Resolving the controversy over JAMB

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For the past few years, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board has been in the eye of the storm, facing sharp criticisms from the constituencies it was set up to serve, namely, candidates seeking admission to the nation’s tertiary institutions; the parents and guardians of the candidates; and the tertiary institutions themselves, especially the universities. As a result, the Board’s cherished motto–Service and Integrity–is under assault. In this essay, I examine the nature of the problem; X-ray the proposed solutions; and suggest ways of accomplishing the desired change.

The problem

JAMB has been facing three major problems, among others. First, the exam body is empowered to perform functions beyond its capacity. From processing admissions for only about 25,000 candidates, and only for a few universities, when it was established in 1978, JAMB now processes admission for well over one million candidates for all tertiary institutions in the country.

 

This has led to two major problems: One, many of JAMB’s functions, including issuing letters of admission, put the Board in direct conflict with the higher institutions, because they trample on the authority of the institutions to recruit their own students and set their own guidelines for admission. Two, JAMB has had to outsource major duties to technical partners–banks, IT specialists, and other third parties–over which it has little or no control.

 

Second, the failure of these partners to deliver, often due to manpower shortage, power failure, and Internet connectivity problems, automatically translates to JAMB’s failure. Without a doubt, there is an infrastructure problem in this country, which makes online transactions extremely frustrating. With poor mobile telephone networks and epileptic power supply, it is difficult to get voice calls through not to speak of successfully completing e-transactions. Yet, JAMB has adopted the online platform for the entire registration process, leading to candidates’ frustration with banks, cybercafes, Computer Based Test centres, and JAMB itself.

 

Third, JAMB suffers from its own administrative lapses, inadequate planning, and poor judgement, by developing or adopting new policies, either shortly before a new admission cycle or even in the middle of the cycle. For example, shortly after his appointment as Registrar only about eight months ago, Prof. Is-haq Oloyede overhauled the entire registration procedure, without giving enough room to test-run the new system, while relying largely on technical partners. The result so far has been disastrous, including the cancellation of the mock Computer Based Test, hours after candidates had assembled in various CBT centres throughout the country.

 

Proposed solutions

 

There are three possible solutions. One is for the status quo to remain, that is, for JAMB to continue to conduct business as usual, tinkering now and then with the process, hoping for better days to come. JAMB itself seems to prefer this solution, judging by the spirited self-defence offered by Fabian Benjamin, JAMB’s Head of Public Relations, in response to my proposal to modify its mandate (see A requiem for JAMB, The PUNCH, April 18, 2017). Various steps taken by JAMB, especially under Oloyede, to streamline the procedures of conducting the Board’s business, were highlighted in the response.

 

It is clear, however, that none of the reforms undertaken so far by JAMB has produced satisfactory results, partly because the scope of its assignment is beyond its capacity and partly because the Board truly cannot reform itself. The reform that is needed should not be limited to HOW business is conducted by JAMB. It should start with WHAT business is conducted by JAMB. That’s why retaining the status quo is no solution at all.

 

Another solution is much more radical. It advocates that JAMB should be scrapped altogether. This is the position of many academics, as advocated repeatedly by the Academic Staff Union of Universities. It is not just JAMB’s repeated failures at its assignment that motivated this position. It also derives from resentment of JAMB’s encroachment on university autonomy, especially the University Senate’s power to admit students into its programmes.

 

It will appear that advocates of this proposal overlook the merit of a centralised examination system, which standardises the entrance examinations to all tertiary institutions in the country. It is assumed that today’s tertiary institutions could conduct their own entrance examinations at the integrity level that the premier universities conducted the concessional entrance examinations before the advent of JAMB. Such an assumption is challenged by endemic corruption in the society and rampant exam malpractices as well as admission rackets within the tertiary institutions.

 

Besides, today’s tertiary institutions lack the resources to mount nationwide exams in order to widen the scope of their applicants’ pool. The alternative is for prospective candidates to travel from different parts of the country to a particular institution to take the entrance exam into that institution. This, of course, will increase the travelling and safety risks for such candidates. The depressed economy and the precarious security situation in the country make such an alternative untenable.

 

This is what opened the door for yet another solution to JAMB’s problems, which I proposed on this column last week. The proposal seeks to limit the scope of JAMB’s duties to the conduct of the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, by restructuring the Board as the equivalent of the College Board in the United States, which conducts the Scholastic Achievement Test, popularly known as SAT. Prospective university candidates sit for the SAT exam anywhere in the world and American universities rely on the test results for admitting students into their programmes. Each university sets its own cut-off point and decides on which additional requirements will be needed for different programmes.

 

The College Board has no say in the admission of candidates to the universities and does not issue admission letters. Rather, prospective candidates indicate the universities to which their results should be forwarded, and the universities compete among themselves for the best candidates, while the candidates weigh their choices among the various universities to which they applied, and decide on which university or programme suits them best.

 

In this system, a candidate could be admitted to two or more universities. Readers will recall the recent cases of various Nigerian teenagers, each of whom was admitted to eight or more top American universities. Among them was the spectacular case of Serena Omo-Lamai of Dowen College in Lekki, who was admitted to 13 universities in the United States and Canada.

 

The present JAMB policy which limits the candidates’ choice of university to only one deprives them of their rightful freedom of choice. Besides, no candidate should be compelled to apply to a polytechnic or college of education if they do not want to attend such an institution. JAMB’s argument that a candidate with multiple admissions deprives others of admission is downright illogical as such a candidate would pay acceptance fee to only one university. Their slot in the other universities could then be given to other candidates after the payment deadline.

 

Even in the recently concluded admission exercise, vacancies left behind by previously admitted candidates, who chose to go elsewhere or otherwise did not show up, were filled during the late admission period by giving their slots to others. What is needed is a good database that allows for the tracking of admission vacancies as they are filled or vacated during the open admission window.

 

Desired change

 

As indicated last week, JAMB cannot remain as it is. However, rather than scrap it, JAMB should remain as the central body for conducting the UTME, while the entire admission process should be left to the tertiary institutions. In working out the details of the new mandate, the JAMB Registrar is encouraged to study the operations of the College Board and similar institutions worldwide. However, in order to achieve the desired change, the enabling decree which established JAMB in 1978, and its subsequent amendment in 1989, should be amended by the National Assembly to reflect the modified mandate.

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