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Prof Akper, the new DVC, TIR

With a number of ambitious, bold and curtain raiser plans for NOUN, Prof. Gowin Akper, who was recently appointed by the Vice-Chancellor as the new DVC, TIR, is certainly coming to the position well prepared. In this interview with the duo of NOUN News correspondents: Debbie Nduba & Ibrahim Kabiru Sule, the new DVC, whose journey in the university cuts through certain critical offices, spoke about his intention to begin to have international students enrolled in NOUN by the beginning of next semester in January, and many other noble ideas for NOUN to really answer the name of a 21st Century university.  

 

Briefly, who is Prof. Gowin Akper?

Ok,I was born 1969, July 19th  to be specific, by a disciplinarian by name evangelist Daniel Iorihi Akper who then was a Bible School teacher under Dutch Reformed Church Mission. I was actually raised in a missionary quarters at the beginning, maybe, it has some influence on me, whether negatively or positively that’s why I cherish discipline a lot   because, for the better part of my life , discipline was seen as the best way to build what I will refer to as community of life. Meaning, a community that will hold people for a kind of faithful living that is profitable to a family and society at large. So from that background I see work as calling; it’s something you must do and you must do it to fulfil a particular goal, so if  you are asked to do anything, that means God, through your organisation, has asked you to perform that duty. So whether you are successful or whatever depends on your own conviction. Did you give it your best or did it not just work? Or, you yourself didn’t see it as calling, so you feel it’s an opportunity for you to make some fortune out of it  and walk away without caring about whether the society is benefiting from your service or not. These are the issues.

In my own training, I spent some few period of time during my formative years attending mostly private schools. Actually, I went to St. Mulumba’s College, Jos (Catholic School) in 1982. I transferred in 1985 by request of my father to King’s Comprehensive College , it’s a privately owned, more or less a Christian Mission School. I finished secondary school in 1989. I spent quite some years, because when I left St. Mulumba and I went to King’s College, they dropped me down by two years, that was a purely science school, but then King’s Comprehensive was more of a commercial. So, I was told to drop down and follow the commercial route, I lost two years. I spent so many years in secondary school. Then, I went to Benue Polytechnic, Ugbokolo, from 1990- 1991, when I left for Reformed Theological College of Nigeria (now Reformed Theological Seminary), Mkar, from 1991 – 1995. So after my seminary training, the missionary sent me to United States; I went to Westminster in California, (USA)  to read Master’s of Arts in religion from 1996 – 1999. Then after my Master of Arts in Religion. I went to the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa for Church History and policy and systematic Theology, respectively, from 2000 – 2004. Finally, the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) for PGDDE.

You were recently appointed as DVC, TIR, what should the NOUN community expect to see from you?

As DVC, TIR, I think that whatever the gaps are, in terms of academic standards and requirements, the first one is the internet. We should be able to have a free WIFI for all staff and students at least for 8 hours. That means as you approach our campuses, you should be able to see the WIFI. The last team of assessors in three of the programmes that came were very particular about that; immediately they get to EFCC Headquarters they turned their WIFI in order to pick our own. Thank God, at least, it was working at that particular time. So they were impressed with it. I spent weekend with some guys here to effect it, I know it’s working now. How about our study centres? That is another one, because our delivery takes place in the study centres. I have had meetings with VC and we have already put machinery in place to ensure that at least by May of next year all our main study centres will have those facilities as well, not just at the headquarters.

Then, the other aspect will then have to be the issue of admission of foreign students. While in California, I served at the International Advisory Board of the university, which was a committee of the board of trustees of the institution to actually, more or less, bring out the modalities for accommodating international students mostly from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. I served from the student side as the chair of the committee, but on the trustee side, as a member and secretary. So, I was then exposed to what it means to study in an environment completely different from one and that is also what informed the suggestion I am making now: how to accommodate international students around the globe? As it is now, you have to be a Nigerian to register in NOUN, so it negates the whole principal of ODL. That’s what I have as my key priority. The first one is internet provision to all our campuses, coming from DAP, I have a better idea of what the requirements are. As you approach the campus of an ODL institution, you should be able to pick up the WIFI.

Now, we should be able to sit here or in our houses and be able to study anywhere and I think the facility has been made available and we are benefiting from it. How about making that opportunity available to the global academic community? So it is key and we need technology to do that and we also have to sort out some national policies and all that concerning the Treasury Single Account, etc. We have done the other side: Registrar, VC and myself, we have been able to conclude on our own part, so were we are experiencing some lag is from the Office of the Accountant General to create a platform for us so that students can pay with the currency they have. If you are in Cyprus, you will be able to pay with that currency and all of that and it will be converted. That is where we are. We need technology to be able to do that and we have asked MIS to work on it and they have been able to come up with a link that the foreign students can use, as per study centres, you just select foreign and the countries are supposed to drop down for you to select from which country you are applying from and that, then, becomes your study centre. So that can be done, but we are just at that tail-end and it is when I finish these two that I will look for the next. In any case, that one is just the Vice-Chancellor’s policy that all staff should have tablet to work with. As long as you are a senior staff you must have a tool to work with. I don’t want to believe that there is something pertaining to IT that we need in this university that our staff cannot provide, it’s not possible. I am telling you from experience.

