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‘Nigeria should strive for a minimum of 30 per cent budget on education’

14 January 2015   |   11:00 pm
Since the Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, presented the 2015 budget estimates of about N4.358trillion to the National Assembly out of which N492, 034billion was proposed for education, some observers have contended that the vote still fell short of UNESCO’s 26 per cent recommendation and was not likely to effect change in…

OkebukolaSince the Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, presented the 2015 budget estimates of about N4.358trillion to the National Assembly out of which N492, 034billion was proposed for education, some observers have contended that the vote still fell short of UNESCO’s 26 per cent recommendation and was not likely to effect change in the troubled sector. However, former Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof Peter Okebukola in this interview with UJUNWA ATUEYI clarified the true stance of the budget. Okebukola who is also the President of UNESCO Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI) Africa and Chairman of Council of University of West Africa, advised that the budget proposal be raised to 30 per cent, among other issues. Excerpts:

THE 2015 budget as revealed by the Federal Government showed a proposal of N492, 034billion for education out of N4.3trillion national budget. In the 2011 budget, N306.3bn was allocated to education; in 2012(N400.15bn); in 2013(N426.53bn); and (N493b) in 2014 representing 10.7 per cent of the N4.6tn national budget in that year. Looking at this analysis, what is your perception about this trend?

The trend of course is far from encouraging considering the deplorable state of our education system. We need to at least triple the current allocation to shake off the ignoble state of the system by applying the funds largely to significantly improve facilities for teaching and learning, teacher quality and welfare and curriculum delivery. We need the funds to break down obstacles to access of over 10 million out-of-school children. We need the funds to improve school safety. We need the funds to improve reading culture among our youths and for overall improvement in the quality of delivery of education.  

 I should stress that the 10.7 per cent you quoted only gives a narrow view of the anticipated picture of funding education in Nigeria in 2015. My research group estimates the proportion, nationally, to be above 20 per cent, when we factor in budgets from state governments and from budgets of intervention agencies notably the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) and Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund). 

 In 2015, UBEC and TETFund alone will inject not less than N100 billion into basic and higher education respectively which are not captured in the regular national budget which you are referring to. This is aside from funds which SURE-P will provide to support education. 

  We also need to realise that the budget proposal of N492,034 bn for education going to the national assembly for appropriation is only for funding education at the federal level. This will service only federal tertiary institutions (about a third of the total number in Nigeria), 104 Unity Colleges (less than 0.002 per cent of the national total), 25 parastatals of the Federal Ministry of Education and the Federal Ministry of Education itself. Each of the 36 states and the FCT will also present their education budgets to their respective State Assemblies. When aggregated together alongside the contribution of the intervention agencies, we will have a proportion in the neighbourhood of 23 per cent.

Does it mean that the 26 per cent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recommendation is not realisable? 

The 26 per cent figure often ascribed to UNESCO is mythical. It only exists in the Nigerian literature on education. I suspect that it is a figure that arose out of a recommendation of a localised UNESCO meeting, which probably held in Nigeria sometime in the past and does not bind the entire organisation. I have had to ask two Directors-General of UNESCO about this figure and they claim not to be aware of it. For Nigeria, I believe we should strive for a minimum of 30 per cent for the next 20 years to clear the mess in the sector. 

  Clearly, 30 per cent is realisable for if there is a will, there is a way. Lip service in funding is what education generously gets in Nigeria. I am aware that other sectors such as health, agriculture and security are important and will also desire generous funding. What our leaders fail to realise and appreciate is that education is the antidote to challenges in all other sectors. It is often said that education cannot solve all of society’s problems but without education no solution is possible.

  What we should do in my view is to elevate funding to education at the federal, state and local government levels for the next 20 years with the collateral effect of lowering funding in other sectors. After 20 years when quality education is on solid ground for all citizens, the allocation to education can then slide downwards for other sectors to enjoy a hike in their budgetary allocation. It is a matter of careful planning and continuity in the implementation of government policies on education at all levels.

  One important point to note as I conclude my answer to this question is the judicious use of the funds, albeit meagre, which is allocated and released for education. There is a lot of leakage and corruption in the system that the more we throw money into the sector, the more money becomes available to be “chopped”. There is the need, therefore, to install a robust accountability and probity mechanism into the financial operations in the sector (and of course, other sectors) so that as much as possible, all financial leakages are plugged.

With these allocations, what is the place of Nigeria (being the Giant of Africa) when compared to other African countries?

  Let me answer this question with some empirical data. As leader of an African Union-European Union project, which studied the quality of university education in 2014, my team found a generally poor quality of higher education systems in all 54 African countries that we studied in comparison with Europe and North America. Within this gloomy picture, it is bittersweet to note that the Nigerian university system rated among the best in Africa. It is proverbially said that if you have not visited the farm of others, you will believe that your father’s farm is either the best or the worst.  

