The last one year has been eventful in the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) because of the ongoing reforms being implemented by its Executive Secretary, Dr. Abdullahi B. Baffa.in this brief chat with him on how he has been coping with the challenges, the nature of reforms in place and the way forward. Excerpts:
How is the journey so far?
I think I should say so far, so very good. Since the coming of this government under the leadership of His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, quite a number of positive changes and quality improvement have been brought into the education sector, especially our own area of mandate; the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). The first thing we are very happy with is our ability to put a stop to the culture of impunity in the system. We were able to put that to an end. We were also able to get beneficiary institutions and other stakeholders to be respecting and complying with the provisions of our operational guidelines. That is, the guidelines for accessing and utilising our intervention funds. That has a lot of multiplier effect on the quality of projects that are being executed, the speed with which they are being executed and obviously the value for money.
When we came new, we realised that there are quite a number of hitches here and there and so, we started to diagnose the reasons behind some of these infringements and violation of our guideline. After diagnosing, we tried to correct them and after correcting them, we put in place the mechanism to prevent re-occurrence. So, we did what is called diagnostic, corrective and preventive actions so that we would be able to carry the Fund to a much higher pedestal in our pursuance of the mandate of the agency. We have been able to support beneficiary institutions to grow faster and make progress so that they would be able to meet up with the requirements of their mandate.
In our diagnostic attempt, we did what we call access clinic to diagnose the reason why beneficiary institutions were having difficulty in accessing and utilising allocations made to them and that clinic was very successful. I must say that as a result of the clinic, we had more than 70 per cent improvement in the speed with which institutions are accessing their intervention funds.
Arising from the access clinic, we also identified some other problems that we felt are very necessary to attend to. So, we followed it up with what we call Routine Audit Verification Exercise (RAVE). We visited the institutions to be able to look at their books, projects and others and one thing always leads to another. As a result of that, we discovered that there are some infringements that we must correct. As I speak, there are scholars that we have written to. We have caused their institutions to write to request them to refund the money. Some have started refunding because they have collected money to attend conferences but they didn’t go. They collected money for PhD or Master’s training but they didn’t go.
How many are they?
At the moment, the final figure is not yet ready because we are still at what we call forensic exercise level. We are getting the feedback bit by bit because when you identify what is happening in a number of institutions, the best solution is to do a global exercise. So we are doing what we call ASTD forensic audit exercise for all beneficiary institutions. We have been receiving feedback. What we have requested for is for each institution to send to us copies of the certificates of those scholars that we have given approval for which the period of their scholars should have lapsed and the copies of their theses and dissertations. For those that are still studying, copies of their progress report as to where they are or where they have gone. Clearing this will open the door for beneficiary institutions. I’m happy to say that have already gone so far in our intervention funds. The President has graciously approved over N1billion for each university, almost over N700million for each polytechnic and N600million for each College of Education. This is the highest intervention ever done in the history of this country.
What is the fund meant for?
We call it Annual Direct Disbursement. The fund is established to support beneficiary institutions in many areas of activities. How we do that is by allocating funds annually and we call it Annual Direct Disbursement. Each year, based on the Education Tax Collection made available to us, we sit down and guided by the provision of the law, we allocate this money to all the beneficiary institutions.
What I am saying is that the allocation we have made so far is the highest ever since the establishment of this agency. Never in the history of the fund was any university given up to N1billion as annual intervention fund. And this year, we have crossed to a little over a billion naira. Many institutions have already started drawing, they have started implementing projects.
When we gave them the intervention funds, we also invited them to come in for an exercise we call project proposal defence. They appeared, and presented their proposed projects. We ensured that the projects they proposed were in pursuit of the mandate of the agency.
These institutions also provided for these projects in their strategic plans and in their academic briefs so that they don’t go away to waste funds. Those are some of the preventive measures that we have taken so that our institutions would not go and utilise the funds for projects for others than those approved.
So what is the total figure you have disbursed?
The last allocation was N213billion and quite a number of institutions have gone really far in utilising this. We are working now on allocation intervention exercise for next year. We are going to submit our budget for approval to the president through the Honourable Minister of Education and once that is done, we are going to invite beneficiary institutions and issue them another set of allocation letters for 2017 to be utilised in 2018.
