© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
EXPOSED: How Nigerian federal universities completely ignore email enquiries
EDUCATION in Nigeria, from primary to tertiary, has for a long time suffered neglect. Budgetary allocations to the sector have been abysmal for decades ― compared to what operates in other countries, and the infrastructural needs of schools. However, the problem bedevilling schools goes beyond lack of adequate funding by government. There are administrative challenges that require little or no funding, but greater attention to the quality of services is lacking in most Nigerian colleges.
One of such challenges is the lip service paid to information management and communication technology. Processes of fee payment, of communication, of services and so on, are still carried out in analogue way in many Nigerian institutions of higher learning. A number of federal universities had sometime received donations of magic, electronic boards, but the equipment remain unused till today. Undergraduates, especially fresh students, are subjected to long hours of school fee payment, course registration and medical tests every session. It is a routine to see students on campus jumping from one queue to the other and from one office to the other at the beginning of a semester.
Despite having departments of computer science and engineering, most tertiary institutions do not take advantage of ICT resources provided by these departments.
To observe how frequently Nigeria’s federal universities use their official email addresses as listed on their websites, the ICIR sent mails to 28 addresses belonging to 15 universities on April 30, and filled three online contact forms. A reminder was sent on May 11, nearly two weeks after.
The email, titled “Enquiries on Post Graduate Programme and Financial Contribution,” requested for the university’s fee structure as well as unique benefits of enrolling in the post graduate programme. It also said the writer intends “to give a small donation to the institution to advance its research projects and ICT presence”, and asked for the best means to do this.
OUTDATED OR INCORRECT EMAIL ADDRESSES
As soon as the mails were despatched, a torrent of automatic “address not found” replies followed, though the websites from which the addresses were copied are active. The addresses include: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org ― in total, 10.
The addresses belong to: University of Ilorin (Unilorin), University of Abuja (UniAbuja), Usman Dan Fodio University Sokoto (UDUS), Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta (FUNAAB), University of Ibadan (UI), and Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA) ― in total, 6.
For others, such as University of Ibadan and FUNAAB, “the addresses not found” are the only visible ones on their website. There are no alternatives, which is especially puzzling in the case of the UI, the Nigerian premier university that has a documented Information Technology and Media Services Policy. Page 40 of the document is dedicated to electronic mail services, and item 3 states that “all electronic communications shall be acknowledged and responded to within 72 hours.”
CORRECT ADDRESSES, BUT NO RESPONSES ― AFTER A MONTH
A second observation made by the ICIR was that while some addresses are functioning and available to receive messages, the handlers hardly use them to attend to incoming correspondences. For a start, none of the official addresses was set to have an auto-responder, which assures the sender the message has been received and will be addressed shortly.
For up to a month, messages sent to the following addresses were greeted with deafening silence: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org ― making a total of 16.
The universities in question, therefore, include Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), University of Ilorin (Unilorin), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), University of Nigeria (UNN), University of Lagos (UNILAG), National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), Bayero University Kano (BUK), University of Abuja (UniAbuja), Usman Dan Fodiyo University Sokoto (UDUS), Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) and University of Calabar (UNICAL) ― a total of 11.
This figure will however rise to 12 if we include University of Jos (UNIJOS), which has no official email address listed on its website but instead provides a contact form.
In all, the ICIR received only two responses. One was from the Registrar of University of Nigeria (email@example.com), who had apparently sent the enquiry to the Dean of the Post Graduate School (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Dean’s response was then forwarded to this reporter by the Registrar: “Dear Adekunle, Thank you for your mail and your interest in our University. Just read the mail and will get back to you with desired information soonest. I would like to know if you are an alumnus of the university. Thank you. Dean, School of postgraduate studies.” It was sent on May 3, four days after the original email was delivered.
The second response came from Olufunke Sarumi, Software Engineer at the office of the Vice Chancellor, Federal University of Technology Akure (email@example.com). It read: “Dear Adekunle, I hope this mail finds you well. Please be informed that FUTA does not offer courses in Humanities, Law and Social Sciences. Thank you.” It was sent on May 14, three days after the reminder was delivered.
A COUPLE OF HITCHES TOO MANY
Asides the problem of unreachable addresses and unheeded messages, for some of the websites, these addresses are either difficult to extract, or totally invisible. On BUK’s staff page, for example, only the Vice Chancellor has an official email address that does not function, others from the Deputy Vice Chancellors to other staff members only have ‘@buk.edu.ng’ as their address. The website, in fact, does not have any ‘contact us’ page.
UNIJOS’s website has neither a phone number nor an email address through which enquiries or complaints can be made. Messages through the contact form also are not responded to. Additionally, the social media links are empty and redirect student to the home page of the social media platforms.
