By Raheemat Adeniran
The Lagos State University’s TETFund Desk Office recently announced call for applications from staff members for TETFund’s local and international Conference Attendance (CA) intervention “applicable to conferences with scheduled dates from April to June, 2023”. Ideally, this should be good news for the university community, offering academic and non-academic staff the rare opportunity to travel for conferences and workshops to any part of the world, fully-funded. It was also coming after TETFund’s long suspension of conference attendance sponsorship travels occasioned by alleged diversion of previous CA sponsorship grants and prolonged by the COVID-19 disruptions. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm is dampened by the unrealistic requirements and expectation for eligibility.
Research is a core aspect of an academic’s career. Aside from teaching, faculties are expected to engage in impactful research studies and strive to present their findings to their peers in local and international conferences. As with many sectors in Nigeria, higher education financing is grossly inadequate. Hence, lecturers often attend local and international conferences to share their research findings and experiences with peers with personal funding. Federal government’s attempt at increasing funding of public institutions led to the establishment to TETFund.
The Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) is an initiative of the FG backed by parliamentary act to “administer and disburse education tax collections to public tertiary educational institutions in Nigeria”. Among TETFund areas of intervention is Academic Staff Training and Development which entails disbursement of fund for sponsorship to study for Masters and Doctorate Degrees, conference attendance, and teaching practice intervention. These interventions are managed through beneficiary institutions which collates applications from their members of staff for onward transmission to TETFund. In as much as there is an array of issues with varied aspects TETFund interventions, in this piece, I will only dwell on observed issues regarding conference attendance sponsorship which supports local and international conference and workshop attendance for teaching and non-teaching staff. The views expressed here are based on personal experience in applying for the fund supported with available data on the administration of the conference attendance intervention fund in my institution, the Lagos State University. These views may not reflect the general practice across all beneficiary institutions in the country, but there are likely to be some similarities.
In line with the TETFUND intervention guideline, beneficiary institutions are expected to collate staff applications, process and submit their recommendation for the utilisation of conference attendance intervention on behalf of their staff not later than two months before the conference date. Institutions can make the submission up to four times in a year. As simple as this seems, this basic preliminary requirement already impedes access to many academic staff. The mere fact that submissions are accepted up to two months before the conference date already impedes the timely approval to facilitate attendance particularly with the entrenched bureaucratic officialdom in many government agencies in Nigeria.
The recent call, released late December 2022, provides five eligibility criteria for applicants, as contained in TETFund’s guidelines document for accessing its intervention funds. This includes being a full-time and confirmed Staff; applying to attend an academic conference organized by academic institutions, learned society (regional, national) and/or recognized professional bodies; and presentation of evidence of attendance and presentations from previous conference supported by the fund. Two additional conditions were stressed for academic staff requesting them to “have a paper accepted for presentation at the conference to be attended” and publishing research articles from previously attended conferences supported by TETFund.
Figure 1: Screenshot from the notification for the call for application for LASU staff
I truly understand the need to curb observed corrupt practices among staff of TETFund beneficiary institutions alleged to have diverted conference attendance funds for other purposes in previous administrations of the fund. I however believe the current condition can potentially discourage genuine applicants from applying for the fund due to limited practicality of the current requirement. It gives undue advantage to non-academic staff over academic staff who are supposed to be the primary beneficiary of the intervention as indicated in its title, Academic Staff Training and Development.
While non-academic staff members can hand pick any conference/workshop within between May and June 2023 with greater possibility of being approved by TETFund, it is not so easy for academic staff. To start with, the present call expects applicants for genuine conferences scheduled for April to June, 2023. Experience with previous calls however shows that applying for any conferences slated before June may be at one’s peril as the conference date might have lapsed by the time TETFund considers the applications.
For instance, the university previous call was made in May 2022 with June 30th, 2022 deadline for conferences slated for September to December, 2022. I intentionally ignored the call then since it was only for sponsorship of local conferences. I was not interested in going through the hurdle to seek support to attend a local conference I can still struggle to fund personally, as many academics do. Not with the low possibility of approval anyway. As projected, when TETFund’s decision on the applications was released on November 24, 2022 via the university’s official bulletin, serial no LASU/CIPPR/2251, all applications for conferences in September and early October were simply disqualified with the remark “Not approved, conference lapsed”. And with the release of the bulletin in November, successful applicants whose conferences were scheduled for October and November must have attended the conferences to be eligible for refund. Attending the conference with the expectation of getting a refund after TETFund’s approval is however risky as there is still a possibility of being disqualified with the remarks, “Not approved, unrecognized conference organizer”. Hence, anyone who decides to attend his/her proposed conference before due communication of the approval must be prepared for any eventualities, positive or negative.
Unfortunately for academic staff, the added requirement for an accepted abstract for presentation at the conference for the application to be considered poses a greater burden. This is because many conference organizer may not provide feedback on submitted abstracts until few months to the scheduled dates. Hence, many academics simply prioritise seeking out conferences that can provide early feedback on their submitted abstracts over and above conferences that really matter to their career development when submitting their applications.
