Time to clean-up the rot in education sector

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By Pita Ochai

If you are thinking a year ahead, sow seed. If you are thinking 10 years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking one hundred years ahead, educate the people. By sowing seed you will harvest once. By planting a tree you will harvest tenfold. By educating the people you will harvest one hundred fold.              — Anonymous Chinese Poet, 400BC

The above quote has existed for centuries but might have shown the obvious reason Nigeria has failed to reap the benefits of education after 54 years of independence. The socio-political and economic development of a nation is in many ways determined by the quality and level of educational attainment of its citizens. Indeed, education is the bedrock of modern civilization.

However, over the years, successive administrations in Nigeria have been paying lip service to improvement in the quality and standard of education in the country. Consequently, there has been a rot in the education sector. Nyesom Wike, the minister of state for education captured the dwindling fortunes in the educational system during the flagging off of the 2014 International Literacy Day tagged: “Literacy for Sustainable Development” when he said that more than 60 million Nigerians cannot read and write. This figure represents about 38 percent of Nigeria’s population estimated to be 170 million.

Similarly, a recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) revealed that Nigeria has 10.5 million out-of-school children. Based on these two figures, it is clear that at 54, Nigeria has not made the desired result in providing quality education to quite a good number of its citizens. In fact, successive administrations in the country have never been able to devote a meaningful proportion of the annual budget to education, let alone the 26 percent recommended by UNESCO for funding the education sector. For instance, Nigeria’s N493 billion 2014 budget for education represents about 10.7 per cent of the total national budget proposal of N4.6 trillion. Nevertheless, it amounts to a 15 per cent increase over the 2013 budget.  But Ghana, Nigeria’s West African neighbour, reportedly commits about 31 per cent of its budget to education.

It is unfortunate that education has not really been accorded the priority it deserves  despite the fact that Section 18 of the 1999 Constitution stipulates unambiguously that government should direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels. It also stipulates that government should promote science and technology and strive to eradicate illiteracy. Against this background, the constitution further stipulates that when practicable, government should provide free, compulsory and universal primary education, free university education and free adult literacy programme.

Victor Dike, an educationist, said that Nigeria has failed to meet the requirement for education as provided in the constitution because past and present leaders pay lip service to education.  He explained that while leaders of developed countries understand the positive correlation between education and national development and, therefore, set up the machinery to transform schools, colleges and the universities in order to lay the foundation for its development, the reverse is the case in Nigeria.

Professor Steve Okecha of the Department of Chemistry, Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, blamed the rot in the Nigerian education system on poor leadership and the defective education received by its citizens which has failed to inculcate in the Nigerian child patriotism and moral values. He believes that the defective education is responsible for examination malpractices and cultism among students. “Nigeria’s educational system has been ravaged by corruption and indiscipline at high and low places; teaching and non-teaching staff as well as students perpetuate evil. Illegal levies are collected by headmasters and principals without any show of decency. Varied forms of extortion and sexual harassment are the order of the day in the tertiary institutions. In some universities, some lecturers write seminar papers and projects for students for money,” he said

Professor Okecha was emphatic that this state of affairs in the Nigerian educational system “calls for the fixing or perhaps the re-fixing of education in Nigeria.”

Adams Oshiomhole, governor of Edo State blamed the rot in the education sector on poor leadership over the years, saying Nigerian leaders must act with courage, conviction and be decisive to stem the rot in the sector. He recalled that from the 1950s to the 1960s, Nigeria produced the best brains.  “I think as the quality of the Nigerian leadership deteriorated from the days of the military up to the moment that we got our priorities wrong that we began to see the kind of rot that characterised our schools. The way forward is for us, the leaders to go back to the basics and ask ourselves what the issues are,” he said. The governor said that returning to the basics would mean checking the quality of the teachers who are to impart knowledge. Oshiomhole added that unlike other countries whose leaders used education as the foundation for their development, Nigeria is yet to be blessed with a leader committed to education.

Perhaps, the only Nigerian leader who understood the correlation between education and economic development was Chief Obafemi Awolowo. But he was thrice denied the opportunity to lead the country. Consequently, the country lost the opportunity for accelerated development through quality education. In 1959, the Action Group (AG) the party which Chief Awolowo led to that year’s general elections, was denied the mandate to replicate throughout Nigeria the free universal primary education programme which it had successfully introduced in all public schools in the then Western region.

Again, in 1979 and 1983, Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) was denied the mandate it sought to introduce free education at all levels throughout the country. Unlike his contemporaries, Awolowo was the only political leader who had a blueprint on what he wanted to do with education in Nigeria. In fact, when his political opponents challenged the promise of the UPN in 1979 to implement free education at all levels in Nigeria if elected into office, Awolowo disarmed the critics with startling statistics of the several millions of Naira which the federal government was spending every year in serving tea, coffee, drinks, and snacks to civil servants in offices. He argued that if the government had the political will to stop such wasteful expenses, there would be enough resources to fund free education at all levels in Nigeria.

Awolowo had earlier demonstrated that he was a leader with a political will when he was the premier of the Western Region. His Universal Primary Education (UPE) scheme was an expensive project which could scare away any political leader but he was never deterred. Instead, the education sector during his administration claimed the largest share of the recurrent budget rarely falling below 30 percent and in many years standing roughly at or above 40 percent between 1960 and 1966. Primary education alone consumed nearly 76 percent of the total expenditure on education every year.

The success of the free primary education programme of the Western Region government led to the emergence of highly trained Nigerians from the Western part of the country. The first set of professionals, be it in law, medicine, teaching, nursing, accountancy, surveying, architecture, among others had emerged mostly from the then Western Region where Awolowo and his party were in control of the government in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1973, the General Yakubu Gowon military government decided to copy Awolowo’s UPE scheme and make it a nationwide programme. But the scheme crashed because there were insufficient trained teachers to operate it. As a stop-gap measure, the government had to launch a crash programme to train more teachers for the scheme. Apart from insufficient teachers, the scheme was based on faulty data.

