High cost of low education: Nigeria’s education system in crisis

In the face of existential challenges facing Nigeria, the ensuing conversation arose among three Nigerians in the Diaspora on the way forward for a nation in crisis.

Osmund: In the New York Times, there is an article that revealed how India is set to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation based on recently released data by the United Nations. While this may not come as a surprise given China’s former One-child policy, it begs the question: why has India been unable to reproduce China’s economic success?

According to the article, China’s aggressive investments in infrastructure is one big factor in its rise to economic power. Education is another crucial aspect of it. China made significant investments in education between the late 1940s and mid-1970s under Chairman Mao’s leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Today, China posts higher literacy rates, with more people completing grade school, high school, and college compared to India.

This is a startling revelation, given that India is recognized universally as home to some of the world’s leading service and software development companies. Without a doubt, a well-educated workforce is crucial for driving innovation, increasing productivity, and creating new job opportunities. That explains why countries like South Korea, Finland, and Singapore have invested heavily in their educational systems and are now cashing out. These nations have experienced higher levels of economic growth, lower unemployment rates, and higher average incomes thanks to their robust education systems.

It’s not rocket science. Investing in education promotes social cohesion and reduces inequality, which is why Nordic countries of Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden have low levels of inequality and a strong sense of social cohesion. Unfortunately, Nigerian leaders – both past and present – didn’t get this memo. Nigeria seriously lags behind in almost every marker of good education, from school enrollment and out-of-school children to the quality of educational institutions from primary to tertiary level.

In a survey of the world’s university rankings, done not too long ago, the first Nigerian university to show up on the list was University of Ibadan at a distant 1322 position. In Africa, that same institution occupied the 19th position, trailing far behind eighteen 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, it’s about to get even worse from here. Going by data released by 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 Northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe where Boko Haram has been waging a relentless war against Western education since 2009.

To describe Nigeria’s educational system as sick is a gross understatement. 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. Of course, one is preaching to the choir in this very matter, and I would like to ask you guys what needs to happen so Nigeria can start to address this monumental issue.

MOSES: Osmund, you’ve touched on several aspects of our educational crisis. Thank you for bringing in global comparative metrics.

We have an unacceptable situation in which Nigeria’s educational investment, inadequate as it is, has not and is not yielding commensurate dividends in the tangible, measurable metrics of employability, top-tier publishing, research and innovation, and national development.

It seems to me then that simply increasing funding without changing our approach and articulating new outcomes would not work. It is clear that the problem is not simply one of funding or inadequate investment, and that if you simply throw more money at the problem, you risk deepening it.

The countries you cited as reaping enormous benefits from their high quality of education didn’t just invest in education. They also established sound curricular foundations, outlined and enforced rigorous teaching standards, evolved a sound, meritorious research culture, emplaced clear mentorship standards and expectations, and aligned their national developmental goals with their educational innovations.

What we have in Nigeria is that the crisis in the different tiers of education mirrors the dysfunction in other sectors of our nation—the corruption, terrible work ethic, absence of or disrespect for standards, outmoded ways of doing things, bad management, absence of accountability, and what Gen-Z Nigerians call anyhow-ness.

It’s a cascading problem that begins with the shambolic state of primary education. Bad primary schools mean that students fed into the secondary school pipeline have major deficiencies. Secondary school teachers struggle to rectify these deficits, but they can’t, so the students carry their inadequacies to the university, where lecturers try unsuccessfully to close a scandalous educational gap that began in primary school and widened in secondary school.

In some ways then, we’re asking the impossible of our universities, without fixing primary and secondary education. We’re asking university administrators and academics to perform miracles. We’re asking them not only to bear the burden of our educational crisis but also to reverse it at the last stage when bad habits and deficits are already hardened and are therefore a lot more difficult to change.

If we’re serious, we will invest massively in public primary and secondary education, not just in infrastructure but, even more importantly, in significant improvement to teacher compensation, which would attract and retain quality teachers, who can then be made more accountable to justify their competitive pay.

That said, we should concentrate much of our effort and educational reform in improving tertiary education as that is the system that determines ultimate outcomes and return on educational investment for individual graduates and the nation.

However, simply putting more money into infrastructure and paying lecturers more only solves a small sliver of the problem. The curriculum has to change radically. We’re teaching students outdated materials that do not equip them for the intellectual and professional environments and challenges of the twenty-first century.

The tertiary education curriculum needs a heavy infusion of materials that catalyze and impart critical thinking and problem-solving aptitudes. Any serious curricular reform also needs to include interdisciplinary learning and the acquisition of effective writing and communication skills.

We also need to improve the way we evaluate the performance of academics and their teaching and research output. We need to instill more rigor into the process. In research, we need to emphasize quality over quantity. In teaching we need to emphasize both. We need to make students’ evaluation of their lecturers’ teaching and conduct mandatory, but the terms need to be worked out with input from lecturers so that student teaching evaluation is not weaponized to hurt lecturers.

We need to demand better mentorship and the protection of students. This is why I’ve been an advocate for a student bill of rights, which would give students a say and some statutory protections in their relations with academic mentors. It would also give them clear and remedial recourse in cases of abuse, exploitation, and incompetent supervision and mentorship.

We need to rein in corruption in our tertiary institutions, which manifests on two levels; in the form of mismanagement of funds by university administration and, more egregiously, in the form of corrupt and nepotistic recruitment of undeserving and incompetent academics who are directly, and more than any other group of people, responsible for the bad quality of graduates our tertiary institutions are producing.

