In this interview with GBENGA ADENIJI, Professor of English, French, and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, Pius Adesanmi, speaks about the challenges facing university education in Nigeria among other issues.
What do you think is the problem with the education system in Nigeria?
There is a fundamental disconnect between leadership and followership in this country in terms of what education means. For the irresponsible political elite that is determined to sustain Nigeria as an example of how not to run a country, there can be no greater threat than the sort of informed citizenry that qualitative public education produces. To rig elections or steal public funds on a stratospheric scale that suggests mental illness, to acquire unquestioned impunity, you do not go about investing in qualitative public education. Useable mass ignorance and poverty are the raw materials you need to manufacture a followership ready to defend your perversities to death on the basis of ethnicity or religion. If you receive high quality education, you will no longer go and dance in gratitude whenever President Goodluck Jonathan decides to tar a road with remnants of your money that have thankfully not been stolen. You will demand and expect performance as routine. The need to manufacture largely ignorant masses explains the perverse consistency with which successive generations of political leaders have waged war on public education.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation says any country that wishes to become part of the 21st Century should be devoting 30-40 per cent of her total annual budget to education. You will weep for Nigeria if you knew how much these guys are currently devoting to education. Then you jump up in the middle of all that rot and start nine new federal universities, locate one nepotistically in your own village, and begin to partially fund it with hostel donations from your mother. For ordinary Nigerians, education means the exact opposite of what it means for the ruling elite. For us, it is not a threat. It is empowerment. Sadly, only the elite have the means and the resources to impose their own meaning of education on Nigeria. Hence, they underfund and destroy it while sending their kids abroad to acquire that which they deny the people at home.
As a student in UNILORIN before becoming a lecturer abroad, what were the challenges you noticed in Nigeria’s school system which still exist today?
Where does one begin? There were overcrowded hostels and lecture rooms, dilapidated infrastructure, libraries with no new books and zero subscription to world-class journals, underpaid and under-motivated lecturers, incessant aluta (students’ protests), and police brutality. I do hope that the police have improved upon the standards of their brutality when quelling students’ demonstrations. I recall one aluta we had in 1988, we picked up teargas canisters that the police had used and some of them had expiry dates all the way back to the early 1970s. I hope they no longer use expired tear gas on students these days.
As someone who earned a First Class in his graduate degree, how would you advise those planning to attain such academic feat?
My case was a little peculiar. I acquired a lot more erudition at home under my father’s supervision than I acquired in the formal school system. Classroom instruction was always a supplement to the extensive reading I did in our family library. So, in a way, the road to that First Class started at home. I was the sort of student who, answering a 100-level question on a novel by Cameroonian writer, Mongo Beti, could reference a very broad range of literary and theoretical traditions. At 100 level, I could cite the sources and references that my lecturers were using. However, I did not take that background for granted. Your First Class is made in the first semester of your first year. From the beginning, I studied as if my life depended on it. I was never content with what was in the syllabus. I did twice, thrice, as much reading as was required. Hard work and long hours in the library, aided by coffee and kolanuts, worked for me then. They’ll still work for anyone aspiring to earn a First Class today.
What are the differences between education in Nigeria and Canada?
Well, there are the obvious differences between the First World environment of Canada and the 10th World environment of Nigeria. These differences have two names: facilities and resources. Obviously, resources and facilities in Canada are vastly superior to what we have in Nigeria. But, be careful, superior resources do not necessarily make for superior students. First World excess tends to breed indolence and laziness. You have students who want to be spoon-fed and have to be motivated to read anything longer than a tweet by professors who, increasingly, must be dramatists and performers in class. You have to make class sexy and cool otherwise your students lose interest and migrate to Facebook and Twitter within the first 10 minutes of class. If they get low grades, they challenge your marking and you are compelled to review things.
How best do you think Nigerian universities can attain full autonomy?
‘Lack of university autonomy’ has become a default nomenclature for just about any kind of grievance. Some of the problems plaguing our universities devolve from internal university culture. What has autonomy got to do with the plague of gerontocracy, a situation which allows for a thousand obstacles to be thrown in the path of younger and ambitious junior colleagues? In Canada, there are ways I interact with my university president, dean, and other key senior university officials which allow debate and free airing of views, without intimidation. Can a young assistant lecturer with superior ideas just jump up and begin to speak in the presence of his vice-chancellor or much older professors in our system? Who born you? The university has to look critically at its own culture from within. That’s the important struggle, not autonomy.
Some see an average Nigerian student as ‘half-baked,’ is this true in the light of students you have taught abroad?
Given the conditions in which the Nigerian student is instructed, to sign up for university education is to sign up to be half-baked. The error, however, is to think that students in the developed world are necessarily less half-baked. There is a peculiar crisis of education occasioned by First World excess in terms of indulgences on the part of the student and a near-criminal withdrawal of modes of control and regulation by university authorities wary of law suits. Increasingly, university authorities in the First World treat the student like a customer. Students order knowledge like pizza delivery and faculties are under tremendous pressure to capitulate to their every whim. When students can order what they want, that’s a perfect recipe for producing half-baked students.
What do you think is the missing link in Nigerian university education?
We have lost the university idea. A state governor wakes up, builds a gate in front of a secondary school in his village, adds a motto in Latin, and a new state university is born. Somebody lands in Aso Rock and a university is born in his village the following day. Somebody collects enormous tithes, buys a private jet, and the next emblem of his arrival in the crème de la crème of prosperity Pentecostal pastors is to start a university. A sitting Senate President finds sufficient time to tuck in the construction of his own private university. These things can happen only in a country where the university idea is dead.
Some stakeholders have argued that there are bad lecturers as there bad students. What is your position on this?
Of course, there are bad students. There are bad eggs in any system. As for bad lecturers, you don’t want Nigerians to hear from Adesanmi’s mouth that the king’s mother died yesterday.