Education in Nigeria: The great leap back – Part 1

Every day, we are being reminded that insecurity, poverty, unemployment and our mono-cultural economy are more pressing problems than education in Nigeria. This appears to be a dubious distinction because it is somewhat difficult to exclude education from any aspect of life. Often we hear that poor or inappropriate education accounts for unemployment, underemployment and even unemployability, which in turn conduce poverty. Of course, poverty is invariably implicated in crime, which largely accounts for our insecurity. Therefore, is education the chicken or the egg? Irrespective of whatever position we take, we all agree on the importance of education in development. It is verily implicated in every aspect of man’s existence especially in the modern world. I also believe there is a national consensus that we have greatly neglected the education sector in Nigeria, hence the general bray about the fallen and falling standards of education.

There is little doubt that one of the most depressing setbacks in our polity is the increasing balking by government from involvement in education. Across the country, public elementary and high schools are being privatized ostensibly because of diminishing government resources. Even more ominously, government instalmental withdrawal from elementary and high schools is closely matched with the foreboding prospect of our having more private than public universities. This development is often rationalized with the constitutional provision, which makes education a recurrent matter permitting general participation.

There is also the new-fangled mantra of public-private sector participation (PPP) and the claim that government alone cannot (and should not) be expected to solely take charge of the enormous challenges of managing the educational sector. Perhaps I should also remind us of the popular but most dubious and unprovable argument that the private sector is better in managing everything in the world. In Nigeria, the failure of private and privatized enterprises in all sectors of the economy shows clearly that our faith in the private sector is misplaced. Unfortunately, it seems these failures strengthen our resolve to look more and more to the private sector. We can trace our economic misfortune during the current Republic to our apparent national resolve to blindly adhere to the prescriptions of the Washington Consensus, which mandates us to look to the private sector in everything. To boot, we hired a prophetess from the World Bank who managed our economy into a cul de sac. Yet, we have not relented in our blind faith in received wisdoms.

Thus, education is now being surreptitiously re-classified as a business venture in Nigeria. All manners of businesspersons, many of them without education or experience in educational management or successful midwifing of any enterprise anywhere, have obtained licenses to establish educational institutions, including most especially, universities. In fact, from the number of licenses granted and the number of private universities already established, you may not be wrong to conclude that universities are the easiest business to establish in Nigeria. But we all know that private involvement in education is all about profit, not education. Recently, the National Universities Commission (NUC) was obliged to defend itself against allegations of corruption made by a distinguished academic about the sorry situation in our universities. What is lost to us is that, in spite of the claims of NUC, there is clear evidence of substandard or total absence of basic infrastructure in all academic departments in all Nigerian universities. It is strange how these departments manage to pass NUC accreditation tests. You may not be far from being right if you liken this to the proverbial camel passing through the eye of the needle! To expose the NUC lie, government may want to empanel UNESCO to pay real accreditation visit to academic departments in Nigerian universities. I am sure the result of such an exercise will necessitate the complete closure of more than half of our universities without an option of upgrading or re-opening in future.

By privatizing education, we are constricting the educational space. This is contrariwise to the imperatives of modernity and a negation of some of the progressive educational policies introduced especially after the Nigerian Civil War. More notable among these policies were the abolition of tuition fees and subsidies granted across various levels. Primary and secondary educational institutions were even nationalized in some states while tertiary education was the monopoly of government, which successfully resisted attempts to establish some dubious private universities in the 1980s. By our standards today, public schools were well managed by Nigerian teachers and everybody wanted to attend a government secondary school. The mission schools were partly funded by the state. Of course, our first generation universities were all world-class educational institutions owned by government and run largely by Nigerians.

