By Mark Adebayo
ABOUT thirty years ago, Professor Wole Soyinka described university as the “quintessence of humanistic striving”. Inferred from this is the fact that the university is the ultimate pinnacle of man’s quest for knowledge, understanding, and advancement through formal education.
In the university, your potential is metabolized into a potent force of academic sophistication – from a crude mental raw material to an intellectual je ne sais quoi imbued with an extraordinary confidence to take on the world and its many challenges.
Fundamentally, education profiles problems and proffers antidotes. In particular, the university advances you from a mere literate to an educated mind, a polished finished product excellently positioned for all-round leadership and creativity irrespective of your choice of discipline. The university is a universality of ideas that avails you an expansive worldview and eclectic consummation of the learning processes into a bona fide intellectual. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr in A THOUSAND DAYS: JOHN F. KENNEDY IN THE WHITEHOUSE defined an intellectual as “a person whose primary habitat is the realm of ideas”.
Ideas, they say, rule the world.
In one of his many indelible words, Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world “. As a freedom fighter, the Madiba recognised education as a potent liberation weapon for a decisive victory in the long, tortuous anti-apartheid struggles. Education empowers the human psyche to dare!
Education, especially at tertiary levels, does not only remove ignorance but also abolishes generalized myopia and superficial concepts of learning. This piece does not in any way seek to diminish the intrinsic values of lower – primary, secondary, intermediate – levels of education because that’s from where the rudiments of education commences. It only emphasizes the special credentials of the university and similar institutions of tertiary education. Professor Patrick F. Wilmot stated in his great work, “SOCIOLOGY; A NEW INTRODUCTION” (1985) that the mere achievement of literacy “…is condemned as superficial, dilettant, philistine and journalistic”. We need more than literacy to impact society on a significant scale. Tertiary education offers something higher and bigger than mere literacy. In this piece, I’m generally discussing the fate of education in Nigeria but with qualified bias for tertiary institutions.
For some years, there have been discussions and debates around the standards of education in Nigeria. A school of thought argues that the standards are falling or even fallen. Personally, I have my reservations about this. If curriculum is a yardstick for gauging the standards of education, I think it cannot be validly stated that the Nigerian educational standards have lowered or fallen or is falling. For instance, some of the things we used to be taught in secondary schools are now being taught in primary schools. A cursory look at the junior and senior secondary schools’ curricula nowadays would reveal an advanced coverage of learning beyond what it used to be five decades ago.
Throughout my primary and secondary schooling in the 70s and 80s, I never set my eyes on a computer not to talk of using it. The first time I would see a PC was in the house of one of my professors in Ile-Ife. Of course there was no network to access the internet at that time, I guess he was just using it to type and print his papers. But, today, my children in primary and secondary schools are comparatively and considerably computer-literate because it’s part of their curricula and they possess internet-enabled devices unlike their father at the same age and level of education.
What I think we should focus on is whether it’s the qualities of teaching and/or learning that have dropped. The quality of teaching is the responsibility of the country’s education sector policy makers in terms of curriculum templates and the quality of the teaching personnel being recruited. The quality of learning – the inquisitiveness and hunger for knowledge – is the sole responsibility of the student.
Part of the chronic challenges with the education sector crises in Nigeria is policy somersaults. I was shocked earlier this week to learn that the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, JAMB, suddenly reduced the cut-off mark for university admission to 160! The announcement was made by none other than the JAMB registrar, Professor Ishaq Oloyede, on Tuesday, June 16, after the 20th Policy Meeting on admissions to tertiary institutions in Nigeria. That’s so ridiculous! Even more ridiculous was the excuse offered for such ill-advised crashing of the cut-off mark. The explanation was that there weren’t enough students to fill the admission quotas approved for the institutions. We were told that 612,557 students were offered admission but a whopping 510,957 slots remain “unused”. Therefore, the cut-off mark had to be crashed to an unreasonable level in order to accommodate those who wouldn’t have had admission to any university with a credibility to protect.
Whatever the pressures might be from the education ministry or the government, I’m absolutely persuaded that some universities wouldn’t bow to such ridiculous subterfuge. I do know for certain that you can’t gain admission to the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife for any course if you scored lower than 200 in JAMB. I believe same for Universities of Lagos and Ibadan, among a few others. This had informed the agitation by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, since about two decades ago to start the agitation for the independence of the Nigerian universities from overbearing government control. The government resisted that vehemently with insolent disregard by saying, in effect, that “If I fund you, I gotta control you “.
I strongly believe that each university should be allowed to determine issues related to its admission criteria. There is no need for any central admission body like JAMB to attempt forcing stuffs down the throats of tertiary institutions. What’s the need for JAMB if there would be post-JAMB examinations? Why doesn’t anyone up there recognise that the post-JAMB extermination is a vote of no confidence on JAMB?
