Institutions across the country reopened Monday, last week for academic activities after ten months of closure occasioned by COVIC-19 and ASUU strike . The institutions have resumed amid the second wave of the virus which is deadlier than the previous one.
In this interview with The Voice Correspondent, ESTHER AKAA, the Vice Chancellor of Nasarawa State University, Keffi ( NSUK), Prof Suleiman Bala Mohammed, speaks on efforts put in place by the university to contain the spread of the second wave of COVID-19 Pandemic as the school re-opens for academic activities. He also speaks on the challenges confronting the institution among many other issues. Excerpts
The University has just resumed after ten months of closure due to ASUU strike and the COVID-19 pandemic and now the second wave of the pandemic is spreading fast, what is the university doing to ensure that Students and Staff are not infected by the virus?
On Monday the 18th of January , 2021, we had a meeting of the Senate of Nasarawa State University, Keffi. We considered the issue of self recovery of school. In that meeting, we amended the 2019/ 2020 academic calendar. We resolved to continue from where we stopped in March, 2020 to complete the remaining weeks; have one week break and then resume for the second semester immediately with the hope that the session will end in August 2020 so that thereafter, in September , we will commence the 2020/ 2021 academic year. We are re – opening the school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and we have taken adequate measures to ensure that our staff and students including the general public who may be coming to interact with us are safe from COVID-19. We have taken the non pharmaceutical protocols as provided for by the federal government, by National Universities Commission ( NUC) and by the Nasarawa State Government. In our meeting, we resolved that before you enter into our campus, you must wear facemask and you must also sanitise your hands and then when you come in, if you are a student and wants to go to any class, they will want to take your temperature and ensure that you have facemask. You will also have to sanitise your hands and in the class, we are making adequate provisions for social distancing. We are also going into the hostels to make sure that students observe all the set protocols. Any event that we are going to organise in the University ,there most be social distancing. We have also worked on our clinics . We are working with the state government to ensure that we have an isolation centre and also a testing centre so that any of our staff or students that is tested and found to be positive would be isolated in the centre. We are also designing a consent form for all our students to sign and for their parents to counter sign indicating that they are willing to abide by all the COVID-19 protocols and failure to comply would be melted with sanctions. We are also planning to ensure that very large classes are done through e- platform . We want to do virtual teaching and learning. We have had meetings with deans, directors , Heads of Department and examination Officers where we examined all the faculties, all the courses, the number of students , lecture venues and we looked at those that we can do within the lecture venues in the facilities, those that we can do in the lecture theaters and those that we are going to use the e- platform to do the learning. So as far as we are concerned we are fully ready for students , we are fully ready to observe the safety protocols.
How will you ensure that Students are adequately sensitised on the dangers of COVID-19 pandemic?
We are doing some enlightenments and public education so that other staff and students will appreciate the dangers pose by COVID-19 and then respect the protocols for themselves and for the sake of others who are living with them. That is why we have provided some publicity manuals and posted them all over. You can see me with my facemask indicating that no mask, no entry into the campus. We are also putting billboards in all our campuses to educate and enlighten our students on that . We are also producing some publicity manuals including the dos and don’ts as well as distributing to the students. By and large, we are taking a comprehensive approach to ensure that we provide knowledge and education and we will also sanction erring students and members of staff.
How far has the school gone with plans to set up an isolation centre in the campus?
We had a meeting with the deputy governor and he has given us the commitment of the state government that they have accepted our plea to have an isolation centre in the university and also to have a testing centre in the university . As we speak, officials from Ministry of Health and the COVID-19 committee members are here . They are looking at the facilities we have . Our hope is that, in the immediate , we should get a structure that we can use and then in the medium term, we can then build an isolation centre because we discussed and agreed that we can not have an isolation centre that is very close to the clinic because of cross infection and other challenges. There are alot of people that if you tell them that an isolation centre is by the clinic, they won’t even go to the clinic. So we are very mindful of that and hopefully in a couple of weeks we should be able to settle on that and we think that is the way to go. COVID-19 is a reality that we have to live with it and living with this virus, we just have to take all the necessary precautions including making testing so easy and accessible. If we have any student that we believe his or her temperature is running so high or exhibiting the signs, we will take such person there. If we test and found that he or she is positive, we will move the student to the isolation centre.
You earlier said that this academic session is to take off from where it stopped last year and there are prospective applicants of 2020/ 2021 academic session and supplementary list has been released for the year 2019/ 2020 session. How do you intend to cope with students who are on ground and those that are going to write this year’s UTME?
It is actually a straightforward matter. When we get to the bridge , we will know how to cross it but for now there is 2019/ 2020 academic session which we started and was truncated by the lockdown and the strike by Academic Staff Union of Universities ( ASUU) . Now that the strike is out of the way and we have resolved to live with COVID-19 , we have to continue from where we stopped so that we can conclude the 2019/ 2020 session. What we are going to do apparently with the two set of students that are hanging is that there are many alternatives but I don’t want to speculate. By the time we are done with this session, we will think of the most appropriate thing to do. We can coalesce the sessions and admit the two at the same time. We can even cancel 2020/ 2021 session and just have 2021/ 2022. We will still look at the options because the Nigerian University system has had that kind of experience in the past and we have found convenient way of addressing the issue. So for now, we want to see that we are done with the 2019/ 2020 academic session then when we are done with that we will look at the reality on the ground which is what we have highlighted. We have JAMB candidates in 2020 and we are going to have candidates writing JAMB in 2021. This semester is a continuation of first semester and I will like to say that for every semester, there are certain minimum number of weeks that you can’t operate below that just as there are also number of maximum weeks . So in any situation you find yourself , you have to work within those number of weeks and that is why we call it amended Calendar, so we have to take into cognisance the number that we have done , the number that is outstanding and of course the issue of examination. Our own is even more serious because even the admission of new students has just be concluded. 100 level students are actually behind and very soon we will conclude their registration and do their matriculation and heighten their lectures so that by the time we are writing examinations, they will also have the minimum number of weeks.
