The National Universities Commission (NUC) recently presented letters of award to 104 beneficiaries of the Presidential Special Scholarship Scheme on Innovation and Development (PRESSID). The presentation was done despite the controversy that trailed the selection process, and in defiance of an order by the House of Representatives that the NUC put the process on hold. The PRESSID has been designed to annually select Nigerians who are below the age of 30, who obtained First Class degrees in specified fields, including medicine and specialized engineering. Successful candidates are to study in the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia and will major in disciplines such as sciences, basic medical sciences, special aspects of biology, economics, engineering and technology as well as medicine, among other fields where Nigeria has deficit of specialists. The overall objective, therefore, is to address these shortfalls by training professionals for various fields, including the nation’s universities where statistics show that the majority of lecturers lack PhDs.
A laudable and initiative, many Nigerians admit. However, in selecting the first set of beneficiaries, the NUC, which coordinates the scheme, failed to reckon with the need to ensure equitable distribution of the slots, notwithstanding the imperative of merit. Thus, after it advertised and harvested 2000 applications out of which only 623 applicants attended and sat for the qualifying tests, the commission left out 19 states of the federation on the list of 104 awardees it selected.
Based on the obvious lopsidedness which drew the ire of many Nigerians, the House of Representatives, through its Committee on education, summoned the NUC executive secretary and instructed that the process be halted and reviewed to reflect the federal character principle. Chairman of the House committee, Rep Aminu Suleiman, while giving the suspension order on May 22, expressed disbelief that not a single individual in 17 northern states met the requirement, with the 19 states of the North producing only seven out of the 104 successful candidates. The committee said that no policy, no matter how well intended, should jettison the constitutional provision of federal character, stressing the need to strike a balance between merit and geographical spread, in the interest of equity and unity in the country.
But presenting award letters to the beneficiaries, supervising minister of education, Nyesom Wike, maintained that the selection process was purely based on merit. Re-echoing the minister’s position, the NUC executive secretary, Julius Okojie, insisted that due process was followed in the selection of the successful candidates.
While submitting that merit must not be sacrificed on the altar of regionalism, we, like many other Nigerians, insist that the NUC be guided by the need for balanced development of the country in subsequent selection exercises. This, we believe, must not be ignored as it forms part of the national consensus on inclusiveness and balance of competing demands by the various groups and areas that make up Nigeria. Let us borrow a leaf from the United States. Though already advanced in science and technology, it still implements a form of affirmative action for its nationals that are disadvantaged by the system.
It is quite obvious that some states, especially in the North of the country, are educationally disadvantaged, but it is unbelievable that 17 of them cannot produce candidates that are qualified to benefit from the scheme.