The liberal postwar policies were not merely a function of ample funds available to government. Their main purpose was to open up the educational space to more citizens. In the spirit of this liberalism, basic education is now mandatory, at least on paper. It is a matter of great regret that the emerging public policy is intent on turning back the hands of the clock by shutting out the poor. Ironically, we are told that about 70 per cent of Nigeria’s population may be classified as poor. Are we therefore, saying that a majority of Nigerians should be denied their right to education on account of poverty? Throughout northern Nigeria, we find myriads of school age child-beggars in the street known as almajiri. This is a most depressing negation of their fundamental right to education, a fact underscored by the Sultan of Sokoto who has declared that the institution of almajiri is not Islamic. Every Nigerian is therefore, duty-bound to support Kaduna State in its progressive onslaught against the almajiri institution. Kano also deserves maximum support in the patriotic effort to rid the public space of beggars, especially child-beggars. We must go beyond such short-term measures to completely rout the social structure that restricts education, especially to children. The law requires the state to enforce basic education. It is not too much to expect governments to obey this law. Privatization of education is the exact opposite of the direction we should be headed. There is urgent need to rethink our public education in order to align policy with the constitution.

Another notorious policy throwback is an anachronism known as nomadic education. By that policy, Nigerian government established “mobile schools” to follow nomads wherever they chose to go. There is no equivalent to this seeming ingenuity in the world. Rather than expend public funds to prosecute sedentary agriculture, we wasted time establishing a National Commission for Nomadic Education, which is all but moribund. It is not surprising we no longer hear of the Commission because it was bound to fail. To crown the infamy of nomadic education, the University of Jos established a Centre for Nomadic Education. The irony of that Centre is that feuds between nomads and settled farmers have taken a turn for the worse especially in Plateau State, the immediate catchment of the University of Jos. It looks like the Centre has not noticed the open warfare between nomads and sedentary farmers in the plateau and beyond. The Centre is blind to the dire plight of nomads and the predicament of sedentary farmers in the faceoff. Nigerians must be wondering what the mandate of the Centre is and what it has done to achieve it. In a recent strange article, Dan Chima Amadi of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, among other imponderable things, proposed the use of power-point and mobile cinema in the teaching of nomads. The simple irony here is that Dr. Amadi proposed technology that is not even available to university teachers. I believe that the recent federal government pronouncement on nomadic animal husbandry is a clear testimony to the archaism of nomadism and the utter failure of nomadic education. Had the novel policy on nomadic education succeeded, we would have had to follow up nomadic healthcare, nomadic water potable water, etc., etc.

Curiously, there is apparently no political or philosophical backdrop to the privatization of education in Nigeria. Globally, public education is still the norm as over 80 per cent of enrolment in primary schools in the world is in public schools. Similarly, over 75 per cent of enrolment in secondary schools worldwide is in public secondary schools. Even more curiously, the richer countries we look up to in everything expend more funds in education than those countries who think they can catch-up. For example, we delude ourselves that education is in the realm of the private sector in the US, whereas that country invests at least 200 times more in education per pupil a year than Nigeria. The dividends of such massive investment in education are immediately evident. For example, all statistics point to an unmistakable correlation between increases in investment in education and advances in development in all its ramifications.

I disagree with those who place the challenges of insecurity, unemployment, poor infrastructure, epileptic electricity and poverty over and above education. I do certainly concede the seriousness of these other problems, but that is what they are: other problems. Because this is not a novel assertion, I will not expend much time in justifying it. However, let me briefly address some of these issues to underscore the incumbency of prioritizing education in our country.

• Prof. Okolocha, visiting Professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Abuja.

  • amador kester

    You should rather talk of how to make private institutions more functional.The best universities in usa like harvard,yale,stanford are private! We should help develop ours into real centres of excellence. Our public universities are riddled with cultism,examinations sorting of grades,theoretical emphasis,endemic strikes,and mostly presided over by chancellors of vice except for a few cases… Why did you forget to expose these monumental evils?

  • 8Wells

    Facts without figures are not provable. Or disputable. If the academia want to keep the “barbarians” of private sector at bay, they had better come forward with (business) plans more concrete than the conjecture we were taught in school to see as weakness in intellectual rigor.