UNIMED now leading institution in research – Okonofua
The University of Medical Sciences, UNIMED, Ondo, established about four years ago to engage in high level training of doctors with the appointment of Prof. Friday Okonofua, a teacher, researcher and an erudite school administrator as its pioneer Vice Chancellor. One of the first things he said he did was to set standard and adhere strictly to principles like transparency, accountability and due process mechanism. He bares his mind on the journey so far.”
It has been about four years in the saddle, how has it been?
These four years have been really good especially in the area of our ability to attain and fulfill our ambition to establish a high performing institution and we recognized that our primary purpose is to teach and train the students, who will eventually become healthcare workers. We decided to prioritize teaching and research so that we can happily produce the first set of graduates. We decided not to allow some of the booby traps that confronted similar institutions to come up and I can say that we have been able to overcome some of the traps. You can see that the university is doing well. I can say that to God be the glory, since our establishment in 2015, we’ve done very well.
Funding has always been the bane of university education in Nigeria, how have you been coping?
Funding is surely a challenge but I am not one of those who will always believe that funding is the major problem. First of all, let me appreciate the government of Ondo State for trying to meet our needs even though the funds are not there. I believe that if the funds made available to the universities are properly utilized, it will go a long way in developing Nigerian universities. My challenge is not really about funding because we also believe that university can be run as business so that we can get enough fund to run it. For instance, a private university like Harvard is run like a business and they are able to get the fund that they need.
My major worry is that in Nigerian university system, funds are not properly applied and even as a vice chancellor, there are bottlenecks put on your way, such that you may not be able to do the best thing. When we started this university, we started on the mantra of transparency effectiveness and accountability. We ensure that the management leads by example.
Why was UNIMED established?
It was to satisfy a need. At the time this university was established, Ondo state was the only state in Southern Nigeria that did not have a university running Medicine. And Ondo State have many medical doctors in the country. They were trained by other states. Fortunately at that time, the Governor is a medical doctor and he made it clear that he could not be a Governor and none of the state’s universities would not have a medical school. There was also a shortfall of medical personnel in the country.
The health sector in Nigeria today is facing the problem of brain drain, what is the way out?
Brain drain is due to the fact that we are not able to satisfy our medical personnel in terms of human resource development needs. Many of them require good salary to be able to live an optimum life. But more importantly, there is even now lack of jobs for doctors. Many of them, the type of jobs they need, they are not getting them, so brain drain will continue especially now that there is globalisation.
If you are well trained, you can get job anywhere in the world. I think there should be a policy on that because even the doctors in the country are not in the rural areas where they are mostly needed. This also worsens brain drain. This is internal brain drain.
Apart from the funds coming from the government, what other ways is the university getting funds?
We have done what we call appeals for funds from community members and that has been very useful. For example, we have Friends of UNIMED Funds which we launched in 2016. A number of people have donated money, Chief I.F Akintade donated a building to us, the Faculty of Basic Clinical Sciences building to support the institution. Hon. Akinlaja is also donating another building. A number of people have also made donations, people who were not willing to donate or construct buildings have given money. I can assure you that any money donated to the university is in our account, it will be used for no other thing than for the development of the university and we are currently trying to develop a building based on the money we have raised till date, that is the first approach.
The second approach is to apply for donour funding. We currently received a grant from Seedling Lab to give more equipment to the university and we have also applied to TETFUND, and funds coming from there and others will be additional sources of income.
This is a school that is dealing with health, in what way is the host community benefitting?
We provide primary healthcare, the Kabiyesi of Oke-Igbo just left here and he was inviting us to provide primary healthcare in his community. We are also providing primary healthcare services in Ondo Central as well as Ondo South. We have multi-disciplinary type of Teaching Hospital in the state, and this provides services in the various parts of the state that address the health care needs of the people. Additionally, we have delivered public lectures on some critical health issues where the community members were educated about health and occasionally we go on radio and television to provide information about things like ebola virus, how to prevent the disease and to support what the government is doing.
This school sometimes came up with the idea that it want to go into research of Herbs. How far have you gone?
Yes, we’ve done that, we have developed a curriculum for the take-off of the undergraduate programme in herbal medicine and we’ve submitted the curriculum to the National University Commission (NUC) for approval and NUC is yet to give us a go ahead to establish the programme but they have advised us that we could work with them to develop BMAS, which is the guidelines for anybody that want to run such a programme. Hopefully, before the end of the year, the BMAS would have been developed and then we will start the programme by next year.
How many programmes of the school have been accredited by the NUC?
