As if emanating from effects of some benevolent spiritual forces, the plethora of recent comments in the last couple of weeks concerning the state of education in the country seemed to have demonstrated a re-awakened consciousness about the value of proper education and also reiterated the urgency to embark upon some radical reconstruction of same.
First of these comments was the advice by the National Economic Council (NEC) to the federal and state governments to declare a state of emergency on education. As an addendum to that advice, the respective governments were also directed to allocate a minimum of 15 per cent of their budgets to education to restructure that sector. After this came the condemnation of the Federal Government by legal luminary and university administrator, Chief Afe Babalola, who accused the government of allegedly ignoring the directives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that 26 per cent of budgetary allocation be earmarked for education.
Thereafter came the nationwide strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) over lingering funding issues, which was quickly followed by the loaded statement from Dr. Olawale Babalakin, the chairman of the Implementation Monitoring Committee of the Agreements entered between the Federal Government and various unions of Nigerian universities. Whilst dismissing as false the touted claim of UNESCO’s recommendation that 26 per cent of budgetary allocation be earmarked for funding education, Dr. Babalakin had informed Nigerians that the Federal Government alone couldn’t fund university education, after all.
Ordinarily, the gesture of the governors deserves commendation. That they have deemed it expedient to declare emergency on education is a demonstration that some quantum of critical reflection has been expended on matters of education. It also seems to suggest that they appreciate the magnitude of the problem in the sector. Beyond enrolment of children in schools or taking children of school age off the streets, they need to understand that it takes focus and purpose, funding, appropriate research design for a 21st century curriculum, and other auxiliary amenities like electricity supply, functional internet services and computerisation for adequate provision of qualitative education.
Though Babalakin’s counterclaim disputing the 26 per cent UNESCO benchmark is controversial, we are optimistic that with commitment and personal sacrifice on the part of the governors, states can meet up with 15 per cent recommended by the NEC. The primary sign of commitment would be the cultivation of the right mindset and the resolve to transform the human capital of the state. This would then lead to radical renunciation of wasteful spending and profligacy around private and public lives of state actors and institutions.
Even as Nigerians commend this declaration of emergency on education, they should interrogate it with some cautious cynicism. Though it may be said that it is ‘better late than never,’ we need to ask why the governors only thought of a state of emergency in education now – that general elections are near. How much have they put in education in terms of purposeful thinking? What is the time frame of this emergency? What are our goals? What do we want as objectives? Why do we pursue those objectives? Whatever the outcomes, there should be continuity. And this is where we need the civil service as a critical success factor.
This newspaper is consistently suspicious of such rude awakening that did not arise from any perceptible needs assessment. It appears that this is just political gimmick contrived as the country approaches general elections. Nigerians have been through this before.
If the Federal Government has declared a state of emergency in education, where is the draft law? Otherwise, the declaration of a state of emergency would just be a pronouncement that is merely an expedient token for the moment.
Granted that the declaration of the governors is an expression of genuine commitment, how should this be managed? What is there on ground to be built upon in the different states of the country? It is evident that their lack of attention and the frequent distraction occasioned by their allegiance to many interests have not augured well for commitment to education. But for those desirous of turning the educational fortunes of their state around, they must recognise that it demands focus, doggedness and actionable interventions. The governors should have some sort of Marshall plan not only to provide basic education for their people, but also to turn out world-class manpower in deliberately guided enlightenment and empowerment schemes.
Cognizant of the needs of their area, they should desist from turning development projects into election testimonials, and face the task of governance for posterity. If the governors require models on whose educational projects they can improve upon, they should study how the intervention of the then governor of Anambra State Peter Obi turned an erstwhile poor performing state like Anambra into an enviable educational mindscape in a space of eight years. They may also want to scan and revise the Free-Education-For-All model developed by the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Concerning Babalakin’s claim that the federal government alone cannot fund university education, this is a frank, realistic and true position. Nonetheless, there is need for the country’s bureaucracy to express commitment to this educational sector, despite our budgetary shortcomings. For proper understanding of the federal government’s position, there is need to interrogate Babalakin’s statement. What does it mean to say that the federal government alone cannot fund university education? Does it mean that university education is a public-private partnership? Should it be mainly private sector driven? Is it that students are to pay for their university education? How do we get the money?
Whilst this newspaper agrees with Babalakin’s initial statement, it is our candid position that each time there is low budget in education, we are disenfranchising our children; and this is a disaster. No enlightened universal community doubts the value of education to national policy. The understanding of today’s global complexities, international trade as well as social and cultural relations are proportional to the civilisational effects from university education.
It is hardly possible for a country like Nigeria with seven per cent budgetary allocation for education to make meaningful progress in that sector. When compared with countries with better planning, clear focus, less population, double digit budgetary allocation, heavy private sector involvement and better understand of the purpose of university education, the tragedy befalling this country can only be imagined.
Indeed given the present mismanaged economy, it would be unrealistic and economically suicidal for Nigeria, given the state of its economy, to be misguided by some bogus trade union ideology, into total funding of university education. As this newspaper noted the other day, whilst the citizens have a right to free basic education, such is not the case with tertiary education. We would like to reiterate that university education is neither a social rite of passage for every teenager nor a ‘dividend of democracy’. University education is a scanner and sieve out of which the finest minds emerge to push back the frontiers of knowledge that will positively transform the individual and civilise the society.
But Nigeria has never had the goodwill or luck for such. With the needless proliferation of universities and the dubious politicisation around their management, it is becoming clear why Nigerian universities are non-starters in the conclave of high-flying tertiary institutions despite the exploits made by Nigerian staff and students in these institutions. Two things dog the attainment of Nigerian universities onto world class status: One is the aversion to reason and the other, which follows from the first, is the reluctance to pursue knowledge for its sake, a culture that necessarily propels research towards problem-solving.
The value of the university as the citadel of liberal education is rooted in the supremacy of the triple elements of civilisation, reason and freedom. The human mind has to be free and cultivated for knowledge to take place – and this is what the university does. As one commentator puts it: “In liberal education, the recipients are put through their paces by being exposed to the best and finest that human mind has produced through the history of human civilisation.”
But because our universities were established as nurseries for man-power development to service the colonial economy and, later as a strategy for nation-building and rapid economic development, they do not yet aspire to the enlightenment project, which views knowledge as power, respects the centrality of Reason in extricating humankind from anarchy, ignorance and superstition.
What is worse is that, Nigeria has so derailed from the colonial project that university education has now become instruments of ethnic supremacy, status symbol and religious identity.
Whilst senior citizens who were beneficiaries of quality education are calling for a return to the good old days, this newspaper believes that the self-liberating quality education, which Nigerians deserve and demand cannot come from a powerful, omnibus, unitary system of government this country practises. Different localities and peoples must understand their fundamental needs and channel their resources towards such goals. A government that streamlines the guidelines of educational administration based on an anti-rational, dogmatic, recondite and other-directed knowledge structure is unwittingly plotting the collapse of education in the country. And the moment the educational system collapses, the nation collapses. That is why the governing authorities should migrate from rhetoric to action on robust investment in education at all levels.