For the International students, do you have a time line for their enrollment?

Yes, we do, there is a time line. It’s about time. Nobody is waiting for us; it is either we work fast now or we are left behind. We have competitors in the market, we are aware of that. Yes we can dismiss that what we have on ground will take them a while to get there. I can see them copying some of our things, one university is having their logo and motto that look exactly like NOUN but just some play of words. In any case, we need to be on our toes and it’s one of this university education in the 21st Century. If you are too comfortable, you have a problem on your hand. University of Cape town ranks almost number one most of the times in Africa but if you meet with the VC now and ask what gives them sleepless nights, they will not tell you that they don’t have sleepless nights but they will tell you ranking and ranking; they want to remain number one or at least the first three and that’s  competition. If we think we have arrived, that’s where we have our problem and in general social life, the moment you think that you are comfortable you are just down falling minutes ahead. But when you continue to think how to improve, you are most likely to remain on top and be competitive.

So we have to, by the end of December, get this done, because if we are commencing the next session in January, then, we should have international students and I am targeting about 10 – 19 percent of our enrolment next year should be foreign and when we do that we can now make progress. As I said before, the technical staff we have within should be able to provide all IT solutions except if it doesn’t exist.

Research is part of your core responsibilities. As DVC TIR, how will you promote research and what area of it are you looking at that will benefit the institution greatly?

Yes, there are two things here: number one the non-teaching staff in our university assume that research is for academia and that’s wrong and I think that’s where I need to have some discussions with the registrar. We have been having discussion; we intend to have some time when we are done with the promotions issues and all of  that we will sit down to see how non-teaching staff can be involved in research. Of course the media also do investigative journalism and that’s research. If funds is being made available for media to engage in a research won’t that be a good development? Then, instead of media going around and making us feel good about ourselves, media should go out and find us some facts. Example: how does the media impact on ODL? Do you know it’s an integral part of what we are supposed to do, which is delivery. We are supposed to use the NOUN FM to deliver to students. We are supposed to go, sit down there, inform the general public about new discoveries and all of that. How will the media get all segments of the university to be able to do that, how do media promote learning using its platforms? Now assuming that media is being commissioned for a 3-month research with funds to do it, if you come up with it, we clap for you, if you don’t, you have to explain to us why you should still remain in the university. The way I was trained, my own philosophy, somebody has a task to perform, the first question, what does the person need to perform or carry out the task? Not until you provide the tools for one to deliver you cannot hold the person liable for not performing the task. So that is how I was brought up, I am not saying it’s the best but for you to get the best results that’s what it means. Good enough, the VC is on same page with me on this matter. All the senior staff are supposed to be involved in one area of research (democratisation of research) or the other because nobody is born an ODL staff but it’s more about interest. How much interest do you have in it, and I am thinking persons in media should sit down and see themselves as research body in the media and so in every aspect of it. When Nigeria university system changed academic and non-academic, to teaching and non-teaching, what was behind that is that you are also academic in one way, in that you do research and be able to go on sabbatical, so that you can be able to learn more and research more.

When I was in DEA, we were asked to do this virtually examination and most of the people wanted to eat me raw, that I woke up one morning to do that, but we were actually given a directive to make the platform available for that, and those who took part in that have advantage over the ones taking it now. If we are here in NOUN with different directorate, each directorate should be able to show their scorecard or their research output; our research output should not be on academic department alone. We need to go deeply and identify what is essential, what actually is essential for us as an ODL institution is for us to be able to discover the new trends, methods and better ways of delivering university education.

By the time we have research as a core culture in this university, gossips will go. Our students also think that learning by gossip is the best way. Culture of research will do away with that of gossiping. When we are busy there will not be gossip. I will call all this not a task but a burden, and that’s the burden I have.

You have held sensitive positions in NOUN that deal with students: you were the Dean, Faculty of Arts, Director, DEA; Director DAPand now DVC, TIRSo, in a nutshell, how will you grade our performance as regards missing results, examination malpractice, students’ registration, etc? 

Again, you are also pushing me to delve into Prof. Mafiana area of operation. I can only tell you what I did when I was in DEA. What I did in DEA, there were three things we did: most of the missing results were coming from e-exams, so the first thing I did was to do research to be able to identify what are the causes of this, because I believe that if you find out what your problem is, you are almost at the edge of solving it and I discovered that one of the causes of missing e-result was that candidates will come, sit and do the exams and then they get up quietly and don’t submit it. So I told the technical people that if they leave it unattended or if there was a power failure and goes off the system should be able to submit the score automatically and if it is power failure and they come back and they have two scores, you just sort out the issue, merge the two and bring it together and they have their score. So that was one of it.