Before NUC accredits programmes, you will have to spend three years running the programmes and by the middle of this year, we’ve 11 of our programmes that satisfied their criteria. And those eleven programmes have been submitted. NUC has visited them and they have given accreditation to all the eleven programmes. Nursing and Physiotherapy are due for visitation in November and we are currently preparing to receive the NUC visitation. It is only Medical Lab Science that is due next year. So, NUC will visit next year. The Medical Dental Council of Nigeria, MDCN, has visited our medical and dentistry programmes and every time they visited they have given us accreditation. Before you can graduate doctors, the MDCN has to visit four times, the one we call resource verification, the second one, they visited the second MB programme which enabled us do the exams in Basic Medical Sciences and it has been approved and they also visited Pharmacology and Pathology and they have given their accreditation. The only one remaining is the forth visitation which we know we will pass. This is a major achievement for the University. For us to get our medical and dental programmes accredited within three years is a major milestone, you know that some universities for eleven years since they were established, they have not been able to get the MDCN accreditation. For us to get it in three years is a major achievement. All our accreditation for which we have applied for have worked. Indeed the teaching hospital is also applying for Post-graduate accreditation in Medicine, Surgery, Pediatrics among others and we are also getting prepared. I think it has been very rewarding and the result has been very beautiful.
What are the medical breakthroughs of this institution since it was established?
Breakthroughs are unusual events in research and innovations, but at the University of Medical Sciences, Ondo we have recorded notable successes. A lot is being done to reduce maternal and child mortality as doctors use various techniques to ensure that every pregnant woman is given needed medical services. The University is currently conducting research on the possible use of auto-immune antibodies for the prevention of malaria, on traditional herbal medicines for use in the treatment of various medical disorders and in the identification of biomarkers for the early diagnosis of some neglected tropical diseases. Also, we are a leading institution providing landmark information and research findings in diverse fields in public health, including safe motherhood the promotion of universal access to healthcare and the management of trauma. Indeed, the University has developed an extensive multi-institutional proposal for the establishment of a Centre of Excellence in Trauma and Emergency Medicine (CETEM), which will be the only one of its kind in Nigeria. Despite the high level of trauma and insurgencies in Nigeria. It is worrisome that the country still doesn’t have a dedicated and strategic evidence-based response to the nightmare. Under CETEM, the University has commenced preliminary activities on neonatal resuscitation with the City University, New York and has also secured partnerships with Tulane University, Chicago State University and the University of Cape Town. UNIMED is also collaborating with Coventry University in the area of medical laboratory sciences, nursing and related disciplines.
Has the motive of establishing this special medical university justified?
The reason is to provide high level teaching. We are doing that, like I said, the first set of students will graduate this year December. These are students who are graduating from the Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences, Anatomy, Biochemistry and Physiology. This is just three years after they entered the programme. I can say since the beginning of this university, we have not had a single break in terms of strike or anybody stopping the working of the university. I can tell you we are not owing anybody, any bank, we are not owing staff salary, pension funds and other entitlements. Every Monday, we hold management meetings where the staff pour out their grievances. I believe that when you carry the staff and students along, there will be no need for anybody to go on strike. The students know what is going on and that they have gotten accreditation one of the things that create problems in school of this nature is when students hear that their courses have not been accredited.
What are the plans on ground to ensure that UNIMED maintain the existing status?
We are appealing to the government to continue to support us in funding. We are also appealing to the Council of the university to continue to do the right thing, to continue to promote the good name of the university in everything we do. If we say the University of Medical Science is preeminent, it is not a joke, it was not an easy job to do that. It was based on hard work, working day and night to ensure that we follow the best principle in administration especially in the governance of the University. It was not an easy job. So, as we are moving forward, it is important that we consolidate this type of work that we are doing and that we firmly adhere to them, to some of the principles like transparency, accountability, due process mechanism, so that we follow them because some of the universities we are taking about in Nigeria today, like Ibadan and Ife started from somewhere and they are now living on what have been established. A new university is even more precarious in the sense that they don’t have standards at the beginning. So it is important that those standards are established, if the wrong standards are established at the beginning, those wrong standards will continue for a long time. Running a new University is more difficult because people will challenge you, they will prevent you from setting those standards, they want business to be done as usual. So, I always say that a Vice Chancellor of a new university should be stronger than that of older university because the Vice Chancellor must be able to resist some of the shenanigans, things that people ask you to do and if you allow the university to run on wishy-washy type of agenda, at the end of the day, the university will not last a long period of time. We must ensure that all stakeholders agree that the right things must continue to be done in this university. We must have a vice chancellor who is strong and able to defend the principles and agenda of the university, otherwise things will fall apart.
