The challenges before higher education
Higher education has become a problem for us in Nigeria, indeed in Africa: thinking outside the box is not part of the accepted academic framework and mental orientation. It is not one of the goals of the syllabus. To complicate matters the level of in-breeding within the system greatly stultifies profound thinking. Garbage in garbage out has become more poignant in this age of the ubiquitous computer and computerisation.
Ironically the social and political challenges which we currently confront in our nation have missed the sight of the educational system. This is at all levels. How then can a problem as a fundamental successfully confront a challenge and alter the course of things? How can an institution or a process which has become a problem champion the cause of alternative thinking? This contradiction stares us every day in the face as we stand before undergraduates pontifically pouring out thoughts and ideas from fundamental positions which we did not develop ab initio.
Thinking within the box! Outside the box is a territory the curriculum has not supported or created room for. Often students say to themselves ‘let me give the lecturer what he wants, what he gave us in class, or in his lecture. If you give him something else, you will fail’. Let us interrogate this for a minute. What it means is that the student is barred from original thinking, the student as respondent is not allowed to wander from the curriculum. It also means that the teacher is locked in time and space; this, if it is true that the teacher has created the impression that outside the box is a crime.
It is my view that we should start asking questions now of our teachers and researchers: how well do we develop the minds of our students to think about the challenges of their environment? How relevant are the contents of the courses we teach to the challenges of the times?
We have decided to create more space for the young minds who want to enter the university bind. Yet we do not prepare to apply ourselves to the challenges of our environment. One of the main causes of the problem is the rigid, prescribed syllabus which we operate in the country. There are too many lazy intellectuals in the system. These are intellectuals who dust their notes from five years ago and repeat same to students who would ultimately enter a hostile, brave new world. How much does the system prepare them for what the world to come?
Perhaps the wrong focus of academic programmes arises from the very method through the genesis of our higher institutions. Higher education was originally designed as a channel of entering the elite class through degree acquisition. However, with all the reviews of programmes that have taken place over the years, there ought to have been a re-focus. The philosophy ought to have been modified. What are we training our undergraduates for? Graduates of English who cannot write correct sentences are an indictment on the university system. Accounting graduates who cannot balance the books or computer science graduates who cannot do simple word processing are a tragedy and a huge indictment on all of us their teachers.
At this point in our history, our universities and polytechnics ought to do some original thinking about Agriculture, Language(s), Literature, History, about Communications, about Economics and Finance, about fraud, about identity, about social media and about other fields. Graduates in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences should be trained to tackle direct challenges in their environment by thinking about them. Some cases in studies are drawn from the environment; however, how much application have we done? The truth is that the discipline of Thinking Things Through (TTT) has not been part of the general curriculum.
Where we have applied our minds to the problems of our environment is in the area of the Arts. Nollywood through acting and the film industry has projected that which was hitherto impossible. It is instructive that the higher institutions did not do this for us. In an indirect manner they may have contributed; that is, through the graduates they have trained that are now the practitioners in the industry. To bridge the gap, higher institutions are now following Nollywood.
How much of town and gown relationship actually exists in Research and Development? What is the link between intake and output? What is the link between admissions, academic programmes and societal requirements? How much of academic content is geared towards problem-solutions? This in my view should be the focus of the years ahead. Be sure that the politicians will not come to the universities to ask. It is the duty of the universities and regulatory bodies to think in that direction.
If we sit in the decaying ivory towers and blame everything on government failure, we would be deceiving ourselves. And if a university cannot develop solar panels to light up a faculty of engineering it should close shop. If a graduate of History cannot tell us the history of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, the university should close shop. If we schedule exams for 8a.m. and it does not start till 9a.m. we are simply incompetent. If we make our students write on slabs inside a big examination hall we are not ready for the 21st century.
This interrogation in no way undermines the brilliant minds of staff and students in higher education. Indeed there are excellent minds trudging on under difficult and impossible conditions in the educational system. Yet the quality of persons whom we yearly push out in the labour market generally elicits questions. Must everyone who enters the university system graduate, that is, take a degree? Must a university degree be the only channel to negotiating one’s way into success? No!
Higher education in Africa and in Nigeria has to reform or reinvent itself. Else it would become irrelevant to the youth of the future. The first persons to verbalise the disappointment in and failure of education were the illiterate mothers who asked the question: why do you need to go to a university when your brothers and sisters who graduated five years ago have not gotten jobs? Go and play football, make money and take us out of this poverty. As pedestrian as this may sound, it placed it fingers on the core issue of our educational system. Even the practical courses that ought to have direct relevance to social needs are tangentially handled. Graduates have to be trained and re-trained before they are employed. As teachers therefore let us ask the Achebean question: where did the rain begin to beat us? And where is the umbrella to save us from being disgracefully soaked?
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