In this interview with our correspondent, the Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, Prof. Suleiman Bogoro underscored the need to shore up research funding to Nigerian universities to boost national transformation and developement. He gave insight into the annual N7.5 billion research grants and COVID-19 vaccine research among other issues Excerpts:
Why were you sacked a few months after assuming office and brought back later?
My first tenure of five years by law was aborted by my disengagement after just one year and 10 months, along with many others on the basis of frivolous allegations. At some point in time, the allegations and petitions against me were coming from virtually everywhere. Some of the times when I read some of the allegations, I knew some people just fabricated it just to see me out. It was bad an allegation that the then-Senate president asked the committee on education led by Senator Binta Marsi Garba of Adamawa State to investigate and report back to the whole house.
Firstly, the allegation was that as the executive secretary, I diverted N200 billion. They added that I used the money to finance the ruling party at that time which was PDP. I knew instantly that there was never a N200 billion missing in TETFund records. What I knew, however, was that there was N279.3 billion diverted, on the instruction of then-President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, to the Minister of Finance, then Prof. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to fund the ASUU negotiations and agreement.
Today, as I speak, there have been similar instructions of such money belonging to TETFund even by this government. I can confirm it. I have the records. It happens once in a while. The beauty of the entire thing is that the day I appeared before the senate committee, I told them, first and foremost, there was never N200 billion missing. Incidentally, most of the money was diverted between 2013 to pay the ASUU agreement mainly.
They also used part of it to give PTDF to pay the scholarship fees for some students under the scheme and another agency. At that time, I said I was not the executive secretary of TETFund, yet I was accused of diverting the money to give PDP for funding the elections. But then the election was in 2015 while the money was used in 2013. Ordinarily, you should know that the money couldn’t have been directed to the election. They just wanted to paint me negative. They felt that a new government had come and if you want to finish the man, just link him with the allegation. I am saying this because it could be any of you accused wrongly for what you did not do in the near future.
The day I appeared before the Senate committee, as is the rule of formal protocol, I responded in writing, but when I appeared before the committee on tertiary institutions led by Senator Binta Marsi Garba, they had gone through all the documents, they asked the media to leave and decided to go into closed hearing with me so they could invite them back at the end of the engagement. This was because they were ashamed seeing me stand before them because I had destroyed all their arguments when I responded in writing with attachments and evidence.
When the Accountant General of the Federation came in, he told the members of the red chambers that all the documents I provided were correct while confirming that the money was diverted by the then president, instructing the minister of finance to comply. He disclosed to them that TETFund did not know because they were not informed about the money from the government treasury to settle ASUU.
Unfortunately, it was while the investigation was ongoing that I was sacked because I knew that some people had vowed that they would remove me. It was somebody that wanted me to drop a bag of money in his house every week. I am sorry to say this, but I wouldn’t oblige him. Interestingly, exactly six months after I was sacked, they turned in their report exonerating me. I have the report for my children.
Luckily enough, each of the members of the senate spoke and not only exonerated me but also apologised because they went through the records and found out that I did not steal any money.
Where’s TETFund at the moment?
I met a TETFund that emerged from Education Trust Fund (ETF) and, a few days ago, gave credit to my predecessor, especially the transformation from ETF to TETFund. The education tax fund became TETFund in 2011 because we insisted because that was the original idea. The funds were applied to every sector of education- nursing schools, colleges of agriculture. Even the Nigerian Law Schools were benefiting from the ETF. We disagreed and got it corrected. In 1999 when President Olusegun Obasanjo put up the board of trustees under Eniola Olakunrin, unbelievably, you could now see the physical presence of the ETF. From 2011, we now insisted in ASUU that the fund should be applied in only public tertiary institutions which the monotechnics were benefitting, which was not right. In the law of TETFund, as amended, we made sure it was only the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, federal or state.
The effect of TETFund intervention became more manifest from 2011. With the emergence of TETFund, we now introduced academic staff training, though it was introduced in 2008. With TETFund taking over from the ETF, we focused more on the tertiary sub-sector, and there was more focus on physical infrastructure. Academic staff training and development became a priority because only 40 per cent of university lecturers had a PhD. By 2015, the percentage moved to 60 per cent. I can tell you, as it is now, most of our universities, particularly the first-generation universities, are getting close to between 85 and 90 per cent PhD holders.
The second- and third-generation (universities) have in the region of 70 – 90 per cent. We are hoping that very soon, you cannot be a lecturer without a PhD.
We know that new universities have been emerging, and we are struggling to cope. When I came, however, I realised that too much emphasis had been placed on physical infrastructure. Yes, we needed classrooms and offices, and before TETFund came into being in 2011, there were no professorial offices. If you went to the universities, in fact, a professor’s office was similar to that of a messenger in any ministry, federal or state. Without exaggeration, it was as bad as that. It is TETFund that started what we now have decent and befitting professorial offices, and we prescribed and insisted on the must-haves in those offices. Today, virtually all public universities in Nigeria have professorial offices.
What are your thoughts on Nigerian universities’ rankings?