There is this allegation that the school is being run like a private university, particularly in the area of school fees of the students that is relatively expensive compare to other universities around?
I like the word relatively expensive because for a medical university where things are very expensive, if I tell you that the school fee is not more than one hundred and eighty thousand naira, many people are often surprised when they hear that. Because when we calculated how much it takes to train a medical student every year, it is three million naira but we are charging only one hundred and eighty thousand naira. The government is adding a lot of money to support the training of undergraduates of this university because the real cost of training which we did research on is three million naira based on the equipment we buy, salary we pay to teachers among others.
There are some private universities in this country that charge as much as three million naira per medical student and some charge more than N180,000 for non-medical subjects. The government of Ondo State is very committed to education and they are paying a lot of money to train them.
- Business wise,can we say the school is running at a loss. Yes at a loss if we look at it from the point of view of business but if you look at it as a safety net because people generally in this part of the country are not very buoyant. There is a lot of poverty as well. You cannot now say because people are poor, therefore, they should not have good education. If we are to pay the real fees, it means that a lot of children who are bright will be locked out of school and that is not good image for any government. I am fully in support of making medical education very cheap.
How do you rate Nigerian university education system?
Nigerian university education system has a lot of challenges. I think we have a lot of students who need admission but they cannot be admitted. We have a large number of universities that probably don’t have the necessary manpower to run university system. There are poorly equipped laboratories, staffing is no longer adequate. Again, talking about quality, we keep saying that quality have declined. I am one of those who think so, but we don’t have the data, we are in a country where we make statements without justification or empirical evidence. By now, we should be doing graduate tracing, for example, I know students who finish from the University of Medical Sciences, because of the efforts we are putting into it would be one of the best in this country. Our medical doctors do excellently well outside the country when they graduate from this country. So how can you say standards are falling? At least, not in medical profession I can say.
Does the school have collaboration with other universities?
Yes, we have collaboration with Chicago State University, one of their Professors came here improving our website, working with staff and students. We have collaboration with New York State University, Canada University and others. All of these are still been developed and in future we will get many more collaborations.
Nigeria medical education system has a lot of challenges I think we have a lot of students who need admissions but they cannot be admitted and have a large number of universities, types who probably don’t have the necessary materials, how to run university system. A lot of the fact that there are poor laboratories, universities need to do better. Again, talking about quality, we keep saying that quality have declined, I am one of those who think so but me don’t have the data this is a country where we make statements without justification. By now, we should be doing graduate tracing, but as for the medical doctors they do well outside the country when they graduated from this country and I know those who will finish from university of medical sciences, because of the effort we are putting into it would be one of the best in this country and whenever we graduate doctors from this country they do well outside the country so and they are still doing very well so how can we say standards are falling at least not in medical profession.
What do you think government should do to improve this situation?
They always say government should provide more money and I also believe that money should be given but money should be used well when it is provided. Autonomy is also very important. Ondo State government allowed autonomy in running of University of Medical Sciences and it is very important that government should not interfere. Ideally, universities are to be run by special people who have the knowledge and the skills and the expertise and so if that happens you can get the best out of them. The only thing government need to do is to provide the resources and the university must ensure that the resources provided are adequately used for the purpose for which they are meant. In that way government’s effort will not be in vain.
As the pioneer vice chancellor of UNIMED, what are your experiences?
I am writing a book so I will detail my experiences. I cannot leave this university without writing a book how the university started, the good experiences and some of the not too good experiences. The fact that I was brought out from another state of the country to run this university is a good experience and with that I have learnt a lot of things, how to navigate so many paths and how to deal with people from various backgrounds. University system is supposed to belong to some of the best egg heads in society and when such people come together, there will always be conflict. Ability to manage the conflict is also a challenge and I have learnt a lot of lessons over the last four years in trying to manage these conflicts which I believe will live with me for the rest of my life. Some of the assumptions I had when I started is that if you do good for people, people will respond by doing the right things. It has not turned out to be true. Or our assumption that if you lead by example people will follow you to do the right things or when you open up to people therefore they will reason with you, has not turned out to be true. I have found a lot of such nauseating situations and there is a chapter in the book which I devote to lessons learnt and the chapter is the longest in the book.
When did you start medical practice?
