Why Education Cannot Wait


Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai


As undergraduate students of Quantity Surveying at Ahmadu Bello University in the mid-1970s, one of our greatest sources of pride was not just the fact that ABU was the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the only university in the whole world that offered honours degrees in QS. Our closest competitors were two polytechnics in the United Kingdom. The University of Reading joined the league much later. The quality of scholarship was highly rated; researchers and students from all over the world jostled for places. Only those who could not secure places in Nigeria went abroad for studies.
Today, a ranking of the top 8,000 Universities in the world done last year showed only 5 Nigerian Universities in the first 100 in Africa.  Our top universities were:  Ilorin (55th – Africa, 5,846th - World), Obafemi Awolowo (61st – Africa, 6,265th – World), Ibadan (63rd – Africa, 6,396th – World), Jos (74th – Africa, 7,000th, World) and University of Lagos (79th – Africa, 7,246th – World). What happened? Why and where did things go wrong? And how can we revive the most critical component in human capital development?
At independence, Nigeria’s 56 million people had 15,703 primary schools with a total enrolment of about 2,912,618 pupils. We had 883 Secondary Schools, 2 Federal Government Colleges, 315 Teacher Training Colleges and 29 Technical/Vocational Schools - all with a total enrolment of 169,019 students. We had one university college at Ibadan. By the time we became a republic in 1963, we had 4 Polytechnics and 5 Universities with a total of 2,445 undergraduate students. 
In those days, Nigeria spent an average of 40 percent of her budget on education (compared to today’s 2 percent). The Old Western Region under Chief Obafemi Awolowo's visionary leadership devoted 55% while the Northern Region under an equally committed leadership of Sir Ahmadu Bello spent 46% of its budget on education.
Things went relatively well until the civil war. By 1970, shortly after the war, a period designated for reconstruction by the Federal Government, a few things occurred, which subsequently opened the floodgates drowning education today. The Federal Government rolled out a national policy on education, which among other things introduced universal primary education, leading to the takeover of all primary and secondary schools previously owned by non-state actors, particularly missionaries.  The period coincided with oil boom – and the misconception that throwing money around was the panacea to national development rather than sustained discipline and upholding standards.  The educational sector, like all others also got infected by the “oil boom bug”.  
By 1980, primary schools had increased to 36,683 with a total enrolment of 13, 760,030 pupils nationwide.  Post-primary schools increased to 5,003 with a total enrolment of 2,366,833 while we had 42 Colleges of Education, 24 Polytechnics and 17 Universities with a total enrolment of 154,392 students. Public spending on education even then averaged about 25% of the budget or 7.5% of GDP, and the quality of education remained generally acceptable. It was also an era when the authorities tried to refocus educational policies within the purview of the constitution which placed education on concurrent list with responsibilities shared between the Federal, state and local governments.
The 1980s also witnessed a significant upsurge in the establishment of secondary and tertiary institutions. Within that decade at the onset of the 1990s, the population of the country had increased to about 80 million, and public expenditure on education had collapsed to about 8% of the national budget, or less than 1% of GDP. The establishment of new tertiary institutions was motivated by political considerations rather than qualitative development.  Even at the post-primary school level, there was an incessant proliferation of secondary schools without due attention to quality of facilities, entrance standards and teacher-training.
When the oil money dried up in the mid-1980’s, and the introduction of IMF-like austerity program appropriately called SAP, funding to education was cut, quality suffered, good teachers fled and entire structure collapsed. The budgetary attitude to education is yet to recover from this reversal of fortunes. Since 2007, Nigeria spent an average of about 0.7% of GDP and about 3% of the budget on education - among the lowest 5 ranked countries in the world!
And so we are where we are today. The percentage of enrolment at all levels of education has increased, but the overall performance is down. The British Council/Harvard School of Public Health Next Generation Report describes the situation: “…three out of ten graduates of higher education are not working. A highly educated Nigerian is not significantly more likely to find work than one with no education at all. Many are also forced to accept jobs that do not use their qualifications to the fullest. Many educated men and women can only find marginal employment in sales, agriculture or manual labour….”
Compared to other African countries, Nigeria has a lot to do in providing accessible and qualitative education. Oil revenues may have bounced back, but we still have over eight million children out of primary school. According to a survey by the British Council, Nigeria was supposed to have 16 million students in secondary schools by 2008, but the number enrolled was 5.8 million, suggesting that only 36% of children of secondary age were in school.  Out of 1.3 million candidates who wrote the unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination in 2010, less than 10 percent secured admissions into Nigerian public universities!
