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Re-investing first-class graduates in the education system

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In the last five years, 16 Nigerian universities have produced no fewer than 3,499 students who graduated with first class. In this piece, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL, examines the National Youth Service Corps’ (NYSC) recent announcement that first-class graduates participating in the compulsory one-year service will be deployed to serve in the country’s universities

The academic prowess of Nigerian students continues to be exhibited as universities in the country keeps churning out exceptionally brilliant and hard-working students.

It is little wonder that in the last five years, a total of 3,499 first-class graduates have been produced by 16 Nigerian universities.

In most cases, the often and biggest beneficiaries of these brilliant brains are the private companies who fall head over heels in love with them offering them juicy employment packages and irresistible future opportunities. Only on few occasions do universities benefit from the ingenuity of these graduates.

Well, if the announcement by the then Director General of the NYSC, Brig.-Gen. Johnson Olawunmi, is anything to go by, Nigerian universities will play host to all the first-class graduates participating in the national service programme.

Perhaps, after that one-year compulsory service they can choose to ply their trade in the private sector.

Not a few experts in the education industry think that this is a good move.

Speaking at a two-day pre-mobilisation workshop for the 2015 Batch ‘B’ NYSC programme Olawumi had stated that the new posting policy was to properly mobilise the right manpower to boost the education sector.

“All corps members who graduated with first-class honours… will be posted to tertiary institutions for effective utilisation of their manpower.

The posting policy of the scheme is being vigorously implemented for the achievement of the desired impact.

I, therefore, appeal to the authorities of all tertiary institutions of learning to reciprocate this gesture by accepting and offering them permanent appointments after service,” the NYSC DG had said.

A laudable idea but it is not apparent that the NYSC is walking the talk.

A first-class degree is earned when an undergraduate scores a Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 4.50 and above upon graduation.

In the past, earning a first-class honours degree was not commonplace.

Today, however, there is much ado about graduating with a first class with some public analysts accusing private universities of churning out such class of degree with ease and on the other hand praising public universities for being able to produce graduates with first class degrees even though the general standard of education is said to have fallen.

This year, at the 49th convocation of the University of Lagos (UNILAG), there were 245 first-class graduates.

Three students emerged best graduating students with a CGPA of 4.97. They were Jude Mathew from the Department of Biochemistry; Abbas Roy-Larinde from the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering; and Emmanuel Babawale, Department of Early Childhood Education.

The previous year, the university had 3.25 per cent of its graduating students leaving school with a first class; in University of Ibadan, 2.24 per cent of the graduands had first class; it was 1.2 per cent in Kaduna State University; Ahmadu Bello University had 0.67 per cent; University of Benin, was 1 per cent; Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, 0.57 per cent; and Obafemi Awolowo University had 0.84 per cent.

The picture of awards of first class degrees was more colourful in private universities in the same period.

Bells University had 6.15 per cent of its graduands coasting home with first class; Benson Idahosa University, 5.62 per cent; Covenant University, 7.9 per cent; Babcock University, 3.88 per cent; Adeleke University, 8.8 per cent; and Landmark University, 10.35 per cent.

However, not a few people are worried about the development.

Talking about the so-called proliferation of first class degrees, especially in Nigeria’s private universities, Dr. Idris Oyemitan of the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences, at Walter Sisulu University, South Africa, said, “It is very absurd that students that failed to obtain anything close to 250 in their Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination scores or Post-UTME examination are now being awarded first class degrees.

I want to criticise these questionable awards from four main angles: the Senior Secondary Certificate Examination grades of these glorified first class graduates cannot match those in public universities.”

Speaking further, he noted: “Almost all of them scored below average or minimum scores that would not have qualified them to gain admission into leading (public) universities in Nigeria.

Most of these private universities cannot compete with the public ones in areas of qualified lecturers as they mostly rely on unemployed, retired, visiting, part-time and sometimes grossly incompetent academic staff to churn out these half-baked graduates.”

The education expert argued further that most private universities cannot boast of standard laboratories as well as qualified and competent technical staff.

“From the foregoing, most of the first class graduates produced by these private universities would have at best obtained second class lower or third class degrees from functional standard universities across Nigeria,” he stated.

The South Africa-based scholar, therefore, urged the National Universities Commission (NUC) and other regulatory agencies to look into the rising number of students graduating with first class.

