Disparity in unity schools’ cut-off marks as an albatross
While the Federal Government is keen on promoting nationwide cohesion and educational development, its unity schools’ admission policy is considered an invitation to chaos and mediocrity, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL reports.
A young girl seeking admission into any of the country’s 104 Federal Government Colleges (Unity Schools) from Anambra State must score 139 points out of a possible 300 to stand a chance of being taken.
But her counterpart from Zamfara state only needs to guess two answers right; in order words, she is required to have just two points. And so, Nigeria’s admission policy into national colleges is considered by some educationists as primarily designed to foster mediocrity though its stated intent is to promote unity among Nigeria’s over 300 ethnic nationalities.
The motto is “Pro Unitate”, for Unity; hence, it seeks to accommodate each tribe and tongue every academic year. The disparity in cut-off marks suggests that diversity is preferred over academic excellence.
And the results bear testimony to this fact. Last year, Nigeria’s four Federal Government Colleges did not produce a single candidate that scored five credits that included English and Mathematics, needed to gain admission into the university.
Federal Government Girls’ College, Bajoga (Gombe State); FGGC, Bauchi (Bauchi State); FGGC Gboko (Benue State), and the Federal Science and Technical College, Kafanchan (in Kaduna State) did not produce a single pupil with credits in English and Mathematics.
Attempts to explain the necessity of this wide disparity in cut-off marks have, in the eyes of some Nigerians, come out hollow and trite. Prof. Abdulrashid Garba, the Registrar, National Examination Council (NECO) during the National Common Entrance Examination (NCEE) in Abuja in 2015 said the score alone does not determine whether or not a child is admitted. Garba told journalists that in every state, ranking is done.
“If you want to admit 6,000 students in a state, for instance, then you rank from the score of the first person to where the score of the 6,000th person stops and that becomes the cut-off mark.
“Performances vary from state to state; you hear parents say I am from so-and-so state and my child scores high marks but was not admitted but another child from another state was admitted.
“It is so because the cut-off marks for such disadvantaged states are usually lower; there is a clear-cut criteria and it is only for the parents to know the criteria. These schools are unity colleges which means you must take along all parts of the country,’’ he pointed out.
In summary, the registrar said that to ensure the adequate representation of every part of Nigeria, a uniform cut-off marks cannot be guaranteed.
Criticism against the policy also stems from the fact that it discriminates based on gender, subtly suggesting that one gender is incapable of matching the intellectual ability of the other.
For example, a male pupil from Yobe State requires only two points out of possible 300 points to gain admission, while his female counterpart requires 27 points to gain admission to the same school. For Zamfara State, a boy needs four points while a girl requires only two points.
Precursors to the ‘Unity Schools’ of today were the King’s College and Queen’s College established in 1909 and 1927 respectively, by the British when Nigeria was still a colony.
Three new ones were established in Warri, Sokoto and Enugu in 1966. It was during the administration of General Yakubu Gowon in 1973 that a decision was taken to spread the idea by establishing unity schools in all the 12 states that existed then.
After the brutal Civil War, Nigerian rulers felt a need to bond the disparate ethnic groups so the next set of unity schools were established in the North, South, West and East.
These include: Federal Government College Sokoto, Federal Government College, Warri, Federal Government College Odogbolu, and Federal Government College, Enugu.
When it was established each college admitted pupils based on the following criteria: 30 per cent on merit; 30 per cent, state quota; 30 per cent, environment; and 10 per cent exigency.
The 30 per cent admitted on merit can gain admission into the colleges of their choice, irrespective of their states of origin if they excel well above the cut-off mark of their states.
The state quota criterion requires the colleges to select 30 per cent of their candidates from each state of the federation; while the environment criterion is reserved for candidates from the host state/community of the college. The 10 per cent criterion is based on exigencies.
However, years of neglect soon led to enthronement of mediocrity, as merit, which used to dictate admissions took the back seat. This progressed into official policy that allows for pupils from some states to get into the schools with two measly points.
