The Honourable Minister of Education (HME), Mallam Adamu Adamu, last Wednesday, commissioned the new building for the Africa Centre of Excellence in Oilfield Chemicals Research (CEFOR), University of Port Harcourt’s (UNIPORT).

With the commissioning, the Centre relocated from its previous accomodation in the University’s Emerald Energy Institute, an initiative jointly funded by the University and Total Exploration and Production and situated in the University of Port Harcourt’s Institute of Petroleum Studies (IPS).

In a keynote address, the Minister, who was represented by the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Professor Abubakar A. Rasheed, MFR, commended the Management of the University of Port Harcourt for the achievements recorded by the University, especially in the performance of CEFOR, which, since inception, had graduated a total of 39 PhD students, more than any other ACE in Nigeria.

Mallam Admanu stated that there was a strong correlation between high quality knowledge and the economic growth of any country, adding that huge investments in education, especially tertiary education, are usually evident in a country’s rate of development. Universities, however, should not be saddled with the sole responsibility of national development, the Minister said. For this reason, there must be linkages between universities and the real world or industry, if the universities were to make any meaningful contribution to national development.

The Minister recalled the four pillars of the knowledge economy, as identified by the World Bank. According to the Bank, he said, “education and training of a skilled population, is key to creating, sharing and using knowledge. Also important, is a dynamic information infrastructure, ranging from radio to the internet, which is required to facilitate the effective communication, dissemination and processing of information.”

Yet another “pillar is a regulatory and economic environment that enables the free flow of knowledge, supports investment in Information and Communications Technology (ICT), and encourages entrepreneurship.” The final pillar, Mallam Adamu said, was a network of research centres, universities, think tanks, private enterprises and community groups, necessary to tap into the growing stock of global knowledge as well as assimilate and adapt it to local needs and create new knowledge.

Declaring the CEFOR building open, the Minister expressed hope that the Centre would continue to achieve the goals for which it was established.

In his capacity as the NUC Executive Secretary, Professor Rasheed Stated that the decried Nigeria’s low ranking in the Knowledge Economy Index, which he attributed, not only to inadequate investments in education but also a lack of faith in education as the centrepiece of development.

Cognisant of the importance of education, the Commission had embarked on a reform of the Nigerian University System (NUS). To effectively do this, he said NUC must reposition itself, to efficiently and effectively regulate the nation’s universities.

The Commission was, therefore in the process of reviewing and reappraising its commitment to university education, prior to approaching the government for improved funding. He, however, noted that not all challenges in the system were dependent on funds and urged universities to also conduct an internal assessment, with a view to correcting attitudinal vices among staff and students.

Professor Rasheed commended the University’s relationship with its partners, the university community and all stakeholders. He applauded the teamwork evident among staff and faculty of CEFOR as well as the Centre’s relationship with the University Management, adding that this was a key component in CEFOR’s success.

Earlier, in his welcome remarks, the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Ndowa E. S. Lale, recognised the impact of CEFOR on the University, adding that the practice of multi-disciplinary research became very effective because of the collaborative effort of staff. He stated that programmes under CEFOR and other institutes in the University were structured in such a way that students graduate within the stipulated period of time.

Professor Lale observed that CEFOR had also introduced the concept of shared resources and services among various Departments and faculties in the University, which, was expected, to minimise duplication of efforts and help to optimise the utilisation of laboratory equipment and personnel. He noted the need to devise alternative means of funding CEFOR, in addition to the World Bank’s grant, to guarantee its sustenance beyond the expiration of Bank funds and expressed optimism that the University’s “can do” spirit would propel the Centre in the right direction.

The Vice-Chancellor expressed gratitude to the Centre Leader, Professor Ogbonna Joel, for his vision and uncommon dedication to duty, noting that Professor Joel has proven that Nigerians can measure up to global best practices. The Vice-Chancellor commended the Academic Board, staff and members of the ACE steering Committee, for their commitment to achieving excellence in the Centre.