Do you have enough facilities to admit students incase you merge two sessions into one?
It depends on what is on ground. If we cancel one session, we will admit base on our carrying capacity. Even if we have one million applicants, we will still admit base on our carrying capacity. That is what it entails and at the national level, that is what is happening. We have an average of 1.5 candidates around that figure that sits for JAMB and on average the ones that are admitted are not more than 500 to 900, including those who are qualified or not qualified. So if we have challenges , one of the often ways is to coalesce the sessions. Instead of two, we will have a session. We will combine the two and do admission base on our carrying capacity. The other one is to say that we will admit both and ensure that lectures are staggered so that at least it will then address your concern whether we have the carrying capacity or not . That is why I say I don’t want to speculate but for now what senate has done is to revise 2019 / 2020 academic session and then to simply say that by September, the next academic session will commence and by then we will also sit and look at the situation on ground and take the decision that is more suitable.
Now that the school has resumed, what is the update regarding the two faculties which the university is about to establish?
The issue of the establishment of two new programmes is something that has been ongoing even during the pandemic. Even when the school was shutdown, you will recall that we set up committees to advise and monitor what we are doing. Those committees are working . We have recently handed over the site for the first phase of the College of Medicine in our Phase three and construction will commence soon. We also handed over the site for the construction of lecture classrooms in Lafia but for the new programmes, we have sorted out their sites. For Gudi , they are commencing at the permanent site. Medicine has the take off site pending when the main structures will be completed . We went to council at the end of last year and got the approval to advertise. We are hoping that in a couple of weeks , we are going to release the adverts for Medicine and Engineering lecturers , technicians and non academic staff. We have made that arrangements. Our hopes in totality is that by second quarter or there about, we will invite NUC to come and do resource verification, they will look at the staff, facilities and equipment that we have for medical programmes. After we do that , we will invite CORREN for Engineering and Dental Council of Nigeria for Medical Programme . They will also come and look at what we have. The moment we are done with those visitations , we are good to admit . We have discussed with JAMB if it doesn’t go into the JAMB brochure, we can source for candidates and then do the admission. Our programme as far as the new programmes are concerned is fully on course. Our desire is to see that by next admission, we will also admit into engineering and medical programmes. I want to place on record the appreciation of the university to the visitor, Governor Abdullahi Sule, the Government of Nasarawa State and indeed the people of the state for the support that we are getting both material and financial as well as the goodwill that we have also been getting from across the state which has actually become a source of inspiration .They have appreciated that what we are trying to do is good and they are giving us all the support that we require and we are optimistic that we are going to deliver on this mandate that we set for ourselves . We are going to create two programmes in Engineering and Medicine that have all the necessary qualities that we can all be proud of them.
We understand that the university is not up to date with regards to the welfare of its staff, especially in the payment of salaries. What is your take on this?
Yes, it is true. The University has been augmenting the salaries of staff. What we get from the state government as salaries subversion is 43% and the University is augmenting with 57%. That augmentation relies on the payment of school fees by the students. Sometimes in March , the state government introduced a payment platform essentially to ensure probity and accountability so that all the payments in the state can be done and they can be seen and captured. We don’t have problem with that but like every new system, it also came up with its own challenges and it also came at the point when we reorganised our ICT and we had an agreement with Ahmadu Bello University ( ABU) . The new payment platform and the changes we had in the ICT compounded the situation and created problems for us. Students who wanted to pay their school fees couldn’t pay, so majority of our students couldn’t pay their fees and therefore, we couldn’t have access to that school fees and we were not in the position to do that augmentation. We met the Visitor of the University, His Excellency Governor Abdullahi Sule and complained to him about the situation . He agreed to give us bailout and we have been collecting that bailout up to October 2020 and we have been able to pay up to October. The salary that is outstanding is the November salary but we believe that on a national scale, we are not doing badly at all even compared to some federal universities where there are a lot of staff who have not had salaries for the last four months, some up to six and some up to eight months even when they concluded agreement with the federal government, the Federal Government only paid for two months and there are some state universities that are worse. That is why we have discussed with the visitor and of course, the Government, so that they will understand our plights so that we can quickly get over the challenges.
During the stakeholders forum sometimes last year, you made a case for the state to take over the full payment of staff salaries to allow you use the revenue generated by the school for other developmental purposes. What is the situation now?
Yes, we are actually working with the state government on that. We have an understanding, we made the point clearly and on my understanding , they seem to appreciate what we are saying and we have been working on that and in fact, where we are now is that we are going to do biometric to determine the exact number of staff, their salaries and so on, so that at that point the state government will take over the payment of salaries