#IssuesForBuhari: Rethinking Educational Reforms in the 21st Century (2), By Victoria Ohaeri
My last article, titled, “#IssuesForBuhari: From Clueless to an Issueless Government” generated considerable feedback. The backlash was expected, and it streamed in unceasingly. Hundreds of enthusiastic Buhari supporters swiftly rallied to defend him and shared several documents with me, purporting to be either Buhari’s or APC manifesto. I will now examine specific solutions to national maladies proposed in the manifesto to assess their coherence with global realities.
As a student with little means studying abroad, the first thing I checked was Buhari’s policy thrust on education. It was disappointingly tucked in somewhere at the bottom of his list of priorities. As the presidential candidate of a political party that has engaged the services of media strategy quartet: Axelrod, Kupper, Plouffe and Del Cecato at very prohibitive costs, to help them foreignize their campaign, I expected so much more from the educational reform plan. I struggled to locate that element in the long list of the proposed remedial interventions in the educational sector that is significantly different from the current status quo.
My preliminary assessment is that there is nothing listed in Buhari’s manifesto for revamping the educational sector that is substantially different from the old-fashioned ideas implemented by successive administrations. Nothing new! His agenda on education is basically a rehash of old promises; a reiteration of known facts and mere reechoing of familiar lines by politicians.
One most neglected area in every manifesto including Buhari’s, is education financing. Beyond the traditional budgetary increments, how will education be financed? How does Buhari intend to expand access to quality education? How will low-income families be able to support their children’s’ education in the best of schools available in Nigeria and beyond? Quality education costs money everywhere in the world and Nigeria cannot be an exception. Promising free education is a propagandist and lethargic approach to problem-solving, and should be discountenanced.
Except Buhari is planning to build prisons in every street corner, there is no way he will successfully wage war against corruption by just by amending the Constitution and fully implementing anti-corruption laws, without creating alternatives for citizens to make adequate income, and pay their bills, especially their children’s school fees. In 2004 for instance, students of the Nigerian Law School paid N64,000. Ten years later ( 2014) while the Law School fees jumped by over 450% to N295,000, minimum wage miserably jumped from N7,000 to N18,000 (120%) during the same period.
Children of maiguards, petty traders, pensioners, civil servants, drivers, domestic servants and other low income earners will still desire to go to the Nigerian Law School regardless of their parents’ parsimonious income that is obviously incapable of supporting their education. No matter how aggressively the anti-corruption laws are applied, corruption thrives and will continue to thrive in any society where livelihood opportunities for citizens are limited, including where income levels of most households are inadequate to meet daily needs. So it is not enough to amend laws, wield the big stick and shove offenders into prison. Failing to resolve the question of education financing will create new sets of problems under his regime, and defeat whatever anti-corruption measures he plans to introduce.
I draw my opinion on Buhari’s manifesto from my own personal circumstances, including many others around me who feel totally dehumanized and demoralized by the outmoded methods of educational administration in Nigeria. Despite gaining an admission into Harvard Law School in 2012, it was practically impossible for me to locate home-based funding support for two whole years! It was during that period of futile search that I connected with tons of bright scholars from under-underprivileged homes who have abandoned their dreams because they cannot access the educational resources they need.
The State and federal governments as well as the private sector have EXTREMELY LOW interest in education, and would rather finance dancing and singing competitions, than invest in human potential. Ironically, Nigerian students have greater access to fellowship and scholarship opportunities from foreign philanthropic and corporate institutions than from Nigerian-based corporate institutions and central or state governments. In Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford University – America’s top schools – Nigerian students are the least-supported by either home-based private and public institutions unlike majority of their Chinese, Amercian, British, Australian, Indian, Norwegian and Brazilian counterparts who receive substantial support from their home countries. Sustainable development is unrealizable in any nation whose public and private sectors demonstrate such insufferably low regard for education.
Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world where student loans are totally non-existent in the 21st century! There will always be the poor in our midst, and it is the duty of the state to guarantee them the basic means of survival. Every country that takes education seriously provide credit-based financing options to help students and families pay for college. Such provisioning could be facilitated by commercial banks and other lenders, enabling students to access funding and pay back with or without interest, upon graduation, after an agreed number of years. Student loan schemes build students’ capacity to be self-reliant and to be responsible for their own future. It also ensures that either orphaned children or those from low-income households are not deprived of education because of financial constraints.