For instance, in my Communication and Media related studies field, many reputable international conferences rarely provide early feedback on submitted abstracts. The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) 2023 Conference, to be held in Lyon, France in July will still be accepting abstract submission till February 9, 2023 and may not send feedback on acceptance till April. Another conference I would have loved to apply for is International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN)’s #GlobalFact10 conference bringing together fact-checkers worldwide. Despite being confirmed for June 2023 in Seoul, South Korea, it is yet to release its call for abstract submissions for the academic track. The 73rd Annual International Communication Association (ICA) Conference scheduled for May 2023, in Toronto Canada may however not be appropriate for the recent LASU’s call for application despite expected feedback on submitted abstracts from January 11 since the application may not be approved early enough for successful applicants to aptly plan the trip. Unfortunately, it stands the risk of being dismissed as having already lapsed by then. All these dampen the desire to attend highly relevant conferences for academic staff development.
If perchance, a lecturer eventually scales these hurdles, to be eligible for sponsorship in another two years, he or she must “present evidence of publishing at least one article in any qualified first quartile (Q1) journal or two articles in any second quartile (Q2) journals before qualifying to be sponsored to attend another conference. In a country where many of our journals are offline and not even indexed, many academics remain at the mercy of western dominated journals often not favourably disposed to publishing research articles from scholars in the Global South. I have had experiences where submitted manuscripts were never sent for reviews for flimsy reasons such as, “the rate of submissions to the Journal has grown markedly in recent years and this high flow of submissions places extraordinary pressures on limited editorial space”. It will be good if TETFund can also support indexing of our journals in major databases before setting publication in high ranking journals as a criteria for future access to the fund. At present, it is impossible for many who had previously assessed the fund to submit another application. This might have resulted in a significant drop in academics’ applications over the years as observed from published data on LASU Conference Attendance (CA) Intervention 2010-2020 data.
The trend: LASU conference attendance (CA) intervention 2010-2020 data
In the course of writing this piece, I stumbled upon published data on TETFund’s Conference Attendance (CA) Interventions for LASU staff members from 2010-2020. I was able to convert the PDF file into Excel format by signing up for a free 7-day trial of Adobe Pro version for easy processing. The observed trend are intriguing and speaks to the need for a review of the criteria to ease access to the funds particularly for academic staff, while also ensuring accountability to ensure proper use of disbursed fund.
Over the period, from 2010-2020, academic and non-academic staff in LASU received 454 CA interventions for local and international conferences. Interestingly, Non-academic staff members accessed the fund much more than academic staff members, getting almost 60% of approved TETFund sponsored conference attendance slots.
In the early years, academics got more CA slots, attending more conferences from 2010 up till 2016. Academics recorded the highest approvals for their applications in 2021/2022. Non-academics have since overtaken the shots mostly gaining more approvals from 2017 except for 2019 when academics had slightly higher slots. There was however no data reported for 2014 and 2015, while limited interventions were recorded in 2016 for academics only.
While non-academics in LASU tend to access the TETFund CA intervention fund more, such interventions were mostly received for local conferences. Non-academics received approvals to attend 222 local conferences and workshops and 40 international ones. Academics however got approvals for 182 international conferences and five local conferences. The location of some of the approved conferences could not be ascertained due to omission from the published data and repeated searches online failed to identify the conferences and their locations.
The published data may not be entirely accurate as some of the beneficiaries listed may not have accessed the fund. I know a senior colleague whose name was listed to have received the fund in 2019 but never assessed the fund as the approval was received a few weeks before the conference making it impossible to make the trip with the required visa application process. There are also reports of individuals who were able to use the approval to go for another conference in another year. Unfortunately, this opportunity is not opened to all. I once got the approval to attend a conference in Accra Ghana in February, 2014. Despite making the application in September 2013, the approval was only received a week to the conference. I had approached the TETFund Desk of the university to possibly use the approved fund to attend another conference which was outrightly declined.
TETFund needs to review its eligibility criteria and allow for submission of evidence of abstract acceptance long after application had been submitted up to when decisions are taken on each application. The current practice of submitting applications manually may be automated to allow uploading of relevant documents as they become available. There should also be increased support for our journals to attain desired rankings for international relevance. The current practice of insisting on Publishing in Q1 or Q2 journals even when our academic journals struggle to maintain online presence is inimical to development of our local journals to international standards.
Where approvals are eventually given late, there should be a transparent process to facilitate using the approval for future conferences provided it meets the basic criteria of eligible conferences for sponsorship and is scheduled in the similar region with the previously approved conference.
The process of considering eligibility of conferences should be more encompassing. I know of colleagues whose applications to attend university based, or recognized global academic associations’ conferences were denied probably due to the ignorance of the approving officer. And there are records of questionable approvals too. The accessed data on LASU approvals have records of a workshop on Advanced MS Excel in UYO for a non-academic staff. I found this approval and similar ones ridiculous especially as TETFund has a funded training on computer appreciation periodically organised for staff members of beneficiary institutions.
Having a working list of eligible conference organisers with periodic review may go a long way in addressing this anomaly. There should however be a system to evaluate application for unlisted organisers on each’s merit.
Raheemat Adeniran, is a Senior Lecturer at the Journalism Department, Faculty of Communication and Media Studies. LASU.