Secretary-General of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, Prof Yakubu Ochefu, speaks to TEMITOPE ADETUNJI on the issue of fake professors in the country’s ivory towers
How did you receive the report that trended last week about the alleged presence of fake professors in Nigerian universities?
The thing is that the report was first published in 2019, so it is not a new report; it is just that it was reposted. Some people, who did not see the original report, were seeing it for the first time, and it is not a new report. It went viral because it was reposted, reaching new audiences. What happened was that in 2018, the National Universities Commission was putting together a database of professors, and the former Executive Secretary of the NUC, Prof Peter Okebukola, was in charge of the process.
Some people, who were not professors, tried to find their way into that database, and when it was subjected to verification, the list that NUC got was sent to the universities for vetting. So, it was during that vetting process that some of those names you saw on the list of fake professors emerged from, and it got published. If you go to the NUC website, you will see an updated version of that list that was published in 2021 containing the professors within the Nigerian university system.
Although the NUC denied releasing the list, do you agree that there are fake professors in Nigerian universities?
It wasn’t the NUC that released the list. Of course, the NUC denial is correct, because it was not the one that issued the statement. So, the NUC denial is in place. Yes, I agree that there are fake professors. Some individuals enter the Nigerian school system and present themselves as professors, and from time to time, we do encounter them. I have personally encountered a number of them as well.
How do they find their way into the system and get to the professorial level?
Well, some of them are professional conmen and women. They move around universities that are experiencing challenges in having qualified staff. And then, they parade themselves with credentials. If for example, you are the vice-chancellor of a university and you are hard-pressed for staff members, usually what happens is that on the face value of the application, you give somebody a temporary appointment subject to assessments. By the time you now do the proper assessments, you will realise that the person doesn’t have the qualifications that he has presented to you or that he is parading. It is at that point that we normally remove them from the system.
Is it correct to say that some people do not qualify to become full professors and at best regarded as associate professors or a rank lower than that?
There are two different things, the senior cadre of the academic system is from the rank of senior lecturer, you get promoted to the rank of associate professor, and then from associate professor, you become a full professor, so these are not the people we are talking about at all; we are talking about people who have fake credentials; they can be best be described as pseudo-academics. So, the subject of discussion is people who don’t have credentials and are best known as pseudo-academics, possessing credentials that do not qualify them to be senior lecturers in the first instance.
How is the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities actively addressing the issue of fake professors within the Nigerian university system?
Well, we usually encourage our members that if they encounter any of them, they should report them. These impostors tend to move from one university to another, and unsuspecting vice-chancellors become victims. I was a victim myself in one such case when I was the vice-chancellor at Kwararafa University in Wukari. A gentleman claimed to be an associate professor of Geography, stating that he was previously lecturing at the University of Maiduguri but had to move due to Boko Haram and was looking for a university with a Geography department. After about three months, we discovered that he was an imposter, got him arrested, and handed him over to the police. Similarly, during my tenure as a deputy vice-chancellor at Benue State University, we encountered another imposter, who claimed to have a PhD in Computer Science. Despite presenting all certificates and documentation from the University of Benin, including a PhD, and even having a document indicating participation in the convocation, we later found out that he was fake. He fled from Benue State University, resurfaced at the National Mathematical Centre, and later at Nasarawa State University, Keffi. Eventually, he was caught and sentenced to at least two to three years in prison. So, these individuals continue to infiltrate the system. When we identify any of them, we flag them on our platform, warning everyone to watch out for such individuals.
Can you elaborate on the measures in place to verify and authenticate the academic credentials of professors within the university system?
You see you don’t treat the credentials of professors like you treat those of any other person. For you to become a professor, you go through a process. And that process is that at the level of senior lecturer, your department will make a prima facie recommendation that you have been found worthy in the three main parameters for teaching, research and community service to be promoted. So, once a prima facie has been established, it is sent to the central promotions committee that vets what has been done at the departmental and faculty level. When they give a go-ahead, the vice-chancellor will now give a list of six professors, out of which the vice-chancellor will select three. You will then send your papers to them.
So, all your academic publications and CV will now be sent to the three professors, who are specialists in your field, and the three of them will now read your papers, they will scrutinise your CV, and cross reference and all your presentations, and if two of them submit positive reports, and then you get the promotion into the rank of associate professor from senior lecturer. Once you are promoted to the rank of associate professor, and you are now seeking promotion to the rank of professor, the same process takes place again.