 Aside from South Africa and Egypt, our data showed that no other national university system in Africa matched the quality of curriculum, staff and students of the Nigerian university system. At international conferences, Nigerian scholars are rated among the best in terms of quality of participation. Students trained in Nigerian universities are highly sought after for postgraduate studies in European and North American universities and during postgraduate training, they perform among the best. 

 On the not-so-pleasing side, our data revealed that relative to many other countries in Africa, Europe and North America, Nigerian universities are poor in infrastructure, reading culture is poor among students and research culture among staff is weak.  If we elevate the performance of our universities on the variables of quality of infrastructure, quality of research and improve reading culture among our students, no nation in Africa will come anywhere near the tall standing of the Nigerian university system in terms of the quality of process and quality of products. 

 This is the task for those who will be steering governance in Nigeria after the February 2015 elections. We need to balance quality with quantity in delivering university education. The rate of expansion in enrolment should match the rate of provision of facilities and human resources. We need to reduce financial leakages and profligate spending by political and other office holders so as to free funds for better funding of our universities. 

If the Nigerian university system is rated among the best in Africa as you said, despite the shortfall in funding, what kind of system do you think we will have if education in general is adequately funded?

If education in general in Nigeria were better funded, we will have a country that will parade the best statistics in the world in health, education, security, economy, environment, agriculture, science and technology and in other sectors. We will have a country, which the Chairman of the NUC Board while I was Executive Secretary, Alhaji Maitama Sule, envisions to be paradise on earth. We will have a country that will lead Africa to claim the 21st century. As Executive Secretary of NUC between 2001 and 2006, I confirm that the Obasanjo administration ensured a huge jump in funding of our universities which translated to significant improvement in the global ranking of our universities in 2007. Since we did this before, we can do it again across the education sector.

 I should stress that the condition of adequate funding is only just necessary to make us get to that dreamland. It is not sufficient. It will become sufficient when we have truly nationalistic, corruption-intolerant and God-fearing leaders at all levels of governance and in both the public and private sectors. I am not talking about the president or state governors or managing directors of private companies. I am talking about these and all those who are in leadership including vice-chancellors, principals of secondary schools, head teachers of primary schools, heads of academic departments in universities, polytechnics and colleges of education. May God give us such worthy leaders.

Would you say that the present administration has shown serious attention to educational development?

No doubt, the present administration has done well in many areas on education development. Several areas notably access and quality are still struggling to be served. You know I am not a politician but an academic, so I will provide an unbiased assessment. 

 Let us take 2014 as example. There were at least 12 defining events in the education sector in Nigeria in 2014. It is possible to cluster these as the good, the bad and the ugly. On the good and positive entries in the report card are the improved performance of candidates in the May/June Senior School Certificate examination conducted by WAEC; increase in access as additional 982,000 were enrolled nationwide in the basic education system and the carrying capacity of the 129 universities leapt to about 1,000,000.  Recall that the present administration established 12 new federal universities and the Presidential Special Scholarship Scheme for Innovation and Development. 

We also had the establishment of more Almajiri schools to depress the number of out-of-school children, which was put at about 10 million. The curriculum at all levels enjoyed some positive tweaking by NERDC, NCCE, NBTE, and NUC. NUC’s action was particularly striking in entrenching an improved entrepreneurship studies programme in Nigerian universities whose positive impact showed during the national entrepreneurship fair in December 2014. Funding for physical development and research by TETFund was above the N80 billion mark during the year. These six events were blue marks on the report card.

 On the “bad” and negative (red) entries in the education report card in 2014 are four notable events. The woeful performance of candidates in the November/December senior school certificate examination with more than 50 per cent failing to earn five credits in English, Mathematics and three other subjects is one. Also, teacher quality across all levels of the education system remained generally shameful and unacceptably low. Quality of buildings and other teaching-learning infrastructure did not significantly improve and so is the poor reading culture among students.  

 The “ugly” entry on the report card on school safety has put Nigeria on the dark side of the world map. This entry includes the alleged slaughter by Boko Haram of 43 secondary school students in Federal Government College, Buni Yadi in February and the abduction in April of about 200 girls from Government Secondary School in Chibok. Taken together, the overall score shown in the education report card at the state and federal levels is far from the pass grade. If I were the class teacher of this student known as Nigeria, I will make the following closing comments on the 2014 performance in education: “You need to buckle up next session. You were rather too laid back with severe consequences for your future. Work harder in the area of access, teacher quality and facilities.”

The 2015 general elections will commence in less than one month, what advice do you have for Nigerians as regards electing credible leaders.

I will advise Nigerians including myself to “shine our eyes” and not be fooled or hoodwinked by sweet talks of the politicians who are interested only in their pockets. We should vote according to our conscience and in line with what we believe the politician can deliver by way of dividends of democracy. This is why education is important. With a current illiterate population of about 30 per cent, more will be hoodwinked. With more money to education, illiteracy rate will depress and the electorate will be wiser when casting votes and selecting their leaders.