I must say that we are really happy with majority of the beneficiary institutions. They have taken deliberate steps to comply with our operational guidelines after assessing their project proposal defence. What we are doing now is to go to the field to be on the same page with our stakeholders’ community. We are conducting what we call sensitisation seminars in all the beneficiary institutions and our objective is to go and meet with stakeholders community in beneficiary institutions, the management of the institutions, teaching and non-teaching staff, and the unions to present our guidelines to them. We want to tell them what we are doing and we will listen to them and ask questions. We are making the books open to all, we are making the guidelines available to all, and we are literarily making TETFUND open to every stakeholder so that we will listen to each other in order to take away quite a number of suggestions from them for us to be able to address their inquiries and concerns.
How far with this openness?
It is going on very well. We have done about five geo-political zones and now, we have only one zone left which we are going to do. Really, we are very excited with the progress that we have been making in TETFUND. We are very excited with the fact that no one would hear even a rumour of scandal at the fund; no one would hear even a rumour of extortion or attempt to extort any contractor or any beneficiary institution at the fund and no one is now going about trading allocation letters for projects. This we believe is something that we will sustain. But most importantly, we are very happy that our monitoring system has been refined. We go out to monitor and evaluate projects for the purpose of disbursement of funds and the reporting system has also been strengthened so that all projects are being monitored. The report we are getting showed that the rate at which we make the disbursement on time has been improved. What we did was to agree at the level of our management that for each intervention line, from the request that is coming in from an institution to the time we are communicating back, how many days should be spent on a file that is being processed? Up to how many hours should a file stay on a desk?
This new initiative has really improved our efficiency and all submissions that would come to the Fund; you will see that from the Executive Secretary (ES) office to development department and back to Executive Secretary office, depending on each intervention line. We have a number of days that such a file should be treated and the institution communicated with. This is in keeping with our promise to the beneficiary institutions that we would improve our interaction with them and the speed with which we keep up our communication with them.
Was the increase in intervention as a result of ASUU’s demand or as a result of the government’s focus on education? Were you pressurized to increase the fund?
You know our source is the Education Tax Collection (etc). Whatever we collect as Education Tax is what we are going to allocate to the institutions. If we have high ETC, our allocation would be high. If we have low, our allocation would be low. A year before I came, the Education Tax available was much more than what we have available at our time. In 2015, what was available was close to N300billion but each university was given only a little over N300million. When I came, I had N213billion but each university was given over a billion naira. So, it is a priority on where do you want to spend the money and how? It is not rocket science, the law is very clear. The law states this and when you follow the law, it is going to turn out this way and that is what I meant when I said we have ended the culture of impunity. The rate at which the TETFUND Act was observed in the past indicated some abuse. It happened then because they were not following the law. Simply put, we respected the law and we were able to have this jumbo allocation. In our improved transparency also, we have agreed that we would be releasing to the public at the end of every month, what we call TETFUND monthly digest. The digest is a publication that is going to have raw data of all the approvals that we have given during that month, all the disbursement of funds that we have made that month, all the scholarships for PhD and Master’s that we have granted during that month, all the monitoring and evaluation exercise that we have conducted during that month, the schedule of the monitoring exercise that we are going to conduct in the coming month and other things.
So, it is going to be raw information that is of relevance to all our beneficiary institutions and of relevance to all our stakeholders. It is not news per se but it is raw information about beneficiary institutions. Everything we have done during the month would be published and made available to all. It is about transparency. We would be doing that at the end of every month and sometimes, we would want to be working with some newspapers so that we can be putting that publication inside copies of the newspapers for a wider circulation to the general public.
With this huge investment, why is it that we still have infrastructural challenges in the university?
Let me say that the responsibility of funding tertiary education institutions is that of the proprietors. We were established by an Act of parliament as an intervention agency to support these institutions in four key areas. The four key areas include; essential infrastructure for teaching and learning. Essential in this respect: One can argue that all infrastructure in our campus of tertiary institutions is for teaching and learning either directly or indirectly but what is essential in this respect is when we are talking about lecture halls, laboratory, library building, lecturers offices, workshop, studio, etc. These are essential infrastructure for teaching and learning and we support beneficiary institutions in this respect.
The other area is instructional materials and equipment for laboratories and others. Research and publication is the third key focus and the last is academic staff training and development. When you see student hostels dilapidated, we don’t venture into that. We don’t venture into administrative buildings, sporting facilities. Our core mandates are these areas, so we invest our resources in these specific areas as stipulated in our establishment Act.
