Proliferation of first class students: A good or bad omen?

By Iyabo Lawal

Hundreds of students are graduating with more first-class degrees in Nigerian universities, both private and public, compared to decades ago. Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal, writes that there is more to the phenomenon than meets the eye.

He did it. Standing tall on the podium regaled in his graduation gown and beaming with a smile that can make the world pause for a reflection,

Ayodele Daniel Dada was a testament of ingenuity and brilliance. As his grade was announced and he was presented with his first degree certificate, the world seemed like a speck beneath his feet.

Recently, the young man made a first class – a perfect score of 5.0 – in the University of Lagos (UNILAG); that score is a record-breaking one in the history of the institution. Between 2010 and 2017, UNILAG has produced at least 600 students with first class degrees.

Dada is not the only university student who had graduated with a first class. In recent times though, the number of students graduating with a first class has skyrocketed.

A first-class degree is earned when an undergraduate scores Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 4.50 and above upon graduation. Today, there is much ado about graduating with a first class with some accusing private universities of churning such class of degree with ease and on the other hand praising public universities for being able to produce graduates with first class degrees even though the standard of education is said to have fallen generally.

Recently, University of Lagos had 3.25 per cent of its graduating students leaving school with a first class; University of Ibadan (UI), 2.24 per cent of the graduating students had first class; it was 1.2 per cent in Kaduna State University (KSU); Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) had 0.67 per cent; University of Benin (UNIBEN) was one per cent; Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (ATBU), 0.57 per cent; and Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) had 0.84 per cent.

The picture of awards of first class degrees was more colourful in private universities in the same period. Bells University had 6.15 per cent of its graduands coasting home with first class; 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; and Landmark University, 10.35 per cent.

Not a few people are worried about the development. Talking about the so-called proliferation of first class degrees, especially in Nigeria’s private universities,

Dr. Idris Oyemitan of the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences, at Walter Sisulu University, South Africa, said, “It is very absurd that students that failed to obtain anything close to 250 in their Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) scores or Post-UTME examination are now being awarded first class degrees. I want to criticise these questionable awards from four main angles: the Senior Secondary Certificate Examination grades of these glorified first class graduates cannot match those in public universities.

“Almost all of them scored below average or minimum scores that would not have qualified them to gain admission into leading (public) universities in Nigeria. Most of these private universities cannot compete with the public ones in areas of qualified lecturers as they mostly rely on unemployed, retired, visiting, part-time and sometimes grossly incompetent academic staff to churn out these half-baked graduates.”

Oyemitan claimed further that most private universities could not boast of standard laboratories, qualified and competent technical staff. “From the foregoing, most of the first class graduates produced by these private universities would have at best obtained second class lower or third class degrees from functional standard universities across Nigeria,” he stated.

The South Africa-based scholar urged the National Universities Commission (NUC) and other regulatory agencies to look into the rising number of students graduating with first class.

Is this just a peculiar Nigerian situation? Is standard of education in the country’s private and public universities so bad that it becomes frightening for the institutions to produce an increasing number of graduates with first class degrees?

In the United Kingdom, the proportion of students graduating with top degrees has soared in the past five years, with a quarter of last year’s candidates leaving university with a first class, a dramatic increase from just 17 per cent in 2012.

In 2016, almost three quarter of students achieved a 2:1 or higher, compared with just two-thirds five years ago. In the early 1990s, the proportion of students graduating with a first class was far lower, at around eight per cent.

This increasing army of first class graduates have prompted many UK universities to introduce additional character reports alongside degree classifications, giving a more detailed breakdown of students’ academic performance and extra-curricular awards and activities.

Prof. Sola Fajana had at one time dispelled fears about the rise of students with first class degrees as a fluke or a “cash-and-carry” phenomenon. The professor said, “The Nigerian University System (NUS) is regulated by the National Universities Commission through instruments such as Benchmark Minimum Academic Standards (BMAS). The resource verification and accreditation processes are very intricate and supervised with a deep sense of responsibility and integrity.

“The external examination system ensures that standards are kept very high nationally and internationally. If a first class graduate is pronounced in the NUS, you can be assured that the graduate is indeed a first class material.”

The university scholar asserted that such increase is reflective of increases and advances in knowledge and access to information through the ubiquitous internet.

“There are increasing number of serious-minded students who deploy information communication technology to achieve excellent results. Furthermore, the total number of graduates produced has been increasing over time, especially since the 1980s. Consequently, the proportional increase in the number of first class students probably reflects the increase in the number of graduates produced compared with the figures of the 1960s up to the 1970s,” Fajana added.

From the UK example, it seems that all over the world – not just in Nigeria and its private universities – awards of first class degrees are increasing.

Those who saw the rise as cheering news affirmed that the situation is not as a result of unnecessary grade inflation because the NUC plays a credible and efficient regulatory role in ensuring standards in federal, state and private universities across the country.

Talking about the influence of the internet in making academic resource more available to students, Prof. Olusola Oyewole, once noted that information communication technology has contributed immensely to the rise of first class graduates.

“To that extent, where students are serious with their studies, it is easier to make a first class today than it was in the past. The methods of assessment are also more liberal today than they were in the past. With this, it is very easy for serious-minded students to score higher grades,” Oyewole had said.

He noted further that there is improvement in learning systems, which are becoming more learner-focused than teacher-centred; giving room for conscientious students to explore and research widely on their own any subject beyond the four walls of the classroom.

In spite of assurances from scholars like Oyewole and Fajana, some still feel that it is almost impossible for universities, public universities in particular, to produce large numbers of first class graduates in the face of dwindling academic commitments, poor academic facilities like hostels, classrooms, laboratories and other needed resources and amenities to make learning a delight.

They also argue that given frequent and long periods of strike actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), it is incredible to imagine that students will find it easier to graduate with such high scores; importantly so, because a reason usually given by ASUU for going on strike is lack of teaching and learning facilities in the universities.

Prof Isiaq Akintola of Lagos State University (LASU) condemned the trend and called for an urgent review. he wondered how a system with no facilities and qualified manpower would churn out a high number of first class graduates.



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