The second one has to do with our technical people who will end the session at the end of the day, and leave it like that and nothing will be submitted. So, on that one, what I did, I did lock the server and gave the password to the super user. When you finish conducting the exams you bring the server by yourself and I will sit down with my staff, it doesn’t matter the timing, for review, and when we see some inferences, we will ask you: how come? The first time they thought it was a joke, we didn’t know what was happening but the server was able to show us what was happening. I sit in our office to monitor the exams nationwide because the server was telling us what you are doing, and we will hold you responsible, and they realize that what we were doing is not a joke. So, the second exam, they brought it back I am telling you, we had only two and the third exams, we had zero then missing e-exams was gone. Then on POP, this whole issue of moving from one place to the other I have discovered that there are some candidates, and in large numbers, that for six papers they wrote in six different study centres and I discovered that there must be a problem. You can’t be on official assignment in six different places within two weeks unless you have become an itinerary staff. So we are like, yes, we are flexible but let us not over push our flexibility. So I now check other open universities how they were able to deal with the issue of their flexibility and I noticed that some of them like Indira Gandhi National Open University, they assign a position and a camera and as long as you are not sitting on that position they will not accept your script. So it is not that that it is open, if you need to move from whatever you need to give information, there is a form that you fill that says you want to take this exam somewhere else and they will arrange a venue for you.

The Open University of Tanzania, they have students outside Tanzania, what they do is that there must be a supervisor and an invigilator accredited beforehand. So there will be a report from the supervisor independently submitted and another form the invigilator independently submitted before that script will be accepted for marking. So, in any case it wasn’t open ended, because once exam’s integrity cannot be assured then the validity of the certificate that the exam is supposed to produce is called into question. Now you must have to make sure that the exam process has validity and the validity simply means it is able to achieve what it supposes to achieve.To a large extent, we have solved missing result at the end of my tenure.Then in DAP, we had 52 percent of our programmes with full accreditation the other 48 percent was interim. So right now we have 98 percent full and just 2 percent interim. So if we have 98 percent, by any standard, even in the United States, we see distinction and first class. If we are not doing well, how else are we supposed to do well, going by the indices? I think we are doing very well, so we need to sit up to improve on this so we don’t go down.

From our opinion sampling, everyone that worked with you in various offices testify that you are an upright, a result-oriented and overall, a good man. What’s the secret of these?

I told you from the beginning hat I was raised by a disciplinarian, very strict person, extremely strict persons who feel that things must be done right. My father won’t settle for good; what he wants is excellent and if it is not excellent that means you still have work to do, so that has its own side of it as well. That means if you are not careful you will leave some people behind, those who are slow.

In ODL, we have to carry people along and that’s  another challenge we have in there, but I think that if you want to deliver in NOUN, you have to see your job as a calling. The moment you begin to think that VC has to give me this, registrar has to give me this, bursar has to pay me this to do this, then, you have lost it, because in teaching and learning you must be willing to make some sacrifices. We carry students’ script home, we mark overnight. We should be able to know that we are called into this job, so even if the system does not reward us, God will reward us in one way or the other. Experience has shown me that it is rewarding to be honest at your duty post. Yes people can say Akper is a horrible person, but yet when they are looking for people to deliver, they will still look for Akper. So it’s better that way than for you to be hailed all over the place and at the time of delivery nothing to show for it. In summary, let us see work as a calling. All of us in the university no one has come up to say he is a Pegan, we either have Muslims or Christians here, and, fortunately for me, I have a vague knowledge of at least value system which these two religions proffer. If you are a good Muslim or Christian, Nigeria will be good. If you are not going to use your religion to improve NOUN, then there is a problem. We have a wonderful system in this university, the issue here is that the stakeholders within the system, do they really understand their calling in this same NOUN and that’s it.

As for position, I don’t have any problem, but the issue is: do you know what is involved in you taking up that position and that’s why I don’t lobby for position, not out of pride but because I know it’s a task, it’s a calling, not what you will get but what you will do to benefit all and sundry and improve the system where you are. Look for what to do for NOUN and not what NOUN will do for you and there will be change. Our contributions to service matter most.

Where do you see NOUN in the next two years as regards technology and research?

I have told you that the technical people are excellent and I am comfortable with them. Whether we have people that will do the research, we do all the over 5,000 staff we have, they are all scholars. That’s the truth of the matter and if they are all going to engage in research, then our research output will be definitely high. Then in terms of ODL, if you apply these two principles, the first  one, seeing this as a calling, that we have been called to deliver this and that we have to be faithful to it, then the second, we are asking  ourselves in answering the call, what do I contribute to the process of this delivery? If we pin the question to ourselves, if we do this, in the next two years, NOUN will be spoken of not only in Nigeria but outside the country more than what we are experiencing right now and I said the best advocacy is not wearing T-shirt, the best advocacy is the delivery of our learning, how well.

On a lighter mood, how does the man Godwin relax outside the confines of his office?

Oh, I play golf. So it is such a game that is so jealous and the moment you start thinking about something else you play badly. Golf needs hundred percent concentration, nothing competes with your playing. your mind has to be free, if not, you can’t play well. it’s a military-designed game and it is expensive because of the kit.

By Debbie Nduba & Ibrahim Kabiru Sule
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