Cheapening the Worth of First Class Degrees

Covenant University students during convocation

Most first class degrees awarded by private universities in Nigeria suffer credibility question as some of their holders cannot justify the degrees they hold

By Vincent Nzemeke  |  Jul. 21, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT

COVENANT University, one of the most popular private universities in Nigeria, was the butt of internet jokes about two months ago when it held its 9th convocation ceremony.  The event which was supposed to be a day of joy for the graduands and management of the institution was soured by the suggestions from some quarters that the university was awarding first class degrees cheaply to students.

At the event, David Oyedepo, Chancellor of the University announced that some 82 students had bagged first class degree during the 2013/2014 session. In addition to the 82 students that bagged first class honours, 594 bagged second class upper division honours, 531 bagged second class lower division honours while 127 bagged third class honours.

Days after the event, the internet was abuzz with jokes, articles and debates about the university’s 82 first class graduates. Although opinions were divided, many commentators on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media platforms, seemed surprise that a university in Nigeria could have 82 first class graduates in one convocation ceremony.

Although, this year’s award generated a lot of attention, it is not the first time Covenant University would be in the news for awarding first class degrees to many students. During its 2013 convocation ceremony, the university had 114 first class graduands out of the 1,466 students who graduated in that session.  During the 2011/2012 academic session, the university produced 95 first class graduates giving a false impression that it is a centre of academic excellence.

Unilag students during the 2014 convocation
Unilag students during the 2014 convocation

Some other private universities seem to have copied the Covenant University example. For instance, Babcock University, Ilisan-Remo, Ogun State, produced 52 first class graduates in the 2013/2014 academic session. When Bells University of Technology, Ota, awarded 14 first class degrees during its first convocation in 2013,  not a few eyebrows were raised. The first class mentality which appears to have become a trend in Nigerian private universities has raised a big credibility question on  the degrees and the institutions awarding them.

 When compared to what is happening in government-owned higher institutions, it appears that the private universities are giving out first class degrees to whoever cares to have one. For instance, at the University of Lagos which held its convocation recently, only 89 out of the 9,729 graduating students for the 2013/2014 academic session made the first class list.

It is the same thing at the Delta State University, Abraka, where only four  out of the 10,215 graduating students bagged first class degrees at the recently concluded 8th convocation ceremony of the institution. Of the four first class graduates, three were from the 2011/2012 academic session, while only one first class emerged in the 2012/2013 academic session.

The controversy over the quality of first class degrees awarded by private universities is deepening mainly because, long before the arrival of private universities in 1999, public universities were very conservative and only the very best of their students were awarded first class degrees. For instance, the department of mass communication, University of Lagos, has been very conservative in giving out first class awards to its graduates. In the more than 46 years of its existence, the department  has not produced up to 10 first class graduates but some of its products who pursue higher degrees in foreign universities have won laurels for their academic performance. But some private universities have churned out many first class graduates in the same course in less than ten years of their operation. This has prompted many concerned Nigerians to accuse private universities of cheapening   the worth of first class degrees awarded by them.

In an interview with a newspaper early this year, Prof. Adebiyi Daramola, vice-chancellor, federal university of technology, Akure, Ondo State, is one of those who have expressed concern over indiscriminate award of first class degrees to graduating students by private universities in the country. Daramola described the action as a marketing strategy adopted by private university operators to woo wealthy individuals who are looking for institutions that would make their children first class graduates.

The professor also cautioned managements of private universities against commercialisation of first class degrees. He said first class degrees should be awarded to only exceptionally brilliant students who would utilise their skills to contribute meaningfully to the development of the country.


Daramola said he always feels sad when private institutions with lesser number of graduating students produce higher number of first class grades while public universities with higher number of students award few first class grades to deserving students who had exhibited excellence in their studies.

“Many employers of labour would not touch these graduates with a long pole because academic standards have been compromised by the authorities of these universities for mere pottage. Second class holders in public universities perform better than the so-called first class degrees obtained in private universities.

“Many private universities are marketing their schools and are capitalising on gullible parents. All they are doing is to attract parents to send their children to their universities by making them believe that their children can come out with first class degrees.

“There was a friend of mine who was working with an insurance company in Lagos. The criterion for employment in that company is that an applicant must have a  first class degree.  None of the  first class products of  private universities who applied for the job passed the aptitude test whereas holders of second class honours from federal universities did.”

Daramola alleged that because private universities are set up as profit making ventures, awarding first class degrees to the graduates is the only way to keep customers coming.  “Private universities are set up to make profit. The proprietors must make profit. A man who has gone to the bank to borrow money to set up a university, what are you going to tell him that he will listen to?

“In the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, we have different orientations. Although most of the VCs of the private universities are from conventional universities, their employers dictate what happens. We have serious governance problem in private universities.”

Some other people have also suggested that the high school fees charged by the private universities could also be another reason why they produce so many first class graduates. The proponents of that view argue that parents who part with huge amounts as school fees for their children in private schools, expect nothing less than a first class degree in return.

Wilson Olise, a lecturer at Delta State University, Abraka, agrees. He said: “When parents are lured to pay huge sums with the promise that their children would receive the best of university education, they would expect nothing other than excellence which in this case is a first class degree or a minimum of second class upper division.”

But stakeholders in some private institutions have defended their actions saying that students who bag first class honours degrees from their institutions really  deserve them. Prof Ayo Fajana, the vice chancellor, Joseph Ayo Babalola University, JABU, Osun State, is one of them. He said at an event in Abuja recently that contrary to the perception that first class degrees are for sale in private universities, the students actually work hard for them.

Fajana said there was no need to question the number of first class students graduating from private universities as their performances were often verified by external examiners. He also attributed the rising number of students graduating with first class degrees from private universities to the quality of teaching and the conducive learning environment.

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