There is no let up in the expression of public concern with perceived crisis of quality of education in Nigeria. A National Conversation on Quality Education in Nigeria held at the Yar’Adua Centre in Abuja Tuesday took up the issue, with diverse voices, from former Minister for Education, Prof Fabian Osuji to political activist, Dr. Usman Bugaje; Prof Adigun Agbaje, the University of Ibadan Political Scientist; Prof Emeka Aniagolu of Wesleyan University in the US, commissioners for education; civil society leaders and the media. There was no consensus as such but there was a heavy emphasis on failure of leadership, variously called lack of political will, elite failure, governance crisis as the main culprit.
As for solutions, options canvassed ranged from those who want Nigeria to rely on communities, the civil society and the media to pile irresistible pressure on government and get government do what it ought to do. But there were those who insisted Nigeria will never get out of the crisis unless someone sufficiently idealistic enough about change arises in Nigeria. There was a voice calling on Nigeria to re-think in favour of Wole Soyinka’s earlier suggestion decades ago for something drastic enough such as closing down all the universities for two years so as to get it right.
The dual occasion was for the ‘National Conversation on Quality Education’ as well as the presentation of the SDGs Monitor published by O-Analytics Research and Development Initiative – (ORADI), the Abuja based think tank.
Professor Osuji expressed shock with the National Assembly expressing concern with the figure of 13. 5 million out-of-school children in Nigeria. The action, said the former minister, indicated that the law makers have no idea that a 2004 law exists in Nigeria providing for free and compulsory education for nine years for every child. And that the law prescribes a penalty of two years in jail for any parents whose child within that age is not found in a school. The 2004 law is when Nigeria adopted the concept of Basic Education as opposed to just primary education, a concept Prof Osuji said the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Education, (UNESCO) adopted subsequently. Basic Education implies six years of primary school and another three years of schooling. The alarm raised by the National Assembly convinced the former minister that the law makers are oblivious of the law, compelling him to raise the poser as to what intervening variable(s) explain the crease between the promulgation of laws or policies and their implementation.
His overarching conclusion is that “our problems may be more complicated than we imagine” although he argues that we have no excuses whatsoever because excellence is, in his words, nothing new to Nigeria in higher education. Echoing Prof Adigun Agbaje who spoke before him, Prof Osuji said both when he was a student at the University of Ibadan or when he taught there, the quality was good, telling his listeners about how many of them preferred the University of Ibadan to top rate American universities such as Yale, Harvard and Chicago.
Prof Agbaje who chaired the occasion considered it a very special conversation because, “we are facing a national crisis “. Although the crisis is not a new one as far as he is concerned, the current version is one of leadership, institutional collapse, massification and resource scarcity. The system, in his view, is in need of new thinking, decolonizing curriculum and preparing our children for global competitiveness. Admitting of the immensity of the crisis, Prof Agbaje, however, spoke of how the way out lies in a culture of a critical mass adept in bringing pressure to bear on the government to deliver.
Making the point about excellence in higher education being nothing new in Nigeria, Prof Agbaje re-affirmed his argument that Nigeria could do it again. The lessons of history, he says, are there in terms of world class records that he believes can be re-created, provided we focus less on poverty. For him, focusing too much on poverty could arrest capacity to innovate, citing Cuba being a comparatively very poor and an isolated country but boasts of a wonderful educational system. He also mentioned education in the Western Region in the First Republic as a case of how a dedicated government was able to get the people on its side to accept a popularly opposed policy of free education with phenomenal outcomes.
These two presentations attracted a Babel of voices ranging from those who declared that Nigeria has no universities now because, according to the speaker, what exists are universities without targets. His argument is that politicians have cornered the Universal Basic Education Commission, (UBEC) at the state levels and nothing good is to be expected from there as far as the future of education is concerned. The speaker’s claim that the North is a problem in itself for Nigeria, however, got a challenge from another speaker for whom the problem of education does not differ significantly in the South. For him, what is needed is “extricating the local governments from the Satanic hold of state governments in Nigeria”, telling the story of what he saw in schools he inspected in a particular state in the South. A Southerner himself, the speaker challenges those who doubt it to “go down in the South. You will see disasters about education”. His argument is that “nothing can happen good to education without the local governments but we do not have local governments in this country again”. The speaker to whom he was responding had wondered why there are not many Northerners such as Emir of Kano who are ready to suggest that building Mosques may not come before building a school. As far as he is concerned, until the Northern elite take the educational crisis he sees as specific to the North seriously, there is no answer to it.
