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Dissecting the education crisis in the North – Part 3

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Human beings in general are lazy. We thrive on being able to get the most amount of benefits with the least amount of effort. Scientists argue that this is a feature left over from our time as hunter-gatherers when energy conservation was important. It is this desire to get more while doing less that drives most of the innovation and expansion in activity that we’ve experienced for the past millennia. Think of what must have been going through the mind of the person who invented the television remote control. They could not have been bothered to do the energy intensive work of getting up to change the channel and would rather just figure out how to change it from the couch. “If necessity is the mother of invention, then laziness is sometimes its father.”

However, if human beings are inherently lazy then what determines how hard people choose to work? Of course, we know that hard work pays too. Given the current level of innovation, more work typically means more benefits. Imagine two farmers who both have the same level of knowledge and technical capacity. The farmer who works harder would probably get more benefits than the one who doesn’t work as hard. At least until the lazy farmer figures out some genius way to get ahead. In the meantime, the lazy farmer is worse off. So, what determines how hard the farmers choose to work? The short answer is competition.

It is an interesting dilemma that societies struggle to solve. On the one hand hard work does lead to better outcomes with societies where people work harder tending to be more productive. On the other hand, societies where people exploit their inherent laziness and try to figure out better and easier ways to do things also tend to be more productive. Competition is what allows both hard work and laziness to co-exist. You can think of competition as setting the bar for how lazy people are allowed to be. In very competitive societies, people can exploit their laziness and innovate but still have to put in a minimum amount of effort. In less competitive societies, the minimum amount of effort is not as high.


Whether it be farmers competing for dominance in markets, or barbers competing for customers getting haircuts, or taxi drivers competing for passengers, or in the context of this post, students competing for places in schools, and for jobs in the labour market, competition drives effort by setting the bar for how much effort is required. It is from this perspective that students in the north, in my opinion, face their third major disadvantage: they do not need to work as hard or put in as much effort to get the same outcomes as students elsewhere. The popular observation of this is the variation in cut-off marks for getting into colleges and universities around the country. It doesn’t end there though. It is also present in the requirements to qualify for all sorts of post-school jobs and positions for which some type of federal character is required. The set-up is such that students from the most disadvantaged areas do not have to compete as much as students elsewhere, with the bar set much lower such that a lot less effort is required.

To be fair there is some justification for this type of arrangement that sets a lower bar for disadvantaged areas. To use a popular international example, if you end up with a company where all the jobs are taken by white men then you know something is wrong somewhere. Affirmative action policies are present all over the world, and aims to give disadvantaged groups a “leg-up”. From this context, the varying cut off marks, and the consequences of federal character are simply affirmative action policies.

Be that as it may, if effort is important, then students who are able to achieve similar outcomes without putting as much effort as others, will eventually be worse off than students who have to put in more effort. If students from some parts don’t have to work as hard to get into schools, or to get government jobs, then it is a structural disadvantage, because in the long term, those students will simply not be able to compete with students from areas where the bar was set much higher. This, in my opinion, is the third major structural problem with education in the north: students frequently do not need to compete or work as hard as their peers in other parts of the country, not because they are different but because the bar is set much lower.
• Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.



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