Over the next few weeks, and in the run up to the Nigerian elections on the 28th of March (note my confidence that they will actually be held on that date), I, and a selection of guestwriters, will be focusing on a set of persistent issues that consistently and, often negatively, pervade the Nigerian socio-economic and political landscape. These are issues which, regardless of who takes office in the coming weeks, will require significant governmental action and attention. This week, education.
In the last few weeks, I have been shamefully privy to the private conversations of two different groups of people; both exchanges fortuitously relating to the current topic. At one of Lagos’ everlasting monuments to its former colonial past – Ikoyi Club – I eaves-dropped on three middle aged gentlemen who began taking loud umbrage with one another as to the absolute necessity of a university degree being held by whosoever should find themselves, at any given point, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The second conversation involved a young man, himself university educated at one of Nigeria’s few good institutions of higher learning. He was annoyed with a certain kind of western-educated professor who believed their ‘education’ to have raised them above the menial and practical consternation of the average street ‘hooligan’. My young acquaintance’s response to this seemingly outmoded way of academic engagement was to decry the relevance of academia, in its entirety, to the lives of ordinary Nigerians and to Nigeria as a whole. There was too much emphasis on educational credentials in Nigeria, and an unnecessary number of university badge claimants, so far as he was concerned.
I very much enjoyed my rather rude intrusion into the members’ discussion at ‘the Club’. Theirs was an age old universal fight. The use of a structured and formal mode of knowledge accumulation and training has, throughout history, been at the instigation of the State for its own self-determined and continuously evolving developmental purposes. It has been of the essence to all political state entities to evolve a standard mode of communication and training, which has usually been transmitted through a formalised education system. The ‘Ikoyi Clubbers’ will not have been the first group to inquire as to whether this type of education is or is not, by necessity, normatively preferential to a naturally acquired or given sense of understanding as required for the purposes of individual living rather than for those of a precisely organised and very large political community. Nor will they be the last; in the end it may be left to historical anthropologists and evolutionary biologists to determine whether the so-called objective gains made by the droves of humanity that has undergone a standardised education has proved itself over the instinctive force of our pre-historic forbearers.
The second conversation, I found more alarming. I very much understood the source of this young man’s annoyance. The specific type of dim witted academic against whom he was reacting is the kind who has been very highly educated for no other reason than to alert others to the fact that they sufficiently lack any manner of talent, which leaves them with no other option but to bore young minds with ruminations that free adults have chosen to disregard. This is the kind of academic, who though they ought to have little place in academia, who though they fail to understand their crucial role in the accumulation of a traceable and identifiable knowledge and information for the endless purposes of all mankind, this is the kind of academic who, unfortunately, pervades all streams of academia especially in countries where academia has itself become a form of ‘high art’. These countries do not include Nigeria.
The education system in Nigeria, from when it stopped being an offshore branch of the British education system (for those who continue to bemoan a time when a ‘1st’ from the University of wherever in Nigeria was also a ‘1st’ at Oxford, I am not referring to that education system since that system was not actually the Nigerian education system but the British one being run remotely), has never demanded the kind of conclusion my young acquaintance gave it; which is that it was now seemingly over processed, self-aggrandizing, and high faluting. It has rarely been “faluting” in the first place.
When the universities are not on strike, which is never as often as should be the case, they are intense sites of rioting and violence. The rioting at the University of Benin earlier this year is merely one example of what has, at times, seemed to be a permanent state of affairs on our campuses. Many of our university lecturers are not qualified. There is no politically and economically stable country in which university professors, as the standard, do not require at least a Ph.D to become undergraduate lecturers. On more than one occasion this year alone have I met a university lecturer at well known Nigerian institutions with no more than a Masters degree. The issue of lecturers having to obtain their Ph.Ds in order to lecture came up in 2008. It clearly has not been resolved.
