By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú
University education is not for everyone, and policy formulators, educators and parents should stop pretending it is. Nigeria’s education system is not rational, and unfortunately, all the actors, from the government to the parents are averse to acknowledging the long and daunting odds it presents to students. We have an education system that does nothing to prepare young people for fulfilling jobs and successful adult lives. Millions of young people wrote the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) organised United Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) last weekend and the crowd in many centres evoked the fear of what is to come. With less space for the bugeoning youth population in universities and other tertiary institutions, falling education standards, outdated curricula, unqualified teachers, it is a classic case of the failure of planning, learning, adoption, and adaptation. We have on our hands a sad spectacle of far too many young people entering adulthood without adequate preparation for the twenty-first-century job market.
Without being deterministic, we must have a quick rethink and put in place realistic options for our young people. We must welcome the proposition that educational options must include high-quality careers in technical education and apprenticeship. The polytechnics have lost their way. We need well equipped and serious minded trade schools. The scramble to sit for UTME every year reveals what might easily be one of the greatest crimes against the future of Nigeria and its young people. The country is engaged in one huge bad experiment, where young lives are wasted with no plan for the future. Among the multitudes who sat for the examination last Saturday, are students who graduated from secondary school with Junior Secondary II skills and are encouraged to take UTME anyhow and pass anyhow, thus starting them on remedial footing. Invariably, this leads to several semesters devoted to developmental education, with struggles and no real skills acquired.
Unfortunately, we do not have vocational education that takes place through an accredited college or university; job-based training, and results-driven industry apprenticeships. This article is not a call to punish aspiration or dampen opportunity. Quite the contrary. My aim is to stop the government, parents and educators from pretending that graduates with very low basic skills have a real shot at success in a present day Nigeria characterised by fierce competition and fading opportunities. We need to re-direct young people who are not well suited to college classrooms to follow an alternative path that will lead to success. Many young people can make a lot more by learning a trade than they might with a degree in philosophy. More energy and focus should be directed at improving vocational training, given that so few jobs are available to absorb university graduates.
Upward mobility is not about graduating and not finding jobs. It is about doing better than one’s parents. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, we are seeing a generation much worse off than their parents. Many parents have two to three unemployed graduate children living with them. A lot more are paying for their grandchildren’s school fees. The university-at-all cost ideology is doing material harm to students. For many, even if unacknowledged, university education has become a barrier to opportunity. This is because the opportunity to go to trade school or pursue technical programmes are likely to produce better long-term outcomes. Rather than funneling students to the universities, we should build a system that helps many students find another road to prosperity. We should help our young people locate a path that starts with better primary and secondary school education, then develop strong technical and interpersonal skills in the secondary school through trade schools. This is an honourable path, and one that is much more reliable than the bridge to failure obtainable now. Whether we face our problems or not, the craze for white collar jobs is killing Nigeria. Our mechanics, plumbers, electricians, masons, painters, and carpenters are aging. They do not have anyone learning from them the traditional way. Most young people prefer to ride “Okada” for the quick money than devote two to three years to learning a trade. In most cases, skilled migrants from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are filling the gaps in these categories and they are more skilled and detail-oriented. Graduate and trade jobs are mutable and entirely belong separate labuor markets. We need electricians and welders, as much as we need graduates.
We need to walk our way back and redefine the dignity of labour. Skilled artisans are making a killing, while graduates roam the streets. There are many decent jobs out there that do not require university degrees and there are university degrees that are really bad investments. Many of us want our children to go to the university. Given an environment where the future has been mortgaged through looting, discouraging current and future job outlooks and a near worthless quality of education being offered across the universities, a degree would most certainly be a bad deal for many. We need to face reality that sending everyone to the university is a utopian fantasy that does not represent a true path to a better life for many. Pretending otherwise means understating the necessity of figuring out ways to help those for whom college is not the best choice.
It is unfortunate that those who should know do not seem to care. We face escalating youth unemployment and underemployment, as it has never been seen before in our history. If we must avert disaster, we must change course by adopting a plan to raise the skills and productivity of young adults. We must do some heavy lifting and abandon our lazy attitudes by showing young people to value hard work, believe in earned income and make them productive earners as they learn by developing genuine mastery of an occupation. These are the ingredients for increasing lifetime incomes.
This ugly trend can be reversed in as little as ten years, if we adopt the German model. The smartest and quickest route to a wide variety of occupations for the majority of young people adopted by Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Netherlands and Australia is a vocational programme that integrates work and learning. Learning programmes can be in occupational clusters, ranging from engineering, agriculture, construction to arts, entertainment and so on. The programme must have a fundamental commitment to helping young people find successful careers. The purpose of the German model is not university-at-all cost but a programme to educate and train young people in preparation for a career or calling. The time to act is running out!
Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo