It is now official that Nigeria is contemplating increasing the duration of the First Degree programme. This is the suggestion the Minister of State for Education, Prof Anthony Anwukah has asked governing councils of federal universities to consider because, according to him, many university graduates are just not good enough to be employed by industries, a problem he thinks an extra year similar to what was done to law and medical students is a way out. “Law students attend Law School for one year before going for NYSC and medical students go for one year Housemanship before they are allowed to practice fully, so it will be necessary for other courses to also go through this process”, said the Honourable Minister whose verdict is that the university system has let Nigeria down in the country’s quest for industrial development. This is by failing to produce graduates that meet the needs of the industries. “The universities are producing products that are not matching the needs of the industries. I urge the Committee of Pro-chancellors and Committee of Vice-Chancellor to end the decline in the standard of education,” he closed his submission.
It would take time before the governing councils come out with own position which might hardly be different from that of the Minister. Whether the councils endorse, amend or reject the Minister’s proposal, Nigeria seems to be joining a global trend in relation to advocacy for increasing or decreasing the duration of the First Degree. In April this year, Sam Gyimah, England’s equivalent of the Nigerian Minister for Education took a swipe at UK’s three-year structured degree programme. Gyimah who was giving evidence told the House of Commons Education Committee inquiring into value for money in the universities of his desire for alternatives to the current arrangement which he did not say was dated but called “quite an old model”. He particularly thinks that an intensive two-year honours degrees and degree apprenticeships could be such alternatives. Several institutions around the world are experimenting with one variant of such or the other.
What some people might quarrel with in the Nigerian Minister’s suggestion would be how the model he is essentializing has been a failed one. One additional year with the hope that students would use that to close the gaps has neither solved the problem of quality nor produced any such outcome in any of law or medicine if the testimony of the bigwigs in either profession is anything to go by. What might then be the problem?
At this point, there is no alternative to telling a story that illustrates the depth of the problem under reference. It was late July 2007. Sule Lamido, the newly elected governor of the state was on tour of schools. There was this particular day everything went wrong. It started with the Government Day Secondary School, Dutse, very close to the Government House to where the convoy detoured on the basis of information that the school was in a particularly bad shape. Here, the governor ended up comparing or rating the school hostel lower than IDP camps in conflict zones because what passed as the hostel was horrible. The encounter there included the confrontation between the governor and a hapless official whose (mis)fortune it was to answer the governor’s intimidating question: are your children in this school?
Of course, his children were not in that school but even the governor came to understand that, structurally, conditions in the school had very little or nothing to do with the (mis)behaviour of any individuals. How much were they being given per student in terms of feeding? The amount as then would embarrass everyone.
But the bigger clash with reality was still ahead at the School of Arabic and Islamic Studies, (SAIS) in Hadejia. As at that time and perhaps to this day, it was the biggest secondary school in the state. Here, even the governor lost the power to be angry. Rather, he resorted to witticism, one thing that both those who admire and those who do not admire him would not deny him. He said that even if Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka were brought in, the word mint would not find words that would adequately capture the state of decay of the school. And so, instead of any encounter with anyone, the convoy went to see the Emir of Hadejia and that was it.
Of course, some reforms followed the tour and all that but the logic of this narrative lies in the interesting link between the reference to Soyinka by the then governor of Jigawa State and the crisis in the sector. In this usage, Soyinka is represented as synonymous with an unusual capacity for language use. The idea of a phenomenon which is beyond language is what Ulrich Beck, the social theorist, identifies as the marker of the World Risk Society, his frightening theory that goes by that name. The world, he says, had entered the risk society because it is confronted with calculating the incalculable. Insecurity has moved from threats to risks, deterritorialised risks that are beyond the space of the nation state, traceable to no set of individuals and of the length of time far into the future. By Sule Lamido’s everyday narrative and testimony, Nigeria entered a variant of the World Risk Society via the degree of rot in its educational system long before Beck rolled out his theory in the aftermath of 9/11. The tragedy is that the suggestions presumably responding to the impending Armageddon do not seem adequately aware of the enormity of the threat buried in the rot.
The Minister could be said to be echoing what the World Bank had said over a decade ago to the effect that Nigerian graduates are unemployable. But, unlike the World Bank, the Minister is specific about those for whom the graduates hold no usefulness. As far as he is concerned, they are not good for the industries. Some people may ask: which industries he might be talking about at a time the evidence point to de-industrialisation in Nigeria. He could only have meant the speculative capitalism and its associated service sector along which Nigeria is, unfortunately, developing. Wrong prognosis, wrong prescription!
The World Bank has recently changed its position by saying in December last year that Nigeria is far too short in terms of spending on education and health. Bill Gates is also in this camp. Both were noted in critical quarters although the question still remains whether increased funding in itself would solve the problem of unemployable graduates. In other words, the World Bank prescription has the same snag that has manifested in Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU)’s struggles: more money comes in but it is spent by governance structures that do not share the values underpinning ASUU’s own struggle. It is doubtful if ASUU is no longer an onlooker in the money spending mechanism in the universities. It seems instructive to many that the National Universities Commission, (NUC), the regulatory agency for federal universities in the country is saying the problem is with bad governance.
