Education quality and fix-Nigeria-2019 team

Martins Oloja

Before we continue with the Shortlist for Fix-Nigeria 2019, we need to consider some issues that are germane to making Project 2019 a desideratum. This week, we need to encourage our leaders at all levels who can still use the so-called mandate we gave them in 2015 before the cock crows at the dawn of May 29, 2019, to consider one thing needful even as they go into re-election politics. The one thing needful is attention to quality in education from primary to university level. But for the need to avoid confusion in this contextual analysis of what we need to sustain our nomination as the leader of the black race, I would have suggested to President Muhammadu Buhari and his party chiefs that they should pay attention to restructuring and education quality alone. I had earlier suggested this to him on this page when I specifically mooted the idea that he should just focus on restructuring Nigeria politically as most people would want him to do now. And Nigerians would remember him as a leader who changed Nigeria from redundancy to abundance. Remember as I had reported here in this same context, it was the iconic Nelson Mandela who nominated Nigeria to lead the black race in this new world when he (Madiba) was quoted as saying, “The world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence”.

But considering the way the world is now being constantly shaped by the power of disruptive social technologies, we should not be tired of reminding our leaders daily too that if they really want to rebuild the country’s broken walls, construct critical infrastructure, create more jobs, fight poverty and inequality, fight criminality and insurgency, confront the bogey of agitation, among others and have their eye on country and global competitiveness, the thing to invest in is education quality. I am fully persuaded that the only known modern weapon of achieving sustainable competitiveness is attainment and sustenance of education quality. Though this may not be a good campaign slogan in a country ravaged by material, moral and spiritual poverty, I still believe that those who would like to fix Nigeria tomorrow should begin to gather all kinds of resources on how to fix education in Nigeria. It is not going to be easy; it is expensive but it is the right thing to do. I have devoted more than half of the articles here to this campaign but no one seems to be listening. I will not rest about this thing called education quality until something happens. The first major article on this (June 4, 2016) was titled, “Why we need better universities, not more” (https://guardian.ng/opinion/why-we-need-better-universities-not-more/.

It was followed by another on June 11, 2016 titled, “Better universities will lead to Nigerian exceptionalism” (https://guardian.ng/opinion/better-universities-will-lead-to-nigerian-exceptionalism/. The third in the series was on June 18, 2016 titled, “Better Universities will trigger organizational learning” (https://guardian.ng/opinion/better-universities-will-trigger-organisational-learning/.

In the same vein on August 13, 2016, I wrote to draw attention of the federal government’s complacency about the plight of Law graduates of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) who are still not admitted into Nigerian Law Schools in this big data age when education is fast getting out of the classrooms. I had asked why the federal authorities that created the school should be loitering about this when the U.K National Open University enrols students for even Medical Sciences. The article, “Before Legal Education Council Ruins Open University” (https://guardian.ng/opinion/before-legal-education-council-ruins-open-university/ received rave reviews but no attention yet from the creator of an institution that can attract students from all over the world.

There have been other articles on education-related subjects but the point is about the attitude of our leaders to funding quality education. That is why it is gratifying to note that tomorrow, Monday November 13) at the State House Old Banquet Hall, the Buhari administration will set the tone for serious attention to education quality when the president will preside over a “Federal Executive Council Retreat on the Challenges Facing the Education Sector in Nigeria”. It was learned last night that the Retreat is to solidify an already prepared roadmap for education for the administration.

It is hoped that the gathering of all the top people in the administration will not result in just another Abuja declaration that will be regarded as a re-election time gimmick. There have been many of them since 1999.

This is to appeal to the president and his men to take the Retreat tomorrow on future of education in the country as a serious national assignment. If they get tomorrow’s colloquium right and thereafter follow up with the right spirit and discipline of execution, there will be a glimmer of hope that Nigeria can still work. Here is the thing, unless all the authorities in Nigeria can recognise that until our schools at all levels are good enough to produce graduates that can solve our problems – from farm to industrial operations, we will continue to lag behind. And our nomination as an African giant will continue to fall through.

Specifically, the president and education minister should not allow the congenital procrastinators in the house to delay action on quality education funding till the beginning of another term in 2019. What if 2019 becomes a mirage, after all!

