The State of Education in Nigeria


Otive Igbuzor, PhD

Country Director,

ActionAid International Nigeria




The importance of education to human beings cannot be over emphasized. Education is a human right that should be accorded to all human beings solely by reason of being human. There are a lot of international human rights instruments that provide for education as a fundamental human right. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981). The relationship between education and development is well established such that education is a key index of development. It has been documented that schooling improves productivity, health and reduces negative features of life such as child labour as well as bringing about empowerment.[i] This is why there has been a lot of emphasis particularly in recent times for all citizens of the world to have access to basic education.


The importance and linkage of education to the development of any society is well known. It is in recognition of this importance that the international community and governments all over the world have made commitments for citizens to have access to education.  Meanwhile, it has been documented that across the globe, there are inequalities in educational access and achievement as well as high levels of absolute educational deprivation of both children and adults.[ii] In order to confront this challenge, the rights based approach, which emphasizes the participation of citizens, has been advocated. Meanwhile, the Declaration of the World Conference on Education for All (WCEFA) which was made in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990 stated clearly in Article 1 that every person – child, Youth and Adult – shall be able to benefit from educational opportunities designed to meet their basic needs. This declaration was reaffirmed at the World Summit for Children also held in 1990, which stated that all children should have access to basic education by the year 2000. The World Summit for Children placed a lot of emphasis on raising the levels of female literacy. In a bid to achieve education goals, the Dakar World Education Forum was held as a follow-up meeting to the WCEFA where new sets of goals were set to be attained by the year 2015. The goals include:


(i)                  Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children;

(ii)                Ensuring that by 2015 all children, with special emphasis on girls, children in difficult circumstances and from ethnic minorities have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality;

(iii)               Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes;

(iv)              Achieving a 50 percent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults;

(v)                Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girl’s full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality;

(vi)              Improving all aspects of the quality of education, and ensuring excellence for all, so that recognized and reasonable learning outcomes are achieved, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.

Similarly, the Millennium Developments Goals (MDGs) adopted in September 2000 at  the United Nations Millennium Declaration has two of the eight goals devoted to education. They are goal 2 (to achieve universal primary education) and goal 3 (to promote gender equality and empower women).


Over the years, Nigeria has expressed a commitment to education, in the belief that overcoming illiteracy and ignorance will form a basis for accelerated national development. However, regardless of the incontrovertible evidence that education is crucial to the development of the community and the nation, there remain inequalities in access to education. Despite its potential for leveling opportunities, education is in many countries used to perpetrate inequalities. Millions of poor people and their children are excluded from the processes and outcomes of education.


In this paper, we shall describe the state of education in Nigeria and the challenges that flow therefrom. We shall then discuss the perspectives of ActionAid International and what can be done to improve that state of education in Nigeria.



The severe decline of the oil market in the early eighties, combined with the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), led to drastic reductions in spending on education. The result was unpaid teacher salaries, degradation of education facilities at all levels and strikes in universities and schools. The end result is declining literacy rates in the country.

The poor state of education in Nigeria is aptly captured in the National Empowerment Development Strategy as follows:

…the delivery of education in Nigeria has suffered from years of neglect, compounded by inadequate attention to policy frameworks within the sector. Findings from an ongoing educational sector analysis confirm the poor state of education in Nigeria. The national literacy rate is currently 57 percent. Some 49 percent of the teaching force is unqualified. There are acute shortages of infrastructure and facilities at all levels. Access to basic education is inhibited by gender issues and sociocultural beliefs and practices, among other factors. Wide disparities persist in educational standards and learning achievements. The system emphasizes theoretical knowledge at the expense of technical, vocational, and entrepreneurial education. School curricula need urgent review to make them relevant and practice oriented.[iii]

 Similarly, according to the Nigeria Millennium Development Goals 2005 report,

Literacy level in the country has steadily and gradually deteriorated, especially within the 15-24 years group. By 1999, the overall literacy rate had declined to 64.1 % from 71.9 % in 1991. The trend was in the same direction for male and female members of the 15-24 years age bracket. Among the male, the rate declined from 81.35 % in 1991 to 69.8 % in 1999. The decline among the female was from 62.49 % to 59.3 % during the same period.[iv]


Statistics indicate glaring imbalances against girls in enrolment, attendance and completion rates in all levels of education in Nigeria, particularly in the northern parts of the country, due to a variety of socio-cultural and religious factors. It means that the rights of millions of children, especially girls, are violated. It is estimated that 7.3 million school age children are out of primary school majority of them girls.


