Human capacity devevelopment, infrastructural upgrade crucial to unlocking Nigeria’s educational potentials
The Nigerian education sector comprises three major segments – primary, secondary and tertiary. This classification glosses over the complexity of the sector, but permits a broad sweep of it. A general statement that can be made about the Nigerian education sector is that there have been remarkable, though uneven, changes.
The most remarkable has been the phenomenal increase in the number of institutions, translating to a massive expansion of access to education, though the lower social classes have not been well served. A clear illustration is the rise in the number of private schools, especially at the primary and secondary school levels. However, this is largely an urban phenomenon.
Another example of this epochal increase is in the rise in the number of universities, from one university college (at Ibadan) and a regional university (at Nsukka) in 1960 to more than 100 55 years later. Yet another remarkable development has been the rise of private universities, the number of which has outstripped that of either federal or state universities. The consequence of the massive increase in educational institutions is the commensurate rise in school enrolment and the production of teachers. Wide gaps between demand and supply, as tertiary institutions absorb only a small fraction of prospective candidates. It is worth noting that the rise in school enrolment and the insatiable demand for formal education reflect the phenomenal rise in the country’s population. In addition, libraries, laboratories, lecture rooms and hostel facilities fall far short of demand in public institutions.
As a generalisation, the fortunes of the education sector have been affected by developments in the economy and polity. The pre-crude oil economy of the First Republic (1960-65) supported a modest and sustainable education system beset by a high rate of illiteracy. Each of the country’s regions developed at its pace in the context of the revenue accruing from its agricultural exports. The Western Region had led the way since the 1950s in the democratisation of primary education through the Free Primary Education Scheme. The scheme was adopted with less success by other regions. The standard of education was comparable to global standards, and Nigerian students transited smoothly to comparable and higher institutions in other parts of the world. Only a handful of private institutions existed and public schools retained their pride of place in the sector. Finally, the quality and commitment of teachers remained at an all-time high.
The civil war of 1967-70 had a disruptive effect on the national economy and society. The displacement of people from the Eastern Region and the dislocation that accompanied the war affected all sectors of the political economy, including the education sector. The post-war oil boom disrupted the education sector in a paradoxical way by fuelling an ambitious expansion, which entailed heavy fiscal allocation to the sector. School enrolment skyrocketed with dire consequences for the quality of education as teachers were recruited without the quality of the pre-war period. Poor motivation, decreasing incentives and low morale subsequently eroded the quality of public education in Nigeria. Conditions were worsened by the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) since the mid-1980s. Funding for education dropped catastrophically and the sector never recovered from the setback.
From that point, the university system suffered an irreversible loss of talented academics to brain drain as conditions of service plummeted – wages in local currency fell far behind international rates; libraries could no longer sustain current subscription of journals and books, and scholars’ attendance at international conferences could no longer be supported in an age of a massively devalued naira. Those who remained in the country resorted to perennial strikes to press home their demands for better working conditions. Another feature of the post-civil war era was the experimentation with curricula changes, most significantly the change from the 6-5-2-3 system to the 6-3-3-4 sytem of education from the primary to tertiary levels. Policy somersaults have contributed to the crisis of the education sector.
In all, in spite of admirable attributes – greater access to education, rise of private schools and high turnover rate of students – the education sector has suffered several drawbacks.
First, the gap between facilities and enrolment gets wider every year without a chance of abatement. Second, the pressure on facilities at all levels has depressed the quality of education in public schools. Third, the rate of examination misconduct has skyrocketed at least since the 1970s. This is partly attributable to students’poor reading culture, and addiction to social media, computer games and the opium of the European football leagues. Examination misconduct and unethical behaviour by compromised teachers partly reflect a slavish preoccupation with paper qualification and a national penchant for short cuts. Fourth, public tertiary schools have been grappling with the menace of fatal clashes among student confraternities, which pose a continuing threat to life on campuses. This development derives partly from a culture of impunity and the uncritical aping of western vices – violent youth culture, drug addiction, and mass media and online circulation of films, advertisement and images that promote anti-social behaviour. Fifth, funding for the education sector has never attained the level prescribed by UNESCO (26% of the national budget). Even when provided, there are instances of misapplication of such funds, leaving the sector shortchanged. Sixth, gender imbalance and the disadvantage of the poor characterize the educational landscape. In parts of Southeastern Nigeria, female student enrolment has consistently stripped male student enrolment as the young men opted for business apprenticeship at the expense of formal schooling. Conversely, in most parts of Muslim Northern Nigeria, while school enrolment remains lower than the national average, the girl child suffers a double jeopardy. Seventh, vocational education has not received sufficient support, recognition and funding. Yet, it is a reliable, but neglected, means of addressing youth unemployment.
In spite of the dismal state of the education sector, there are silver linings. First, graduates of Nigerian tertiary institutions still compete globally. This is attested by their exploits in foreign institutions. Second, though distance learning has yet to fulfil its potential, the prospects are encouraging and it holds the key to the future of education in Nigeria. Third, irrespective of criticisms of private schools, they have provided an alternative in the face of declining standards and the closure of public schools during incessant strikes.
However, a lot more can be achieved with better governance, regulatory and quality control systems, wholesome motivation of workers (most especially, teachers) and the judicious, generous and transparent funding of the sector. The priority should be human capacity development, facility upgrade and creating an enabling environment for global competitiveness.
Olukoju, fellow, Nigerian Academy of Letters, is vice chancellor, Caleb University, Imota, Lagos State