Tuesday, 25 April 2017

PALAVER TREE COMMENTARIES: Resolving The Controversy Over JAMB — Niyi Akinnaso

By Niyi Akinnaso
For the past few years, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board has been in the eye of the storm, facing sharp criticisms from the constituencies it was set up to serve, namely, candidates seeking admission to the nation’s tertiary institutions; the parents and guardians of the candidates; and the tertiary institutions themselves, especially the universities. As a result, the Board’s cherished motto–Service and Integrity–is under assault. In this essay, I examine the nature of the problem; X-ray the proposed solutions; and suggest ways of accomplishing the desired change.

The problem
JAMB has been facing three major problems, among others. First, the exam body is empowered to perform functions beyond its capacity. From processing admissions for only about 25,000 candidates, and only for a few universities, when it was established in 1978, JAMB now processes admission for well over one million candidates for all tertiary institutions in the country.

This has led to two major problems: One, many of JAMB’s functions, including issuing letters of admission, put the Board in direct conflict with the higher institutions, because they trample on the authority of the institutions to recruit their own students and set their own guidelines for admission. Two, JAMB has had to outsource major duties to technical partners–banks, IT specialists, and other third parties–over which it has little or no control.

Second, the failure of these partners to deliver, often due to manpower shortage, power failure, and Internet connectivity problems, automatically translates to JAMB’s failure. Without a doubt, there is an infrastructure problem in this country, which makes online transactions extremely frustrating. With poor mobile telephone networks and epileptic power supply, it is difficult to get voice calls through not to speak of successfully completing e-transactions. Yet, JAMB has adopted the online platform for the entire registration process, leading to candidates’ frustration with banks, cybercaf├ęs, Computer Based Test centres, and JAMB itself.

Third, JAMB suffers from its own administrative lapses, inadequate planning, and poor judgement, by developing or adopting new policies, either shortly before a new admission cycle or even in the middle of the cycle. For example, shortly after his appointment as Registrar only about eight months ago, Prof. Is-haq Oloyede overhauled the entire registration procedure, without giving enough room to test-run the new system, while relying largely on technical partners. The result so far has been disastrous, including the cancellation of the mock Computer Based Test, hours after candidates had assembled in various CBT centres throughout the country.

Proposed solutions
There are three possible solutions. One is for the status quo to remain, that is, for JAMB to continue to conduct business as usual, tinkering now and then with the process, hoping for better days to come. JAMB itself seems to prefer this solution, judging by the spirited self-defence offered by Fabian Benjamin, JAMB’s Head of Public Relations, in response to my proposal to modify its mandate (see A requiem for JAMB, The PUNCH, April 18, 2017). Various steps taken by JAMB, especially under Oloyede, to streamline the procedures of conducting the Board’s business, were highlighted in the response.

It is clear, however, that none of the reforms undertaken so far by JAMB has produced satisfactory results, partly because the scope of its assignment is beyond its capacity and partly because the Board truly cannot reform itself. The reform that is needed should not be limited to HOW business is conducted by JAMB. It should start with WHAT business is conducted by JAMB. That’s why retaining the status quo is no solution at all.

Another solution is much more radical. It advocates that JAMB should be scrapped altogether. This is the position of many academics, as advocated repeatedly by the Academic Staff Union of Universities. It is not just JAMB’s repeated failures at its assignment that motivated this position. It also derives from resentment of JAMB’s encroachment on university autonomy, especially the University Senate’s power to admit students into its programmes.

It will appear that advocates of this proposal overlook the merit of a centralized examination system, which standardizes the entrance examinations to all tertiary institutions in the country. It is assumed that today’s tertiary institutions could conduct their own entrance examinations at the integrity level that the premier universities conducted the concessional entrance examinations before the advent of JAMB. Such an assumption is challenged by endemic corruption in the society and rampant exam malpractices as well as admission rackets within the tertiary institutions.