Is this just a peculiar Nigerian situation? Is standard of education in the country’s private and public universities so bad that it becomes frightening for the institutions to produce an increasing number of graduates with first class degrees?

In the United Kingdom, the proportion of students graduating with top degrees has soared in the past five years, with a quarter of last year’s candidates leaving university with a first class, a dramatic increase from just 17 per cent in 2012.

In 2016, almost three quarter of students achieved a 2:1 or higher, compared with just two-thirds five years ago.

In the early 1990s, the proportion of students graduating with a first class was far lower, at around eight per cent.

This increasing army of first class graduates have prompted many UK universities to introduce additional character reports alongside degree classifications, giving a more detailed breakdown of students’ academic performance and extra-curricular awards and activities.

Prof. Sola Fajana had at one time dispelled fears about the rise of students with first class degrees as a fluke or a “cash-and-carry” phenomenon.

The professor had said, ”The Nigerian University System is regulated by the NUC through instruments such as Benchmark Minimum Academic Standards.

The resource verification and accreditation processes are very intricate and supervised with a deep sense of responsibility and integrity.

The external examination system ensures that standards are kept very high nationally and internationally.

If a first class graduate is pronounced in the NUS, you can be assured that the graduate is indeed a first class material.”

The scholar asserted that such increase is reflective of increases and advances in knowledge and access to information through the ubiquitous internet.

“There is an increasing number of serious-minded students who deploy information communication technology to achieve excellent results.

Furthermore, the total number of graduates produced has been increasing over time, especially since the 1980s.

Consequently, the proportional increase in the number of first-class students probably reflects the increase in the number of graduates produced compared with the figures of the 1960s up to the 1970s,” Fajana added.

From the UK example, it seems that all over the world – not just in Nigeria and its private universities – that award of first-class degrees are increasing.

Those who see the rise as cheery news affirmed that the situation is not as a result of unnecessary grade inflation, because the NUC plays a credible and efficient regulatory role in ensuring standards in federal, state and private universities across the country.

Talking about the influence of the internet in making academic resource more available to students Prof. Olusola Oyewole, once noted that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has contributed immensely to the rise of first-class graduates.

“To that extent, where students are serious with their studies, it is easier to make a first class today than it was in the past. The methods of assessment are also more liberal today than they were in the past. With this, it is very easy for serious-minded students to score higher grades,” Oyewole had said.

According to him, there is improvement in learning systems, which are becoming more learner-focused than teacher-centred, giving room for conscientious students to explore and research widely on their own any subject beyond the four walls of the classroom.

In spite of assurances from scholars like Oyewole and Fajana, some still feel that it is almost impossible for universities – public universities in particular – to produce large numbers of first-class graduates in the face of dwindling academic commitments, poor facilities (like hostels, classrooms and laboratories) and other needed resources and amenities to make learning a delight.

They also argue that given frequent and long periods of strike actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), it is incredible to imagine that students will find it easier to graduate with such high scores.

Another assertion made is that since the university system has been disrupted on many occasions recently and because of the usual complaint of lack of teaching and learning facilities in the universities made by ASUU, it appears difficult to believe that many students are now graduating with first class.

In spite of the aspersion being cast on the increasing number of graduates with first-class degrees, the brilliant brains have continued to catch the eye of employers of labour.

Recently, for example, Access Bank offered automatic employments to 51 first-class graduates of the Gombe State University.

Not willing to be outsmarted, the state governor, Ibrahim Dankwambo, also offered the graduands automatic employment in the state civil service.

All in all, analysts said it is important that the federal government – or the NYSC – reconsider its 2015 plan.

They noted that it is critical that the first-class graduates on national service should be deployed to tertiary institutions to share their knowledge and expertise with their peers, serving as role models for future generations.

They also believe that one-year period will be a way of giving back to the system that nurtured them before deciding to work elsewhere after the national service.

Some experts, however, reasoned that the fresh graduates may not be experienced enough to handle such a task at the university level.

They suggested that as good as the plan may be the first-class graduates should be deployed to polytechnics and colleges of education to hone their skills further.

It is almost three years now and not much has been heard from NYSC or the federal government on the issue.

Perhaps, the announcement to deploy all first-class graduates to serve in the country’s universities was just propaganda or an ill-advised statement.

Whatever it is, the private sector remains the biggest beneficiaries of the growing number of first-class graduates in Nigeria.


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