In October 1998, just fourteen months to the beginning of the new millennium, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO convened a high-power conference to prepare all the member nations to review the global higher educational system and better prepare for the challenges of the new millennium. The conference was tagged “UNESCO World Conference of Higher Education” and was held at the Headquarters of UNESCO in Paris and attended by all member Nations including Nigeria with high number of government representatives that took the advantage to get travel allowances and opportunity for shopping and enjoy luxury of hotel accommodation at the expense of Nigerian tax payers.
The July 2009 UNESCO conference was organized as follow-up conference to the one done a decade ago to review and assess the level of development among the member states. It is saddening to note that Nigeria report card at the event was that of a total failure in all ramifications because while other countries including other West African countries like Senegal could be proud of its achievement in the last ten years of the UNESCO conference, Nigeria, the self acclaimed giant of Africa could not even make any reference to her achievements despite the abundant human resources available for the country in term on talents and man power. It is a story of disappointments: perennial strikes by academic and non-academic staff in tertiary institutions, collapsed infrastructures, lack of funding for research, despite all the money accruing from the oil wind fall in the last decade under the PDP-led government.
Even though he tried to fake happiness during the conference, Ambassador Michael Omolewa, Head of the Nigerian Permanent Delegates to UNESCO, could not have been happy to shoulder the burden of his country's inglorious testimony and poor performance.
The conference under the theme “The New Dynamics of Higher Education and Research for Societal Change and Development” was convened to answer the following questions: “To what extent is higher education today a driver for sustainable development in the national and international context? Does the sector live up to the expectations placed on it to induce change and progress in society and to act as one of the key factors for building knowledge-based societies? How does higher education contribute to the development of the education system as a whole? What are the most significant trends that will shape the new higher education and research spaces? How are learners and learning changing? What are the new challenges for “quality” and “equity”?
Nigeria under the current PDP leadership has neither clue nor answer to any of these questions. In fact, as a member nation of UNESCO, Nigeria did not even have the conventional country report on education. The first thing to notice as indicator that Nigeria is fast becoming, once again, a pariah state because it is was notable that Nigeria was not even recognized in the list of top-level speakers at ministerial level at the conference. It took the intervention and serious lobby by the Nigerian mission in order to get a five-minute slot for the Minister of Education from Nigeria to speak. Of course, the organizer of the event knew quite well that Nigeria has nothing to give as a report in that international forum that attracted over one thousand participants around the globe.
That Nigeria is blessed with a lot of academic scholars and researchers who have excelled in their academic pursuits is an understatement but most of them are now in the Diaspora. The likes of Professor Peter Okebukola former executive secretary of the Nationa University Commission (NUC) and host of other Nigerians academic scholars made Nigerian proud based on their individual contributions but that was in their capacity as UNESCO consultants.
President Lula Da-Silva of Brazil, the winner of UNESCO peace award told the gathering about how he made electricity available to two million inhabitants within two weeks. He enumerated further about the giant strides that the Brazilian higher education sector in the area of agriculture, health and space science development. The South African Secretary of Education echoes a similar tune in term of development in research and innovation in higher education, student enrolment, access and quality of higher education.
Dr Jill Biden, a renown educationist and wife of the United States Vice President spoke at the plenary session about how education is not free in the United States but government gives opportunity in term students’ aids, loans, scholarships and grants for every aspiring American youth to have access to education.
Back home in Nigeria, the problems are many and varied. Universities are currently closed because of strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, classrooms are inadequate, hostels are overcrowded with no facilities of comfort, with students sleeping like destitute in classrooms, butteries and any available space; library with no books, laboratories and workshops are ill-equipped, academic and non academic staff are in short supply and poorly remunerated with the harvest of regular strikes and closure while qualified manpower is drained overseas.
The consummate crisis of education is the harvest from the decades of under-funding and under-investments in education by successive regimes coupled with gross mismanagement of available resources by un-elected sole administrators.
Nigeria as the most populous black nation has ninety-six universities of which 34 are privately owned by majority of party apparatchiks, Pentecostal churches and business corporations. Unfortunately most of these universities are only in name because they lack all qualities of “true universities” AS centers of culture, knowledge and research “where cultural, scientific and technical development” take place, AND on which the future of humanity largely depends. Most privately owned institutions are poor with the problem of academic integrity and qualities that cannot match international standards.
The PDP-led government of the last ten years deliberately killed public Universities in order for them to turn our education to private business where higher education will be out of reach for the children of the poor. We have entered a period of intense attack on the basic right of every Nigerian to education as a sword of Damocles is currently dangling over the future of Nigerian youths. It is the ambitious plan of the Yar’adua government to completely commercialize education, especially through the introduction of outrageous tuition of one hundred and eighty five thousand naira per semester. The plan also entails closure of departments, introduction of market rate for student’s accommodation, medical and recreational facilities among others. This danger is no longer a speculation; it is real! Already, instead of acceding to ASUU’s request, the government has decided to inaugurate a committee on education whose main task is to work out the modalities for the implementation of these anti-students’ plans.
Like the nation itself, education in Nigeria has been beset by paralyzing which if enough and timely attention is not given, is capable of collapsing the vital sector of human and national development. Instead of Mallam Yar’adua to address the inherent danger, the regime embarked on superstitious remedy, ambiguous policy statements and incoherent actions which are capable of further consolidating the perennial crisis The question to this government is that, if education is a public good, how come our governments with abundant oil money want to abdicate their responsibility by shifting the burden of funding to students and their poor parents?
The Nigerian government is a signatory to UNESCO convention, which recommends that each member state should spend nothing less than 6% of its budget on education. But our government in the last 10 years has invested more on election-rigging, defense and fake projects more than government overall investment on education. Yar’adua and his supporters club ought to be warned that Nigerian students and youth would resist vehemently all attempts to commercialize education and mortgage future of young ones. In the face of reckless spending by the administration on frivolous and useless programs like re-branding project, military operation against the people of Niger-Delta, vision 2020, and imaginary 7-points agenda etc. coupled with sustenance of a large retinue of political jobbers, executive touts, image launderers, area boy politicians, quacks professionals, hungry intellectuals, and government messengers, it becomes difficult to accept the ruling governments logic of inadequate government income to fund free and qualitative education for all if an incumbent minister of education can afford one million dollars marriage anniversary bash.
In conclusion, the participation of Nigeria at the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education +10 was a show of shame and a total disgrace to the entire nation because of our report card filled with failure and disappointments. It must be a wakeup call for our government to rejuvenate the moribund and abandoned educational sector. The government and its agents should know that there is no vision 2020 without adequate investment in education. It is time to stop daydreaming and be proactive as a nation. The regime should come out with a clear policy statement on the fundamental question of effective funding, its commercialization and privatization program, overhauling of structures and facilities, remuneration, academic freedom and university autonomy. We cannot develop Nigeria without investing in its people and there is no alternative to repositioning our academic system to fulfill all these obligations by turning our universities to veritable centers of excellence. We need “true universities” in Nigeria that focus on learning and research that are relevant to our immediate and strategic needs towards accelerated development.