Education: A call to action

The Iconoclast by Chris Adetayo

Email: Twitter: @chrisadet

Chris IconoclastNigeria faces crisis on several fronts. Of this, there is no dispute. Security is clearly now the core priority, as the country battles an unrelenting insurgency from a near-faceless group. Corruption still tugs at the fabric of the nation – irrespective of whatever name President Goodluck Jonathan chooses to give this national malaise. Many other problem areas abound.

However, over the long term, it is hard to think of a national problem more likely to determine not only Nigeria’s continuing existence but also its economic viability and peaceful development as education. Sadly, what we have witnessed and continue to witness is a ceaseless pandemic that demands concerted efforts at finding lasting solutions.

Over the past couple of weeks, students from the Lagos State University, Ojo; and the ObafemiAwolowo University, Ile-Ife; have caused their institutions to be shut down due to “astronomical” increase in fees. Public polytechnics and colleges of education across the country have been under lock and key for almost a year, as lecturers remain on strike in protest at a number of reasons, not least funding for their institutions. In 2013, no other issue gripped the nation’s consciousness like the closure of public universities due to strike by lecturers. For six months, Nigerians watched as the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) fought a public relations war over funding of universities.

If these recent skirmishes were isolated incidents, perhaps there will be little to worry about. Sadly, school closures (outside of normal vacations) have become a part of the school calendar. Indeed, wise heads now factor in an extra year or two to the normal calendar when projecting expected dates of completing a degree programme. As a university student back in the troubled 1990s, this writer spent two extra calendar years to finish a four-year programme in the aforementioned OAU. Chances are that it will be much easier to find a needle in a haystack than to find anyone who graduated from any of Nigeria’s public institutions over the past two decades within the allotted schedule.

If there is recognition of this malady, and evidence suggests that there is, what is sorely lacking is the urgency at finding lasting solutions. Governments – federal and states – seem pretty determined to not give in to the ever-increasing needs of the higher institutions. Lecturers and students, aware of the huge amounts being spent, wasted and stolen on several non-essential fronts, seem equally determined to not accept official cries of funds inadequacy. The result, over the years, has been a calamitous fall in standards and a near-complete loss of faith in the products churned out from the system.

To be sure, the process commenced back in the days of the military. As the academia was the only visible and voluble opposition to its authoritarian ways, the military could really care less about school closures. In fact, every excuse to close down schools was welcome. Easily the most egregious example of this was in 1989 when the military government of Ibrahim Babangida decided in its inane wisdom to close down six universities for one year (later reduced to six months after unending public appeal)!

But how does one explain the state of things since the advent of democratic governance in 1999? Pretty much little has changed. Our public institutions increasingly look tired, lecturers increasingly look distracted, and students increasingly look uninspired. All these in a country that aspires to join the league of the world’s top economies in a couple of decades. One is left wondering where the skilled manpower that will drive such growth is going to come from.

One of the outcomes of the sad state of affairs has been the swathe of private universities that now dot the landscape. With one of the world’s highest population growth rate, the number of Nigerians seeking post secondary education continues to grow exponentially; even while governments’ investment remain largely stagnant. So, mercifully, the private institutions have stepped in to fill the huge gaps. But, for all the positives that they bring to the system, many of the private institutions will fail the test of quality staffing and facilities that also assail the public institutions.

Even more fundamentally, it is self-deceit to believe that the country can afford to commercialise every level of education and expect to have an equitable development. And the result of a non-equitable development is clearly evidenced in the insurgency that has unhinged the north west and inserted a question mark on the country’s sovereignty over it.

The greatest losers in this are our students. Now required to compete in a world sans frontiers, the country is increasingly making it even more difficult for them to do so with expectations of success. While many complain of falling standards, few take in the debilitating circumstances that these students face in the pursuit of their academic goals. On sheer will and pretty much little else, students push through. Where they fall short, it is less a function of their abilities and more a function of the system that they are required to pass through.

The current situation cannot be allowed to remain so for the foreseeable future. Now is the time for all stakeholders to take a step back, survey the carnage that is our education system, and commence the work of rejuvenation. To fail to do so, to ignore the urgency of now, is to mortgage the future of this country.