Time for reset: Education reforms as a priority in Nigeria

EDUCATION is a critical priority for Nigeria, as it is for any nation serious about growth and development. Unfortunately, in the past 10 years, we have not seen any focus on or dramatic improvement in education. Our best efforts at addressing education have put us steps behind our peer nations in all key development indicators. We inadvertently signal to the world that we do not care about the future. Education is a fundamental human right that should be available to all citizens, regardless of socio-economic status or background. This is different in Nigeria. Nigeria’s literacy rate, put at 62 per cent by Global data, does not make us competitive among nations and shows the dysfunctional state of our primary schools. At this point, we do not need talks, sound bites, and pretensions. We need radical reforms backed by action to change the status quo.

The Nigerian government needs to take a holistic approach to education reform that focuses on improving the quality of education, increasing access to quality education, and promoting innovation and technology in education. Acknowledged, education is on the concurrent list and local governments have a pivotal role to play. The Federal Government still has a responsibility to set policy direction for the nation.  

As a first step, it may be necessary to establish a “Special Office on Education Reforms  at the Presidency”, working with other levels of government and stakeholders, to fashion out a 25-year ‘Marshall Plan’ to reposition education and follow up the plan with a measurable implementation strategy. It must establish policies and regulatory framework to increase literacy rates and encourage gender equality in education. While the Federal Government should strengthen regulatory regimes for standards nationwide, state and local governments should establish their competitiveness standards to be measured by academic performance in public examinations and evidence of high levels of numeracy and literacy skills among the children. State and local governments’ proactive actions are desperately needed given the cultural dichotomies and multiplicities of geopolitical differences in both access to education and quality of education in Nigeria. There are by far too many differences in standards in the Nigerian system, and state-by-state differences, regional geopolitical differences, and differences between public and private institutions exist. The education challenges in the Muslim North are peculiarly different from those of the South. Insecurity in the North has compounded the problems. 

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Education statistics in Nigeria are frightening, as it faces many challenges in providing quality and inclusive education for its large and diverse population. Nigeria has the world’s highest number of out-of-school children, with about 10.5 million children aged 5-14 years not attending school. Nigeria has a low literacy rate of 65.1 per cent according to World Bank data with significant gender and regional disparities. It allocates only about five to six per cent of its federal budget to education, far below the recommended 15-20 per cent  national budget by UNESCO.

The expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP is also low at 1.95 per cent. Furthermore, to underscore the crisis in our education sector, only 450,000 to 550,000 applicants who sit for JAMB out of 1.761 million in 2022 were admitted to universities. These 450-550,000 persons are 0.013 per cent of 40 million youths aged between 15 and 24 (2020 data) eligible for university education. This lag in tertiary education opportunities is part of the reasons we are crawling as a nation. The astronomical rise in private universities from three in 1999 to 30 in 2009 and 111 in 2022 is evidence of the gap in university education but not necessarily about quality or affordability.  

Apart from the issue of access, Nigerian universities are plagued with poor quality of instruction and learning, leading to a generation of unemployable Nigerian university graduates because they need more skill, cognitive ability, and critical thinking capacity. This gap can be traced to the quality of our basic education which is under the purview of local governments. Research output, which is the main criterion for ranking universities globally, of Nigerian universities and Nigeria academics is comparatively low behind countries like Botswana and South Africa. And knowledge accumulation, which leads to social and human capital formation and economic development, gives developed countries an advantage over developing countries.

Our low research output partially accounts for why our growth is stagnated and the rentier economy is thriving. Conversely, estimated 5-7 per cent of our seasoned academics leave Nigeria annually to go overseas because of a better research environment. The education infrastructure in Nigeria is old, decrepit, poor, and sometimes abysmal. Successive governments have failed to build new public schools commensurate to the community need, or where they do, no real investment is made in infrastructure and facilities. Most public schools’ conditions are terrible, and no one wants to study there. The school buildings and premises are “not fit for purpose”.

There is an extreme level of negligence towards education. The teachers are neither well-trained nor really motivated. Private schools are personal businesses and are squeezing the living daylight out of most parents who struggle to pay the cost of private education. The curriculum emphasises cognitive knowledge (memory-oriented learning) aimed at passing examinations instead of skill base, analytical and independent thinking needed for mental and economic progress. The theory is emphasised more than practice. Education technology is significantly unavailable in most schools. 

Neglect of education by government at all levels is a critical indicator of a failing state. When a state fails or is failing, the effective educational systems are privatised, or the public facilities become increasingly decrepit and neglected. Teachers and others who work in the education sector are ignored or relegated to the background, and reports to the relevant ministries are ignored. I must acknowledge the effort of Dr Oby Ezekwesili as minister of education under Obasanjo’s presidency who embarked on comprehensive education reform, but this was dumped as soon as the government wound down. At the sub-national level, attempts by Ekiti State under Fayemi, Edo under Oshiomhole, and Kaduna under El-Rufai to kick-start the reset of education by improving the quality of teachers was resisted by organised Labour and other entrenched interest.

This, unfortunately, is the dilemma. I call for a state of emergency and a complete reset in education. This means a holistic education reform that will position our education sector as the social and economic growth engine. Asian Tigers, referring to Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea, amongst others, can attribute their success to the fact that they scaled up investment in education, as well as research and development, that enhanced human capital development to improve the productivity of the workforce across all sectors. Nigeria needs to do the same. It behoves the new administration to restructure the whole education system on a priority basis and align it with modern education techniques. 

Improving education in Nigeria requires a multifaceted approach that involves government, businesses, educators, parents, and the broader community. Government should first devise a means of sustainably funding  education and allocate a significant portion of the national budget to the sector. 

Source: Vanguard News Nigeria

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