Remarkable Lessons from Singapore:
Most orators and motivational speakers may have been entertaining us with the story of the good man, a leader who inspired Singapore from Third to First World, Lee Kuan Yew. It is always a good read, a wonderful biography of a significant Asian. But not many of our leaders may have studied some of the specific strategies the very educated Asian employed to achieve his goals that have become a national and organisational culture in Singapore. It is important for us to note that the only strategy Mr. Lee used was remarkable investment in education quality.

This is a contextual reporting of the strategy for Singapore’s success through education quality:
According to Stavros Yianouka, of Project Syndicate, Lee Kuan Yew’s achievements have been the subject of much global discussion before and since his death. But one aspect of his success, which has been under-reported is his investments in education. His strategy, he would often remark, was “to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource, its people”.

Today, Singapore routinely ranks among the top performers in educational attainment, as measured by the very influential Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment.

The powerful Asian country is though a city-state of just five million people, it normally boasts two universities among the top 75 in any Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the same number as usually China, Japan and Germany.

You may ask, what did Mr. Lee and Singapore do right?
It should be noted that Singapore’s education system was not designed de novo by Mr. Lee and his colleagues. Rather, it was built on the very solid foundations inherited from Singapore’s British colonial past. Just like Nigeria. In contrast to many of his contemporaries among post-colonial leaders, Mr. Lee was not afraid to embrace whatever elements from that past that would prove useful to the enterprise of nation building.

Nowhere is this approach more evident than in education. Many of the country’s premier educational institutions for example, the National University of Singapore (founded in 1905), Raffles Institution (founded in 1823), and the Anglo-Chinese School (founded in 1886), significantly predate independence. Moreover, the curriculum for secondary education is modelled on the British O-level and A-level qualifications (with some adaptation to account for the generally higher average attainment levels of students in Singapore). And, though infrastructure is by no means neglected, the key focus of educational investment is students and teachers. Our leaders who recruit imbeciles as teachers they don’t pay, should please note this.

Accordingly, a national system of generous scholarships enables the best students to avail themselves of an education at some of the world’s premier universities, even as Singapore develops its own world-class institutions. With starting salaries above the national median, the teaching profession attracts, develops and retains some of the best graduates.

The OECD and Project Syndicate report that Singapore’s education system is specifically meritocratic (some might say elitist) in its focus on identifying and developing the very best talent and, equally important, directing it towards public service.

Government scholarship recipients are obliged to serve in the public sector for a minimum of two years for every one year of study. The same meritocratic approach governs the development and promotion of teachers.

In this connection, top-performing teachers are given leadership responsibilities without excessive regard to tenure, and there is a revolving door between the education ministry, classrooms, and school administration. Educators are frequently seconded to carry out policy work. Many subsequently choose to return to the classroom because it is not demeaning.

Even the World Economic Forum reports this: that the elitist tendency in Singapore’s education system is tempered by the fact that quality education is available for all levels of academic aptitude. Singapore is rightly proud of its elite secondary and tertiary academic institutions, but one could argue that the hidden gems of the system are the hundreds of neighbourhood schools, the Institute of Technical Education, and polytechnics that provide high-quality education for all.

Singapore’s education system is relentlessly forward-looking. From adopting bilingualism with English in addition to the mother tongue of Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, to its focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Singapore anticipated many of the key education strategies being adopted by today’s policymakers.

According to Stavros, the choice of English was driven by history and a multi-ethnic society’s need for a common language. But it was also a prescient recognition of English’s rapid emergence as the lingua franca of global commerce and science, and that once entrenched it was likely to remain so for decades, if not centuries, to come.

In this regard, too, Mr Lee distinguished himself from other post-colonial leaders of his generation. Rather than pandering to narrow nationalist sentiment and opting for the majority language and culture, he and his colleagues chose to adopt a global language for a global city.

This is worthy of note too: Singapore’s education system evolves with the times and in the light of new evidence. In the 1990s, Singapore’s policymakers, concerned that their approach to education might be somewhat regimented and overly focused on STEM, began to provide avenues for excellence in the humanities, arts and sport. That rebalancing is still ongoing, with a new emphasis on identifying ways to foster creativity and entrepreneurship. This is the light education should provide for citizens. For Singapore’s founding father, education went beyond formal schooling. As he put it in a speech in 1977: “My definition of an educated man is a man who never stops learning and wants to learn.” Indeed, Singapore’s world- class education system will continue to be one of Mr Lee’s most enduring legacies. The FEC Retreat tomorrow should be anchored on how to rebuild Nigeria’s education to be world-class too!



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