I graduated from the University of Ife in 1978 and I did housemanship at University of Benin Teaching Hospital then following that I did my National Youth Service in Ogun State, I did my residency programme postgraduate training at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife then travelled outside the country, came back, became a lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University, a Gynecologist and then I became a Professor in 1992. I left Obafemi Awolowo University in 1996 for University of Benin and practice until 2015 when I was made the Vice Chancellor of University of Medical Sciences, UNIMED, Ondo.
I attended primary school in my village in Esan Central, the same primary school Pastor Chris Oyakiilome attended. In fact, his father and his mother were my teachers although his mother is my aunt. After that I went to Anglican Grammar School, Ekpoma which was the site where Ambrose Ali started when it became university.
You left your family to become a vice chancellor here, how are you managing this?
I am managing very well even I am beginning to take Ondo as my home because I was made a Chief here in Ondo and the kabiyesi, Chiefs and the people have been very good to me. When my children came to visit me in Ondo they said they want to be in Ondo because it is peaceful than Benin. I grew up in Yoruba land, in Ife, up till now people recognize me in Ife, because Ife is my second home. People know me more in the west, in Yoruba area than in Edo Sate.
After leaving the school, what is the next thing?
I am a researcher, I like teaching and I will continue to teach but primarily I like research, documentation & publications, that is the area where l am very strong and I also want to use that opportunity to mentor students and post graduates.
When you were young, was medicine your dream discipline?
Yes, right from three years, my mother kept telling me that I will become a medical doctor because of the circumstances under which I was born. I was born in the hospital of Dr. Chris Okojie who was minister of health and my mother so much respected him and adored him that she kept saying that her son will be like him and she kept saying it. When I went to my class those day, I told my friends that my mother said I would be a medical doctor and they said no l was too playful to become a doctor, in fact, one of them said that I would forget needles in somebody’s abdomen if l am operating. So I went back home to tell my parents what they said and my mother said no, afterall that Dr. Okojie doesn’t have two heads, so you too can become a doctor.
After work, how did you relax?
Now I have learnt to sleep more, after work I relax and watch television, especially football but l am always on my computer. After work I also play with my children on weekends. I swim, I use to play football but swimming is the sport I do more and table tennis.
If not medicine, what would you have become?
Journalist by the way. Journalism was my first choice because I like the process of writing, seeing my work in newspapers, I love seeing people’s articles and their names. When I was in secondary school, I was writing for newspapers in those days and up till now I still write articles in Vanguard, Guardian among others. Actually I love journalism, that was what I wanted to do until my mother kept insisting I will be a doctor because I taught that journalists can change the mind of a country, they can make people change their mind, they can decide the future of a country, I could be able to do that by molding, setting opinion and setting agenda, pushing that agenda forward. I do a lot of writing and so many publication of books. That is the reason I am doing more of writing because there is no day I don’t write.
What are your hobbies?
My hobby is farming. I am a farmer. I grow most of the food I eat, yams, vegetables, the only thing I have not gone into is animal husbandry. I have almost all fruits like oranges, avocado pear, sour sap. I plant maize and the reason I decided to go into farming was because these days people use a lot of pesticides, fertilizer. I don’t use any of this for my farm, basically throughout the year I eat the yam I produce from my farm.
Medically, all those fruits grown with fertilizer, do they have effect on the body?
Yes, they are not very good because the pesticide. We don’t yet know their full effects but we know that the high cancer rate in this country may be due to those contaminants that we put in our foods. As much as possible we should try and eat natural foods. Our soil is very fertile, there is no need to add anything when you put yam, corn it will grow without any addition.
Are you fulfilled as a VC and what do you want to be remembered for?
I am fulfilled as VC but there are many other things that one can be fulfilled about. The reason I feel fulfilled as VC is the ability to affect positively the lives of people. I have helped some students to graduate, l’ve been able to help a state develop an institution that is now well known throughout the country.
Because if I had failed in this direction, l am not fulfilled. I will continue to pray every day that God should give me the wisdom to run the university properly so that the university becomes great but if at the end, it doesn’t work, the university doesn’t attain the standard I wanted, I would have been a failure but if it does and work well, the university attains her standard, I will be very happy and then I will praise God. So every day when I come to work, I tell God to give me the wisdom to take the right decisions, so that the university will grow to the best of what God has said it will be. And I told God that you brought me to Ondo state don’t let me fail, you brought me here to do a special work to help the state to develop the first Medical University. There is no way the state will not remember me for a long time, the first medical institution for the training of doctors in Ondo State was pioneered by me, was headed by me with that reason I have to fight tooth and nail to ensure that this institution stand, that is what really drives me and nothing more.