The registrar of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB), Prof Ishaq Oloyede, speaks to The Interview on many issues concerning the operations of examination body.
In recent years, there have been more and more failures in examination results. Is there a disconnection between the standard set by JAMB and the quality of teaching and learning in Nigeria?
I don’t think so because, in my view, the fact that there is mass failure is an indication that standard is not falling. Standard is that with which achievements are measured. If the standard is falling, it does not mean that people will fail. Performance may be lower than expectation but the standard of education is not going down. If the standard is going down, what that means is that we will all be lowering the level of expectation. I also think that rather than focusing on the school system when children are not performing, we should look for a way of solving the problems that could be responsible for non-performance. I believe one of the reasons for the high rate of examination malpractices is that teachers, institutions, particularly those preparing students for university, want to prove, want to show that they are performing and, therefore, they find all means, whether fair or foul, to make their products appear successful. I think we need to look at that area, otherwise we will continue to have high rate of teachers and institutions in examination malpractices because they believe that their performance will be measured by the certification, the level of paper success of the students.
Then you don’t think it relates to the quality of teaching?
I don’t think the quality has fallen. Let me give you an example. When graduates of Nigerian universities travel abroad for master’s and higher degrees, they top the class. And that proves the fact that we are not looking at the whole system; we are just picking and choosing. What I think is happening is that there is ‘massification’, a situation where you find 500 students in the class and the facilities are not improving, the facilities are not increasing. And what is happening, therefore, is that you have teachers who are supposed to teach 50 or 60 students teaching 500 or 600 in a class. Definitely, you do not expect the level of thoroughness expected of that teacher to be in effect. And that is why when graduates of Nigerian universities find themselves in a conducive environment outside - where the teacher-to-student ratio is very low - you will now find out that they will perform better; because they had studied under a more hostile environment and when they have a more conducive environment, they perform better. For me, I believe we need to expand our facilities; we to improve on our facilities; we also need to redirect our students and the candidates... People talk about lack of space; I think it is the massification of the space whereby everybody wants to go to a university. Somebody who should read basic science is determined to read medicine, is determined to read engineering, and is determined to read pharmacy. And all these are creating problems. There are institutions in Nigeria that are not admitting up to 50 per cent of their carrying capacity. Except for two or three polytechnics, all other polytechnics in Nigeria are under-subscribed. Colleges of education are under-subscribed. And we have so many of them with appropriate facilities, but fewer numbers of students. I believe that if we get our priorities right, if we emphasise incentives for those who want to go to teaching as a career, if we insist on the professionalization of the teaching profession, I believe things will be better.
You mentioned institutions that are under-subscribed, like polytechnics; do you think there is a policy change the government could make and redirect students to some of these institutions?
I believe basic among possible changes is that the graduate of the polytechnic, at the point of entry for employment, should be given equal opportunity as a graduate of the university system. I believe the disparity in treatment, the lack of adequate recognition of the polytechnic education is part of our problems. That is why parents do not want their children to be second-rate in the working place. That is why they want to go to university to read anything because they think it important to have a degree. I also believe that we over-emphasize paper qualification rather than what people can do. I think if we address this and if government will allow those who want to teach to be given incentives as we used to do in the early 80’s. When there is incentive, there is scholarship for those who are studying education, things will improve. There is also the need to re-evaluate the teaching profession. I believe that government is spending a lot on education but the expenditure is not well directed. For example, when we had the Teacher Registration Council Act, the intention of those talking about teaching allowance should be for those who are qualified to teach, not just any teacher. If we insist, even at the university level, that unless you are certified as a teacher, you will not be paid teaching allowance, then people will think twice. We are not saying disengage those who are not trained as teachers; we are saying, train them along the way. Let them aspire towards something. Let it be known to them that unless you have teaching qualification, you are not going to be entitled to teaching allowance. I believe government needs to have the political will to be able to push that through.
One reason a lot of universities are willing to offer students admissions regardless of their UTME results is because of the potential revenue. They have developed business models and deliberately create programmes to help students bypass JAMB. Is JAMB oblivious of this or is it simply too slow in helping both the universities and students to meet their needs?