Besides, today’s tertiary institutions lack the resources to mount nationwide exams in order to widen the scope of their applicants’ pool. The alternative is for prospective candidates to travel from different parts of the country to a particular institution to take the entrance exam into that institution. This, of course, will increase the travelling and safety risks for such candidates. The depressed economy and the precarious security situation in the country make such an alternative untenable.

This is what opened the door for yet another solution to JAMB’s problems, which I proposed on this column last week. The proposal seeks to limit the scope of JAMB’s duties to the conduct of the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, by restructuring the Board as the equivalent of the College Board in the United States, which conducts the Scholastic Achievement Test, popularly known as SAT. Prospective university candidates sit for the SAT exam anywhere in the world and American universities rely on the test results for admitting students into their programmes. Each university sets its own cut-off point and decides on which additional requirements will be needed for different programmes.

The College Board has no say in the admission of candidates to the universities and does not issue admission letters. Rather, prospective candidates indicate the universities to which their results should be forwarded, and the universities compete among themselves for the best candidates, while the candidates weigh their choices among the various universities to which they applied, and decide on which university or programme suits them best.

In this system, a candidate could be admitted to two or more universities. Readers will recall the recent cases of various Nigerian teenagers, each of whom was admitted to eight or more top American universities. Among them was the spectacular case of Serena Omo-Lamai of Dowen College in Lekki, who was admitted to 13 universities in the United States and Canada.

The present JAMB policy which limits the candidates’ choice of university to only one deprives them of their rightful freedom of choice. Besides, no candidate should be compelled to apply to a polytechnic or college of education if they do not want to attend such an institution. JAMB’s argument that a candidate with multiple admissions deprives others of admission is downright illogical as such a candidate would pay acceptance fee to only one university. Their slot in the other universities could then be given to other candidates after the payment deadline.

Even in the recently concluded admission exercise, vacancies left behind by previously admitted candidates, who chose to go elsewhere or otherwise did not show up, were filled during the late admission period by giving their slots to others. What is needed is a good database that allows for the tracking of admission vacancies as they are filled or vacated during the open admission window.

Desired change
As indicated last week, JAMB cannot remain as it is. However, rather than scrap it, JAMB should remain as the central body for conducting the UTME, while the entire admission process should be left to the tertiary institutions. In working out the details of the new mandate, the JAMB Registrar is encouraged to study the operations of the College Board and similar institutions worldwide. However, in order to achieve the desired change, the enabling decree which established JAMB in 1978, and its subsequent amendment in 1989, should be amended by the National Assembly to reflect the modified mandate.

A Requiem For JAMB — Niyi Akinnaso
No year has passed over the last five years without a controversy or two over Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board’s activities. Each year, the hue and cry over JAMB’s activities gets louder than that of the previous year. It is probably loudest this year with the bungled registration process and the delayed cancellation of the mock Computer Based Test for the 2016/17 matriculation examinations (see JAMB: The plight of 2017 UTME candidates, The Punch, April 11, 2017). The present essay is, therefore, as much a poem of lamentation over JAMB’s failures as it is a dirge in anticipation of its clipped wings, if not complete elimination.

There are at least two strong reasons why JAMB should be scrapped or have its functions drastically modified. First, the duties assigned to JAMB conflict with the role of the Senate and admission offices of the nation’s universities. A central core of university autonomy is the ability of the universities to design their own courses, hire professors to teach those courses and admit students into the various programmes offered. It is bad enough to take the admission process away from the universities. It is even worse to proscribe post-UTME exams, which would have allowed the institutions to better determine which candidates match specific programmes and which candidates are frauds.

Over the years, the universities have repeatedly pointed out JAMB’s interference with university autonomy. The universities are particularly uncomfortable with the requirement that JAMB and JAMB only could issue letters of admission to the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, thereby reducing these institutions to clearing houses only.

