The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) has responsibility, by law, for conducting the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) for admission into Nigeria’s tertiary education institutions.
The discussions around the conduct of post-UTME tests within the University admission structure had brought to the fore again how controversial many policy prescriptions and implementation can be in Nigeria. There has been several conflicting information on the process and procedure for admission into universities for the next session. Unfortunately, most of the issues raised appeared to be based on the emotions, whims and caprices of the discussants. When emotions underlie policy prescriptions and actions, then the probability of wrong judgement becomes inevitable. It is my belief that unless we discuss the real issues facing university admission, it will become difficult to solve the problem.
The real issue is identifying the appropriate method of giving admission to only 17% of those who apply into our nation’s universities and making sure that only the best 17% are admitted. Although there have been arguments for and against whether universities should conduct post-UTME test or not, my position is that any process that will ensure sustainability of any system must be in line with the laws of the country as well as evidence put forward from results of rigorous research.
Starting with the mandate of JAMB, I do not think that the mandate of JAMB as stated in the JAMB decree, i.e. Decree No. 2 of 1978 (amended by Decree No. 33 of 1989) as it appears in the home page of JAMB website has prevented the universities from conducting post-JAMB tests. In fact, my own reading of the decree and especially Section Cii is that each university should have approved guidelines for admission formalities, in addition to the examinations conducted by JAMB and these are mutually exclusive. The decree stated that JAMB cannot place any student without these approved guidelines.
As stated by the decree, the competent authority to set admission guidelines for a university is the Proprietor of the University or the Competent Authority of that university. In the case of the Federal and State Universities, the competent authority is the Senate of the respective universities. This is clearly stated in the various University Acts that set up the respective Universities. The implications are that for a federal University, JAMB must take into account the guidelines set by the University before students can be given admission. Although Section Civ states that JAMB should also consider other matters as the Board may be directed by the Honorable Minister to consider or the Board itself may consider appropriate in the circumstances. The implication is that it should be other matters in addition to the earlier three provisions in Section Ci – Ciii. I do not think that the actions of the Honorable Minister should set aside Section Cii or any of the earlier sections. Although I am not a lawyer, my layman’s reading of the decree suggests that a university must have guidelines approved by its proprietor and competent authority without which JAMB cannot place any candidate on admission.
The Minister or Board of JAMB can then add other things but should not nullify the preceding sections of the Decree. Neither JAMB nor the Honourable Minister can cancel the post-UTME test if it is a guideline set by the competent authorities of the universities.
Concerning research evidence to drive policy, it is important to understand why post-UTME test became a necessity in the first instance. In the University of Ibadan that I am aware of, post-UTME screening was a policy prescription that came out of a careful and diligent academic research that was conducted into the reasons why first year students in the University were performing badly. The result of the research indicated that there was no connection between UTME results and student performance in their first year. In fact the study found, at the time, that there was a significant relationship between WAEC result and student performance and not JAMB and student performance. WAEC results predicted performances of students in the University better than UTME results. The response of the University of Ibadan was to design a point-based system that included a combination of O-level results and JAMB grades. The point system was used to select those to be invited for Post-JAMB interaction. This I believe was in line with Section Cii of the JAMB decree as the guidelines were set by the Senate of the University which is the competent Authority to do so.
The point-based system worked well for some time. However, after about 5 years of implementation, it was found also, through further research that WAEC result had stopped being a good predictor of student performance. The condition prevalent then was that many students started presenting high grades in O-level results which they could not defend. Further, the oral interview was found to be undermined by value judgements, errors and biases which made it difficult to admit the best students. The University Senate therefore amended the guidelines to implement an examination system (written test) that would adequately predict student performance. It should be noted that the process was to ensure quality of input and students in the University. This system appears to be working well as the students admitted on that basis were found to be of good quality.
Two arguments have been advanced against the post-UTME test. First is that students should not be made to pay twice for a single admission process and that many universities are making money out of the process. My thinking is that the solution to that is to identify the actual cost of administration of the examination, add it to the cost of Application form sold by JAMB. JAMB can thereafter remit the approved amount to each university when sending the grades of the applicants to the different universities. Definitely there are costs to be incurred in post-UTME test/screening and someone has to pay for it. There is no free lunch.
The second argument has to do with why candidates sit for many tests and not just one JAMB test, in order to get admitted. The big issue here is excess demand for the limited spaces in the universities. We are all aware that the total admission capacity of all Nigerian universities, based on the quota given to different universities by JAMB, is between 300,000 to 400,000. Yet every year more than 1.5 million candidates purchase JAMB application forms. This means that from the very first day of the examination, we already know that more than 1 million candidates who sat for UTME examinations will not be admitted. In addition, in the recent past, about 700,000 – 800,000 candidates always scored above 180 which is the JAMB cut-off. The implication is that from the very first day that JAMB fixes a cut-off mark to be 180, it is aware that more than half a million candidates who scored above the cut-off mark will not be admitted, given the admission quota set by JAMB.
This definitely calls for rigorous research on what should be done to accommodate these persons who are potential human capital for the country. Selecting 300,000 candidates out of 800,000 means that more ingenuity is needed to be able to identify the very best. This is beyond JAMB grades and oral interview as found from research evidence at the University of Ibadan. When many people scramble for a few places, one test will not bring out the best materials. Even when private sector organizations want to employ staff, the applicants may have to take more than one test. They start from aptitude tests, to detailed written tests, oral interviews etc. This is a standard procedure of selecting quality candidates. JAMB is necessary only as a first line screening organization to reduce the number of applicants to the universities into a manageable size. Thereafter, universities can screen for the best candidates based on guidelines set by the respective universities.
I believe that there are problems with the current admission system. This is why those in authority should support a rigorous research that will show where the problem lies, and advance evidence-based policies to solve the problem. The big issue of sustainability of universities goes beyond post-UTME test, and this is what policymakers should address. The institution of post-UTME test in Ibadan was a result of evidence-based research. It is therefore strange that this will be replaced with policies arising from mere insinuations, whims and caprices. The proposition of point-based criteria will not solve the problem. Evidence from the University of Ibadan implementation of the point-based system indicated that it failed. The procedure only puts pressure on WAEC and NECO and breeds corruption and the desperation to forge O-level examination results, while corrupting the officials in charge of O-level results in order to get high grades.
My conclusion is that if universities that are supposed to be the epitome of research output for policies cannot make decisions based on research evidence, there is a serious problem for knowledge creation in our country. Second, when universities take action based on concrete research evidence and this is discarded for political exigencies, the question is: When do we as a country start believing that our actions must be as a result of research evidence? The sustainability of any university system must be dictated by research evidence. Before we scrap post-UTME tests, where is the research evidence that the current one that is being implemented has failed? Must all universities have the same admission guidelines? Proposing and implementing a policy without concrete evidence from rigorous research is a recipe for failure.
Olanrewaju Olaniyan is a Professor of Economics and Director, University of Ibadan Centre for Sustainable Development. firstname.lastname@example.org