Two senior academics, and elder statesmen, namely, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and Poet laureate, Niyi Osundare, returned the deplorable state of Nigerian education to the front burner of national conversation last week. Prof. Osinbajo, at the inauguration of Sir Adetokunbo Ademola Dining Hall of the Nigeria Law School, lamented the decline in the quality of legal education and went on to call for the necessary restructuring in order to bring the profession at par with international standards. On his part, Osundare deeply regretted the eroding standard of education especially in our universities. Argued Osundare: “I once told a journalist that if I were to be a student in Nigeria of today with the fallen standard, I would not have achieved what I achieved today. Nigeria and the system in those days helped me to develop.”
This loaded lamentation carries the ominous prediction that in the current prostrate circumstances of Nigerian education, men of letters of the stature of Osundare are very much unlikely to be produced. Before discussing the topic, it is pertinent to observe that a fundamental inattentiveness afflicts policy discourse and by extension, policymaking in our clime. This inattentiveness and incoherence are concealed by talkshops, parade of expertise and a surfeit of diagnostic analyses as well as proposals for reform. More often than not, these long running seminars featuring some of the nation’s brightest minds do not get to affect policymaking; hence, the tragic repetitiveness of the same woes that attracted the labour of the experts.
Let me illustrate. Twenty one years ago, the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation assembled some of the best minds around the country to take a comprehensive look at our education system and its attendant dysfunctions. At that event, Prof. Oladipo Akinkugbe, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, called for a five-year state of emergency in the education sector in order for the nation to fix its multiplying problems. Nothing of the sort happened. Over a decade later, when Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili was the Minister for Education, she took a tour of the nation’s major public schools and lamented their abysmal state manifested in decayed infrastructure, inadequate funding, low teacher commitment, widespread exam malpractices and repeatedly poor performance in national examinations. To be noted is the fact that these were the same problems identified in 1994 by the dialogue of experts conveyed by the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation.
As the reader may well guess, neither Ezekwesili’s lamentation nor the limited reforms she attempted stemmed the rot in the system, and so in 2013, Prof. Ladipo Adamolekun, a former World Bank consultant, gave a distinguished Convocation Lecture at the Joseph Ayo Babalola University, observing that the situation in our educational landscape had gone from bad to worse. In 2014, the Nigerian Educational Summit Group arguing that our educational system was in dire straits devoted its 20th Annual Summit to yet another roundtable on educational decay. Needless to say that these examples are only indicative of the many workshops and dialogues held on educational rot, not to mention countless editorials and commentaries in the media.
The puzzle to raise therefore is, why does the situation continue to degenerate despite the abundance of expert discourse on the subject? My own guess is that the profuse conversation has not impacted policy, while policymaking itself has only half-heartedly grappled with the problems of that sector. On a broader note, the decay of the Nigerian state and its policymaking apparatus continues unabated because those who ought to reform them become part of the problem, swallowed up by the very crisis that they apparently set out to ameliorate. There is the factor too that the Nigerian political elite depending on the size of their individual pockets have access to private schools at basic and tertiary levels as well as to overseas institutions for which the Nigerian market has become a powerful source of earnings.
Of course, it would have been more logical for the political elite to have developed Nigerian institutions to a level of competitiveness which would have made it unnecessary for them to pay through their noses to educate their wards and children outside of the country. But this logical expectation does not become a reality; indeed, with every passing year, the standards appear to drop further because of a vicious circle syndrome, in which the half-baked products of yesteryears are dropped into the system as instructors. Hence, instead of our schools and colleges coming out of the woods and travelling upwards in quality and credibility, they appear to be going downhill all the time.
The assertion can be buttressed by the woeful performance of secondary school students in national public examinations such as the Senior School Certificate Examination and the General Certificate of Education. In 2014 for example, 70 per cent of students who sat for the WASSCE failed to obtain five credits repeating a decline going back several years. That is not all. With a few happy exceptions, the decay in the learning environment has become more gripping as the years go by. Going back to one’s primary or secondary school for many Nigerians including those who graduated less than five years ago often brings profound sadness at the state of abandonment in which the schools carry on.
In the Convocation Lecture delivered by Prof. Adamolekun referred to previously, he stated that he encountered an adult Nigerian who did not have secondary school education having attended what in the Western Region was known as modern school, yet spoke better English than most Nigerian graduates of today. The truth is; the gap between knowledge and the certificates awarded by Nigerian institutions is widening by the day in a phenomenon known as diploma disease in which degree or certificate mills replace education. To get back to the politics of educational decay, it will be interesting to know why the ruling class perpetuates a resource distribution arrangement that has kept the schools eternally underfunded, sentencing them to a hand-to-mouth existence. The old maxim that it costs a million dollars to ask a question in nuclear physics suggests that schools on the treadmill featuring desolate learning environments can only reproduce the decadent standards in which they have been fixed by a nonchalant political elite.
What then is to be done? It should be obvious that there already exists a library of informative suggestions made by experts that is capable of turning around the education sector. What is required is the political will to implement such proposals as the re-ordering of priorities in order to mainstream education, human capital development targeted at motivating the educational workforce in particular the teachers whose rewards remain in heaven. There is the urgent need too to resuscitate the inspectorate division of the ministries of education which ought to regulate the performance and conduct of teachers and administrators.
We can also usefully borrow from aspects of the Japanese school system whose students stay in school round the year; their school calendar begins in March of one year and ends in February of the next year and they have far less off work days than the Americans not to mention the Nigerians. At any rate, the Buhari administration must do its level best to reverse the current disgraceful state of Nigerian education.