The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) has come under renewed attack after it announced the approval of the national minimum benchmark for admission into tertiary institutions for the 2019/2020 academic session.

JAMB announced that students who score at least 160 in the Unified Tertiary Matriculations Examination (UTME), which has a maximum score of 400, are eligible for admission into public universities in the country.

This was announced after the commission’s 19th policy meeting on admissions to tertiary institutions in Nigeria on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.

Many, including parents, civic rights groups, public commentators, and even students, have criticised the commission for lowering the standard and setting a bad precedent for the nation’s already troubled education system.

While much of the conversation about the new cutoff marks has revolved around JAMB’s failure as a regulator, the decision was not a unilateral one.

At the policy meeting where the decision was ratified, vice chancellors, provosts, rectors, admission officers, registrars from federal, state, and private universities as well as Colleges of Education and Polytechnics played key roles.

The cutoff mark is simply the minimum UTME score a student is required to acquire before they can be admitted into a tertiary institution.

So, for example, with this academic year’s cutoff set at 160 for federal universities, affected institutions cannot admit students who scored 159 and below.

Different benchmarks have also been set for private universities (currently 140), public polytechnics (120), private polytechnics (110), and colleges of education (100).

The cutoff marks, with the agreement of university administrators, represent the lowest bar below which institutions are not allowed to go. However, these institutions are allowed the freedom to raise their cutoff marks individually to fit their own criteria for admission.

“The admission process would be guided by the approved institutional/programmes cutoff marks and minimum UTME score, as submitted by the respective institutions,” JAMB Registrar, Prof. Ishaq Oloyede, said last week.

In fact, when the benchmark for admission into public universities was controversially set to 120 in 2017, institutions such as the Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Lagos, University of Benin, and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka set their own cutoff marks at 200. These marks rose even higher depending on the course of study a student applied to be admitted for, a practice that’s commonplace.

JAMB Registrar, Prof. Ishaq Oloyede (Eagle Online) JAMB Registrar, Prof. Ishaq Oloyede (Eagle Online)

While JAMB’s process of setting benchmarks is not fully known to the public, tertiary institutions are usually asked to submit individual minimum acceptable marks before an aggregate is done, and a final general decision is made by all concerned.

Institutions have been noted to advocate for lower cutoff marks over the years for a range of reasons – failure to find enough students being a common one.

Some institutions have been reported to be unable to meet their admission quotas for years, leading to desperate measures such as admitting students who scored below official benchmarks like 180 which has been used a lot in the past.

For example, Prof. Oloyede complained in 2017 that institutions went as far as admitting a total of 17,160 students who didn’t even sit for UTME as required, just in a bid to shore up their admission numbers.

A previous explanation by JAMB for why cutoff is set below the publicly-favoured 200 is to allow institutions determine their cutoff marks according to the peculiarities, quality and standards they wish to be known for.

Even though the cutoff mark for admission into public universities has been largely set at 180 over the past 10 years, it took a huge dive to 120 in 2017, and then rose to 140 in 2018.

Just like in 2017, many Nigerians have condemned the new cutoff as an exploitative measure for institutions to make more money through Post-UTME, while ignoring the side-effect that it endangers the nation’s educational standards.

However, JAMB has appealed to the public in the past that it’s usually a decision taken dispassionately with the best interests of the students and institutions in mind.

“We should not be sentimental in fixing our cutoff mark; we need not over-dramatise issue of cutoff mark,” Prof. Oloyede said two years ago.