In a nutshell, we need a lot more accountability and rigor in our tertiary education. That’s the only way increased investment in education can pay off the way it has in some countries.

I’ve been going on for too long, but what do you guys think of the constant disruption of the academic calendar by strikes and the fact that Nigeria is now losing millions of dollars as parents increasingly send their wards to other countries, including African ones, to acquire disruption- and strike-free university education.

How do you solve the perennial demand of ASUU for more funding, which causes strikes and undermines the operational integrity of the university system, resulting in enormous capital loss to Nigeria?

How do we resolve the contradiction between ASUU’s opposition to tuition payment and its incessant demand for increased funding, which is increasingly impossible in the face of competing national challenges, skyrocketing demand for higher education, and proliferation of federally funded public tertiary schools?

Farooq: You’ve both said all I would have said. So, let me start by being a little contrarian. Osmund talked about Nigerian universities being on the lowest end of the ranking totem pole in the world and in Africa. I don’t doubt that this says something about the depth of the rot in our education.

Nonetheless, at the expense of being misunderstood, I want to point out that university rankings are a narcissistic Euro-American obsession that shouldn’t distract us. They betray academic elitism and are no more than perceptions of institutional prestige and name recognition by self-appointed gatekeepers, which do not necessarily reflect quality.

Rankings are routinely rigged by wealthy and wily university administrations and aren’t reliable indicators of academic excellence. That’s why many American universities are pulling out of these rankings now.

There’s no utility to university rankings outside of the capitalist and academic elitist impulse to hierarchize, stratify, and exclude. About a year ago, the British government invited the ire of several people, including me, when it used one of these dubious rankings to exclude graduates of African universities from a pilot program to grant work visas to graduates of the world’s best universities in an expansion of its post-Brexit immigration system that it said is designed to attract the “best and brightest” workers.

I argued in an interview with CNN that the British government’s decision to exclude an entire continent brimming over with the enormous creative and intellectual energies of its youth on the basis of its absence from arbitrary, culturally biased, abuse-prone university rankings was shortsighted.

Although high rankings don’t necessarily indicate quality, I admit that, like Moses pointed out, our universities in Nigeria can use some improvement in their pedagogy, scholarship, and technology, although several unranked Nigerian universities have produced, and continue to produce, some of the brightest minds in the world.

Ultimately, though, our universities—and our education system as a whole—necessarily reflect and inflect the dysfunctions of the larger society in which they operate. The lack of instructional accountability in our universities, for instance, mirrors the arbitrariness and lack of transparency of our political culture. In other words, to save education, we must first save the country, which is admittedly a burdensome task.

We obviously can’t wait until the whole society is reformed before we can salvage education. I think this realization is the basis for Osmund’s request to us to come up with “what needs to happen so Nigeria can start to address” the all-too-obvious problems of the structural decay in the education sector even if individuals sometimes escape it to shine.

Well, as I’ve repeatedly said in the past, Nigeria’s problem has never been the absence of solutions to its problems; it has always been the absence of the will to implement the solutions that can mitigate its problems. That’s why I am jaded and disinclined to offer any solutions. But Osmund asked for solutions.

Moses did a great job of not just providing solutions but also relating the solutions to the problems that inspired them. I, too, have given versions of these solutions in previous newspaper columns. We all know that the collapse of public primary and secondary education is the direct consequence of the flight of the children of the political and cultural elites from government-funded schools.

If it wasn’t quixotic and unenforceable, I would have suggested that legislation be passed that makes it mandatory for people who make and enforce public policies to enroll their children in public primary and secondary schools. Of course, no such law would be passed, however hard we push it. And in the unlikely event that it is passed, it would be routinely disobeyed without consequences. So, that’s a non-starter.

That leaves us with what we can salvage what remains of public university education, which, in spite of its many structural defects, still provides a pathway for many people to climb the social ladder. In an October 15, 2022, column titled “How to Make This the Last ASUU Strike” I was compelled to reluctantly embrace the inevitability of tuition fees in public universities as a solution to perennial strikes by university lecturers, which have emerged as the severest threats to university education in Nigeria.

The effect of tuition fees on poor students can be lessened through the introduction of need-based scholarships. Inspired by examples I’ve seen here in the United States—and by the Education Tax Fund that ASUU suggested in the 1990s—I suggested that the Nigerian government should create an independently managed special “sin tax” fund to provide scholarships for poor and high-achieving students.

I defined sin tax as money realized from imposing taxes on at least one percent of the profits of companies that deal in harmful, morally questionable products such as beer and cigarettes. In the state of Georgia, for example, we have what’s called HOPE Scholarship (HOPE stands for “Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally”) that all graduating high school students in the state who have a certain GPA benefit from. It pays for tuition and other expenses and is funded from the proceeds of the lottery. We can experiment with that and see what happens. I hope the next government will consider this proposition seriously.

Osmund: Thank you guys so much for your unwavering steadfastness and unyielding commitment to making these crucial interventions. It doesn’t always seem like the powers that be are paying attention but we will continue to let hope triumph over our unsavory experiences. May Nigeria’s destiny be one that truly befits the grandeur of our aspirations.

Moses: Thank you, Osmund and Farooq. Our efforts have undeniably presented the incoming administration with a series of pressing issues to grapple with.

Farooq: Absolutely. I propose that we take a well-deserved break and reconvene at a later time, reinvigorated and ready to propel our cause even further. Thank you guys.

Osmund Agbo, a medical doctor and social justice advocate, writes from Houston, Texas, while Moses Ochonu is a professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, and Farooq Kperogi is a professor of Communication at the Kennesaw State University, Georgia.

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