“This is it, a classic condemnation of the unreasonable first prize of some talent-based competitions: Big Brother Africa, sponsored by Coca Cola, $300,000 (N48m); Maltina Dance, N10m; MTN Project Fame, N7.5m, plus an SUV; Etisalat’s Nigerian Idol, N5m, plus multi million Naira contracts; Glo Naija Sings, N5m, plus an SUV; Gulder Ultimate Search, N10m, plus endorsements and an SUV. But, compare and contrast with academic equivalents: Cowbell Mathematics Competition, N100,000; Lagos State Spelling bee, N50,000; School Scrabble, N25,000; Cool FM Spelling Game, goodie bag filled with Amiladrink; UNN Best Graduating Student, N50,000. And someone wonders why there's so much failure in WAEC and JAMB? Soon, parents will no longer ask their children to read their books so they get good grades, but to read their lyrics so they could make hit songs”.

The above statement culled from an article written by Michael Bush in The Daily Sun Newspaper of Monday, February 20, 2017, cannot be controverted. It explains the psyche of many Nigerians today and sadly so. Before you get us wrong, some further explanations would be in order. I love the creativity and the talent of a lot of our youths in the burgeoning entertainment industry. I have actually supported a number of them in the past and continue to do so even now. But I do not agree that entertainment and education are mutually exclusive. I strongly contend that the talents would be better deployed with good education.

In our last two interventions, we had looked at the state of education in Nigeria at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. What we intend to do as we conclude is to initiate a debate on what we should be doing to place education on the front burner of national discourse. Like a former US Education Secretary, Arne Duncan posited, “Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing needless deaths and illness and to fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity. Education is an investment and one of the most critical investments we can make”. If we agree that education is this important, then something must be wrong somewhere for us not pay sufficient attention to it. Be that as it may, I believe that we need to move to action. We must have a national strategy that defines the vision we intend to pursue, the timelines, the framework and the required resources to achieve our set target. We must also agree implementation time table, triggers and consequences for noncompliance.

Like I had stated earlier, what I intend to do here is to initiate and elicit debate as I do not pretend to have the all the answers. First, it is very instructive that as I was putting this piece together, the Federal High Court in Abuja delivered a landmark judgement to the effect that the Federal and State governments would be breaching the constitution if they failed to provide financial and institutional resources for free, compulsory and universal primary and junior secondary education for all Nigerians. This is a very good news as it is at the heart of the failing quality of education in the country. This is because once you miss the basic foundational level of education, you may as well forget good education. I would therefore like to see a vision that reads like, “to attain free and compulsory education for all willing Nigerians in the next 20 years”.  I will extend the definition of education to mean up to school certificate level. It will be free and compulsory and would therefore, become an offense for any child of school age not to be in school. If we want to achieve this, we would roll out a comprehensive but easy-to-understand plan for it. We must ensure that enough schools exist in the communities just like it is done in other countries. We will make teaching attractive by ensuring competitive compensation packages and insist on rigorous recruitment process for prospective teachers. We must also institute a feedback mechanism that would help in monitoring the performance of teachers and ensure that it is used to decide the career progression of teachers. Continuous updating and retraining of teachers must be institutionalized, as a rule.

A World Bank-commissioned research on “Education Quality and Economic Growth” concluded that teacher quality strongly influences student outcomes, warning that just adding resources does not have so much effect on teacher quality. This is understandable given that recruiting the right kind of teachers in the first place is the condition under which improvements can be made. In addition to this, the research made some more critical findings from empirical data as follows: 1. Educational quality- measured by what people know- has powerful effects on individual earnings, on the distribution of income, and on economic growth. 2. The educational quality in developing countries is much worse than that of the developed countries and 3. Just providing more resources to schools is unlikely to be successful as improving the quality of education will take major changes in the institutions themselves, attitude and policy. Having noted these, the degree of underfunding of the education calls for very serious concern. The United Nations set a benchmark for educational funding relative to budget for developing countries at 26%. However, in the 2016 budget year, we allocated a paltry 6.01% of the budget to education. In the yet to be approved 2017 budget, the allocation inched up a little to 7.4%. These numbers are very distant from the benchmark of 26%. I believe this is the big elephant in the room. Education is so terribly underfunded that the likelihood of positive results coming from the sector is very remote and distant.

Still on framework, we would eliminate all impediments to enrollment. Recently, someone drew my attention to the recent results of entrance examinations to Federal Unity schools throughout the 36 states of the Federation. While some states required scores of 130 and above to be admitted, at least 2 states had cut off marks of 2, I mean 2 as in t-w-o for the 2017 admission year. This is a terrible disservice to the students so admitted. I had written in the past against quota system and federal character as killing initiatives and competitiveness. It is as clear as daylight that you cannot administer quota system on any system that is competitive and expect great outcomes. How on earth does anyone expect that a student who scored 2 marks would sit in the same class and compete with those who scored 130 in the same entrance examination and match them? While quota system may bring someone into the school, that candidate, so admitted, would be simply unable to function nor compete as exam marks would not be awarded on the basis of quota system. So the designers of this system failed to think through what they were going to implement. In any case, when there are enough spaces in our schools, it becomes axiomatic that applicants into different schools would be able to find spaces in schools that match their capacity and rationing would be a thing of the past.

The next thinking would be in the area of tertiary institutions. A major question to address is ownership. The present model where some schools are owned by the Federal Government and some by states and the rest by private organizations need be looked into thoroughly. What would work better? If we must retain the current model, then we must also set up proper governance and oversight structures to ensure minimum standards are maintained. All institutions must be adequately staffed with standard laboratories, libraries, lecture theaters and other facilities. These are minimum standards beyond which, the school should not remain open. They must know that they are in competition with others and those that maintain proper standards will be rewarded, while those that fail would also be sanctioned. At this level, appropriate fees must be paid. For those who are unable to pay, functional and efficient Student Loan Boards would be set up, from where they can borrow and pay for their education and pay back in due course. I believe that there are people who know how this works and who would be able to give directions and support.

What we teach the students is as important as availability of spaces. A cursory look at the curricular of a lot of institutions will point to the fact that some of the schools have curricula that have no relationship with the current existential realities. The study of pinhole cameras can only be relevant as a history topic in the new world of digital cameras. Teaching should therefore be tailored to equipping students with relevant skills that would help them function in the ever changing global world. Anything short of this would put the graduates in a competitive disadvantage. The country’s planning function will point attention to priority areas and the educational institutions would be useful in helping realise the goals of the plan. If our national plan identifies that we need to pay attention to information technology for instance, our educational system should be in a position to offer itself as a platform to achieve this. This is what happens in countries like India and China and the results are not in dispute.

Our tertiary institutions should also be made to provide the country with the required research backbone to support business organisations and government. People do not need to set up their own research centres which is not only inefficient but expensive.

Finally, strengthening our educational system will reduce social vices and channel the energy of youths to more productive and enduring ventures. The number of young people available for terrorism, robbery, kidnapping and other vices will drastically reduce. It was a French writer, Victor Hugo (1802-1885) that stated decades ago, “The more school doors you open, the more prison doors you close”. Need we say more?

Alex Otti

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