The admission criterion that mandates admission from every state is an exception rather than the norm. Parents favour unity schools nearby to enrol their children and this led to a situation where in some schools especially in southern parts of Nigeria admission quotas are over-subscribed while some states have high numbers of unused slots.
Now all pretence to universal academic excellence has been shed, as the results of the pupils of these unity schools have become a crying shame.
Attempts at remediation
Many people have expressed discontent over this situation and it continues to generate heated debates year in, year out. Prior to his removal in August last year, the Registrar/Chief Executive of the National Examination Council (NECO) Prof. Promise Okpala said the issue is a policy matter as his organisation merely conducts the tests.
In 2013, Nigeria’s lower legislative chambers, the House of Representatives, investigated the discriminatory cut-off marks for admissions into Federal Government Colleges (FGCs) to ascertain if truly some states are actually educationally disadvantaged.
Hon. Afam Ogene, who represented Anambra state at the time told his colleagues during plenary that to gain admission into Unity Schools, the cut-off mark system requires candidates from south-east and south-west states to score significantly higher marks than their counterparts from the North or those states tagged “educationally-less-developed states (ELDS) in the NCEE conducted by NECO.
However this move did not gain much traction as several people both in the National Assembly and outside said the disparity is being exaggerated.
Administrators in some unity schools said only a negligible number of students are admitted from educationally less developed states, but others differ.
In 2013, human rights lawyer and former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, filed a suit at a Federal High Court in Lagos over admission inequality in Federal Government Colleges.
Agbakoba joined the Attorney General of the Federation and the Minister for Education as defendants in the suit asking the court to declare that application of different cut-off marks for unity schools by government based on gender, ethnicity and states of origin is discriminatory and violates fundamental rights to freedom and from discrimination of his grandchildren who are candidates as guaranteed by the constitution.
Two years later, the court declared as unconstitutional, the decades-long state-based, quota system admission into federal government colleges. John Tsoho, the trial Judge, in his ruling declared that the action of the Minister of Education in prescribing and applying different requirements for candidates seeking admission into unity schools is in violation of Section 42(1) of the 1999 Constitution.
The court held that the provision of the constitution is superior to any administrative law or policies adopted by the Minister of Education and directed the government to apply uniform admission requirements, especially cut-off marks, to all candidates seeking admission into unity schools.
Currently, admission spots into Nigeria’s unity schools are hotly contested. A statement from the Ministry of Education last year said a total of 89,231 candidates took part in the examination, out of which 46,869 met the cut-off marks.
On the disparity in the cut off marks, the ministry explained that the admission policy was introduced to address the issue of federal character in the schools in addition to fostering peace, unity and amicable coexistence among Nigerians.
The Director Press and Public Relations of the ministry, Mrs. Chinennye Ihuoma while justifying the process said using different cut-off marks was to equitably allocate admission spaces to states that are marginally ahead of others and those marginally behind.
She said: “In Nigeria we have the Federal Character policy and this entails that we have to pick students from all states of the federation to accomplish this. Unity collages and federal universities should have students from all the states of the federation. It is just like the way we have minsters from all the states of the federation.
“To accomplish this, the ministry picks the best from each state. The best from Imo state for instance may not be the best from Lagos, but they are the best in the respective states.
She added: “ “Assuming that the Unity Schools need 20 candidates each from the north and south and we have about 500 students who took the exams from the south and only 50 from the north, pupils who have higher scores from each zone would be considered starting from the highest until we reach the number of required students for the zone. The student in the 20th position from the south might score 150 while that of the north may be five.
On claims that the policy would promote mediocrity and undermine excellence, the official pointed out that it would require a constitutional review for the policy to be changed.
In Nigeria, lowering standards and compromising excellence has not improved the educational system neither will a policy that deliberately promotes mediocrity, education experts who are more concerned about quality than quantity concluded.