The National Youth Service Scheme has outlived its usefulness and may be replaced with an equivalent of the American Federal Work Study Program (FWSP). This program provides undergraduate and graduate students in financial need with part-time jobs related to the student’s course of study, allowing them to earn money to help pay their education expenses. This has several advantages: students are not only empowered to sustain themselves in school, they also gain important skills, exposure, professional experiences and networks that prepare them for full-time employment. With such financing alternatives in place, citadels of learning would cease to be places where young school girls are easily lured into promiscuous behavior because they want to make ends meet. The availability of cheap and skilled labour also enables corporate institutions and government departments to render services at lower costs while expanding their bottom line. At the end of the day, the government gains more in the form of taxes from both individuals and the private sector.
Overhauling the education sector will remain a mirage if public officials continue to suffocate Nigerians with mere promises of improved education while their own children attend the best schools abroad. The only reason why a minister of education would allow the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike to last for 6 months and more is because his/her children are unaffected by the strike action . Nobody would begrudge officials for educating their children abroad, but experience has shown that such double-standard practices keep them continually detached from critical issues affecting the sector, and disincentivizes swift resolution of sectoral problems. It is that disconnect that lead officials to instinctively borrow educational models from other jurisdictions without understudying the contextual dynamics at play in climes where they are copied from. The Lagos State government’s infamous 300% increase of LASU school fees, absent safety nets, is one such unhappy example of how not to reform the educational sector. The pressure that forced a reversal of that unsound policy was certainly justified.
Educational institutions in advanced countries offer exchange programs, joint degree and dual degree curriculum allowing students to either pursue a degree program in two or more academic jurisdictions or pursue two degrees concurrently and have the best of quality education from a rich mix of academic environments. With globalization thinning down territorial borderlines, this arrangement equips students with credentials recognized in more than one country, and, in some cases, giving them exposure to faculty expertise they would not ordinarily gain from studying at only one institution. How many foreign students do Nigerian universities attract annually? Vanguard reported that 71,000 Nigerian students paid over N160 Billion in tuition to Ghanaian universities in 2012. In that same year, Nigerians studying in British and American universities spent over N137, 023bn on tuition and living expenses abroad. How does Buhari plan to prevent this capital flight? What plans are in place to enable universities build strategic alliances with reputable schools abroad to integrate this interdisciplinary approach into the more traditional degree programs? I wish there are answers.
Promising to ‘ensure that a greater proportion of expenditure on university education is devoted to helping our youth to understand the juxtaposition of science, technology, the humanities and the social sciences” is another vague promise in Buhari’s manifesto. How? Buhari needs to get away as fast as possible from the failed tradition of throwing money at problems. Fattening the education budget is not the solution to the sector’s numerous challenges, but rather, the injection of smart and innovative ideas into the system, and having the political will to sustain them. Having contested the presidential election many times, it is not unusual to anticipate that Buhari has engaged in series of strategic thinking and planning sessions with his inner caucus, fine-tuning and updating on ideas that will boldly influence the character, direction and quality of governance if perchance, he becomes president. The content of his manifesto suggests that this is yet to happen. Just like several aspects of the manifesto, it is riddled with promises, promises, and more vague promises.
The singular biggest complaint many voters have against Buhari’s candidacy is his old age. It will be quite worrisome for him to lend credence to this complaint by rehashing tired ideas in his manifesto. Education has moved away from what it was in the 80s, 90s and even 2000s. Classrooms and learning methods are incrementally digitalized, so there is no way old methods can fit into modern day educational administration. Even if more than 50% of the national budget is pumped into the sector, implementing the same tired methods responsible for the declining standard of education will unlikely yield any marked improvement.
On the face of it, nothing is wrong with “committing 20% of our annual budget for this critical sector” or “implementing a performance based education” except that voters’ expectations are much higher when singsongs of ‘change’ are trumpeted by a party that is not lacking in both intellectuals and technocrats. I really looked forward to a well-researched and well-thought-through blueprint for moving Nigerian education to an enviable 21st Century standard. Buhari needs to rise to the challenge of education in the 21st Century. If the manifesto detailing his agenda on education is anything to go by, a lot of work still needs to be done. This is the time to back to the drawing board and consider a thorough review. In fact, a fresh document is necessary more than ever.
Victoria Ohaeri is the executive director of Spaces for Change (www.spacesforchange.org), a youth-development and policy advocacy organization based in Lagos, Nigeria. She is currently a post-graduate student of Harvard University in the United States of America. She can be reached on email@example.com