Free education is bad education

There’s a rumbling discontent brewing in Jos. On one hand, it’s great news that it is not as a result of the usual tensions that are frequently reported. On the other, it is news that forces us to confront the state of our tertiary institutions, once again. Annual tuition fees at the (Federal) University of Jos have been raised to N45,000 from N27,000, to the displeasure of the students. If history is anything to go by, we can safely expect the students to stage a demonstration, following which the university will be closed for a few months.

This is always a difficult conversation to have, especially when the discussant is on the greener side of the social divide. But this cycle will probably keep repeating itself, until tertiary education is priced sustainably. Naturally, the argument for the other side will be that education is the surest catalyst for social mobility and that the less privileged should not be priced out of education. Again, we get very little back from our government and so it should remain the government’s responsibility to subsidize all levels of education. But in spite of the vast sums that are stolen from the public purse by those we elect to serve us, which could be put towards education and infrastructure, I do not think the arguments above hold very much water.

Many people cite the Norwegian example in the argument for free education into post-graduate studies. After all, we are both endowed with vast mineral wealth. This is a false equivalence, as Norway has only 5 million people against its proven crude deposits of 5,366,000,000 BBL, compared to Nigeria’s 170 million people against its proven deposits of 37,200,000,000 BBL. Per capita, Norway is 5 times richer in oil than we are and unlike us, Norway has kept the wealth away in what is now the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. Norway also has a tax to GDP ratio of 44% compared to Nigeria’s 6%, but let us stick with education.

Good, progressive governance should indeed be about encouraging social mobility. However, there is the question of where society is headed if the quality of education is sacrificed on the altar of social mobility. The repercussions are already being felt. Many recruiters complain about the pool of graduates from which they employ, bandying the ‘half-baked’ cliché. Many companies, especially multinationals, send their new recruits for extensive training before allowing them into general population.

Even the ‘good’ graduates, who go abroad for masters and doctorates often find it difficult at first to settle into the rigours of proper tertiary education. A lot of what passes as research in the best of our universities here is nothing but rank plagiarism abroad. Very few understand how broad and far-reaching plagiarism is and how severe the consequences are.

Plagiarism aside, how many university lecturers here tolerate dissenting views, even where those views are backed by verifiable facts/data? Chances are, if you do not regurgitate what your lecturer dictated to you or printed in the handout (s)he forced you to buy, you won’t excel in his/her course. Rubbish, you say? Law school students doing the Bar Part I course (for foreign-trained lawyers) always complain about the learning methods at the law school. “Learning,” even at the law school, is sitting through hours of note dictation. As we all know and have seen, note-dictation means you only need to find a diligent classmate with good handwriting, to photocopy his notes when it’s time to cram, 3 weeks before exams.

How do we excel in STEM or build a nation of cutting edge inventors and researchers when the majority of secondary school students are prepared and study for “Theory of Practical” exams? Why are computer science students still being taught FORTRAN (and without hardware)? Will free/heavily subsidized low quality education make us a country that can compete with the world’s leading economies?

Personally, I think we need to move away from this “XYZ Governor enjoyed free education but wants to deprive today’s youth” argument, for many reasons. The first is that, it is a lie! If you go back to our primary and secondary school literature books, the narratives showed villages putting money together to send children to school. Many people were the beneficiaries of some sort of grant or scholarship and had to drop out if things got tough back home. The second is that the annual N90 my mother paid to attend University of Ibadan in the 70s, was worth much more than the same N90 I was charged, in the 90s. That sort of system is not sustainable.

It is this free system that ensures that the best of our brains are lured away by more competitive salaries and opportunities, to contribute to the body of knowledge. It is this free system that ensures that there has been no major scientific or engineering breakthrough (of the kind that can withstand the robust and rigorous scrutiny of international peers) in any of our universities. It is this free system that makes the Ghanaian educational system more attractive to Nigerian parents, who can’t afford the US-Europe route. This same ‘free everything’ is why we don’t have technicians and artisans with proper skills.

No Nigerian university features in the World’s Top 100. The highest-ranking Nigerian University in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016/17, is the University of Ibadan, at 801. Up UI, but 801? A look at the Top 10 shows them all to be from the US and UK. An expanded look at the Top 100 generally shows them to be from the world’s leading economies. It almost seems that there’s a link between the quality of education available in a country and how developed the country is.

Perhaps this should have been a piece about the government’s commitment to education rather than one about low fees. However, what we have here is a dangerous combination of both. It is doubtful that even with less sticky-fingered public officials, there would be enough money to fund all our public universities effectively. It is however clear that the funding has to come from somewhere, for this rot to stop.

In this article:
Rotimi Fawole
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  • Blimey!!! What’s this individual up to? Rather than clearly identify that the decay in social infrastructure resulting from the incompetence of the politicians and civil servants has so much eroded every section of public institution, rendering them incapacitated and unable to perform their supposed civic functions. The preference would be to blame a system that so many people (including those failed administrators) have benefited immensely from and should be encouraged. The rhetoric that free education can not be good is a misguided, crude and insulting assumption. In the United Kingdom, education is free up to post secondary (Advanced Level), except in Scotland where it is free to University level. The quality of tuition the kids are receiving is still enabling them to attain high grades to gain admission into institution of higher learning at home and across the world.

    The problem with Nigeria is that nothing is working because incompetence, greed, ignorance and wickedness pervade the characteristics of those that are responsible for public administration. A country that has no public library, lacks sustained electricity and other social infrastructure would not be conducive for human capacity development. It is not free education that has failed, it rather is the administrators that are undermining the people and shamelessly failing in their respective responsibilities across the board. But they are very fortunate indeed (the administrators), the people have not come to the realisation that their destiny is in their own hands.

    • Rotimi Fawole

      Many thanks for the response. Most responses I’ve got online and offline have been similar. Everyone cites countries where good education is free but no one addresses the differences in tax rates and levels of compliance. It was a little nuanced but (one of) the point(s) I tried to make was that we are either going to have to pay more in tuition or more in tax for current levels to improve.