To me, they are two unrelated things. JAMB is not to usurp the powers of the senate and academic boards of the various institutions. JAMB is meant to coordinate. It is not a substitute for the senate and academic boards of the various institutions. The primary responsibility for admission lies with senate and academic boards. They recommend and what JAMB does is ranking qualified students. JAMB is ranking, presently, applicants and candidates; anybody who applies, JAMB ranks them according to their scores. One important thing this year is that JAMB will consider any recommendation from any institution unless that institution has convinced JAMB of the qualification of the candidate. They don’t recommend a candidate because he comes to you. You need to show us that he has the appropriate O Level qualification, and not that you recommend and we accept, you then turn round and say the candidate you have admitted for us passed JAMB but he has no O Level. There is no reason why you should recommend somebody who is not qualified. What we are trying to do now is make sure that, first thing first, the qualification for admission is universal; secondary school certificate, that is the qualification. So JAMB will rank the qualified ones, not the qualified along with the unqualified. The problem we have now with the 1.7 million writing the exams is, what percentage of them have the requirement? They are just taking the examination but that does not make them qualified for admission into our tertiary institutions.
Leaked and stolen questions are a constant during every examination exercise.
I don’t know what you mean by stolen questions. I am not aware of that happening. That has not been brought to my attention. You can have fake questions. People circulate fake questions. More often than not, they are past questions and people are defrauding fraudulent students and taking a lot of money from them. And when they go into the examination hall, they find out that the questions are fake.
Even if you say they are fake, some are traced to JAMB. If questions are being sold under your leadership, whether you turn a blind eye or not, shouldn’t Nigerians hold you responsible?
I think if it is true, Nigerians should hold me responsible. I have no qualms about that. Why should I not be held responsible for that? But I am telling you it is not true. It is not a matter of holding or turning a blind eye to anything. What is happening is that the questions are not leaked, but people are being defrauded. There are examination malpractices going on. We have not seen a single case of leakage of examination questions. I have not seen that. You see, there is a difference between reality and perception. People might have a fixed mind about it. The level of examination malpractice going on is not at the level of question leakages. What is happening is that people hire mercenaries - they find others to write examinations for them. People do all sort of things, particularly for the CBT examination extending the wires to what they call VIP rooms. Someone will write the examination or do the examination under an atmosphere that is not conducive for taking examination. But about the leakage, I am not aware of one.
A number of organisations have been undergoing the biometric captures of people’s identities. Do you think a time will come when JAMB will rely solely on this?
JAMB has been doing that for at least the last five years. JAMB has been doing that, and this year we even went further to capture 10 fingers rather than the normal two. That is an improvement but that does not mean you have a full-proof system against fraud. People are getting more criminally minded in order to beat the system and the system should also develop ways to curb such criminality being committed in examinations.
You have embarked on a number of reforms; how much internal debate goes into these policy changes and has there been any resistance from the Education Ministry?
I am not aware of any. When you talk about reform, I would rather talk about improvement than reform. When you do an exercise yearly, there are improvements in the system. It does not matter whether you were there last year or this year because perfection is not human. What is human is improvement; you improve on what you have done. I think what is happening is that everybody involved, all stakeholders are well consulted and we all agree almost unanimously that the best thing is to continue to improve, and we will continue to improve.
You say there is unanimity in these policy changes and their consequences; doesn’t it mean that you have people in JAMB that are not thinking?
Unanimity does not mean you are not thinking. Unanimity is for people to think properly and take the best decision. If people are thinking properly, when it comes to decision making, they will go for the best option. And when decisions are taken, the fact that you are unanimous does not mean you didn’t disagree in the process. You surrender to superior argument. Policymaking is not subjected to intellectuality, what I will call mere semantic. They are not the product of semantic; they are products of reality. They are not just saying something for the sake of saying it but stating reality. We are all unanimous that corruption is bad, that does not mean that we are not thinking. It doesn’t mean that we must disagree even when there is no basis for disagreement. We all agree that Nigeria must move forward; everybody, unanimously we believe that Nigeria must move forward. It would be wrong for anybody to say because we are unanimous on moving Nigeria forward, we are not thinking, or somebody must think in the opposite direction and say Nigeria must not move forward. I think the theories of argument - some of the theories you suggest- do not operate at the level of reality.
In most institutions, when you try to makes changes or improvements as you say, there are always entrenched interests that do not want to see these changes happen. And mostly they put their self-interest ahead of the overall public good. Have you encountered any of this in JAMB?
Of course, that is natural. There will be people who will want the status quo to remain. There are people who will even want you to regress. They want you not to progress but to retrogress. But that is natural, that is human. The ability to carry everyone along is where the strength lies - the ability to convince people, the ability to persuade people, which is part it. But when it comes to JAMB, of course, we have a lot of obstacles, both real ones and artificial obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. What to do is to find a way round the problems to ensure that we continue to progress. Yes, on entrenched interest, there are people who will think that their financial interest is being threatened when you want to do something properly. They will make the loudest of noise. They are not necessarily internal to JAMB but they are interested in JAMB because they make some illegitimate money from JAMB. I believe they can be persuaded to look for legitimate jobs to do to justify what they have.
