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Nigerian education, short of nationalists’ expectations, unfit for purpose

By Peter A. Okebukola
01 October 2015   |   6:51 am
Nigeria keeps advancing in post-independence age yet largely stunted in the education delivery system.


Nigeria keeps advancing in post-independence age yet largely stunted in the education delivery system. At 55, the education sector is parlous with its report card laden with red marks with a sprinkle of blue. If the nationalists who fought for the independence of Nigeria were to peep at the education sector today, it is a sorry sight they will see, far from what they envisioned. They envisioned high literacy rates, good quality and affordable education at all levels, education that produced good citizens with high moral values and love of country and education that should shove Nigeria to the league of developed countries in less than 50 years. In 55 years, it is a grope in the dark.

There is considerable agreement that the education sector has done well in a few areas, earning it the sprinkle of blue marks. In the last 20 years, the number of schools has increased, almost doubling. For instance the number of universities has enjoyed a quantum jump from 42 in 1990 to 141 in 2015. The sector has also witnessed massive changes in the curriculum. The National Policy on Education keeps benefitting from periodic revisions.   Sadly, in the critical areas of access, quality, facilities for quality delivery of the curriculum, efficiency, funding and relevance, the sector has grossly underperformed. Red marks of failure splatter the education report card.

Reforming without impactful reforms
Every government since independence shouts to the rooftop about initiating reforms in education, yet the impact of such reforms has been sketchy at best. Worse still, a succeeding government wipes off the map a number of the reforms of the preceding administration under the guise of offering better reform formula. It is fashionable for a new government at the state and federal level to sloganeer about education being in shambles and convene what is popularly styled “education summit”. At the end of the summit to which millions of naira is squandered, an x-point agenda is produced for reforming education by the administration. The “x” is the number of action points in the agenda, which more often than not is not different in letter and spirit from those of the previous administration. Earth-shaking reforms are promised, few or none is delivered before the administration takes its leave, leaving the education sector worse off.

For 55 years, the Nigerian educational system has groaned under the tyranny of the sham reforms. Interestingly, Nigerians keep being suckered by the politicians about their educational reform agenda with its one step forward, two step backward rhythm and impact as we shall see in the sections that follow.

Access: less in, more out

In 1993, Nigeria joined the league of E9 countries representing over half of the world’s population and 70% of the world’s illiterate adults. Nigeria is also ranked among countries with the largest number of out-of-school children. Horizontally along the education system, it is a clear case of poor performance on the access indicator with less in, more out. Non-school attendance is highest among states in the North East and North West zones. Over 50 per cent of primary-age children never attended school in some northern states. This compares with less than 3 per cent in most southern states.

As at September 30, 2015, pre-primary school gross enrolment ratio is 14 per cent; primary school gross enrolment ratio is 87 per cent; primary school net attendance ratio is 72 per cent; secondary net attendance rate is 54 per cent. If we had a performing education system, these figures should have been 50 per cent; 102 per cent, 95 per cent; and 91 per cent respectively.
What about the tertiary level? Higher education participation rate (HEPR) remains lower than 12 per cent. The nation’s founding fathers would have loved a figure around 25 per cent for HEPR in 2015 to at least closely match that of South Africa which stands at 20 per cent. Access to higher education especially university education is severely limited since the 141 universities in Nigeria, as at September 30, 2015 can only enrol a maximum of 500, 000 fresh candidates of the over one million applicants with about two-thirds being suitably qualified.

The lack of will to seek alternative admission in other forms of higher education offered in polytechnics and colleges of education is putting pressure on the universities. The foregoing data confirm that overall, the nation has underperformed on the criterion of access to education.

Quality: sliding down a slippery slope
On the quality measure, the picture is more sombre. Everywhere you turn from basic to higher education, the products are less than impressive in the knowledge, skills and attitudes expected to be acquired and developed at the terminal point of their training. The indicators of this lacklustre performance are seen in quantitative and qualitative outcomes. Quantitative evidence is seen in the low percentage of candidates who earn five credits and above in the Senior School Certificate Examination (SSCE) and in the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME).

In the last three years, the SSCE pass rate, defined as five credits and above including English and mathematics, has hardly climbed above the 50 per cent mark. UTME scores, though fair in the last two years, could have been worse if not for its mono-type configuration. If we had UTME go beyond multiple-choice to include essay and practicals, performance would have nose-dived. The 2015 Nigerian Law School Bar Examination results, which posted the most dismal performance in recent history provides another evidence of depreciating quality.

On qualitative assessment, evidence abound that products of our secondary schools and universities are extremely poor in practical demonstration of their certificated skills. There are reported cases of graduates with second-class upper degrees in computer science who cannot operate a personal computer; graduates of law who cannot write a simple brief; degree holders in chemistry who cannot carry out simple acid-base titration; and graduates of different disciplines with supposedly good honours degrees who are unable to write a letter or memo without an army of errors.

The challenge of facilities

Where are we with regard to facilities in the education sector, 55 years after independence and with income of over N30 trillion earned from oil and other revenue sources? Today, over 70 per cent of our schools from basic to higher education are poorly resourced to deliver quality education. In about 8 per cent of public primary schools, especially in rural areas, pupils sit on the floor or are taught under trees; over 90 per cent of public basic and post-basic schools lack electricity; and nearly all schools have safety deficiencies. Little wonder Boko Haram had a field day with the Chibok girls. The recent needs assessment survey of all public universities in Nigeria showed severe facilities handicap for teaching, learning, research and in hostel accommodation.