So, the people we are talking about, who are the fake ones, don’t go through these processes at all; that is why we refer to them as pseudo-academics. A man has a PhD, he has taught in some institutions of learning on a part-time basis, and then he wakes up one morning and says he is now a professor and nobody accessed him, no department or faculty accessed him and he just pronounced himself as a professor. Those types of people are the ones that we refer to as fake professors.
What are the root causes of the phenomenon of fake professors and how can the issues be mitigated?
It is a very rare phenomenon as I earlier explained how the process takes place; you will understand that the people we are talking about are usually outside the university system. It is very rare for you to become a professor inside the university system because your peers will engage with you and find out very quickly and see that you have no business being in that system, which is assuming you slip through the protocols of coming into the system.
For example, in the case I mentioned about the Benue State University, the young man claimed that he attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he got his master’s, so there was another lecturer who also attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and was in the same department so that one had a conversation with him and asked him questions; he asked him if he knew a particular popular lecturer; in response, the guy who claimed to have attended the University of Nigeria, said that he didn’t know the lecturer and the other person was surprised, and that raised a red flag that if the man said he went to Nsukka and didn’t know that popular lecturer, then he needed to be investigated further.
So, if they slip through the system, they usually don’t last because they are given away quickly. One thing peculiar to these imposters is that they usually claim the certificates of schools abroad and parade credentials that are difficult to authenticate.
How does the committee collaborate with relevant authorities and institutions to ensure a unified effort in tackling the problem of fake professors?
We have a peer review mechanism; if we find out that somebody came into the university and the person is exposed as a fake person, we circulate that information among us. That is why the committee of vice-chancellors is there in the first place; we do peer reviews; if we find someone who has been exposed as a fake professor, we post it on our platform so that people can be aware; we do the same thing for students who have been expelled for cultism, we put them on a red list so that if they want to try going to another university, their identities can be recognised and they will be flagged.
Can you discuss the role of technology in detecting fraudulent credentials within the academic community?
Of course, technology is very important and it has played a huge role in detecting fraudulent academic credentials; technology is used primarily in detecting plagiarism. These days, for you to get a promotion, you must run your work through plagiarism detection software. And the result of the plagiarism software will determine if you are going to be promoted or not.
Are there specific challenges or obstacles faced by the committee in its efforts to combat the issue of fake professors, and how are these being addressed?
Well, I think the major challenge we have is disclosure. They (vice-chancellors) are embarrassed by the fact that they allowed such individuals to come into the system before they were exposed. And they won’t want to bring it to the knowledge of the public that they had such character among them. But I can assure you that no vice-chancellor will allow someone with fake credentials to operate in their university.
What steps are being taken to educate and raise awareness among students, faculties, and other stakeholders about the consequences of academic fraud?
Oh, that happens daily. Plagiarism is treated with outright expulsion. If you plagiarise someone’s work and you are caught, you are faced with outright expulsion. It is in our instructions to staff and students that academic integrity is ranked very high in our processes.
What role does international collaboration play in addressing the issue of fake professors, and are there best practices from other countries that the committee is considering?
Interestingly, you asked that question, because when we get a credential from a university in Poland, for example, between the Polish embassy in Nigeria and the International Association of Universities or the Commonwealth Association, we run checks on people who claim that they graduated from that institution of higher learning. We also get requests from universities abroad, asking us to authenticate the existence of certain universities. We crosscheck and validate credentials. So, there is a lot of international collaboration.
Are there ongoing efforts to review and strengthen the existing policies and procedures to better safeguard the integrity of academic qualifications from Nigerian universities?
Now with the use of technology, we are using end-to-end authentication. At the entry-level, before you are admitted, your credentials are vetted by the examination body that is WAEC and NECO. We normally find students who manipulate results for admission, and when such individuals are caught, they don’t go unpunished.
What initiatives are in place to encourage whistle-blowing and reporting of suspected cases of fake professors, and how are these reports investigated?
You see the way it is structured, for coming into the system; we rely on credentials that are beyond our control. We are not the ones who set the JAMB (UTME) exams or O’ level exams that they use in qualifying to enter universities. When you come in for a programme and you have been withdrawn from the programme but you still hang around the campus, giving impressions that you are still a bona fide student, attend lectures, sit in an examination hall, and five to six years after everyone has graduated, you are still there, we refer to such people as ‘professional students’. So in the past, we used to have those kinds of people, but now that polytechnics and colleges of education are employing technology, especially for registration or course registration, it’s becoming increasingly difficult. You don’t need a whistle-blower.