States and criminal negligence of basic education
Parlous conditions of public schools, in the midst of idle education grants, signpost one of the inherent contradictions of the Nigerian State. It is an aberration, criminal negligence and shameful that state governments have consistently ignored the universal basic education grant to deny children the right to quality education and a brighter future for the country. It is unacceptable that the legislative arm of government at states and federal levels have continued to palm off the sheer irresponsibility while education continues to wallow and the future bleak.
Sadly, education that is the bedrock of development in modern society is on a free-fall in Nigeria. Besides universities that have shut down because of an age-long disagreement between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the primary and secondary levels of education are nothing to be proud of. Uniform to all public schools are poor funding, dilapidated infrastructure, demotivated teachers and substandard quality of learning. Except for children of the very poor that are condemned to the rot, most of the public schools are not fit for purpose.
But it is not far-fetched that education is that wrecked in Nigeria. Despite yawning gaps, rarely has any of the state prioritised funding to consistently vote at least 26 per cent of its yearly budget to education, as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recommended for developing countries that want to catch up. It is understandable that there are other ‘needs’, including endemic corruption, that are competing for scarce resources in the state. Most unforgivable is the consistent failure of states to make the most of the Universal Basic Education Commission’s (UBEC) grants, to bridge the funding gaps. It is distressing to note that the commission currently has over N51 billion unutilised fund in the kitty because the 36 states would not pay a counterpart fund to access the lump sum. The Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) that uncovered the idle fund, has threatened to sue the 36 state governors over reckless discrimination against children’s education.
Last year, the narrative was not any different in the poor utilisation of grants offered by UBEC – the 1999 reform programme, aimed at providing greater access to, and ensuring quality of basic education throughout Nigeria. The intervention was to provide assistance to the states and local governments to replicate free, compulsory and universal basic education for every child of primary and junior secondary school age. Unfortunately, about N41 billion was not accessed out of N184.8 billion set aside by the commission in 2021. None of the states accessed the 2020 matching grant. Specifically, Ogun State was yet to access its 2018 allocation while Niger, Ogun, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi, Imo and Edo are yet to provide matching grants for 2019 awards.
All of these are embarrassing and it gives a snippet on what is happening at the backend of education in Nigeria. Clearly, the right to education is enshrined in the Chapter Two of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, and has been made justiciable by the Universal Basic Education Act, already supported by a judiciary pronouncement, among others. The constitution mandates the government to direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate opportunities at all levels. Therefore, the flip side of education decline and its discrimination against the poor, underscore the implementation failure of the national policy on education. It beats the imagination that the 36 state governors are so intransigent on de-development of education and deliberate under-funding. And if they believe education is the foundation of development, they are only mouthing it.
However, it should be noted that the subject of education has to go beyond rhetoric and should be addressed with some urgency, if the country must guarantee progress and a tolerable future. The ensuing challenges facing education have seen many stakeholders, including political officeholders, set up their own private schools or have their wards enrol abroad, to the reckless abandonment of state-owned institutions. For instance, Nigeria is currently investing heavily in the European economy because of the influx of Nigerians studying abroad. Nigerians schooling in the United Kingdom (UK) universities increased by 63.5 per cent in the 2020/2021 academic year. According to a UK agency’s enrolment data, the top 10 on the list include: Pakistan with 65.7 per cent as the highest, followed by Nigeria’s 63.5 per cent, while India has 52.4 per cent, Saudi Arabia 3.6 per cent, Hong Kong 1.7 per cent and China 1.4 per cent.
Suffice to note that while countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Canada and the United States recorded a decline in overseas education in 2021, Nigeria has climbed up the ladder. It has clearly shown that Nigerians are hungry for education and standard than the country has ever offered at all levels. However, foreign education is not the lasting solution to the problem at home. There is no prophesy in stating that the army of over 10.5 million Nigerian children that are today deprived of statutory right to sound education will shortly become the nuisance that will terrorise both the State and its educated elite tomorrow. The future children of yesterday’s depravity are already here today in the toga of Boko Haram, killer herders, kidnappers, armed robbers, ritualists, miscreants and other criminal elements. It is a mystery that the ruling class has not learnt a lesson nor is attempting to grope through the present-day darkness to arrive at a brighter tomorrow.
Besides SERAP calling states out and pressing litigation, it is incumbent on the House of Representatives and State legislature to demand better funding for education and commitment from state governors. It is on record that the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education recently threatened to name and shame state governments that refused to present their counterpart funding for the release of funds by the commission. But it was a threat that ended where it was said. The lawmakers should actually bite than bark on this matter of urgent public importance. The state governors should have no excuses in accessing the funds and executing the projects to the last kobo.
By extension, all stakeholders, including the ruling political parties in the states, should press harder for better performances in measurable improvement education across the board. Physical infrastructure is good, but it amounts to nothing without enlightened minds to use them profitably. And instead of railroading public funds into undeserved pensions and other personal aggrandisement, governors can show patriotism in committing such funds into UBEC counterpart funds. This would allow children from poor backgrounds to access quality basic education in our public schools. It is the promise the governors made while vying for office. They should be held accountable accordingly.