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FACTSHEET: Understanding Nigeria's new varsity admission rules

A recent amendment to Nigeria’s higher education admission policy has rekindled debate about access to tertiary institutions in the country. What will change?

This article is more than 2 years old

Education authorities in Nigeria recently made a significant change to how students are admitted to after-school institutions such as universities, polytechnics and colleges of education.

The August 2021 high level policy meeting led to the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) announcing that there would be no national cut-off mark for admissions this year.

In this factsheet, we outline the main changes and get expert opinion about what they mean.

Role of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board

JAMB conducts exams for entry into all universities, polytechnics and colleges of education in Nigeria.

Among other duties, the board:

  • Appoints examiners, moderators, invigilators and members of subject panels and committees

  • Collects and distributes information on matters related to admission into higher education 

  • Places qualifying candidates in tertiary institutions

Every year, the board conducts the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), which assesses candidates’ ability and suitability for higher education. A candidate’s score in the exam determines whether they will be admitted to their preferred institution.

In the UTME, a candidate is tested in a combination of four subjects with a maximum score of 100 points each. These are added together to determine the final mark, out of 400. 

Scores for admission

JAMB also runs the Central Admissions Processing System, which approves or rejects applications.

Every year, the board announces the cut-off mark for admission to higher education. Candidates with a UTME score below this mark can’t be offered admission. 

In 2020, the cut-off was 160 out of 400 for universities, 120 for polytechnics and 100 for colleges of education. Individual institutions were also allowed to set their own minimum score, above the cut-off.   

The problem of ‘illegal admissions’ 

But some universities may have admitted candidates with a score under 160, against regulations.

In April 2021, the admission board accused some universities of granting admissions without going through the central processing system. The board said these were “illegal admissions”. 

There were also media reports that more than 500,000 illegally admitted students had sought to make things right with the board, and that parents were being charged large sums for such “regularisation”.

Education minister Malam Adamu Adamu warned that institutions guilty of illegal admissions would face heavy penalties.   

Reforming the admissions system 

This year’s policy change means universities, polytechnics and colleges of education can now determine what minimum UTME score will get you through their doors. 

The new admission guidelines adopted at the meeting include the requirement that a candidate’s credentials must be uploaded to the central admissions processing system.

Institutions must now recommend suitable candidates to the admissions board. If they are approved, candidates can then accept the admission offer. It is this process that was reported to have been widely violated. To counter this, it was agreed that no institution would be allowed to admit candidates in 2021 without the candidates’ details being uploaded to the central processing system.

If a candidate does not accept an admission offer, the institution can now only replace them once it has informed the board.

For the 2021/22 tertiary matriculation exam, two subjects – physical and health education, and computer studies – have been introduced, bringing the total to 25.

When is a high UTME score not enough?

About 23% of candidates who scored 300 and above in the 2019 matriculation exam were not admitted, data shows.

This was because other criteria for admission were considered, including:

  • A credit score in five subjects in the secondary school certificate exams. The subjects must include English, maths and subjects relevant to the course of choice.

  • The cut-off mark for the preferred course. In addition to a general cut-off mark, institutions also have cut-offs for specific courses. For example, a university may admit a candidate who scored 200 to study arts but may not admit another, seeking to study medicine, with a score of 300.

  • Post-University Matriculation Examination screening. This is an additional test many universities use to screen candidates with satisfactory UTME scores and good school certificate exam results.

A candidate with a good score may therefore still not be admitted. 

Student places at universities left empty       

Only 612,557 students were admitted in 2019. This was despite the 1.12 million places in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, and the 1.99 million candidates who applied to take the matriculation exam.  

According to the National Universities Commission, Nigeria has 197 licenced universities. The federal government runs 45 of them, state governments run 53, and 99 are private universities.

In 2019, universities had 560,613 places and admitted 444,947 students. More than half the admissions – 52.9%, or 235,333 students – were into federal universities. State universities admitted 181,401 (40.8%) and private universities 28,213 (6.3%).  

‘More candidates are likely to get admission’

Prof Sulyman Abdulkareem, vice-chancellor of the University of Ilorin in north-central Nigeria, told Africa Check that the new policy could allow more students to be admitted to tertiary institutions.

“I know that universities are allowed to set their own cut-off point,” he said. 

“It varies from one university to another. Here at the University of Ilorin, we’ve pegged it at 180. The cut-off mark is higher than that in some schools. It is less in others.”

Abdulkareem said he believed that without a national cut-off mark, some state and private universities that previously didn’t attract many candidates would lower their minimum points to admit more. 

“This means candidates are likely to get admission.”

‘Input determines output’ 

Prof Adebisi Balogun is a former vice-chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Akure in southwest Nigeria. He told Africa Check that the new policy was partly in response to some universities’ complaints. 

“State universities and private universities were blaming the JAMB cut-off mark for their inability to admit many students. I believe the board wants to push it back to them,” he said.

“Now, they can set their cut-off mark as low as they want. However, the board gave a caveat that after an institution has set its cut-off mark for 2021 admission, it cannot go back to JAMB to change it. I believe that many private universities would set low cut-off marks.” 

But institutions are likely to run into trouble if they set their cut-off marks too low and attract more applicants than they can handle, Balogun said.

“Another problem with institutions setting the cut-off too low is that it may affect the quality of graduates. This is because, to a large extent, input determines output."

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