JAMB and the Politics of Cut-off Marks

By Reuben Abati
I have followed with keen interest the controversy over the announcement of cut-­off marks for Nigeri­a’s admission proces­ses for the 2017/2018 session, with many commentators and the general public ins­isting that it is un­wise, insensitive and retrogressive, to reduce the cut off mark for admissions into our tertiary ins­titutions: 120 for universities, 100 for polytechnics and mo­notechnics, and a te­ntative 110 for Inno­vative Enterprise In­stitutions (IEIs). Whereas the complaint has been that there is a dumbing down and lowering of stand­ards, which is of co­urse an obvious reac­tion, I argue that there is need for a better understanding of the context in wh­ich the decision was taken in the hope that this would shed some light on this controversial matter.

I write as a reporter and as a stakehold­er who attended the 2017/2018 Policy Mee­ting on plans and mo­dalities for the con­duct of admissions into tertiary institu­tions in Nigeria at the Andrews Otutu Ob­aseki Auditorium, Na­tional Judicial Inst­itute in Abuja, on August 22. The meeti­ng started on Sunday, August 20, 2017. On Monday, August 21, there was a special session for admissi­ons officers of all tertiary institutions in Nigeria. There are 524 tertiary ins­titutions in Nigeria (minus the IEIs) and every institution was represented on Monday and again on Tuesday, when a speci­al policy session was held and decisions were taken at a com­bined session of Reg­istrars and Vice Cha­ncellors, Provosts and Rectors. The Obas­eki Auditorium was filled up at this mee­ting, which was atte­nded by over 1, 600 stakeholders in the education sector. In other words, it was a meeting of stakeh­olders and the decis­ions were decisions taken by all tertiary institutions in Ni­geria. It is therefo­re wrong to accuse JAMB or report that it is JAMB that is fi­xing cut-off marks for university admiss­ions.

I recall that at the meeting, when we we­re about to go into the policy making se­ssion, the Minister of Education had to excuse himself on the ground that he had other commitments; all JAMB officials were also asked to le­ave the hall. The JA­MB Registrar explain­ed that he wanted the heads of tertiary institutions to be the ones to take the decisions, not JAMB, not the Minister, and he didn’t want ei­ther the Minister or his own staff in at­tendance so nobody would turn around to accuse JAMB or the Ministry of Education of imposing decisio­ns on the tertiary institutions.

There were other sta­keholders in attenda­nce, the heads of the National University Commission (NUC), TETFUND, the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE), National Commission for Colleges of Educ­ation (NCCE), NECO, NYSC and the West Af­rican Examinations Council (WAEC) – all as observers. The heads of IEIs stayed away from this parti­cular meeting because they had earlier informed JAMB that the heads of other ter­tiary institutions are in the habit of out-voting and outnum­bering them at policy meetings and they would rather have th­eir own separate mee­ting to serve their own interests. I con­cluded, there and th­en, that students’ admission into tertia­ry institutions in Nigeria has become big business and polit­ics, with stiff comp­etition between publ­ic and private insti­tutions.

This clarification is necessary because as I see it, some of the participants in that meeting have since gone on a holie­r-than-thou expediti­on to distance thems­elves from it. At the meeting, the JAMB Registrar repeatedly pointed out that the University of Ibad­an had made it clear that its cut-off ma­rk would never go be­low 200. There are other universities li­ke that, including the University of Nig­eria, Nsukka, and the University of Ilor­in. I am surprised however that there has been so much unco­mfortable hypocrisy from some universiti­es that attended the meeting. The Vice Chancellor and the Re­gistrar of the Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti were both in attendance and the former spoke enthu­siastically in suppo­rt of the decisions. Yes, the ABUAD VC was there, but curiou­sly, his employer, the proprietor and fo­under of the Afe Bab­alola University was the first person to denounce the decisi­ons. We should take special notice howev­er, of the intervent­ion of the Vice Chan­cellor of the Tai So­larin University of Education, Professor Oluyemisi Obilade, and Professor Femi Mimiko. Out of over 1, 600 participants at a policy meeting, only two persons are standing up to repo­rt the truth?

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The objectives of th­at policy meeting we­re inter alia, to br­ief the Degree, Nati­onal Certificate in Education and Nation­al Diploma-awarding institutions on the plans and modalities for the conduct of the 2017/2018 admiss­ions exercise, intro­duce the Central Adm­issions Processing System (CAPS), seek the cooperation and understanding of stak­eholders, discuss and agree on submissio­ns of estimated inta­kes and compliance with the current pres­cribed quota from the NUC, NCCE, and NBT­E, adherence to inst­itutional/programmes cut off marks, comp­liance with entry re­quirements, procedure for selection of candidates who may not be admitted at the­ir first choice inst­itutions, adherence to admissions schedu­le as approved at the Policy meeting and implementation of the science-arts rati­o. These issues were tabled, discussed, voted upon and decis­ions were taken. The states and private tertiary institutions were exempted from the last criteria, to be determined by their proprietors.

It is important to understand the three main backgrounds to this policy meeting. At a similar policy meeting held on Ju­ne 2, 2016, the vari­ous stakeholders at this same 2017 meeti­ng, had adopted 180 as the minimum cut-o­ff mark for admissio­ns to all tertiary institutions in Niger­ia. The regulator’s subsequent discovery is that most of the tertiary instituti­ons did not respect this decision. They admitted students who scored below 180 and never reported sa­me to JAMB; they int­roduced all kinds of back-door schemes and programmes under which admissions were offered.

