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Nigeria’s ivory tower and the search for technical skills

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Nigeria, for good reasons, used to be called ‘giant of Africa’. Today, the country’s education system is riddled with half-measures and a dearth of creativity, especially in the technology sector, writes Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL

A FEW months ago, the People’s Republic of China made a major reform, by converting 600 universities to polytechnics. With great delight in many things Chinese, the Nigerian government and its policy makers can take a cue from China. The reason for this is not far-fetched.

Nigeria is rich. It is abundantly rich. It is rich in human and material resources. It is also rich in paradox. As endowed as it is and as promising as it started, every step forward has resulted in five backward, those familiar with history have asserted. Its education system –particularly the tertiary education sector –mirrors that unenviable reality.

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The poster boy of Nigeria’s graduates is the one considered unemployable; clumsy with his head as more often than not with his hands. The legions of ‘illiterates’ and technically-inept graduates the country’s education ‘factories’ are producing have become alarming. There is no end in sight to the crisis of confidence in Nigerian graduates.

But higher institutions keep swelling up with ambitious students, starry-eyed, who gaze into the future with unbridled desire to make it in life. Yet, the schools hardly equip them with skills commensurate to their wishful thinking.

The sheer number of the country’s tertiary institutions appears impressive: according to the National Universities Commission (NUC), there are currently 43 federal universities, 52 state universities, and 79 private universities; making it a total of 174 universities in Nigeria as of November 5, 2019.

There are 29 federal polytechnics; 48 state polytechnics; 55 federal polytechnics, totalling 132; the National Business and Technical Examination Board (NABTEB) listed 17 federal colleges of education; 19 state colleges of education; 22 federal monotechnics/specialised institutions; two-state monotechnics; two private monotechnics; and 19 federal technical colleges

Back to China: In a bid to reduce the huge number of university graduates with similar academic degrees competing against one another for the same jobs, the country had announced that it would turn at least half of its public universities into institutions of applied learning or polytechnics to produce more technically-trained graduates.

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China’s then vice-minister of education, Lu Xin, had pointed out that the transformation would be a “gradual transition” focusing on training engineers, senior technicians and other highly-skilled workers rather than pursuing purely academic, highly theoretical studies.

“There is an urgent need to reform our current education system,” Xin explained, “which has been struggling to provide high-quality talents with skills and knowledge that meet demand at the production frontline.”

That policy, many acknowledged, was a move towards a higher education system of academic and applied institutions, similar to the system in Germany with its research universities and high quality technical ‘fachhochschulen’ or polytechnics.

That switch to more technical and vocational higher education was a response to university programmes producing graduates less relevant to the marketplace, thus leading to an increasing number of unemployed university graduates.

Although China’s intention was to concentrate on boosting science and technology degrees, where there is more job market demand.

In most developed countries including the United States of America, the level of curriculum operation is related to educational achievement.

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“Curriculum implementation helps transform and improve ideas, skills, and attitudes, which lead to development. Technology improves labour structures and technological innovations.”

President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration seems to be thinking in that direction.

It’s National Economic Council and the Federal Ministry of Education said they are working on a new curriculum, which will change the way pupils have been educated in the past 10 years.

Vice president Yemi Osinbajo said, “The third plank of that plan is that we recognise that we are not only grappling with rapid population, but we are also grappling with rapid changes in technology, innovation and the way things are being done. It is obvious that we cannot just continue to educate in the way we used to educate pupils 10 years ago.
“Besides, to eradicate poverty, our educational system must equip young people to be productive. This is why we are currently working on a far-reaching skills-based curriculum on Science, Technology, Education, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).

“The core skills in the curriculum will be coding, programming, design thinking, animation, graphics design, robotics, networking, and basic engineering applications. We are working in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) the Oracle academy, the Microsoft Cisco academy and IBM to develop the curriculum.”

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On developing the calibre of young people that would take on the challenges of the 21st century, the present administration is planning a change in the teaching methodology for schools with a view to impart the relevant, qualitative and excellent education while emphasising the need for teachers’ training.

As part of the plan, the educational system is also expected to develop skills that are key to nation-building, such as hard work, discipline, cooperation, unity, respect, leadership; the civic skills that are important in building the nation.

In 1982 many reforms were introduced into Nigeria’s educational system through the introduction of the 6-3-3-4 system – which represents six years in primary school, three years in junior secondary, three years in senior secondary school and four years in a tertiary institution. Something that scholars found eye-catching in that system was the introduction of vocational education into the secondary school curriculum.

A curriculum development geared towards “acquiring certificate and degrees” rather than “equipping the citizens to be nation builders” will make it difficult for Nigeria to compete on the global scene.

Xiong Bingqi, then associate dean of research at the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, had noted that the overall strategy of turning universities into vocationally oriented institutions was the right approach but the change had to be properly handled.

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The government, therefore, set up pilot programmes with 150 universities first signing up back then.

In the United Kingdom, some higher engineering technician positions that require between four and five years of apprenticeship need an academic study to HNC/HND or higher city and guilds level. Apprenticeships are increasingly recognised as the gold standard for work-based training.  There are four levels of apprenticeship available for those aged 16 and over.  

In the United States, technical and vocational education and training provide the necessary knowledge and skills for employment, using forms of education including formal and informal learning, and is said to be important for social equity and inclusiveness, as well as for the sustainability of development.

Two Nigerian educational experts, Patrick Ukachi and Samuel Ejiko, explained that in every economy, development is initiated by the practical application of scientific knowledge resulting from vocational-technical educational skills.

They pointed out that the reason for the missing of the technological development track leading Nigeria to becoming a consumer nation rather than a producing one (importing mundane things toothpicks to high-end products), adding that the education system instead of bringing enlightenment to Nigeria in modern time, has resulted in faltering economy, poverty, unemployment, and mass exodus of youths in search of greener pasture.

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Ukachi and Ejiko made a few recommendations if Nigerian graduates must be technically-gifted.

One is that technical schools and colleges should be well equipped, funded and staffed with qualified technical instructors. They also noted that the emphasis on “paper qualifications” without skills should be reduced; technical teachers should be well-paid in order to attract qualified personnel to the profession, and that training for technical teachers should be given special attention.

Among other things, the duo suggested that technical certificates, both local and foreign should be regarded and recognised for both admissions and employment as long as they meet the set standards.

Since independence, the experts claimed there has not been any Nigerian government that took technical education as a serious business.

They said, “The negative effects of this negligence of technical education are reflecting on our economy presently, hunger, unemployment, kidnapping, armed robbery and all forms of social vices has squarely visited the nation. Thousands of the nation’s youths have run to foreign lands such as Libya for greener pasture and prostitution/ is this the solution to the problem?.

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