The Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) recently released its 2019 cutoff points for admission into tertiary institutions in the country. The Board, in consultation with tertiary institutions, pegged the cutoff for public universities at 160 or 40% of the available marks in the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations. For private universities, 120 or 30% has been declared sufficient by JAMB.

What is most concerning is that the Board decided that scoring 25% in UTME is sufficient for admission into colleges of education, where the future teachers of public and low-cost private schools are trained. Since the children of heads of JAMB and the tertiary institutions seldom, if ever, patronise these public schools, it seems they could not be bothered by the danger the extremely low cutoff poses to the education system.

The arguments I have seen put forward in support of this low cutoff are untenable. According to JAMB itself in 2018 when this issue first came up, the low cutoff was at the insistence of some of the tertiary institutions who were struggling to attract students. Instead of working on factors responsible for their lack of popularity among candidates they would rather continue to lower the bar ad infinitum just to attract students. And instead of JAMB to insist on a more meaningful standard, the body has thrown its weight behind the efforts to plunge the education system further into the abyss of mediocrity.

It is worrying that JAMB has tried to absolve itself of responsibility to set the standards for admission but the act setting up the board was clear on the mandate of the body which remains “determining matriculation requirements and conducting examinations leading to undergraduate admission…” It is the duty of JAMB to insist on decent matriculation requirements, and to ensure compliance by all parties. Therefore, the argument that it is expedient to have lower cutoff because institutions were in recent past admitting students with low, unapproved cutoff is unacceptable. It would be absurd for the Federal Road Safety Corps to legalise drunk driving because some drivers are already driving while drunk.

Apart from the quality issue, this low cutoff portends for the education system, it also creates an illusion of oversubscription of our institution, an illusion that has been used to justify government’s decision to create more public institutions instead of investing in improving existing ones. If it is true, as the JAMB registrar argued last year, that some programmes in public universities are struggling to attract candidates, then I would argue for scrapping these courses in some of the universities offering them. Say Physics is consistently struggling to attract candidates who score 200 and above in JAMB, then stakeholders should work towards reducing the number of public universities that currently offer Physics. The resources saved from scrapping the programme can go to strengthening other programmes that are indeed oversubscribed in these schools. This also saves the government the trouble of creating new universities when the existing ones are struggling to attract qualified candidates to many of their programmes.

Besides disincentivizing hard work and excellence, lower cutoff also opens room admission racketeering. As JAMB itself noted in its report, some institutions exploit the low cutoff to deny admission to high scoring candidates while admitting low scoring candidates. For example, despite being the most subscribed university in the country, the University of Ilorin set some of the lowest cutoff marks for admission. With 86,401 candidates jostling for less than 13,000 admission slots in Ilorin, there is no reason for the university to set the cutoff for many of its courses at 180. If it had set the cutoff at 200, the university would still not be able to offer admission to every qualified applicant.       The cutoff was however set so low precisely because it enabled the institution to “lower the Merit cut-off which allows ‘candidates’ with lower aggregates to come up.” Admission slots are finite; when a candidate with a lower aggregate is given one, most likely a candidate with a higher aggregate has been denied one. 

In 2019, only 427,156 UTME candidates scored 50%, which meant only 56% of the 750,000 available spaces can be filled. JAMB, by lowering the cutoff to 160, tripled the number of ‘qualified’ candidates for public universities. In this artificially created oversubscription, quality candidates inevitably lose out to mediocre candidates. This is clearly a race to the bottom that could be avoided by facing the reality that our basic education system is not producing enough competent candidates for our higher institutions. There are many ways to solve this problem but what we should never do is continue to lower standards in a bid to fill spaces by any means necessary. This cynical approach would not end well for the system.

Sodiq Alabi tweets from @SodiqAlabi1.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Nigerian Diary