The UPE scheme introduced by the Gowon administration was later fine-tuned in 1976 after General Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime embraced it. But by 1978, his administration had to introduce some form of fees at the secondary and tertiary levels of education as the burden of free education was becoming unbearable for it. Obasanjo told students at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, on February 23, 1978, that the federal government did not do enough ground work before launching the UPE programme.

One would have thought that when he returned to power in 1999 as the second executive president and decided to re-introduce the UPE as the Universal Basic Education (UBE), Obasanjo would have benefitted from the 1976 experience. Unfortunately, he did not. As a result of inaccurate data, poor planning and implementation, shortage of teachers, classroom blocks, among other infrastructure, high level corruption and politicking, the programme, as it operates today, has lost its national focus.

So far, no Nigerian leader, whether in khaki or agbada, has been able to put education on its right track. Even though the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) derogatorily referred to free education which the UPN promised Nigerians in 1979 as “quantitative” or inferior and promised “qualitative” education instead if elected into power, that was merely a political rhetoric. The education sector did not rank high in the government of President Shehu Shagari when the   NPN-controlled federal government took over power.

The late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a former graduate teacher, raised high hopes in the academic circle when education featured as one of the seven items that  he had promised to  accord priority in his administration’s Seven-Point Agenda. Against all expectations, the education sector fared very poorly in the Yar’Adua presidency which failed to honour earlier agreements the federal government had reached with various teachers’ unions.

By the time Yar’Adua came to power, the country’s public universities were under lock and key for 16 months. Indifference to his coming to power, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in 2007, decided to suspend the strike it had started on March 26, 2006, to give the government time to look into the union’s complaints that prompted the strike. But Yar’Adua was not in a hurry to look into the complaints, prompting another round of ASUU strike which began in June 2009 and lasted for three months. It was only suspended after Adams Oshiomhole, the governor of Edo State, intervened to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has not fared better than past leaders of the country in education. Initially, most Nigerians thought his coming to power will mean well for the education sector being the first Nigerian to have attained the highest position with a Ph.D. Under President Jonathan, one of the longest industrial actions in the annals of Nigeria’s history was embarked upon by ASUU, and then the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP). The ASUU strike lasted for six months while that of ASUP lasted for nine months, but both were eventually called off after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between them and the federal government.

ASUU’s demands included the upward review of the retirement age for professors from 65 to 70; adequate funding to revitalise the university system; progressive increase of budgetary allocations to the education sector by 26 percent; transfer of federal government property to universities; setting up of research and development units by the companies; and renegotiation of the signed agreement.

However, President Jonathan while admitting that the country was still having challenges in the education sector, claimed that the rot in the nation’s education sector predated his administration and that he had shown enough sincerity in tackling the problems. He said his administration has tried to solve the problems and has equally put in effort towards Almajiri education. “There are many challenges such as the rising expectations of teachers resulting in industrial actions. The government has also shown sincerity of purpose to resolve such differences that may arise from some inherited problems not caused by this administration. Our commitment is to continue to raise standard and ensure quality. We will continue to encourage private sector investment in the education sector,” he said. He said in a world that has become more competitive, the quality of education available to the citizens impact directly on their countries’ position in the world.

In all, the education sector in Nigeria has witnessed a lot of ups and downs in the last 54 years. According to Dike, under successive political leaderships, there has been noticeable growth in the numbers of educational institutions and enrolments. With the liberation of university education in the last decade, the number of private and public universities has increased from less than 40 to more than 100, enrolment has also trended upwards over the years. But the quality of output at the various levels of education is nothing to write home about.

The most recent manifestation of this is the low performance in the Senior School Certificate Examination (SSCE) released by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). Figures released by Head of WAEC National Office in Lagos, Mr. Charles Eguridu, show that only 529,425 candidates out of 1,692,435, representing 31.28 percent, obtained credits in five subjects and above including English Language and Mathematics, in the examination. The 2014 May/June result is a steep decline from those of the past two years. For instance, in the 2012 WASSCE result, 38.81 per cent of the candidates obtained credits in five subjects and above, including English Language and Mathematics. In 2013, the percentage declined to 36.57 percent, and fell further to 31.28 in the latest examination. Statistics from WAEC also show that the declining performance applies to the November/December WASSCE, in which woeful performances were also recorded in the last three years.

Mourka Abel, a school proprietor, believes that the poor management of education has been responsible for the rot in the nation’s education sector.  He said that the public educational institutions have been turned into breeding grounds for corruption and all manner of crimes. “Corruption has permeated institutions of higher learning in Nigeria. Lecturers now award marks to the highest bidder. Consequently, our institutions are now producing mediocres. What can you expect from a future leader who cheated to pass an examination,” he asked.

Monsignor Gabriel Osu, Director of Communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos believes the purposeless leadership of Nigeria’s past leaders has impacted on every facet of national life, including the education sector. “The decay in this vital sector now reflects on the quality of education in many of the nation’s educational centres. Our universities are glorified secondary schools. If you doubt me, take any certificate here to London or even Ghana. They don’t respect it as they should because they know that our students always spend up to six months at home due to one strike or another. The public primary and secondary schools have been run down so much that they are now a shadow of themselves,” Monsignor Osu said.

As Nigeria marks 54 years of nationhood, there is a consensus among stakeholders that the time is ripe for the government to cut down its profligacy in many areas so as to fund education adequately to guarantee a brighter future for the country.

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