By Yakubu A. Ochefu
President Goodluck Jonathan
I pose this question against the backdrop of the often-stated point that till the election of President YarAdua and Vice-President Goodluck, a university graduate had never ruled this country. Following this it is argued, that the challenges that our educational system has faced in the last 30 years has been due in part, to the seeming insensitivity of our leaders at the highest level to education.
This insensitivity it is further argued can be traced to the fact that these leaders having never attended a University (and in a number of cases any formal tertiary institution), they do not get the point about education being a very critical variable in the development ethos of a country.
This write-up revisits the vexing issue of the role of education in national development and attempts to explain why it seems our leadership till date have not given it the priority it deserves. I will also interrogate the challenges facing higher education in Africa as identified by the African Union working group on Higher education. I will then recommend some policy options for the new government who have stated very clearly that education ranks behind only critical infrastructure as far as their development priorities are concerned.
The role of education in social and economic development in a world driven by knowledge cannot be over stated. It is now common to refer to the world that we live in as a knowledge driven one. As a historian we know that this is the third time in the history of mankind that the role of knowledge has become extremely critical to the development of nations and its peoples. Ma’at in ancient Khemet (Egypt) and the period of the Renaissance in Western Europe were the first two. Each time that happened, mankind was transformed in several fundamental ways with far reaching implications. When it first occurred more than 3000 years ago, the philosophical roots of our modern world view was laid.
From the concept of the creation of mankind and one supreme God, to written language, principles of truth, law and order, mathematics, geometry, medicine, chemistry and the codification of teaching and learning, ancient Khemet gave the world its first knowledge based civilisation.
It is generally agreed that the renaissance laid the foundation of emergence of modern Europe. By assembling philosophies borrowed from Africa, Islamic Arabia, India and China, Europe was able to chart a course that would see it dominate the entire world less than five hundred years after its “dark age”. The close of the 20th century has ushered in yet another knowledge age which is perhaps more profound than the earliest two. I will not bore you with any details. We are all living witnesses to the array of technology that is shaping our daily lives. If knowledge constitutes one of the is the basic building blocks of modern societies, then those who organise and produce knowledge should be a critical component of society.
To put it a bit crudely, teachers at all levels are akin to factory workers who produce the knowledge that drives society. At the tertiary levels, the roles become even more critical. Since the modern university took root nearly 1000 years ago knowledge creation has been an integral part of its development. In our existing digitally driven age, there is an overwhelming emphasises on knowledge and information.
Indeed it has been argued that for one to achieve upward social mobility in this age two key ingredients are required. These are knowledge and talent. Knowledge especially acquired from higher education and talent (sports, entertainment, and literature, etc) built upon basic education.
But does the Nigerian state view education as a crucial building block in the development of the country? Publicly and in words yes but privately and in its deeds it is no. A review of government’s budgetary allocation to education in the last thirty years is a clear testimony to this. Indeed this has been the basis of the clarion call by the Academic Staff Union of Universities since the 1980’s drawing attention of the government and people to the dangers inherent in neglecting our educational system. Unfortunately for the nation this cry more often than not went unheeded and ASUU often hand to embark on prolonged industrial actions to get tokens for this sector.
By 1999 when the Obasanjo administration came to power, the entire educational system was in shambles. The scenario that ASUU had warned against had become a cold reality and left an entire nation shocked and numbed by the decay in the system. It is against this background that the Obasanjo regime attempted to reform the educational system. However, the first set of reforms perceived the problem basically as one of economism. So the salaries of staff in institutions of higher learning were almost tripled.
Funding of capital projects that had stopped for nearly ten years were resumed and special grants provided for the completion of abandoned projects. More licenses were granted to private for profit universities to deal with the hallenges posed by access. When these interventions important as they were failed to douse the cry of academic community, the Federal government in 2003 began to attempt taking a deeper look into the structural issues in the system.
This occasioned a second set of reforms that were now driven purely by a capitalist neo-liberal ideology. It is instructive to note that for the first time in the history of this country, a regime that decided to tow fully the capitalist path to development was in power. Since independence our leaders had always adopted a hybrid path. Privately they were capitalist. Publicly they were socialist or welfarist.
It was Babangida who had the courage to begin to expose the true ideological
tendency of the ruling class. But even he did not go the whole hog. You will recall his little to the left and little to the right rigmarole. The PDP under Obasanjo (and his successor) has left us in no doubt that as long as it is in power, the capitalist mode will be given its true expression. Thus what is happening to our education industry and the reforms that are taking place is symptomatic of this expression. A review of the challenges facing the industry will illuminate this further.