To be fair to tertiary education institutions, I think the infrastructure challenge is not as it is being spoken about. It is not as bad as people talk about it because when you go to every campus of our university, polytechnic or colleges of education, you will see the massive transformation, especially in the physical infrastructure because TETFUND over the years has invested heavily. We have really changed the entire landscape of our beneficiary institutions; that is the tangible ones. The intangible ones are the ones that people are not seeing. Almost every new building that you are going to see in any of our beneficiary tertiary institution is a building that is sponsored and fully funded by TETFUND. The intangibles include our support for scholars to attend conferences, to conduct research, our support for scholars to pursue Master’s and PhD degrees, our support for scholars to convert their manuscripts into books; all these are not what visitors to our campuses would see but investment that we have made in this area is very huge and the result is being seen.
The number of lecturers with PhDs in colleges of education and polytechnics ten years ago was something that was near scandal for a country like ours. Ten years now, though we are not happy with the number but the number of lecturers in colleges of education and polytechnics with PhDs has really improved and we are targeting that each year, we would be supporting not less than 9,000 academics to pursue PhDs and Master’s both at home and abroad because Mr. President is very keen about human capital development.
Of course, these institutions have that mandate but also, their staff would have to be developed and that is why all lecturers in colleges of education and polytechnics have a scheme. We would want all lecturers in our tertiary education institutions to have a terminal degree of PhD and that is why in the last intervention year, we allocated N300million to each university to support their lecturers to go for PhDs and Master’s at home and abroad. All polytechnics and colleges of education; N200million each which is more than three times what was allocated to these institutions just a year ago because this government is committed to supporting the lecturers in our institutions to develop themselves and be trained because they would have to be trained and they have to get quality training before they can be able to come back and train our students to get the quality education that would make them drive our economic development.
Private tertiary institutions are also asking for a waiver from the government so that they can benefit from your intervention…?
You call them private and this is public fund. You see, I always explain this, time and again, when you go back to history why TETFUND was established. It was then called ETF. In the early 1900s, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was locked in industrial dispute with the then military government. Later an agreement was reached but the government refused to sign the agreement because the government argued that it was unsure of where it will get the money to implement the agreement. It challenged ASUU to come up with suggestions on how to get funds or else it will introduce tuition fees. It was at that material time when suggestions were given to government and one of such suggestions was for government to charge education tax which all registered companies operating in Nigeria will pay. The government grabbed the idea and introduced a two percent tax to be paid by all registered companies operating in Nigeria and that was what gave birth to ETF then.
Now, ETF metamorphosed into TETFUND, it is still the same two percent tax. Now, if you establish Education Tax so that you avoid introducing tuition fee and private schools are charging tuition, will you give them education tax again? That is multiple jeopardy. This is why by the original intent, any tuition fee charging institution is automatically excluded from benefitting from intervention funds from TETFUND.
I have been accused of using logic to exclude some institutions but the bottom line is, the act establishing TETFUND stated that the beneficiary institutions are public universities, public polytechnics, public colleges of education. I used to tell people that our Act has provided us with a list and any institution that is not on that list is excluded because we are told by our Act that public tertiary institutions that is a list. So a university, polytechnic and college of education that is owned by federal, state government or even local government are the institutions on our list. Any other institution outside these are not qualified to benefit from the intervention.
I want to assume that everything has been very smooth, what are the challenges you are facing?
Your assumption that everything has been very smooth is not entirely correct. The Englishman says the tree that bears the sweetest fruit attracts more stones. TETFUND because of its recent past, the impunity with which things were done by the previous board, quite a number of people were spoilt. So the expectation of people was that, it is going to be business as usual. They assumed that we will come and continue with what was going on in the past and that is not the thinking of Mr. President. That is not the objective of this government and we will have to come and do things the right way and in accordance with the provisions of the law. So, quite a number of people will be complaining and throwing spanners here and there. We will have to wear our overall and enter the mechanic workshop and try to see how we would remove the spanners and allow the gears to function properly so that the engine would run well, so that the machine would be driven smoothly. We have had quite a number of challenges, not insurmountable ones, and we have been addressing them as they come. We are up to the challenges because we are addressing them using the provisions of the law and the guidelines of the agency.
Any need to increase the two percent tax?
Let me at this point thank the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS) for working very harmoniously with us. We are working with them at the moment to see how we can expand the tax net. There are quite a number of registered companies operating in Nigeria that are not within the Education Tax net. But the FIRS is really expanding the tax net and it is trying to bring these companies on board. If we will be able to get all companies operating in Nigeria to pay their education tax, probably the increase in percentage of the education tax will not be on the table.