Giving a progress report of CEFOR, Professor Ogbonna Joel highlighted some of its achievements to include enrolling a total of 130 PhD students, since inception. Of the 53 students admitted in the first batch, 37 graduated in March, 2017 and about 90% of them, gainfully employed. The Centre had admitted 70 new PhD students during the 2016/2017 session, nine of which are regional students and were also expected to graduate within the target time.

In the past three years, CEFOR had also graduated 293 MSc. students, all within the target 12-month period. It had trained a total of 383 participants in short courses and internship programmes, while more than 200 participants had been certified as Environmental Professionals with the National Registry of Environmental Professionals (NREP), USA.

Other achievements, Professor Joel stated, included attainment of NUC accreditation for 12 of the Centre’s programmes; a gap analysis conducted in the Centre’s Petroleum and Gas Engineering programmes, in June, 2017; publication of over 100 papers in reputable journals, from CEFOR students’ research work and attracting more than 60 experts from both the academia and industry. He noted that CEFOR had also entered into partnerships with industry, professional bodies and foreign universities, as part of efforts to ensure that the Centre delivers on its mandate.

In a goodwill message, the World Bank Co-Task Team Lead, Ms. Aisha Garba, expressed pleasure at the progress recorded in improving higher education, through the ACE project, adding that the Nigerian ACEs were showing a lot of promise in delivering on their mandate. She commended them for the results achieved, so far, particularly in the quality of education, relevant applied research and strong university-industry linkages. She commended CEFOR, in particular, for its progress in student enrolment and for graduating a significant number of MSc and PhD students within the specified time frame.

Despite the progress recorded by the Centres, especially in student enrolment, the increasing demand for higher education has doubled over the last five years, leaving access at five percent, a fifth of the 25% global average.

Ms. Garba noted that there were challenges of skills shortages in addressing development challenges and poverty reduction in Africa, particularly in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She decried a situation where Engineering graduates amounted to less than 10 percent of total graduates in the nation, while their counterparts in the social sciences, business and law programmes, accounted for more than 50 percent.

Ms. Garba stated that education remain a priority for the World Bank, because of its potential to transform the African continent. Africa must, therefore, must work together, to ensure the success of the ACE project. The ACEs, she said, must share resources and sustainable solutions as well as continue to train students across borders.

The Co-Task Team Lead informed guests that the Bank was preparing to scale up the ACE project, through the Africa Centre of Excellence Impact Project, which would enable universities in Africa to respond to the dynamics of the Africa labour market, by ensuring the production of quality graduates. The Bank, she said, recognised that all ACEs across Africa must work hard to resolve their challenges and ensure the success of the ACE project, by educating the next generation of scientists, researchers, leaders and innovators.

Giving a reassurance of the Bank’s commitment to supporting the Nigerian government in its efforts to transform the society and economy, by investing more in education, Ms. Garba stated that the Bank was also optimistic of a continued collaboration and partnership with the Nigerian government.

In another goodwill message, fifth Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Nimi D. Briggs, thanked the Choba community for accommodating the University and ensuring an enabling environment for it to thrive. He explained that the decision to locate CEFOR outside the University was to guarantee that academic work progressed, unhindered.

He expressed appreciation to the University community, without which support and collaboration the successes recorded would have been impossible. He commended the Vice-Chancellor of the University as well as his successors, such as Professors Joseph A. Ajienka and Dom Baridam, for keeping the University’s dream alive.

Immediate past Vice-Chancellor of the Institution, Professor Joseph Ajienka, commended the NUC Executive Secretary for the proposed reforms in the NUS, describing the Executive Secretary as an erudite and committed scholar as well as a friend of the University. Professor Ajienka thanked Professor Briggs for believing in industry partnership and for the critical role he played in securing the land for the Institute of Petroleum Studies, which houses CEFOR. He also expressed appreciation to Professor Joel and the Deputy Centre Leader, CEFOR, Professor Onyewuchi Akaranta, for putting together the proposal that won UNIPORT the Centre of Excellence.