Nigerian public universities at the state and federal levels and indeed universities in other parts of Africa are bedevilled with a number of challenges. According to the Working Committee on Higher Education and the African Universities Union, the core challenges facing African Universities include:
• Access and Gender Equity
• Relevance and Quality
• Governance and Management
As we noted earlier the dramatic rise in demand for higher education has not been matched by investments in that sector in absolute terms. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s were periods when African countries were implementing the Structural Adjustment Programme of the IMF with its attendant conditionalities and effects such as devaluation of national currencies, servicing of external debts, withdrawal of subsidies and reduction of expenditure on social services like health and higher education.
Access and Gender Equity
With regards to access although enrolment to higher education has remained very high in Africa in general, the population of students seeking placement completely overwhelms the spaces available. We are all too familiar with the statistics regarding the number of students who write University matriculation examinations vis-à-vis the available spaces. While the demand for university education has remained very high, the demand for polytechnic and specialist institutions is comparatively low.
It has been argued that globally, the status of higher education has changed from elite to a mass activity. The number of persons enrolled in higher education rose from 13 million in the late 1960’s to 85 million in 1995 (Unesco, 1998). The massification of higher education has made access a critical challenge with institutions seeking all manner of solutions to meet it. This is especially so as the increase demand for has not been met with corresponding investments in higher education. Closely related to access is gender equality. Males dominate higher education across the board. From the number of students, to faculty, administrative and support staff males out number females by as much as four to one.
Relevance and Quality
Relevance refers to the role and place of higher education in society, its missions, and relations with the state and interactions with other levels and forms of education. Western higher education in Africa had its roots in the desire to produce middle level manpower for the colonial civil service. Following independence, there was need to produce more manpower to quickly fill the vacancies created by the departure of European administrators.
The universities rose to this challenge and by the early 1980’s had produced more than enough graduates than the system could absorb. The universities in the last decade are now being challenged to train people who will create jobs rather than those who will claim jobs. There is also the issue of life-long learning where given the rapidity of change in technology skills could become obsolete in relatively short periods of time.
A matrix of variables translates into the quality of higher education. These include the work environment and facilities, nature, type and character of manpower, the resource inputs, and the type of students and the expectations of the end-users. Thus when criticism is made about the poor quality of graduates from the Nigerian universities, it must be put in the context of student-teacher ratio; the learning and living condition of the student; the living conditions of the instructors and administrators as well as the teaching and research environment and finally; the relevance of the curriculum to the needs of industry and society. If these interlocked variables are not properly analysed it is very easy to apportion blame on why the quality and standards are falling.
Governance and Management
The governance and management of higher education has come into sharp focus in the last decade. Here it has been argued that the traditional Universities have been slow in taking advantage of corporate and business like approach to governance and management. This post fordist or neo-fordist type management advocates an inclusive governance structure that is decentralised; an objective and performance based management with strong peer, student and industry/professional review mechanisms; negotiated and output/quality based budgeting; greater autonomy to faculty and departments in terms of generation and utilisation of funds; development of curriculum and introduction of new courses; recruitment of staff with negotiated but personalised salary structure, etc.
It seeks to make the various units of the university more nimble and responsive to its plethora of stakeholders. It advocates that the universities be run not necessarily as a business to make profit but in a businesslike manner that is resource and factor efficient, transparent and accountable.
The research efforts of an institution of higher learning is benchmarked by the number of persons employed specifically for research and development, the number of facilities such as laboratories and experimental farms, the number of patents and publications that are produced and the funds available for research. As with many aspects of our higher education system, Africa lags behind the rest of the world in research. More disturbing is that fact that within Africa, 70% of the research output comes from five countries only.
What are the Options?
The challenges noted above have prompted a spate of reforms in the higher education sector. The United Kingdom was the first country to attempt a sectorwide reform from as far back as 1980. Subsequently, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union also embarked on far reaching reforms of their higher education sector between 1980 and 2000. South Africa took the lead in Africa in reforming higher education.
The reforms targeted primarily, the challenges we have noted above and newer ones such as the role of information technology and HIV/AIDS that became apparent in the close of the 20th century. A plethora of options occasioned these reforms. These options varied according to countries, types of institutions and their ownership, degree of intervention and support/resistance from stakeholders.
Ochefu is Professor of Economic History, and National President, Historical Society of Nigeria.