AfricaLive has a session with Professor Sulyman Age Abdulkareem vice chancellor of the University of Ilorin
AfricaLive: As a university that is well established in the Nigerian higher education sector, what is your role in creating the next generation of skilled professionals that the country needs to prosper?
Prof AbdulKareem: There is an apparent disconnect between graduates being churned out and the skills needed in the field. As a result, we see many graduates deviating from their areas of study, to work in other industries. We have science students working in banking and literature students ending up in the oil industry. Our work is cut out for us as a nation when it comes to matching graduate credentials and professional placement. If we don’t do this, the workforce dysfunction will continue, and graduates will get even more frustrated than they are now.
AfricaLive: The mismatch requires a proper conduit between graduates and the industry. How is the University of Ilorin playing that role?
Prof AbdulKareem: We have adopted very entrepreneurial programs that push students to not just train for already available jobs and existing businesses, but to also think of starting their own. All indications point to a future that is going to be very IT dominated and entrepreneurial. We, therefore, offer programs that have a business focus and in-depth knowledge of ICT. We are led by current market trends that define an excellent graduate as one that can invent, innovate and create. That market definition helps us shape our programs so that we put out graduates that are well equipped for the challenges out there.
AfricaLive: African universities are increasingly aware of the need to not only develop great future workers, but great leaders too. Do you have any projects you are working on to this effect?
Prof AbdulKareem: As an educator myself, I have been focusing on imparting knowledge that breeds innovators, inventors and creators for the last twelve years.
I believe in training students to have a critical eye and be conscious of their environment; to see problems and solve them. An excellent example of a local problem that was addressed thanks to a critical entrepreneurial eye was the issue of potable water in Nigeria. Back in the day, we only had two water bottlers who were highly inaccessible to most of the population. People had to resort to drinking water that was not very safe, and quite a number died of cholera. The idea of distributing water in sachets was later born, and a whole industry was created from the fact that clean water could now reach millions of people for a fraction of the price. Another problem was born out of this, though.
People littered the ground with empty sachets after they were done consuming the water, and this led to an environmental concern. Local innovation was required again to help solve this new resultant problem. The discarded plastic tiny bags were collected in mass to get recycled and made into new products. We highlight such examples to help create a culture of problem-solving within our institutions so that our graduates can add value to society.
AfricaLive: Many Vice-chancellors are concerned that research geared to helping the people and improving living conditions is awarded to foreign institutions. What can be done to localise the research and also increase the volume of quality research coming out of Africa?
Prof AbdulKareem: This is an issue that has been on my mind for a long time. One of our problems is the shortage of excellent ideas that can be carried out as research. I gave a lecture about twelve years ago, where I emphasised the importance of solving local problems with already available local resources.
When I was working in the United States, I was doing a lot of high-temperature industrial experiments. I did the same tests when I came back to Nigeria but with a different experimental setup and different tools. The tools were cheaper, better and could produce products that were superior to what we had. What hindered us is that people did not give that product a chance because it was locally made.
Apart from misinformed perceptions, we also have a shortage of equipment and funding to get proper research done. The government has to come in and make it mandatory for industries to patronise research done in universities. We also have to address the fact that many researchers here lose their focus when money-making prospects come up. They start coming up with shoddy research that will get some money released to them. If we can tie funding to only meaningful research, I believe the government can force our industries to patronise local research.
AfricaLive: What are some of the flagship projects you have going on at the moment concerning research?
Prof AbdulKareem: I am very proud of the polymer engineering work we are doing here. I often remind students that what we are doing is not being done anywhere else in the world. We also have other programs that are geared to solving many issues in the country.
One of the problems we want to address is the abuse of electricity supply by consumers through illegal connections. A student in our faculty came up with a device that alerts the power supplier once an illegal connection is made. If pursued to full potential, this device would save the electricity supplier millions of Naira. The challenge we have is getting the attention of concerned authorities. You would think the industry would jump at the opportunity to save on costs through this local invention, but no. We would rather import a more expensive solution that is not of a superior quality to the local one. I am convinced that the situation will only be remedied if the federal government forces industries to pay attention to university researchers.
AfricaLive: You mentioned that your polymer rheology work was experiencing some successes, what has this translated to so far?
Prof AbdulKareem: Our polymer work has come so far, and we have experienced challenges that have forced us to adjust accordingly. We have come up with ways of doing the polymer work at room temperature when previously; only super-heated conditions would have sufficed. More useful products deserving of further development and trials have been created under these conditions, than would have been created if we had stuck to the super-heated methods. We have partnered with the Nigerian Army in making and testing ballistic protection material from the polymer. The materials include Electromotive Induction Shielding (EMI) that protects our army from hostile forces.
AfricaLive: We live in changing times when it comes to technology, and some industries are adapting better than others. In your opinion, what is the future of African education in the face of these rapid changes?
Prof AbdulKareem: I used to complain a lot back in the day because I thought our lack of machinery and technology was holding us back so much. Today, a vast number of our young people have access to the internet, laptops and other mobile devices. The access we have now gives us a chance to catch up with the west or at least get close. We, however, still have quite a long way to go in terms of mechanisation and technology. I believe that our students have what it takes to close the gap and come up with solutions that can best address our realities. I have seen pilots being done right here on the continent for drone irrigation. The ability to irrigate using drones as opposed to using heavy-duty machines, tells you that local solutions can work very well.
AfricaLive: What goals have you set for your institution, and what is your outlook for the future?
Prof AbdulKareem: I am very grateful for the two and a half years I have been at the helm of this institution. I want to leave a legacy of research excellence. Boosting our research is not just about increasing our publications, but also increasing the number of useful patents that the country can benefit from. We also want to improve the quality of graduates we churn out. Our pedagogy must move beyond just preparing for exams, to preparing for the industry. I also envision a future where this university gives birth to startups developed by our students. If we can have startups that generate money within the university, we can stop having an overreliance on donors as well as the government.
AfricaLive: Have you crafted a clear plan of seeing these startups come up in the coming years?
Prof AbdulKareem: We are going to be locked in meetings this week to see how we can get our industrial park started. We want to get started on mass production that will see products produced that can serve the institution and all its students. The project will spur students and educators to present projects and products that the university can buy into and help produce. We plan to use this platform for breeding startups that will emerge soon.