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Published On: Wed, Dec 4th, 2019

How we dropped the ball on quality education in Nigeria

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By Ayo Olukotun

“To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”
–United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No 4.

The All Progressives Congress, in government, will carry out a thorough review of the education sector, and having established the main causes of the sector’s terrible decline, will create elaborate incentives to attract the best and the brightest to teach in our schools”
–All Progressives Congress Manifesto 2014

Quality education, which speaks to a threshold of competencies, skills, numeracy, and literacy, acquired through formal education continues to be important in official declarations nationally, and globally. As the opening quotes make clear, the Sustainable Development Goal No 4, and the manifesto of the All Progressives Congress, emphasise the overriding importance of quality education, with the APC manifesto outlining some strategies by which it can be achieved. Nonetheless, no one can pretend that Nigeria has made meaningful progress in the quest to achieve credibility in its educational standard. If we take tertiary education, with which this columnist is more familiar, we find continuous drop in quality, in the capacity of those who are admitted into the universities and polytechnics, as well as those who obtain their certificates from multiplying universities and polytechnics across the country.
For many years now, employers have been speaking about the deluge of unemployed and unemployable graduates, in search of diminishing jobs. So, the point here is that even if those jobs are available, employers have their doubt about whether this emergent labour force can perform basic tasks, such as writing memos on policy matters, articulating their positions on issues, or having knowledge of events, and personalities which would have been taken for granted some two or three decades back.
In a postgraduate class I taught several years back, I was bemused to find out, that the students could not identify such personalities as Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah. In order to provoke a conversation, I told the class that I knew whom these figures were, and much else as a primary school pupil, without access to the latest gadgets in computer-assisted learning. The students promptly re-joined that I should not forget, that life was much easier in Nigeria in my growing-up years, than now that many youths have to scrounge for survival. I am not persuaded that their complaints, valid as they may be, exhausted the clutch of depressing issues at stake. The fundamental point, however, is whether schooling at the primary and tertiary levels sufficiently enables the students in the wide variety of skills that they need to be economically productive, and to develop sustainable livelihood. It was not long ago, to give an example at the basic levels of education, that the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam el-Rufai, discovered that a disconcertingly high proportion of teachers in the employment of the state government had themselves failed to acquire basic competencies, which would have qualified them to successfully inform and guide their students.
The joke was told recently, concerning a student who came late to school, at the time when the commissioner for education was on an inspection tour. As the student entered the classroom, the commissioner asked, seeking to test his knowledge, “Who wrote Things Fall Apart”. The student, assuming he was going to be punished, and not knowing the answer to the question, screamed, “I am not the one, Sir”. The joke, however, is on society that continues to make the motions of training and education, when the output of that bustle does not relate to the flurry of activities, taking place without attention. Considering that the youth now constitute a demographic majority, it is astonishing that quality education, taken for granted in several other climes, including some on the African continent is much talked about, but little implemented. Conference after conference has been held on the status and quality of education, several of them coming out with proposals and recommendations for reform. Regrettably, however, matters seem to go from bad to worse.
To be sure, our youths excel in several departments of life, which include, music, sporting activity, stand-up comedy, fashion, tech start-ups, and to an extent in some entrepreneurial activities. They do this however, for the most part, from inbred and innate skills akin to native intelligence without necessarily acquiring much in the way of formal education. It can be argued that formal education would have broadened their horizon, and their capacity for contributing imaginatively to the national forte. In other words, there is a need to revisit reforms that will reintroduce quality education in the national policy agenda, beyond catch phrases and official clichés that continue to becloud the issue. Were such policy initiatives to be undertaken, it will mean a mark-up in the current lacklustre budgetary allocation, year-after-year to education. For example, in contrast to the expectation aroused before the 2019 budget was read to the National Assembly, that education would get a commendable share in the budget, it only got N620.5bn, which is only a little above seven per cent of the total budget. This means that, in the last couple of years, the budget for education has hovered between five per cent and seven per cent of annual budgets, failing to break the groove of low budgetary allocation and underfunding, prevalent in the sector. It is unlikely, therefore, at this rate that we will come up with public schools offering credible and respectable educational training that will constitute a solid improvement on what currently obtains.
As the SDG and other global policy documents reiterate, education is not just another item on the agenda but also a cardinal one that holds the key to success in several other policy areas such as scientific and technological development, industrial growth, as well as social services. That is why for example, the phenomenal breakthrough of the Asian Tigers to modernity is crucially related to long term and sustainable development in the education sector. That is another way of saying that they placed education at the centre of perspective development strategy, that saw them ascending from the Third World to the First World, as the title of a well-known book suggests. This meant that, at every turn, they worked out what impact policies will have on the education sector.
Understanding that educational growth is critical to overall breakthrough, South Korea, for example, ensured that quality education became the catalyst for technological advancement, even as the education sector itself received new boost from new technologies. The other thing that we can borrow from the educational strategy of that part of the globe is to make the welfare and remuneration of teachers the centre of an upward drive in quality. The APC manifesto, quoted earlier, recognised this, when it spoke of making available ‘elaborate incentives to attract the best and the brightest to teach in our schools’. Good policy enunciation, but the question to ask is, when will the implementation of the policy begin? Our political elite admit the overriding value of quality education, which is why they send their children abroad to acquire it. All that they need to do, therefore, is to ensure that their charity truly begins at home, that is in the national policy universe. The time to begin is now.

Ayo Olukotun is a Public Affairs Analyst.

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