Another striking example is the website of FUNAAB. Firstly, the contact us page is not functional and is the same as the home page ― ditto for the social media links. What does have a contact page, however, is the university’s Agricultural Media Resources and Extension Centre (AMREC); and, for them, the provided email address is registered wit Yahoo: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Furthermore, while many of these schools (such as ABU and FUNAAB) claim to have an OpenCourseWare on their websites, they merely serve as links to those of foreign institutions like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, DIFFERENT REALITIES
In contrast to the pattern exhibited by their Nigerian counterparts, foreign universities respond swiftly to electronic correspondences. A number of certificate scandals have either originated or been doused through online communication between individuals or journalists and such universities.
When doubts were raised, for instance, on whether Muhammadu Buhari’s Cambridge West African School Certificate was authentic, all it took was an email sent by Sodiq Alabi. Less than three hours after he mailed email@example.com, he got a response: “Dear Sodiq Alabi, According to the Regulations of 1961, African Language papers, were set for West Africa School Certificate.”
Similarly in 2017 when Dino Melaye was on the hot seat, what finally cleared the air on his claim to graduating from the London School of Economics (LSE) was an email sent to Sahara Reporters. “We have checked our records and can find no evidence of Dino Melaye having any degree qualification from the London School of Economics and Political Science,” Candy Gibson, a Senior Media Relations Officer at LSE, had written.
Apart from this, it is noteworthy that many universities in the world have what is known as an email policy that guides their staff. The University of St. Andrews in Scotland had, as far back as 2005, drafted an 11-page email policy, introduced with the words: “Email is an important method of communication for University business, and carries the same weight as paper-based communications.”
Northumbria University in England also has one wherein it says: “Staff will normally respond to student queries via email within 72 hours between Monday and Friday. Where staff know in advance that they will be unavailable to respond to student emails within this timeframe, they will set up an ‘out-of-office’ reply to indicate their anticipated period of absence, their anticipated date of return and who else to contact in their absence.” It also covers email signatures, virtual alternatives to physical meetings, provisions for unavailability, and so on.
Checks revealed that Harvard University, University of Massachusetts, Yale, University of Arizona, University of Bradford, University of Ghana, among many others also have official electronic communication policies which guide them.
WE NEED POLICY CHANGES, EXPERTS SAY
Speaking to the ICIR, ICT experts and ‘techpreneurs’ who have experience working with the educational sector have shed more light on the problem and proffered solutions. Idris Ayo Bello, co-founder of Wennovation Hub and award-winning strategist and global thought leader, said that those are paid to solve the problem are in fact afflicted with the same problem.
“One of my American partners just yesterday expressed surprise at receiving an official email from the Permanent Secretary in the Nigerian Ministry of Trade and Industry and the email was sent on yahoomail!,” he said.
“Any email sent to OAU, Ife, usually gets undelivered. You have to send to their yahoo address even for the VC. It all goes back to leadership. If it’s broken at NUC and VC level, I wonder who will enforce the policy.We need policy changes and then a lot of incentives to implement the changes, and understanding the importance of this in this new age, not just paying lip service and awarding bogus IT contracts.
Also speaking to the ICIR, Habeeb Kolade, Growth Manager at Insight Africa and Co-founder and former Head of Marketing at LLH, a company that leverages existing technologies to improve learning in Africa, said the problem is not peculiar to universities, but is general especially among the older generation.
”Unsolicited mails are barely opened,” he said. “There is a lack of urgency attached to emails and more, nonchalance towards unsolicited mails. It is worse when emails are not the primary way of communicating in an organization, as you find in many universities, thus responding to external mails becomes difficult.”
“I don’t think this is a technical problem, rather a culture problem which can be solved using two tools; education and technology. People need to learn that mails are just as urgent as calls or text messages and should be treated as such.”
Oluwaseun David Adepoju, Lead Facilitator at TECHmiT AFRICA, said no individual or organisation should have an excuse for not using a 46-year-old technology and said the email culture in Nigerian universities remains a matter of concern.
“From my recent experience with a public university in south west Nigeria, I discovered that the university had all the corporate emails on the university website for the sake of just having them listed,” he recounted. “I sent mails to three of the addresses on the website and all of them bounced back to me as mailer daemons. This situation is an indication the mails have not been used in a long time.”Many university graduates have lost postgraduate admissions abroad because their university in Nigeria could not reply the mail sent from these universities abroad to confirm their documents. What a sad reality.
“The ICT unit of the universities can assign a number of email accounts to each individual working in the unit for easy and prompt responses. Their roles will necessarily be to respond to the mails and forward them to the appropriate quarters for attention. This will add immensely to the image the university has in the international community.”
The National Universities Commission’s Director of Press, Ibrahim Yakasai, could not be reached for comments through a phone call. Also, a text sent to him was not replied and a mail to his hotmail address “could not be delivered”.
ICIR also sent a direct mail to the Executive Secretary of NUC, and received a message from Directorate of Corporate Communications, days later:
“Thank you for your mail. It has been forwarded to the appropriate department for consideration and treatment.”