What is the feedback you are getting from students on the Computer Based Test and other changes? Which parts of the country are you experiencing the most difficulty and are you not putting students in rural areas at a disadvantage?
I assume that you mean JAMB. That is why JAMB is improving by the day. I told you about improvements. Computer Based Test is universal, all over the world, but even in developed countries, they make it easy for those who are not conversant with a computer. What we have done this year is to make CBT easier for those who are not familiar with it. You do not need to quarrel with the mouse. We have devised a software which we used this year, and once you know the answer - it is an objective examination, you pick A, B, C or D - once you know how to press A, B,C, then you have no problem with the Computer Based Test. That makes it easy for those who are not as familiar as others with the use of the mouse and computer. In any case, the whole world is moving in that direction. We cannot be moving back and be talking in terms of a non-existing standard. We must not keep ourselves down. That is why we have created an avenue for those who are not computer literate to still be able to use it without any disadvantage.
You have spoken about the advantages of CBT over paper and pencil. What about the threat from hackers? Doesn’t this create a threat that can disrupt the whole system or even leak questions to the world in a matter of seconds?
That is possible. That is why we are there to make sure it doesn’t happen. We create appropriate systems to make that impossible. You hack something that is online. You cannot hack something that is not connected. So, where our examinations emanate from is not connected to network you can hack. So the issue of hacking does not come in. What people can hack are the questions we have deployed. When we deploy questions, we have devised means that will make it almost impossible to hack. We encrypt the questions and they know that, at the end of the day, their efforts are futile.
The centres where the examinations are held are not owned by JAMB; you have managed to incorporate private business owners into the process, but it also leaves a lot out of your control. In the long run, how sustainable is this system?
Most of them are not owned by JAMB. Yes, you are right in some ways. We need to have a second look at the private operators. Our experience is that a large number of them do not have the desired credibility to be entrusted with such sensitive job. It is part of the development and we also believe that they have been infiltrated by outside criminals who are out to make money through examination malpractice. But we are ahead of them. As the problems are coming up, we are solving the problems. Those who do examination through paper and pencil face more difficult problems than those using CBT. If you look at examination malpractice, you will see that paper and pencil examinations are more susceptible to examination malpractice. I do not subscribe that examinations are susceptible to malpractice when they are done online. Rather, I believe that whether online or offline, what is important is that appropriate mechanisms should be put in place to curtail those who are determined to commit malpractice, and when they are detected firm sanctions will be applied.
You have said there are fewer malpractices with those that use computers for the examinations. Do you have the numbers to back this assertion?
There are a lot of studies that show it. If you have access to some of the studies, you will see that malpractice is not limited to a particular system for conducting examinations. As you curb one, another one is coming up. It is not only in Nigeria, even in developed countries, examination malpractice is a major issue. The most important thing is that those charged with the responsibility of conducting the examination should be current and should be up to date in terms of how to arrest malpractice. But I may not have the data. When you talk of figures, are you talking about percentage of just the numbers? And are you comparing?
Recently it was reported that 10,000 students were caught in examination malpractice
I am not aware of that. I read the report but how many students were registered at the centre where you said there were 10,000 cases? I believe it was a misrepresentation of what the officer said she said. The officer quoted said she talked about 10 centres and not 10,000 cases.
The competition for federal funds across all sectors is intensifying and more universities are not only adapting, some can do without government funding altogether. Why can’t JAMB do the same?
JAMB can and JAMB should. I believe it should be able to fund itself from its resources rather than depending on the government.
Are the funds it currently gets from the government being mismanaged?
What I am saying is that JAMB should fund itself. It is not about mismanagement; it is about doing the right thing. I believe that JAMB should be made to operate with its resources and discharge its responsibilities, including financial obligations.
It cost an average of N5,000 for a student to write the UTME, and today close to two million students write it. That is roughly N10billion in the hands of JAMB; where is the money going?
I do not know how you came about N10billion. Your calculation is not correct because you are calculating N5,000 and I know that what comes to JAMB is much less than that, because you are talking about what the students pay. But in any case, my position is that the resources with JAMB should be judiciously utilized and JAMB should be accountable to the nation and to the people. What I can promise is that JAMB is and will continue to be accountable.
You have said you want to cut down the cost of conducting these examinations. Are you succeeding?
I have succeeded, but I cannot say off hand how much we have saved.
Considering all that you have said, do you think that JAMB needs to redefine itself and the role it plays in modern day Nigeria; that is, when it comes to how quickly it adopts technology, how it should be financed and the standard of the exams in comparison to other parts of the world?
Yes. It is not only JAMB that should redefine itself; I believe all stakeholders should also redefine their operations.