On October 2, 2006 the then Education Minister and my sister Oby Ezekwesili raised the alarm about the then only 20% pass rates (including Math and English) of WAEC and NECO, the cabinet then thought things were so bad that with "We Can" reforms she proposed things would only get better! The reforms stalled under her successors, and the situation has expectedly worsened.
That universities no longer have faith in the results of JAMB and now insist on post-UME examinations mirrors the inconsistency in the sector, but nothing underscores the issue more than the 2009 secondary school examinations result released by WAEC and NECO. Both bodies showed that almost 98% of the candidates failed to clinch five credits, including English and Mathematics and only about 2% got five credits with English and Mathematics.
As present, Nigeria has about 117 Universities - owned by the Federal, some states as well as private individuals and organisations. Available data indicate that most are poorly equipped and grossly understaffed. According to the Consortium for Advanced Research Training (CARTA), instead of an academic staff requirement of 45,000 teaching staff, there are 33,000 – a shortfall of 12,000 academic staff in our universities. Worse still is the fact that about 12% of the existing manpower is aged and may soon be retiring, while the quality of replacements are falling.
At the primary level, there is proliferation of privately owned schools charging exorbitant fees but mostly lacking competent teaching staff and quality infrastructure.  In a study by the World Bank in which attainment of education milestones in 22 countries in Africa were compared, pupils in Nigerian primary schools were rated lowest with national mean scores of 30% compared with 70% in Tunisia and 51% in very poor Mali. More worrisome is that the Nigerian girl-child is worse off, particularly in the northern states. Comparatively, while the average Nigerian teenage girl in the south (example, in Lagos) has the benefit of 10 years of early education, a similar teenage girl in northern Nigeria only has an average of one year! If the northern governors had invested more in education in the last decade, some of the current social and economic crises we face today in the region and the country as a whole, might have been averted. 
True, Nigeria has been acknowledged by the World Economic Forum to have capacity for innovation (ranked 47th out of 133), our overall public expenditure on education which is about 3% of the current annual budget is abysmal, particularly when compared with about 40% at independence. Nigeria is placed 128th (WDI – 2009),  91st in Internet Access in Schools, 97th in Quality of Mathematics and Science Education,115th in overall Quality of Scientific research institutions, 90th in Networked Readiness Index, 102nd in percentage of Internet users, 117th in Broadband internet subscribers. (ITU – WTI, 2008 -2009)
Given that education is a tool for human capital development, how well and fast a nation develops is dependent on its literacy level. The accumulation of intellectual capital can help a nation strengthen its technology and become prosperous. Even though oil, gold and diamond may generate wealth for some countries, it is evident that they are no longer determinants of wealth - intellectual capital and technology rule the world. It is easy to neglect education because the consequences are not immediately felt. But if we bear in mind that the current decay are the results of policies of the mid-1970s and spending cuts of the late 1980s, it becomes imperative for Nigeria to urgently review and refocus educational policy, and spending priorities to ensure quality of output.
Apart from reviewing spending levels on education, we must enhance supervision to ensure strict adherence to standards at all levels. The states and local government areas must take up more responsibilities in educational development. More private sector participation should be encouraged with the right incentives - access to free land, single interest-long tenor loans, subsidised teacher training, etc! Political considerations should not be the yardstick in establishing tertiary institutions. Teachers’ education and welfare must be improved as priorities. At personal levels, those of us that have had the benefit of affordable and quality public education should all offer to teach voluntarily at the Nigerian university and public secondary school nearest to where we live. I have already done so. If we do not act now, consider what will happen in a generation, when today’s semi-literate students will be teachers and professors. 
I will conclude with just three facts to reflect on: There are over 60 quality universities in the Boston area - about half of what we have in the whole country. The United States (with roughly twice Nigeria’s population) has a total of 5,758 higher education institutions, an average of 115 per state. One private university – Harvard has an annual budget that exceeds the 2011 FGN investment in education, and  its endowment funds were worth $37 billion in 2008! As you read this, Nigeria’s total external reserves is about $33.5 billion. We have work to do. The earlier we start, particularly in the northern and other educationally-backward states, the better. And this will only start when all public officers and political office-holders are compelled by their oaths of office and terms of appointment to enroll all their children in public primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in Nigeria. That will be some really fresh air indeed.