The second side of that debate is whether Islam prohibits education for women. No, came the reply from two speakers. The lady said early marriage is endorsed in Islam but that it has nothing to do with Islam prohibiting education. Anyway, since she carried a baby, no one, no matter how far from Islam could challenge her. Although not a Muslim, the second speaker argued that neither history nor theology bears out any claim about Islam being against education. He cited the Islamic civilisation built by those who conquered Spain after the collapse of the Roman Empire in 470 AD, their universities and the height learning attained. “So, this notion that Islam militates against education is historically and theologically false”, declared the speaker who posed the argument about the dreamer as a possible rescuer of education in Nigeria. Adducing how Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in jail would not make sense from a cost-benefit point of view, the professor averred that until Nigeria has such a dreamer, “someone pathologically interested in change”, there might be no exit from the current anomie in education.
But the controversies were many. One other was how we come to use illiteracy as a yardstick of education in Nigeria when the French man speaks French, the Brits and the American the English language peculiar to them and so on. Where did the Nigerians get the idea that if someone cannot speak English, then the fellow must be an illiterate, the lady queried.
A number of speakers stressed the need for critics to take note that the motivation for going to school has changed and, with it, the measurement of the excellence being talked about. One of them said people went to school in those days because the teacher was the most dignified fellow in town. Unless we replicate the experience of Finland, Germany, Japan and other countries where the teacher is still on top of the social ladder, we must re-think notions of excellence, said the speaker. A second voice on this wondered why people would still want to go to school when they can make money as this and as that without all the years sweating in lectures. The third person here talks of education that must emphasis entrepreneurial component so that the head and the hands journey together. Yet a fourth voice reported what some mothers are asking about nowadays in relation to the education of their daughters in particular: would she get a job when she finishes the education? When that is not the question, then it is why doesn’t she gets married since educated or not, that is the destination. Different folks, different stories, all revealing that leaders have not been doing their job of explaining to all the layers of the people why certain things are insisted upon in relation to nation building. This brings to mind Prof Agbaje’s recall of what the Awoists did in the Western Region about free and compulsory education even when the people didn’t quite understand what it was all about. It is the job of political leaders in particular to convince the populace that even a girl that is being given out in marriage will be a more functional wife if she is educated. And that education is not necessarily about the money but the liberation.
It is interesting how Dr Usman Bugaje who was not in the session spoke to some of these issues when he managed to arrive before the close of the session. He identified three concerns, which are collapsible into one as follows and nearly in his own words: In the public sphere, we have not sufficiently given quality the priority it deserves. Education is beyond education but the nurturing of the mind to think critically but thinking critically is not part of our education now. It was much, much better than now. We have a big problem with our epistemology. The processes of what constitutes knowledge have been ignored. So, we have too much of opinion but opinion is not knowledge. They lack accuracy, precision and clarity. It is not the same in other countries but it is missing in Nigeria.
Dr Bugaje identified governance as the missing variable that must be held for crisis of quality in education in Nigeria. Governance, he says, is key because “ it is governance that will determine policy, funding and …(inaudible). He says he cannot put a name to what we have as governance in Nigeria today. He was referring, in particular to what he calls the stupidity displayed by governing elite in terms of what they conceive as loyalty as a criterion for selecting aides. He wonders if there would be any of the mega companies in the world today such as Google, Facebook, etc if the owners made the mistake of appointing their loyalists.
So, the question might be that of which concept best captures the leadership failure being alluded to? Is it failure of leadership or elite failure or governance failure or what? It was as illuminating as it was challenging. Whichever of the concepts win, the jury is no more out there but in here that the (university) system is in crisis. The World Bank is saying this, the local media agrees, the students themselves are getting signals that all is not well. Academics have been at war. Even the Federal Government is not happy with the universities. How the answer might emerge is still anybody’s guess. Perhaps it will come from an incumbent president grabbing all the beneficiaries from the years of excellence who are in academia for a list of the first ten, dramatic things to do about Nigerian universities. The assumption is that a president determined to do something drastic cannot find it from the bureaucracy or any other segment of government but those who experienced the excellence. hauling all of those people into a room in the Villa with just a cup of coffee might produce so splendid a blueprint. Or it could come from a law against people in government sending their own children to schools outside the country. Or from the proposal to widen TETFUND’s responsibility to cover the entire educational system but first by raising the education tax to 5%. One speaker or the other mentioned each and every of these ideas.
What might not be guesswork must be Prof Ebere Onwudiwe’s happiness that his event today provided a platform for uncommon reflections on an uncommon problem. He is the Publisher of SDGs Monitor and an intellectual of ORADI