Meanwhile, the education system in Nigeria is guided by the broad National objectives which are articulated in the National Policy on Education. At its inception in 1999, in response to the challenges in the primary education sector, the present administration launched the Universal basic Education Programme. Specifically, the Universal Basic Education Act (2004) and the Child Rights Act provide the legal framework for the implementation of the Programme, which makes basic education not only free but also compulsory.  In addition, as a signatory to the 2000 World Education Conference, and the 6 Dakar Goals towards achieving Education for All (EFA), Government has also established a National EFA Coordination unit under the Federal Ministry of Education mandated to prepare a National Action Plan for the delivery of EFA in Nigeria.



There are a lot of challenges facing Nigeria and making it difficult for good quality education that is empowering and capable of bringing about sustainable development to be provided. In this paper, we shall attempt to highlight some of the challenges. The first and pperhaps the greatest challenge facing education is inadequate funding by federal, states and local governments, to the extent that funding has been in response to conditionalities imposed by international financial institutions (IFIs). Statistics show that federal government expenditure on education between 1997 and 2000 has been below 10% of overall expenditure. The national expenditure on education can not be computed because various states expenditure on education can not be determined, in relation to the UNESCO recommendation of 26% of national budgets.




















Graph 1: Federal Government Spending on Education.


Secondly, there is the problem of access which has attracted a lot of attention particularly in recent years. Studies have been conducted on the reasons why people do not go to school; the people that are usually excluded and the impact of the introduction of user fees. A study conducted by Action Aid published in 2003 showed that the reason why pupils do not go to primary schools include costs of schooling, opportunity costs, illness and hunger, limited economic costs of education and low quality of schooling.[v]  The costs of schooling include the costs of books, stationery and basic equipment, uniforms, admission fees, registration and examination fees, contribution towards building and maintenance fund, construction fees, transportation, mid-day meals, Parents/Teachers Association (PTA) fees, sports fees, library fees and extra tuition fees. The opportunity cost for parents sending children to school is the children’s time that could have been of economic importance to the family either in terms of income generating activities or in supporting the functioning of the household. Illness and hunger either of the children themselves or members of the family can prevent children from going to school. Limited economic benefits in terms of the fact that those who have completed school have no jobs do dissuade people from going to school. Finally, low quality of schooling particularly with regards to poor physical infrastructures, lack of motivated staff, poor utilization of resources, content of curriculum, nature of teaching methods and relationship of the school and teachers with the wider community can negatively impact on the urge to go to school.[vi]


It has been documented that there are categories of children who tend to be excluded from the formal schooling system- children from the poorest families, the landless, working children, children of minority groups, children of migrant or pastoralist families, orphans, children affected by HIV/AIDS and those with physical or mental disabilities.[vii]  This is in accord with researches that have shown that whenever user fees are introduced in the provision of social services, the utilization by the rich increases while utilization by the poor decreases.[viii]  In Malawi for instance, two years after fees were introduced into the school system in the 1980s, enrollment rates fell by over 5 percent.[ix] Conversely, it has been documented that whenever user fees are abolished, enrollment increases.[x] An example is Tanzania which eliminated fees for primary education in January, 2002 with the support of the World Bank and enrollments surged by as much as 1.5 million children. It should be noted that formally scrapping fees without a major increase in public financing can have a disastrous impact on quality and is unsustainable. It is therefore necessary that whenever fees are abolished, there should be revenue and budget reforms and the need to train and employ more teachers, build new classroom and provide more facilities to meet the increased enrolment.

Thirdly, there is the problem of poor infrastructures and lack of teaching and learning materials. A huge number of primary, secondary and tertiary school buildings and facilities are dilapidated and unfriendly to pupils. The environment of  teaching and learning is not conducive. Fourthly, there is the problem of irrelevant curriculum: It is a shame that 46 years after independence, our children are still being taught that Mungo Park discovered River Niger. He may have discovered it for Europeans but certainly not to Nigerians who were fishing and collecting water from River Niger before Mungo park came to Nigeria.



It is interesting to note that when parents find persons who have received good education unable to get employment in the formal sector, they are dissuaded from sending their children to school. Similarly, parents and guardians would be reluctant to send their children and wards to dilapidated school buildings, to be taught by ill-motivated teachers. They would be reluctant to send their children and wards to school if the education that the kids are getting is not in any way relevant to their circumstances, or if there is a danger that they can be abused by teachers or members of the community on their way to school.