I will link that to infrastructural decay. The first question President Muhammadu Buhari asked in 2015 was why are Nigerian universities poorly ranked? When I came, I discovered that there was too much emphasis on physical infrastructure. It may also interest you to know that there are two categories for research grants – Institution Based Research (IBR) with a ceiling of N2 million, then the National Research Fund, which is centrally controlled at TETFund. The IBR is given to institutions to manage largely for basic research. For applied research which we call problem-solving research, it has to be larger, which is N50 million. The problem, however, is that for eight years, from 2011 to 2019, only N4 billion was committed for research grant(s) of all Nigerian universities. I did not want that any longer. We had more money to build classrooms, lecture theatres, iconic senate buildings as if we were competing with the ministries with elegant buildings.
What about the content? I changed all that as I said we should not be working on seed money research grants to annual research grants, a case I presented to the board of trustees, and they approved. In 2019 we started with N5 billion, higher than all the eight years since the fund was started put together. Last year, we raised it to N7.5 billion, all at my discretion. This year, it is N8.5 billion. I actually wanted N10 billion, but the board chairman joked that if we leave the executive secretary, he will carry all the money for research because we politicians also want to see buildings. He, however, said that if they stop me, I will resign because I have not met the purpose I set for myself.
Are you satisfied with the impact of the interventions?
As I speak, the NRF, we are concluding on software to measure the impact of all NRF from when it started. We are now evaluating and will soon publish it. That of the IBR, at the institutional level, we will also proceed and see how we make it available to Nigerians. It may also interest you to know that it is my idea that we should harvest all postgraduate thesis and PhD in all our universities in Nigeria and dematerialise them, which simply means electronic copies or versions, and we have an inventory. We are handling only PG programmes for now but will come down to bachelor’s degrees. In the next 12 months, we should conclude on that project. People are asking questions simply because they are not informed about the technology. We are putting more money into research. As a researcher, if you are hard-working, you will never be poor. If you have watched me, I have always talked about problem-solving research.
For too long, the academia, our universities, remember that the universities are traditionally and historically the leaders in research. That cannot change, and it has remained so. For industries, if you see the Research and Development Funding Committee the Minister of Education inaugurated September 24, 2020, we deliberately constituted 154 members made up of Nigerians in Nigeria and the diaspora. Some of the best researchers and academia, many from the industries, institutes and relevant centres of excellence of Nigeria, are there. We involve the DG of NASENI, NOTAP Automotive Council, DICON in the military, and others. I made a case to the board of trustees to create a department for R&D for artificial intelligence.
How has TETFund been assisting institutions in solving the COVID-19 pandemic?
Today, I brought a team and released N1.25 billion. Let me tell you the first cluster that is being led by National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI) on vaccine production, with bias on veterinary vaccine against viral diseases as it were. The other one is improving the drug and vaccine production infrastructure in NVRI, Vom. The first partner working with them is NIMAR in Yaba, Lagos.
Again, the DG for the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology, they were carefully brought for the cluster in veterinary.
The other one is the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research on drug development, the Defence Industries research and dairy research and development. Prof. Lawal Bilbis of the University of Sokoto said we should give them 18 months “we are going for candidate vaccine against COVID. Chemists in this country respect him. We work together in the TETFund journals sub-committee. These are the brilliant guys we have brought together. Redeemers University has gone far also on DNA sequencing, which is a component leading for the characterisation of vaccine production. I can tell you that our universities have had capacities. The major problem is that they did not have the money for the research and proper investigations. Honestly, what I don’t like is for somebody to imagine that Nigeria can’t produce vaccines. We have been producing vaccines. The truth is that we are not funding it.
The R&D of TETFund has recommended a national R&D foundation that will be the largest funding basket for research in Nigeria. At the moment, TETFund is the largest research funding entity. We are holding the largest research grant in Nigeria. I can tell you that we in Nigeria are not funding research. It is that poor hence we are making a case for the NRDF that can have up to $5 billion annually. The Dangotes, the Innosons, the government agencies must have R&D funds prescribed with a certain percentage. You cannot use that money for anything else. The industries, if they have that money, must go to the universities, the polytechnics and invite the best hands in research science, investigators, and they are there.
We have gone far, a committee chaired by Prof. Awal Yadudu, they are giving me their report. It will go to the ministry; the Federal Executive Council and Mr. President will approve it before transmitting it to the National Assembly. If we have an NRDF emerging in the next few months, we would have solved a major problem.
The knowledge economy in the 21st century is driven by research, and where there is no research, there cannot be value addition. Today, go to the universities you will see that the attitude has changed. People are now more preoccupied. If we don’t do it, we cannot be ranked.
What are the criteria for ranking?
First is the quality of faculty – the quality of the lecturers. No matter how brilliant a lecturer is, if there are no facilities for research, you go to a laboratory and the equipment there was bought 50 years ago when it is now soft-touch, cutting-edge equipment used in other parts of the world, how can you be competitive? The next option is the quality of research equipment. Today, TETFund gave molecular labs to the universities for research and clinical purposes so that they can conduct research and use it to conduct analyses on patients.