First class degree, the equivalent of a distinction, is something quite rare, and awarded by departments after very careful consideration.
But the rate at which they are awarded today by universities, especially private institutions is worrisome.
Available statistics shows that 36 Nigerian universities produced 2,288 graduates with first class honours degrees in 2019.
The first class graduates emerged from 127,023 students that completed their studies in various schools.
Private universities took the upper hand in awarding first class degrees to their students.
During the 2018/2019 convocation of Covenant University, Ota, Ogun, 215 out of its 1,580 graduands were awarded first class degrees, representing 13 per cent.
Afe Babalola University produced 99 first class out of the 979 students that graduated, while Babcock University had 62 first class graduands out of the 1,926 students that bagged various degrees.
For the public schools, the University of Lagos, recorded 271 first class during its 2018/2019 session out of 6,992 students, University of Ibadan had 241 first class candidates out of 7,330 that graduated, Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto had 113 first class out of 10,994 students, while University of Port Harcourt recorded 106 first class degrees from 4,771 students that graduated that year.
A commentator, Reuben Abati, said that this first class degree galore should ordinarily be a good thing, “if Nigeria can manage to produce more first class intellects, this should reflect on the long run on the country’s business, social, economic and cultural life.
“We would have more Ph.Ds hopefully, and so produce more qualified, research academics, especially now that close to 60 per cent of Nigerian university lecturers do not have a Ph.D.’’
He noted that the more brilliant persons a country’s education system is able to produce, the better, such persons can indeed make a significant difference and drive the leadership process on all fronts.
Abati, however, drew attention to the fact that in spite large number of first class graduates churn out by Nigerian universities, only one Nigerian university –the University of Ibadan- was ranked among the world’s top 800 universities, number 601 as at September 2015.
Prof. Sylvester Ibe, who commented on the issue, frowned at the large number of first class graduates being produced by the universities in the country yearly.
He described the development as an embarrassment to the system.
Ibe, a Professor of Genetics and Animal Breeding, who just retired from the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, said something must be done to stop the embarrassment.
He said that it was embarrassing that some universities continued to produce large number of first class graduates in spite of the generally poor quality of academic staff in many of the country’s universities.
Ibe cited a particular private university which produced 215 first class graduates out of 1,580 graduates, representing 13.6 per cent during its convocation in 2019.
The don described the situation as a gross violation of the normal distribution characteristics of such attributes.
He said: “Contrast this situation with the classification of degree results in many Nigerian universities in the 70s and early 80s.
“Remember that various vices like cultism, examination malpractice of all kinds, sorting, sex-for-marks, money-for-marks, lecturers writing projects for students, and other unwholesome, unethical practice crept into Nigerian universities in the 1980s.
“So it is very difficult to believe that first and second (Upper) Class results of these days are reflective of the recipients’ natural knowledge and hard work, as embodied in their genetic blueprint.”
He, however, urged the government and relevant stakeholders to urgently address the problem of poor quality of staff and students produced in the universities these days.
According to him, such features cast aspersions and retrogression on the university system in the country.
Dr Idris Oyemitan, Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Walter Sisulu University, South Africa, who spoke on the issue, decried the harvest of first class degrees by private universities.
Oyemitan 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 retired, visiting, part-time and sometimes grossly incompetent academic staff to churn out these half-baked graduates.
“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.
Dr Ben Ugwoke, Department of Chemistry, University of Abuja, blamed the first class degree galore on the desire of universities to make their products `competitive.’
He said that many universities are now in the habit of giving first class to many graduates, just to increase their employability. “I am not too sure it reflects their academic abilities.”
Ugwoke said that if such a trend is allowed to continue, it will stunt the economic growth of the country.
“If you want to destroy a country, all you need to do is to lower the standard of education and that is what we are seeing now.
“ If you give a first class to someone not deserving it, the public, the employer will view them as first class material.”
“The first class graduates will be placed in some serious positions to make decisions on behalf of the system, and if truly they are not first class graduates, their decisions can never be first class; their decisions will be faulty and that will be calamitous for the entire country.”
Prof. Umaru Pate, Dean of Post Graduate Studies, Bayero University, Kano, also described the trend as worrisome, adding that some of the institutions were desperate to attract students.
“The trend is worrisome because there are allegations that some of the universities do so to attract candidates as they will be seen as serious institutions where people will come in and graduate with very good grades.
“This is particularly so in a situation where the job market is very stiff and highly competitive.
“So they (universities) could do that to encourage entries as well as promote the job marketability of their candidates.”
Pate also said that the pressure of wanting to meet up with conditions stipulated by the PTDF to access their scholarship grants could be partly responsible for the desire for students and school managements to award first class degrees.
“If you have 10,000 students graduating and you have 100 of them coming out with first class, that could make sense.
“But when you have less than 2,000 graduating students and you have a large number of first class that exceed a certain figure, that could not be justifiable.
“ Some of the universities produce numbers that do not make sensible comprehension by any individual or for some of us who are in the system,” Pate said.
Prof. Grace Offoma, former Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Nigeria Nsukka, said more students graduating with first class degree, especially in private universities, is a welcome development.
Offoma said some private universities have quality lecturers, good infrastructure and well equipped libraries and laboratories.
So in such good environment, nothing would prevent serious students even if he/she scored low in JAMB from making first class on graduation.
“To me, I see the increase in more students graduating with first class degree as a result of enabling environment, that guarantee quality teaching and learning in some private universities.
“Is not only in private universities, but also in public universities, more students are bagging first class, “she said.
The don however said that, why some students in private universities may genuinely made first class as a result of handwork, others may pay for it since many of the students that gained admission in private universities come from wealthy families.
“As the economy of the country stands today, for one to gain admission into private university he/she is from a wealthy family because the cost is exorbitant.
“A student who sorts his way to make first class either in private or public university is deceiving himself/herself, for parading a certificate he/she cannot defend,’’ she said.
Unarguably, many Nigerian universities are churning out unmerited first class degree holders.
The various agencies responsible for maintaining academic standards in the universities should not allow this to continue in order not to make nonsense of the age long respect accorded first class degree holders. (NANFeatures)