Please permit me at this point to share with you ActionAid perspectives on education and the approach we have utilized in Nigeria to contribute to improvement of the state of education. As an organization, ActionAid’s focus is on basic education, as defined in “The Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Act, 2004 and Other Related Matters”. Under the Act, basic education refers to early childhood care and education and nine years of formal education.


But we also recognize the potential of increased adult literacy to enhance parents’, particularly mothers’ appreciation of the benefits of education, and their ability to actually support their children’s formal and informal learning processes. We also appreciate the fact that only when tertiary institutions produce graduates who are relevant to the community with their skills and commitment can the benefits of education can perceptible, and provide the incentive for the poor to send their children to school.


The AAIN vision for education is: A Nigeria in which every girl, boy, woman and man is able to achieve access to free quality relevant basic education. The AAIN mission is:  To work with the poor and excluded in Nigeria to claim their rights to quality basic education.


AAIN education programming has been shaped by ActionAid’s Global Strategy (Right to End Poverty), the Africa Regional Strategy (Another Africa is Possible), the AAIN’s Strategy (Fighting Poverty in the Midst of Plenty), the National Policy on Education, the Dakar Framework of Action and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) set by the United Nations as International Development Targets (IDTs) at the Millennium Summit in 2000.


We at ActionAid believe that our resources can only make an impact if they are deployed very strategically. In order to confront this challenge, the rights based approach, which emphasizes the participation of citizens, has been advocated. As noted above,  the right to education is enshrined in many international human rights covenants including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Dakar Framework for Action, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The right of all Nigerians to education has always been provided for in constitutions. Indeed, the UBE Act of 2004 makes basic education not only free, but compulsory. It has been argued that these rights are necessary for people to live meaningful lives and therefore there is a great need to make them (right to education in particular and socioeconomic rights in general) justiciable. In any case, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in article 17 provides that every individual shall have the right to education. The African Charter has been domesticated in some countries and therefore has the full force of law. Unfortunately, however, in many of these constitutions, these rights are not justiciable.


ActionAid seeks to build capacity building among local civil society capacity in the areas of programming, policy analysis and advocacy, campaigning, lobbying, gender analysis, budget tracking, strategic planning and organisational development.  It has, since 1999, supported action research and related efforts that have deepened our understanding of the arena and the issues, as a result of which the issues/challenges in basic education, the magnitude and preponderance of problems, the typologies, underlying factors and effective responses have been articulated. ActionAid is able to map challenges against opportunities for the provision of free quality basic education in Nigeria.


ActionAid International Nigeria has popularized the use of  REFLECT (an acronym for Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques) throughout Nigeria. Today, many development partners, government agencies (e.g NMEC) and civil society organisations are using the REFLECT approach or adaptations of it in programming for education. The REFLECT approach enables adults to  imbibe the skills for reflection on their circumstances and the building of  critical masses of individuals  who are able to critically analyze the environments and draw up action plans to address the issues and problems.


ActionAid has generated a compendium of good practices, as a tool for shared learning. We have produced  case studies on accountability, transformation and mobilization issues in education. These have been disseminated through newsletters and other forms of documentation to partners.


ActionAid’s engagement with key stakeholders reinforces their commitments to the achievement of EFA in Nigeria. ActionAid supports civil society to leverage space for promoting the voices of the poor within the parameters provided by the EFA Framework for Action.


It promotes analysis of the Education Sector, such that activities feed into the larger macro-economic framework and the priorities, conditionalities and limitations that constitute the context for interventions.


AAIN has actively facilitated or been a part of teams facilitating national campaigns within such frameworks as the Nigeria Social Forum and Global Call to Action against Poverty.    



However, our work is often constrained by a number of factors. Among these is the very limited experience of most of the local organisations that we work with, which means weak absorptive capacities. A lot of time and resources have first to be spent on building institutional capacity. This naturally tends to slow the pace for programme implementation. But there can never be an alternative to institutional capacity building, because it is critical for sustainability.


In adopting the rights-based approach, we have to contend with the pervading culture of silence, complacency, poverty and hunger. We therefore have always to strike a balance between rights promotion and delivery of tangibles in project communities.


At ActionAid, we have to deal with donors with purposes and sets of accountabilities as well as modes of operations that are different from our ways. While, for example, AAI is more process-oriented in programming, funding agencies tend to be task/output-oriented. Some donors may also have clauses and conditionalities attached to their assistance that constrain the achievement of EFA.  


