The recent controversy over admission cut-off to tertiary institutions in the country would have been unnecessary had the management of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board stayed off the admission process completely and concentrated on conducting the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination. Its business would have ended with the dissemination of the results to the admissions officers of the tertiary institutions. The Board would then have had to move on to prepare for the next round of the UTME, by working hard to avoid the mistakes of the past. Instead, JAMB got itself into a mess, all in the attempt to clear the mess on the ground, as revealed in the following summary of what my investigation revealed. JAMB truly wants to turn over the admission process to the universities. However, the new Executive Secretary, Professor Is’haq Oloyede, thought it fit to clear outstanding issues before concentrating on entrance exams. In the meantime, the Board also needed to continue its clearing house functions on admission.

Accordingly, JAMB summoned the management of the tertiary institutions to a meeting in the attempt to streamline the admission process this year and also agree on a timetable of necessary activities. A total of 148 Vice Chancellors, Provosts, Rectors, and Registrars from federal, state, and private universities as well as Colleges of Education and Polytechnics attended the meeting. In what follows, I focus only on university admission.

It was revealed at the meeting that some universities admitted students in the past, who did not even take the UTME at all, whose admission needed to be regularised when such students were being prepared for the National Youth Service Corps. In order to stop the practice, each university was requested to submit its minimum acceptable cut-off.

The ensuing data revealed that there are universities during the current admission cycle, which are willing to admit candidates who scored much below the benchmark of 180, because such institutions might be unable to find enough students. The problem really is that most universities in the country have not been able to meet their admission quota for nearly a decade, despite increases in the number of secondary school graduates and UTME candidates.

This is due to a variety of factors, including the location of the institution, the cost of tuition, and reputation. Moreover, many universities have a problem with meeting the 60:40 admission ratio in favour of science, when the school system is producing a 70:30 ratio in favour of the arts and social sciences. Another problem is that many candidates score beyond the benchmark of 180 but are not admissible often due to failure to meet the admission criteria as a result of odd subject combinations in their UTME exams or their WASSCE/NECO results. For others, there could be a mismatch between their WASSCE/NECO subject combinations and the subjects they offered in the UTME.

The point is that, for each university course or programme, there are specific subjects a candidate must pass at Credit level in the WASSCE/NECO exams and specific subjects they must also offer in the UTME. When these factors are applied, a reasonable proportion of those who scored above 200 in the UTME may not be admissible at all.

But this should never have been JAMB’s problem at all. This gap is better filled at the secondary school, where students need counselling on university admission requirements even before they enrol for the WASSCE/NECO exams. Another approach to the problem is for university admission officers to visit secondary schools to educate students on admission requirements, while also canvassing applicants to their own universities.

In the meantime, in order to accommodate universities starved of students, it was decided at the meeting that on no account should any university admit a candidate who scored below 120. It was not the case that 120 was set as the new cut-off as such. Rather, it was set as the lowest bar below which no university must be allowed to go, and it was a joint decision of the Vice Chancellors in attendance. Concurring with the decision was the Vice-Chancellor of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, whose proprietor was among the first to condemn the 120 cut off.

JAMB became the punching bag for the decision, partly because it did an initial poor job of disseminating it and partly because it really should have had no business whatsoever in talking about cut-off. It is the business of university senates and their admission offices.

JAMB dug itself deeper in the controversy by attempting to justify the decision by drawing attention to the flight of Nigerian students to foreign universities in Ghana, The Gambia, and Uganda: “It is expedient to state here that the worst admitted cut-off mark in a Nigerian institution is far better than allowing them to fly out to some of the institutions they are attending out there which we all know are nothing to be proud of”. When did it become JAMB’s duty to monitor admission to foreign universities?

There are far too many questions to raise: Why would JAMB take it upon itself to defend a decision that Vice-Chancellors took at a meeting? And why would some Vice Chancellors join other critics to condemn the same decision taken on their behalf by their colleagues? Most importantly, why, in the first place, would Vice Chancellors agree, for whatever reason, to the lowering of standards in the admission cutoff, when standards are being raised in advanced English-speaking countries?

For example, several elite universities in the United Kingdom have indicated that they can no longer rely on A-levels to select the brightest students and are instead introducing new assessments to select the candidates best suited to their programmes, and who would be able to complete their courses successfully. Oxford University, for one, already had 21 entrance exams and is introducing new ones in the light of changes in the A levels, which now allow many more students to rack up more A grades.

Similarly, university entrance exams are being tightened in New Zealand after a survey found that many school-leavers cannot write at the level required for university education. A similar process is now going on in Australia, where universities are expressing concern about the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. The University of Sydney, for example, is raising and publishing its minimum ATAR for the forthcoming admission exercise.

Perhaps, in the attempt to further strengthen university autonomy on admission, the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, did a roundabout turn on post-UTME. Last year, he banned it. This year, he restored it. However, full autonomy in this regard requires that universities be allowed to charge whatever they want for the post-UTME. At a time when federal and state governments cannot meet their subvention obligations, universities should be allowed to raise their IGR by whatever legitimate means they could find.

My advice to JAMB is simple: Clear the mess this year and focus on only conducting the UTME as from next year. Leave the universities alone. Let them rise and fall on their own by their admission standards.

I also have some advice for critics of admission cut-off. It is high time we allowed the universities in this country to be ranked by both the admission market and the job market. It makes no sense to expect that all the nation’s universities must operate at the same level. Let those universities seeking to admit candidates who scored 50 in the UTME go ahead. Just don’t send your children there. Over time, such universities will find their level—they are likely to fold up.

By Niyi Akinnaso

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