lease and, when the new one comes out, you trade one in for the other,” she recalls. “Here, you have to make an investment in the multibillions. You’re a poorer country, but you need to bring out everything. You don’t have the luxury of leasing.”

She and her colleagues are working to change the status quo where less-resourced countries are left behind. Earlier this year, the University of Lagos was one of 400-odd universities that signed up to the Africa Charter for Transformative Research Collaborations, looking to bring in more policy reform and raise the participation of African countries in global research.

Ogunsola says that this could mean exciting things for collaboration, particularly within the continent. “We’re beginning to break down some of the colonial structures that divided us because, really, there was a lot of division.”

Illustrative of the divide is the fact that many Nigerians know more about the UK and the US than they do about their African neighbours, she says. By collaborating regionally, she says, she expects that there will be opportunity to learn from nearby countries, many of which face similar challenges in their higher education systems.

Recently, her university welcomed 10 scholars from Namibia, Tanzania and Uganda. A new block of self-contained flats on campus has also been built, in the hope that more international visitors will feel welcome visiting the university. She describes the gated community and the feeling of a “real campus”.

“We’ve been preparing for international visitors. And they are beginning to come.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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