It is certainly not a question of the official powers that be not knowing that standards are needed. If the verbiage of the academic standards section of the National Universities Commission (NUC) is anything to go by, our government is very well aware that it needs a universities structure that is capable of delivering a set level of undergraduate education to its population. However, there may be a discrepancy between what is officially and logically set out and what is put into practice. The NUC, which is a parastatal under the Ministry of Education lists one of its department’s strategic aims as “setting up / developing guidelines for drawing up strategic plans.” Clearly, the drawing up of plans about how to draw up plans must take up much of their time.
Part of the problem, of course, is time. Of the 40 universities listed by the NUC as operating under their regulation in Nigeria, the oldest – University of Nigeria, Nsukka – was established in 1960. As with all institutional and structural establishments, it takes a great deal of time for universities to establish themselves as unshakeable sources of authority and authoritative training; and 55 years is, in this realm of things, simply not a very long time. The fact also that far too many bright young academics find their way overseas to more rigorous and challenging research environments does not help.
All this is, of course, not to take anything away from the few that have received a remarkable and solid instruction from the handful of good universities, such as the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, that do exist in Nigeria, and that are celebrated for continuing to operate to good standards despite often abominable circumstances. And with the entrance of many private universities into the educational fray, it is unlikely that the market for educating the Nigerian workforce will be short of players. The question will remain actually implementing consistent curriculum standards across the board so that even someone educated at Nigeria’s very worst university still comes out with a basic level of training useful in some way to her or himself and the rest society. Sustained levels of funding are crucial, as is the creation of a technologically and intellectually innovative environment that makes Nigeria an attractive and exciting place for researchers to be.
The current academic environment is not in an acceptable condition for any structured political community that is aiming, at the very least, for a basic understanding and standard practice of communal living and the formalised training upon which a successful division of labour in large political societies is based. And it is certainly not up to the standard required by a Nigeria that is over-flowing with hard-working, hungry, and young women and men searching for any opportunity to make themselves.
Our young man is right, not everyone needs to be educated to degrees where they become seemingly useless to the society that serves them. Nor does whatever we consider “the standard” in Nigeria need to be the same as that in other countries. I dream of a day where Nigerians are so self-assured in their own rich heritage as to snap out of our incessant comparisons to the western hemisphere. It is not of the essence that a 1st from the University of Ife be comparable to a 1st from Cambridge, just as an undergraduate 4.0 at many an American university is still not held equivalent to a 1st from a good British university due to the differential structures of both undergraduate systems. The point for both countries, however, is for the organization of their education systems to meet the determined needs of each society’s developmental ambitions.
There are too many needs that the Nigerian education system is not meeting. Both in the way of higher education and of technical colleges. Jimi Agbaje, one of the Lagos State gubernatorial candidates, said at a recent debate that a Nigerian who wants to be a plumber should understand that there are different levels of plumbing ability and there is no reason why he should not expect to be the very best kind of plumber. Despite there being quite a number of technical and vocational schools all over the country, it is not especially clear that they are producing the best kind of anything.
The technological innovation which comes from a nourishing and well organised training environment in all technical fields – from agriculture to the environmental, medical, and biosciences – and which drives any sustainable developmental surge is not one a country like Nigeria can afford to forfeit. Nor can it afford to forego building the intellectual capital on which its future will be built. In economics, mathematics, philosophy, anthropology, history, literature, and on and on, learned ideas and ideals must be taught and taught well in order to garner new and inspired ones that enlighten a nation in ways it never was before.
A well-known Nigerian musician intimated on twitter about a week ago that the Nigerian youth didn’t/shouldn’t really care about the upcoming elections because they were simply waiting for 2019 to roll on by. Whether it is due to a lack of a formalised education or a lack of a natural intelligence – I would suggest both – this is precisely the kind of attitude that continues to underlie all system failures in my country. I suggest to the youth of Nigeria, that with the currently gutted state of all forms of education in our country, and consequenty, the depressed state of economic opportunity available to the young, this very same constituency does not have the time to sit around twiddling it thumbs for 4 years without calling whichever government we get to attention over our vast needs which continue to go unfulfilled. No people in no land have ever had power gifted to them; it has, wherever the people own it, always been demanded and taken.