In conclusion, we agree with the argument that if we are to achieve development goals, then Nigeria must change course, especially in terms of using its economic development frameworks to mitigate the adverse effects of development philosophies and macroeconomic policies from IFIs.


5.         WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

From the above analysis, it is clear to us that the state of education in Nigeria is lamentably poor. There are a lot of challenges facing the education sector. Meanwhile, there are perspectives that could be utilized to transform the sector. It has been documented that with current trends, the target of achieving universal primary education will not be attained in many countries (including Nigeria). The UNDP documents that:

If current trends continue, the target of achieving universal primary education by 2015 will be missed by at least a decade. There will be 47 million children out of school in 2015, 19 million of them in sub-saharan Africa. Forty six countries are going backwards or will not meet the target until after 2040. These countries account for 23 million of the 110 million children currently out of school in developing countries.[xi]

In trying to look at what is to be done, the position of ActionAid International is very clear and unambiguous

All children should have access to quality education within an equitable system. Schools should be places where children’s rights especially those of girls, are respected, injustices are challenged and lives transformed. By attending school, children can acquire the confidence and knowledge to better access and make use of information that can improve their lives. The dignity and self-confidence gained can help them to challenge discriminatory and biased gender roles and relations. We know that education can also provide girls with the knowledge and confidence needed to help reduce maternal and child mortality, violence and HIV/AIDS transmission. Furthermore, good quality education is essential for enabling countries to achieve the level of economic growth required to tackle poverty and make sustainable development a reality.[xii]


In our view, what needs to be done to face the challenges of Education in Nigeria include:

  • Adequate resourcing which will be needed to build new schools, train more teachers etc
  • Implementation of the UBE Act and ensuring that all forms  of user fees are abolished
  • Dealing with the quality issues including size of classes, number of teachers and provision of materials.
  • Massive investment in infrastructures in all levels of education
  • Promotion of child friendly and teacher friendly school environment
  • Respect and protection of the rights of children in school including protection from violence in schools especially of the girl child.
  • Review of school curricula to promote critical and relevant learning
  • Proper governance of schools and implementation of Schools Management Committees (SMCs)
  • Tracking of resources to ensure proper, adequate and accountable utilization of resources budgeted for education
  • Improvement of teacher quality through employment of professional and qualified teachers,  in service training and retraining and implementation of the teacher salary structure
  • Dealing with the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the education sector
  • Completion, popularization and utilization of EFA plan
  • Empowerment approach to education


6.         CONCLUSION

In conclusion, we agree with the argument that if we are to achieve development goals, then the world must change course especially in terms of economic development philosophies and macroeconomic policies particularly those initiated and inspired by IMF. There is no doubt that the state of education in Nigeria is lamentably poor and there are a lot of challenges. But there are perspectives and approaches that can be utilized to turn the situation around. What needs to be done is clear. We need to rise up to the challenges and change the course of events in Nigeria and put education in a right footing. That is the only sure way to sustainable development.













[i] EFA Global Monitoring Report (2002), Education for All: Is the World on Track. Paris, UNESCO

[ii] Subrahmanian, R. (2002), “Citizenship and the Right to Education” in IDS Bulletin Vol. 33 No. 2

[iii] Nigeria National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy. Abuja, National Planning Commission. P. 34

[iv] Federal Republic of Nigeria (2005), Nigeria Millennium Development Goals 2005 Report. Abuja, The National Planning Commision p. 14

[v] ActionAid (2003), Global Education Review. London, International Education Unit, ActionAid

[vi] ActionAid, 2003 Ibid

[vii] ActionAid, 2003 Ibid

[viii] Igbuzor, O. (1992), Drug Revolving Fund as a Strategy to achieve  Health for All Nigerians: A Case Study of University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital. An unpublished Masters of Public administration thesis.

[ix] Rose, P.(1998), “Willingness and Inability to Pay for Education: Cost sharing in Malawi” in IDS December, 1998

[x] Coalition for Health and Education Rights(2002), User Fees: The Right to Education and Health Denied. A Policy brief by the Coalition for Health and Education Rights for the UN Special Session on Children, New York, May 2002.

[xi] UNDP (2005), International Cooperation at a Crossroads: Aid, Trade & Security in an unequal World. Human Development Report 2005

[xii] ActionAid International (2005), Contradicting Commitments: How the Achievement of EFA is being undermined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).