If an amended version of World Risk Society theory provides a framework for looking at the problem, then might the crisis of locating the solution be that no one is invoking Beck’s paradigm for dealing with the rot? In other words, no one is mentioning anything close to ‘colonising the future’ that would have favoured dealing with the rot in the education sector as a risk – problem traceable to nowhere or to anybody but with long time consequences.
For instance, some people are arguing that there is less threat to Nigeria from MEND, IPOB or Boko Haram than from the intellectual carrying capacity of the graduates being produced today. That is, time is coming when the quality of thinking of middle class Nigerian professionals, military commanders, bureaucrats, journalists, academics, traders and so on would be incapable of sustaining the running of a modern state. That is to say that, without setting out to collapse the country, the in-coming generation embody a nation collapsing attribute in the uneducated actions that their current level of education limits them to. This is a claim that cannot be dismissed because those who articulate the claim have seen what Nigerian universities have produced before in comparison to what are coming out of the universities today.
They are careful though to absolve the current generation of graduates of complicity in their misfortune. Rather, the leading question here is: which politician is there in the National Assembly that when he or she speaks, undergraduates would want to be like him or her? Or the other one which says, where is that great newspaper today in contrast to the 1980s from which students might be learning about the all time great ideals? There is yet a third question: how could thinking products come out of a university system broadly unaware of or deliberately hostile to the ‘critical turn’ in knowledge production today? The argument here is that, except in very few departments such as Literature, the ‘critical turn’ has a famished presence across Nigerian campuses. Yet there is no chance of progress without it because the situation whereby everyone is still going about talking about dependent and independent variables in absolutist terms cannot produce the sort of graduates that can compete in the world today. It can only produce statistics concocting graduates.
If these are the posers, why didn’t the government start by saying sorry to ASUU, then invite it over to re-table the issues it has been making trouble about? Why is that the government does not seem to be worried about the PhD production arrangement but is, instead, pretending that it does not know that some departments among federal government owned universities charge as high as half a million to award a PhD. This cannot be unknown to the government with its intelligence operatives all over the place. What is the point in pretending that it doesn’t know when only the government can undo such informal attangements which no investigation by any university authority can unearth? In one of the universities, the Department set up a panel to probe the allegation but no student turned up. Why? To turn up is to declare that one doesn’t need a PhD.
There are other suggestions too. Why doesn’t the government consider doing a quick census of all the retired professors all over the country, call an emergency session with all of them in attendance, tell them there is an emergency in the condition of the universities, seek their intervention and share them across the universities on a rescue mission? Some might be too old to teach. But even then their mere presence alone and walking along the corridors can go a long way in restoration. After all, the late Takena Tamuno was writing and publishing at the University of Ibadan till his death.
There is absolutely no doubt about it that one fundamental aspect of the problem is the quality of the resource persons. How did this come about? Professor Asisi Asobie, a former President of ASUU once argued this way: every university tries to make sure it retains all its students who got a genuine First Class or a Second Class Upper. But the fire in them will go down unless they are able to go to conferences, meet other academics and develop with time. Otherwise, they will degenerate very quickly into regurgitating lecture notes they themselves took many years ago as undergraduates, completely unaware of new arguments, theories, concepts and methods that might have come up. In other words, the poverty level of most departments arising from lean funding and which disenables them from sending academics anywhere is central to the decay the government is acknowledging now.
In all cases, the neoliberal context of university education has finished university education. It might have been terrible in Nigeria but this is the situation globally. The speculative character of accumulation today has no regard for education in terms of critical thinking. Education itself has, like sex, become a commodity that must make money. So, the public sphere is filled with legislators, governors, ministers and national figures endlessly advising universities to devise ways of making money. It is only in countries where the ruling class proper as well as the governing elite know the risk of a weak educational system that they put their foot down against certain excesses of neoliberal globalisation on the quality of education. In countries such as Nigeria where the propertied class have no industries and, therefore, no need for quality graduates, education must suffer.
As things are, it looks like there might be no alternative to the Soyinka approach to it. About a decade ago, the Nobelist had suggested closing all Nigerian universities for two years so as to allow comprehensive restorative intervention. It all looked anarchic then but does Nigeria have a choice, what with the Minister of State for Education’s very frank admission of how hopeless the situation is? A month ago, Quora, the question and answer online, posed a question by one of its enthusiasts on which university is better, the ones in Ghana or Nigeria? This was answered March 28th, 2018 by someone simply introduced as Amanor and who studied at University of Ghana. His answer goes as follows: Here’s a good indicator: There are hardly, if any Ghanaians that grew up in Ghana leaving Ghana to attend a university in Nigeria. But there are thousands of Nigerians in universities in Ghana. Of the 18 universities in Africa that even feature on the QS University Rankings (half of them in South Africa), the University of Ghana is the only one from West Africa on the list. That says a lot”.
The point in the answer is not the truth or not about it but the sort of rating reserved for Nigerian universities. It must worry parents, employers, academics and the government, what with nearly 200 million persons patronising Quora. But how can anyone attempt to counter such impression if the verdict from the Nigerian leaders, (ministers, governors, etc) is in the same direction? Two weeks ago, Seriake Dickson, the incumbent governor of Bayelsa State invited Nigerians to “look at the decline in the standard of education, the tendency of our elite to send their children to schools abroad”. Although he said this in relation to the model of funding he is experimenting with, it also speaks to recognition of the crisis in education.