The policy volatility and abracadabra in Nigeria’s education sector has rendered Nigeria prostrate in international rating of universities. According to statistics by Center for World University Rankings, CWUR, Academic Ranking of World Universities, ARWU, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the Brookings Institute, arguably the most rigorous ranking institutions there are, Nigerian universities struggle to be among the first one thousand in the world. Even in Africa, we don’t have impressive records as we did in the 1960s and early 70s. Consistently, South Africa has been taking the shine off Nigeria. The first four best universities in Africa in the last decade or longer have been South African universities – Universities of Pretoria, Cape Town, Witwatersrand, and Johannesburg.
In some years, we do so badly in rankings that some less anticipated African countries like Seychelles, Gabon, Liberia and Zambia do better than Nigeria.
South Africa and Egypt have remained impressively consistent in taking the continent’s top spots in global rankings. Universities are graded based on core elements like teaching, research, inventions, knowledge transfer, and international outlook. Other metrics include academic/employer reputation, faculty/student ratio, citations per faculty, international faculty ratio and international student ratio.
I’ve met, read, and been taught by excellent, brilliant academics and I’ve also experienced really shallow ones. I’ve been to inaugural lectures of professors that I seriously questioned their claims to scholarship. Academically, a professor is supposed to be like Caesar’s wife – beyond reproach as to his/her expertise. Students in a class taught by an incompetent lecturer can only end up as products of mediocrity thereafter. Teaching at higher levels of education must be devoid of bush-leaguers. Nigeria must deliberately raise the bar of the quality of teachers at all levels and make teaching a professionalised and specialized vocation, not a laissez faire discordance.
I want to sum up the unhealthy teaching and learning relationship between lecturers/teachers and students in Nigeria with the empty vessel syndrome as identified by Professor Patrick Wilmot thus;
“Students enter the classroom with empty heads instead of minds. The lecturer has a full vessel which, for a price, he empties into the student’s, in small, regular portions. When the lecturer’s is empty and the student’s is full, it is time for examination. The student empties his vessel onto the paper and the cycle is complete. Both lecturer and student now have empty heads” (ibid.p.6).
This is pedagogically dysfunctional.
This type of sterile and unproductive cycle of monotonous rituals cannot help any nation develop in this era of an increasingly competitive world because the products of such a system will suffer intellectual cardiac arrests resulting from their inability to be creatively sagacious. Education – Latin educere, to lead out of – is conceptualized to lead from the unknown to the known and from darkness to light.
The issue of remuneration for the teaching profession in Nigeria has remained a vexed one for decades. There is a perpetual and disconcerting refrain that “teachers’ rewards are in heaven”. This untenable mindset defines the contempt with which successive governments treat teachers and the teaching profession in Nigeria. Teachers and lecturers in some relatively smaller countries like Ghana and Benin Republic are better remunerated than Nigeria.
I got to the university and saw pinned on the doors of many of my professors “My take home pay cannot take me home”. That’s the silent lamentation of a dissatisfied teacher who often transfers his/her aggression to the student and would naturally underperform. The Afro-Arab countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya before it was made to fail by western imperialist coalition’s invasion, place greater premiums on education than sub-Saharan African countries and it’s reflective in the unique Eurocentric system of their development regarding infrastructure and economy compared to the latter except South Africa. Beside poor teacher remuneration, there is an unpardonable deficit in the regularity of payment. Teachers may be owed backlog of salaries for up to ten months. This, especially, aggravates the crises in Nigeria’s education sector that frustrates both the teachers and their students alike. The resultant perennial industrial actions by the academic and nonacademic unions have paralysing effects on the country’s education. In their frustration, the country loses her best brains – teachers and students – to other African countries, Europe and America. A course of four years may extend to seven or more years due to no fault of the students’. The school environments are disastrous! Overcrowded classrooms are regular features of most Nigerian schools, especially public ones. The hostels, where available, are often not fit for human habitation. Water and light are luxuries. In a school environment! That’s shameful!
The crises at home provoke a mass migration abroad by academics and students in search of stability, excellent teaching environments and quality education. The rich who can afford it send their children to the best schools in Europe and America or private schools with exorbitant fees at home. Student emigration remains high despite Nigeria boasting of 40 Federal universities, 44 state universities, 79 private universities, 116 polytechnics and 152 Colleges of Education. Over one hundred illegal and unaccredited universities have been reportedly closed by the National Universities Commission with the unsuspecting students and parents who have paid exorbitant admission fees left stranded, confused and groaning.
Many of the private schools in Nigeria – tertiary and lower – are schadenfreude ventures exploiting the country’s education sector anarchy.
UNESCO Institute of Statistics reported in 2016 that a quarter of enrolled African students in the USA were Nigerians. Other African countries also benefit from the crises in Nigeria’s education sector. It’s a thing of concern, if not shame, that Nigerian youths in their thousands walk across the border into Benin Republic, a country just about the size of Ogun state, to enroll in its universities and colleges. Thousands of Nigerian students are also studying in other African countries like Ghana, Togo, Zambia, and South Africa with the predictable value of debilitating capital flights injurious to the country’s fragile economy as Nigeria’s public tertiary institutions remain in perpetual deteriorating conditions.
