The collapse of Nigeria’s ivory towers, By Osmund Agbo




Remember that time when one of Nigeria’s top-rated universities patented a disruptive technology that became the darling of venture capital firms in all of Silicon Valley? Me neither. Yet, the Ndubuisi Ekekwes and Kunle Olukotuns of this world had gone outside the shores of this land to achieve unbelievable feats. This is no witchcraft.

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In a recent survey of the world’s university rankings, the first Nigerian university to show up on the list was University of Ibadan at a distant 1,322 position. In Africa, that same institution occupied the 19th position, trailing far behind 18 others that included Universities of Nairobi, Kenya and University of Ghana at Legon. Five universities that call South Africa home were top on that list.

If you think that is bad news, sorry, but I am here to tell you it’s about to get worse from here. Going by a newly released data from UNICEF, the population of out-of-school children in Nigeria has risen from 10.5 million to 13.2 million, the highest in the world. Most of these children aged between 5-14 are in the North East states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe where Boko Haram has been waging a relentless war against Western education since 2009.

To simply describe Nigeria’s decadent educational system as sick is not just grossly understating the facts but doing the greatest disservice to our nation. At all levels, the system that is entrusted to produce the next generation of scientists and engineers to help Nigeria compete in the global stage, is in a critical condition, hanging precariously on life support. Never mind that we are in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) when driverless cars and Internet of Things (IoT) will soon become part of our daily staple.

I am sure most Nigerians could write a whole book on the root causes of the problem and why things are not looking up. From the teachers that trade money and sex for grades to a bureaucracy that elevates nepotism and federal character above excellence, our young people are neither given the needed logistics to succeed nor the incentive to shoot for the stars. In our current situation, the pull on an average Nigerian student is continually ebbing away from distinction, whereas the push makes a beeline to a default survival mode. Many among our young generation are also bewitched by a self-defeatist entitlement mindset and suffer from a Cargo Cult mentality, the belief that a benevolent ship filled with goodies from a distant land will one day dock in our harbour. China Achebe preached copiously against this superstition in his all-time bestseller “The trouble with Nigeria”.

Over the years, educational budgets in Nigeria have hovered around 5, 6 and 7% of the national budget. This falls significantly short of the UNESCO’s recommended 15-20% for developing countries. Yet, on the 2020 budget that the President had signed off on, prior to the current iteration, the whole of Education was allocated a paltry ₦706.8 billion (approx.7%) whereas the National Assembly got ₦228bn, ₦100bn of which was to be set aside to cater for the infamous constituency projects. Never mind it was tagged the “Budget of Sustaining Growth and Job Creation”.

The institutions themselves are a huge part of the problem. In the wake of schools closure brought upon by the Covid-19 pandemic, the minister for education, Mallam Adamu Adamu directed heads of tertiary institutions to transition to virtual classroom, in line with international best practices. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) which was striking at the time, described those making such proposal as “millennium jesters”. Some basic facilities needed for the implementation of such directive were simply not there, they lamented. It was one of the many system deficiencies that precipitated their industrial action, the union reiterated.

Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) was established in 2011 as an intervention agency to provide supplementary support to all levels of public tertiary institutions in Nigeria. It was formed as a product of the Education Tax Act of 1993 and funded by two per cent education tax paid from accessible profit of registered companies. In the last three years, these public institutions have received around N309bn and so there should be no excuse not to have something as basic as a platform for e-learning.

Nothing highlights the extent of the decay in our educational system more than the quality of intellectual discourse or lack of it in the public sphere. The comments elicited by a simple Facebook post will let one in to appreciate the pervasive nature of this epidemic. 

Our young people walk around these days, flaunting fancy college degrees and dozens of paper certificates, yet most exhibit at best a pedestrian level of understanding on so many issues. Many are incapable of comprehending the most basic concept let alone engage in intellectual level discussion. At some point, we all have to pause and answer the question, how will Nigeria survive the future?

For many Nigerians, the daily frustration of trying to eke out a living out of nothing is just too hard to even imagine, yet it pales in comparison when staring into a future that is as bleak as it is scary. 

A great man once revealed to us that the best way to predict the future is to create one. Going by the wise words of that sage, all we need to do is place the number of Nigeria’s out-of-school children side by side the rot in our educational sector and one could comfortably arrive at the verdict on what the future portends for our dear country. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. There are several moving parts to be addressed however, if we are serious about tackling this monumental tragedy.

The recent ban on Almajiri system by some northern governors is a huge step in the right direction. There is also an existential need to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency in order to stem the tide of out of school children in the northeast. As it’s now obvious, Boko Haram which literally translates to Western education is forbidden, had already recorded tremendous success in realizing the group’s objective.

For sustainability, long-term plans should seriously consider a phased transition from the current model of government ownership to full private ownership of educational institutions. That will not only emphasize quality over quantity but will be one way to address the unending specter and vicious cycles of industrial actions embarked upon by academic staff that has crippled the system. 

Of course, access limitations is a serious downside and a legitimate concern for this approach. That said, of what use is churning out tens of thousands of Information Technology graduates every year who could barely grasp the simple concept of Graphic User Interface(GUI). A good chunk of our poorly trained and ill-equipped new grads are unemployable and so become liabilities to themselves and the society.

As in many countries in the developed and developing world, government should focus more on creating an enabling environment for private sector take-over and specifically limit its role to regulatory oversight. It may be that the Private Public Partnership (PPP) model (government owned but privately run) that has proven successful in reforming healthcare could be the better option here, I am not sure but it’s open for debate. Without a doubt, any of these prescriptions may prove to be a bitter pill to swallow in the short term but our guess is that this is one medicine that the patient desperately needs.

Our young people need to be constantly reminded that no people can hack their way into the knowledge and experience that college offers while “sorting” their way through and skipping on the heavy lifting. A paper certificate whose holder is bereft of knowledge and does not possess the required skill set serves no useful purpose. A serious re-orientation of our youths toward progressive values and good work ethic is crucial in this regard.

In his visit to France in November of 2018, President Buhari conceded to the Nigerian community that education deserves better funding and attention than is currently the case. We believe that now is the time to not only put our money where our mouth is but do all that is necessary to salvage Nigeria’s institutions of learning before it’s too late.

•Dr. Agbo is the President and CEO of African Centre for Transparency and writes from the United States.




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