In 2015 and in spite of the huge injection of funds into the universities by government following strike action by the staff unions, the situation has hardly changed. Still on facilities, there is a global shift in using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to deliver education. This calls for the provision of ICT equipment, Internet  facilities and power. Our 2015 national survey of e-learning readiness of secondary schools in Nigeria confirmed that in more than 70 per cent of the schools in the country, these facilities are non-existent. Lagos, Rivers and a few other states present exceptions with about 60 per cent of the schools being fairly-well served with ICT equipment. In all cases, no state has succeeded in overcoming the challenge of Internet and power supply. So Nigeria is entering the digital age for the school system poorly prepared.

Inadequacies in curriculum and curriculum delivery

The curricula of our schools can be rated as average in terms of their currency. On relevance, they fail to measure up to what the nation’s founding fathers would have desired. Curricula at all levels are not contemporary, are overloaded and do not provide opportunities for learners to engage with 21st century skills. The curriculum is delivered by teachers who have weak content knowledge and with the handicap of facilities, the thrust is mainly towards passing examinations and not in acquiring basic practical skills for the world of work. Entrepreneurial education is catching on, but with emphasis on theory rather than practice.

What about curriculum delivery? The typical classroom from the primary school in a remote village in Nigeria to a tertiary institution in the city is didactic, with bare use of technology and scant opportunity for practical work. Students are poorly prepared for examinations triggering the stimulus to cheat. The high rate of examination malpractice and other social vices blights the educational system at 55.

Parboiled teachers

The Nigerian teacher in the early post-independence years is a huge contrast with the Nigerian teacher of 2015. Commitment to work, diligence, willingness to offer service in spite of poor remuneration, promptness to school, neat dressing, abhorrence of sexual harassment of students, abhorrence of examination malpractice and commitment to preparing good lesson notes and improvisation of equipment when unavailable are some of the characteristics of most teachers few decades after independence.

Although there are islands of exceptions, the typical 2015 Nigerian teacher is a bundle of the opposite attributes. There are daily reports of poor attitude of teachers to work, sexual harassment of little kids in their care, aiding and abetting of examination malpractice and lack of commitment to work. Many teachers have shallow knowledge of their teaching subjects and have extremely poor Information Technology (IT) skills. The teacher preparation institutions are largely blameworthy for the quality of teachers in the system. Equally blameworthy is government with its unattractive conditions of service for teachers and lack of opportunities for in-service training.

Funding inadequacies

The education sector has faced significant funding challenge over the years, inhibiting effective delivery. Investment in education relative to GDP (less than nine per cent in 2014) has been one of the lowest in Africa. Government has exhibited weak political will to, on its own without pressure from university staff unions, hike funding to universities. The spikes in funding are largely attributable to strike action by ASUU. The states have done worse than the federal in funding education at all levels. UBEC and TETFund have been the propping factor in improving funding of education through various interventions. The two organisations require improvement in the delivery of their services. The education sector, like other sectors, is mired in corruption as revealed by the 2014 study by ICPC.

Before Nigeria is 60

Yesterday is gone and tomorrow beckons. We can wipe off many of the red marks on our 2015 education report card in our march to the 60th independence anniversary in 2020. In five years, what magic can we pull? How much of the ocean of mediocre performance can we drain in five years? How much ground can Nigeria cover in the next five years in the attainment of the education-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which were launched by the United Nation (UN) on September 25? In the face of shrinking financial resources, the challenge is daunting but the magic bullet is generous political will at all levels with President Muhammadu Buhari setting the tone.

He sets the tone by measurable targets for improvement of access, quality and relevance and installing a reward and punishment mechanism for achievers and transgressors of such targets. He sets the tone by adequately resourcing education and enforcement of transparency and accountability in resource utilisation by the Federal Ministry of Education and its agencies. He sets the tone by personally leading the crusade to get all Nigerian children in school and ensuring their retention.

With the tone set by the president cascading through the governors to the states and then to the local government areas, we will be poised to attend to the major challenges impeding progress in education. While there are numerous actions that need to be taken, five stand out. These include incentivising access, improving teacher quality, improving school resourcing and installing a robust and efficient quality assurance (monitoring and inspectorate) system.

In closing, it needs to be stressed that all problems hindering education from climbing to great heights cannot be addressed in five years. However, we must come to the increasing realisation that teachers make the difference between success and failure of an educational system and place it top on our priority list. The Nigerian educational system has failed on account of several factors chief of which is the quality of teachers. The mediocrity in the teaching profession in Nigeria is alarming. Teacher training institutions keep producing teachers poorly prepared like half-boiled rice. Even some teacher trainers themselves are not any better than their trainees. Apart from the quality problem, insufficiency in the number of teachers is a complementary challenge. Hence in our march to our 60th independence anniversary, federal and state governments should turn their gaze on improving teacher quality and quantity. We need to rethink our teacher education delivery system and refocus funding on strengthening content knowledge and skills of teachers at all levels. With these done, brighter days lay ahead of the education sector in Nigeria.

Prof Okebukola was the former Executive
Secretary, National Universities Commission