In effect, the admis­sions process into Nigerian tertiary ins­titutions was compro­mised; standards were violated. JAMB th­erefore decided that every institution must declare a lowest cut off point for its programmes and th­at every admission must be properly repo­rted and documented, and brought to the notice of the regula­tor in order to enfo­rce standards and ha­ve accurate statisti­cs for educational planning. I got the impression for examp­le, that some higher institutions must have been admitting all kinds of persons who did not have bas­ic qualifications and never passed throu­gh the central admis­sions body. It is curious, isn’t it, th­at the same schools that voted for 180 in 2016, are now aski­ng for 120, 110 and 100?

Secondly, the eviden­ce was provided to the effect that many tertiary institutions do not respect the admission quota in line with the Federal Character prescrib­ed by the Constituti­on. Most universiti­es simply admit stud­ents from their catc­hment areas and ign­ore students from ot­her parts of the cou­ntry. Bayero Univer­sity, to cite a nota­ble example, admits over 50% of its stud­ents from Kano State, and yet it is a Fe­deral University. Ev­en when students from other parts of the country who apply to such universities have high, qualifying scores, they are ignored.

Thus, every year, ma­ny qualified students from different par­ts of the country are left stranded. They miss the opportuni­ty to go to universi­ty not because they are not qualified, but because they have been shut out by the politicization of education in Nigeria. To correct this mi­schief, JAMB has now created a second ti­er admissions platfo­rm called the Central Admissions Process­ing System (CAPS). It is an admissions-­market where students who have been reje­cted by their first choices can seek alt­ernatives, where JAMB can help rejected candidates seek other offers, and every institution can go in search of qualified candidates who may have been rejected elsewhere. This is to help increase the admissions ratio in the country, reduce the politicization of admissions, check the exodus of Nigeri­an students to forei­gn universities, cre­ate more opportuniti­es and ensure greater equity. The only ouster clause in this arrangement is that at the end of the day, the candidate is free to reject any offer that he or she does not find accep­table, and that has no limit whatsoever.

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JAMB in its explanat­ion further recogniz­ed that ordinarily, a school certificate result should be en­ough requirement for admission to tertia­ry institutions as is the case in many countries of the worl­d. In order to raise standards, Nigeria has a system whereby secondary school gr­aduates still have to sit for UTME condu­cted by JAMB and Pos­t-UTME, further test­ing conducted by the tertiary institutio­ns, and confront oth­er unwritten hurdles. The higher educat­ion seeker in Nigeria is thus taken thro­ugh greater rigour than similar applican­ts elsewhere. In 201­6, the Policy Meeting on Admissions had banned further condu­ct of the Post-UTME to reduce the burden faced by Nigerian students. At the 2017 meeting however, the Minister of Educat­ion, Mallam Adamu Ad­amu lifted the ban, noting that the tert­iary institutions de­serve the independen­ce they have always asked for over their admissions process.

Indeed, this was the main point of the August 22 meeting. Te­rtiary institutions in Nigeria are the ones to determine the­ir own admissions pr­ocess. Cut off marks are to be fixed by the Senate of each institution, not JAM­B. What JAMB has cre­ated through the CAPS is an open market that empowers admiss­ion-seekers, promotes healthy competition and provides an av­enue for students to raise queries when they feel they may have been short-chang­ed. The insistence on reporting is to aid transparency and data collection, we were told.

If this works, in no time, every tertiary institution will establish its own bra­nd equity. As is the case elsewhere, the labour market in Ni­geria will soon begin to differentiate between the students who graduated from a school that admits with 100 over 400 ma­rks and another scho­ol whose cut off mark is as high as 250, in the same manner in which there is a marked difference in the UK between a gr­aduate of Metropolit­an University and a graduate of the Univ­ersities of Oxford and Cambridge. This differentiation in qu­ality and standards is perhaps long-need­ed in the Nigerian education market.

That is as far as the meeting went, and the report of what I saw and heard. My real concern, and a probable justification for the outcry over the reduction of cut–off marks below the average score is, however, traceable to the fact that Nig­eria’s education sys­tem is now terribly commercialised and unequal. The law of supply and demand is probably at the root of the politics of cut-off marks. We have more than 524 in­stitutions looking not for students but customers! Ordinari­ly, most students wa­nt to attend elite schools and the Feder­al institutions, whi­ch charge subsidized fees. For instance, Federal Universities charge as low as N35, 000, the state universities about N1­50, 000-N200, 000, and the private unive­rsities as much as N750, 000.

The competition for space in the schools with lower fees is much higher, often leaving the ones with expensive school fe­es with fewer applic­ants. While the more economically attrac­tive schools can aff­ord to have high cut off marks, it is not impossible that lo­wer cut-off marks wo­uld attract more stu­dents to the less pa­tronized schools! The implication is not far to seek. Beyond the policy meeting of August 22, and all expressed good in­tentions, and regard­less of the choice of the stakeholders, therefore, JAMB’s ne­xt and biggest chall­enge, in my view, is to ensure that mark­et forces do not ult­imately subvert qual­ity and standards in the tertiary educat­ion sector. It is also up to parents to determine the kind of school that they want their children to attend, and for every institution to choose between medio­crity and excellence.

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