Second, JAMB has never been able to discharge its primary duty, that is, conduct the matriculation examination and process admission, without a hitch. Admittedly, it has always been a victim of poor infrastructure, especially inadequate power supply and poor internet connectivity. It has been overwhelmed by larger and larger pools of candidates. JAMB has also been a victim of poor planning, lax administration and lack of foresight.

A key problem behind JAMB’s failure is the unnecessary centralization of the admission process, which puts much more pressure on the Board than it could cope with. Ever since it was created in 1978 and subsequently, given sweeping powers by Decree No. 33 of 1989 to conduct the matriculation exams and also process the admission of students into the tertiary institutions, it has been struggling to cope with this mandate. It is now time to devolve many of those functions to the respective institutions or scrap it altogether.

Here’s what a modified JAMB mandate should look like. It will function like the College Board in the United States, which conducts the popular Scholastic Assessment Test, otherwise known as SAT. True, students take this test from designated locations all over the world. The fact is that the College Board does not process admission to any university. Instead, students apply to various universities themselves, which in turn receive their SAT scores and use them to process their admission, in addition to institution- and course-specific requirements.

As a result, a student could be admitted to as many universities as possible. It is left to the student to choose one. This often leads to a healthy competition for candidates as the universities struggle to attract the best candidates.

In the United States, elite universities, for example, go to the best high schools to woo candidates, sometimes working through their alumni associations. They also offer scholarships or some form of financial aid to attract students.

Since every institution in Nigeria has a web site and an active portal for e-transactions, prospective candidates should be able to apply online to their institutions of choice. As in the United States, any student can apply to as many universities, polytechnics and colleges of education as he or she likes.

This will increase the candidate’s shopping possibilities for admission and eliminate the problem of processing a change of institution form on JAMB’s website. Even more importantly, it will eliminate all the problems that the Board has been experiencing with online registration as this method will take the UTME registration completely away from it. Besides, it will encourage the institutions to upgrade their computers and expand their facilities in order to be able to cope with the number of applicants who will take their exams in such institutions.

Candidates will still have to contact JAMB during the application process, but only to create a profile with their picture and indicate in which institution they wish to take their examination. Students will, of course, be encouraged to take the exam in the institution nearest to them. Students should be required to indicate two possible institutions, at least, to use as exam centres in order to prevent overpopulation in a specific centre. JAMB will then process the choices and inform the institutions and the number of candidates to expect. It will also inform the candidates ahead of time about which specific institution to go for the examination. This will assist JAMB in determining how many examination questions will go to which institution.

JAMB’s primary duties will be limited to setting up the exams; distributing related exam papers to the various institutions; appointing examiners; grading the exams; and disseminating the results to the students, via their online profile, and to all the institutions.
Each institution will thereafter decide on its own cut-off mark for each course and directly admit students into its programmes. The anxious wait on the part of the candidates between a congratulatory message from an institution and the issuance of admission letters by JAMB will be eliminated.

Events within the past year also show that it is critical for the Federal Ministry of Education to be properly educated about university autonomy and the functions of each organ of the university. Much too often, ministers give provocative orders to JAMB without recourse to the universities. Unfortunately, the National Universities Commission, which should champion the course of the universities either colludes with the ministry or sits on the fence.

A point of historical detail often missed by government officials today is the military root of many education policies crafted at a time when there were much fewer universities and when state universities had not even come on board. That is why the question is often raised today as to the propriety of a federal ministry of education dictating to private universities and polytechnics about admission into such institutions or of JAMB processing admission into private universities.

Today, JAMB is dealing with a larger number of universities and a teeming population of students, without the necessary infrastructure and adequate manpower to cope. Nothing will be lost if some of those duties are given back to the institutions from which they were snatched by military fiat. Rather, JAMB will be relieved of a burden it couldn’t carry, while students will be weaned from unnecessary hassle and stress. Finally, the universities and other higher institutions will be happy as one of their primary functions will be restored.

Originally published (ARTICLE 1) and (ARTICLE 2) on THE PUNCH