First Class Honours: Kini Big Deal? -By Abimbola Adelakun

Filed under: National Issues |
Ayodele Daniel Dada finished from the Department of Psychology with 5.0 Cumulative Grade Point Average,CGPA.

Ayodele Daniel Dada finished from the Department of Psychology with 5.0 Cumulative Grade Point Average,CGPA.


In recent times, a number of newspaper editorials have poured scorn on the trend in Nigerian private universities to award first class honours degrees. The thrust of their argument is that private universities have deregulated the degree such that they award it to students liberally as if it were expired calendars. The argument they put forward is, indeed, reasonable: when tertiary education in Nigeria had a far higher quality, first class honours were rare. Now that the standard of education has fallen so badly, the corresponding number of the degrees awarded has curiously shot up.

Nowadays, they argue, with enough cash in hand to send one’s child or ward to a private university, there is a higher guarantee that the kid would return with a far more marketable degree than what he would have obtained in a public institution; that private universities take away the high bar students are supposed to scale, replace it with an inferior one and consequently churn out first class honours degrees without their recipients exerting their bodies and souls enough to make such a coveted degree. In the end, the first class honours degree is like some kind of pure water – so commonplace that its essence is depreciated.

Therefore, they propose a form of regulation to the rate at which these degrees are awarded so that a higher standard of education can be maintained. To them, a first class degree should mean what it is, not a payback for an egregiously priced tuition fee. These are pretty interesting arguments and they deserve some attention, considering that the public university – a few of them, at least – is one of the last few places that one is likely to come across a functional degree in public institutions these days.

As private institutions burgeon – and they will – and the government continues to watch public universities fester, they will begin to displace public schools until they eventually supplant them in the same way that it happened at the primary and secondary school levels. One of the obituaries of public universities – and hopefully that time will never come – will be the issue of the class of degrees they award vis a vis emerging market reality.

To buttress the point about the disparity between public and private universities in the award of first class honours degrees, here are a few random examples from public universities in the past one year: University of Lagos, 3.25 per cent; University of Ibadan, 2.24 per cent; Kaduna State University, 1.2 per cent; Ahmadu Bello University, 0.67 per cent; University of Benin, 1 per cent; Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, 0.57 per cent; Obafemi Awolowo University, 0.84 per cent.

Compare this to figures from private universities in the same period: Bells University, 6.15 per cent; Benson Idahosa University, 5.62 per cent; Covenant University, 7.9 per cent; Babcock University, 3.88 per cent; Adeleke University, 8.8 per cent; Landmark University, 10.35 per cent.

The differences are quite glaring and while we can make a beeline for the familiar (and even prejudiced) argument of differing standards between public and private institutions, I believe no one can make an intelligent conclusion without some objective means of critically evaluating both places.

Do public universities really have a higher standard of evaluating students, thus resulting in a fewer award of first class honours degrees? Or do private universities, buoyed by market competition and the desire for higher enrolment figures, provide better resources for their students in order to be able to attain first class standards?

It would be helpful to know what is really going on so that we do not confuse dysfunctional and inoperable institutional rigidity for ‘high standards’.

The absence of an empirical pole to plank one’s conclusion notwithstanding, grade inflation is a reality in privately run schools. And I am not just talking about Nigeria. It happens rather frequently in the United States, which has the most highly ranked universities in the world. Grade inflation became such a worrisome issue that, at some point, an Ivy League institution like Princeton University had to recommend a cap on the percentage of the A grade that could be awarded to students. Even in another Ivy League like Harvard, inflating grades to give students a leg up in the job market is an established fact.

The problem is that when education becomes a commodity, customers have to be always right. That kind of capitalist transactional mindset is rather dangerous for an enterprise like education. But then, consider that nobody pays a hefty sum of money to go to the university only to be handed a certificate that they cannot even use to eat. Something has to give and often the side that yields is that of the supplier who needs to keep the market happy.

Recall that some years ago, the Vice-Chancellor of Babcock University, Prof. James Makinde, declared that their school would never award a third class or a pass degree. One cannot blame the VC for being responsive to marketing reality, although the question of how much they prioritise functional employability over learning remains. In the bid to usher students through the classroom, packaged and ready for the job market, do they mortgage knowledge, education, sound reasoning and character for those pre-paid certificates?

The argument about using the rate of first class honours degrees as a yardstick for measuring a university’s standards can be made for and against public and private institutions. One can make an example of the case of Ayodele Daniel Dada, the young man who made a perfect score of 5.0 in the University of Lagos recently. According to the university administrators, the young man broke a record, accomplishing a feat that no one had ever done in the history of the university. His achievement is no mean deed and I congratulate him on this outstanding success. I read it somewhere that he got job offers from several multinationals. I hope the University of Lagos also had the good judgment to offer him a job too, along with a fully funded scholarship to immediately pursue a postgraduate degree. That kind of brain should be seduced with generous offers so that he is retained within the institution to produce others like him.

Once the buzz about Dada’s success dies down, we should also ask why it took the entire lifespan of a university for someone to attain its highest academic achievement at the undergraduate level. Rather than presume that this is simply a case of high academic standards coinciding with individual genius, we should engage other possibilities that make such a goal almost an overreach in Nigerian universities: inbuilt academic eugenics that manifests in unsupportive institutional structure – sadistic lecturers who deflate (or in some cases, withhold) grades; poor and dilapidating infrastructure; bureaucracies and administrative arrogance; inexistent means of institutional redress; and an overall lousy and disinterested attitude in the students’ progress.

The last point, I must say, is common in Nigerian public universities mainly because their enrolment figures are guaranteed to increase yearly whether they are efficient or not. School funding and other privileges are not tied to students’ experience. Therefore, they can afford the condescending manner they deal with students.

As a product of a Nigerian university myself and one who has dealt with students in various capacities over the years, I know that public universities have a tendency to treat knowledge and the acquisition of it like some encrypted data that should be kept inaccessible until there comes along a lone genius that can hack into the firewall of impenetrable institutional structure and do the virtually impossible. What they call “standards” in Nigerian tertiary institutions need to be interrogated, not merely surmised. This deserves a rigorous study, not a surface assessment using the first class honours degree that they award as a benchmark. In the Ivy Leagues of this world, students make perfect scores far more regularly than they do in Nigerian universities and nobody can successfully argue that this disparity is simply because our universities have a higher standard.