The former chairman of the Senate Committee on Tertiary Education, Senator Binta Garba, disclosed in 2016 that Nigerians spend approximately a whopping $2bn annually to study abroad and conceded that the situation was “humiliating”.
The attitude of the current generation of students to learning is another serious issue. The combined effects of social media addiction and get-rich-quick mentality via sophisticated internet fraud mechanism, aka “yahoo-yahoo”, have rendered most of Nigerian youths intellectually lazy. There is a dangerous tendency towards “if I can get rich without education, why go to school?” That’s the tragedy of a society that deifies wealth without any compunction as to its source.
I’ve been involved in interviewing potential employees for some organizations and what we’ve been discovering about the current generation of graduates was/is sobering if not saddening. Many of our young graduates cannot defend their degrees, including those with postgraduate certificates. You consistently wonder how they managed to secure those degrees.
My generation, as students, didn’t suffer the distraction of social media that today offers limitless disincentive to reading for the current generation. Our fundamental preoccupation was massive reading to boost knowledge and develop formidable sinews for intellectual engagement – debate. Reading was not limited to examination preparations exclusively, however. We read intellectually edifying books, articles, tabloids and magazines. Morally decrepit reality shows like Big Brother Naija/Africa have destructive and distractive effects on the psyche of the current generation by discouraging thirst for knowledge and amplifying celebrity vanity without virtue.
Before tertiary education, many of us were already reading authors like Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Paulo Freire, Claude Ake, James Hadley Chase, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, Wole Soyinka (not his plays and poems only), Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o, Kwame Nkrumah, Danielle Steele, Alex Haley who authored ROOTS, and many others considered way out of our league then.
That’s why I wrote in one of my published books, OVERTURN YOUR OBSTACLES TO OVERTAKE YOUR MIRACLES (2006), “I love the academic environment …; the researches, the intellectual fireworks, the the teaching, the grueling studying, the discipline, the discoveries, the authority, the expansive knowledge and, above all, the fulfillment of being part of … “the quintessence of humanistic striving”. That orientation was shaped by an existing social environment then dominated by respect for knowledge and scholarship. That cannot be stated, with any validity, of today’s social order wantonly polluted by a diminished sense of honor for things honorable.
Two years ago I had cause to intervene on the academic troubles of one of my nieces in one of the Nigerian universities. The impression I was given was that “the lecturer failed her”, not that she failed. I took it as another activist assignment to fight a just cause. I even thought she was being sexually harassed as many lecturers are wont to in today’s Nigeria. I made up my mind to raise hell. But her lecturer turned out to be a jolly good fellow. He needn’t do that, but he surprisingly produced her script for me to go through. I couldn’t read beyond the first page before returning it, thanking him and leaving. She was using short hands used for social media chats to write a university examination. “Thru” for through, “there4” for therefore, etc.
Her defence was that she did it absentmindedly, not that she didn’t know how to spell those words correctly.
How’s that for a defence?
Another challenge with learning is the preponderance of violent cultism in our tertiary institutions for some time now. This causes a major distraction for many students and serious concern for parents who oftentimes have to withdraw their children from one school considered cult-infested and secure admission in another. Cultism in tertiary institutions is not particularly peculiar to Nigeria, but its variant of cultism is insatiably villainous. It is known that powerful secret societies in elite American universities like Skull and Bones at Yale are “avenues for recruiting special individuals into corporate, military and intelligence establishments”(FROM MAX WEBER, ed. Gerth and Mills). But here, it is all about wars over girlfriends and gangster superiority contest over who can kill the most.
It is indubitable that Nigeria hasn’t got her priorities right education-wise.
Everything boils down to leadership. Nigeria requires a leader committed to the revolutionary overhaul of Nigeria’s educational hibernation and plug the systemic hiatuses for the forward thrust of a country operating far below it’s projected potentials and peers in the comity of nations.
The total aggregate of the development foci of any country is dependent on the effectiveness of its educational structures. For a country to start developing in any significant way, it must first develop its education to a globally competitive scale with a pedantic focus on pedagogical sophistication – not necessarily complicated – and scientific precision. An education that develops the youths has a predictable value of developing a nation faster and sustainably. Lester C. Thurow, a former Dean, Sloan School of Management wrote in 1983 that “Economic progress is the replacement of physical exertion with brain power”.
We need to restructure our system of education along producing job-creating graduates, not job-hunting ones who are useless to themselves and society at large.
Nigeria requires a knowledge-based economy if it must escape the scourges attached to the moribundity of monocultural economies especially in a world that’s already dumping oil with its pollutant effects for clean energy in order to achieve a cleaner environment. In the nearest future, oil producing countries will no more have clients for their oil. The world, like time, is moving on ever faster and waits for no nation. The antidote to that is to activate an educational system that makes our students creatively productive to handle the challenges of the twenty-first century.
That’s where Nigeria’s future lies.