One theme that underlies and runs through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched with fanfare last week by world leaders in the United Nations is education. In Goal-4, the SDGs explicitly commit “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Beyond this, the attainment of all the other SDGs implies enhanced investment in enlightenment.
With an estimated population of over 11 million of about 58 million out of school children worldwide, Nigeria is a special project, particularly at a time when education and enlightenment are under attack from twin threats of a murderous insurgency and rampant corruption.
For people of faith, the pursuit of revealed knowledge and information is obligatory. This should be significant for a country like Nigeria where public affectation of piety is normal. Both Islam and Christianity, for instance, agree that unequal access to knowledge produces unequal human beings. Thus, the Holy Bible complains that “Job speaks without knowledge, his words are without insight.” And the Holy Qur’an poses the rhetorical question: “Are those who know and who do not know equal?”
Those who attack education, therefore, do so in the name of something other than true faith or pursuit of human wellbeing. But government alone cannot guarantee access to education nor defend it against its many enemies. It must share such burdens with communities interested in education, none more so, perhaps, than networks of old students, better known as alumni associations.
There are many reasons why alumni associations matter in a country like Nigeria.
First, in a country where access to education cannot be taken for granted, the role of the Alumnus is a position of responsibility that does not require an association before it can be exercised. The existence of an association enhances the exercise of this responsibility and fosters co-ordination in its deployment. The alumni association must therefore be seen as more than merely the sum total of its individual members. Alumni have a duty to take personal responsibility for the advancement of education as a value and of their institution as a duty through giving freely of their time, skills and other resources.
Second, alumni foster foundations and traditions of lasting intangibles – investments in example, leadership, character, service, organization, management, development, and competitive excellence. In 1981, Nigeria’s Court of Appeal decided in Archbishop Okogie & Others v. Attorney General of Lagos State  NCLR, 337 that “a school must be accepted as a medium for the dissemination of knowledge and ideas”. Alumni have a duty to preserve, defend and advance both the idea of ideas and the place of the school – howsoever called – as a safe place to pursue them.
Those who attack education, therefore, do so in the name of something other than true faith or pursuit of human wellbeing.
Third, in a diverse country like Nigeria and at this time in the evolution of its political economy, alumni networks have responsibilities that must go beyond the walls and gates of their respective universities. To a fractured country, they owe a duty of healing; to a fearful people, they owe a responsibility of reassurance by fostering a robust and tolerant worldview. Alumni are the people who preserve the “high” in “High School” and defend the “universe” in “university”. To borrow the immortal words of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, theirs is to foster a place where:
“the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”
Fourth, with a higher education participation rate of about 8%, education beyond the basic level in Nigeria remains a relative privilege and, surely, the best guarantor of economic and social mobility. In the OECD countries where the most reliable figures are available, earnings premium for tertiary education can exceed 50% and university graduates on the average earn 55% more than upper secondary and post-secondary graduates, who earn 23% more than people who don’t have secondary education. This great privilege of rarefied opportunity must come with great responsibilities: the burden to care and to make a difference. The one place alumni can be guaranteed to begin making a difference is the schools where their meal tickets to successful life were punched.
Above all, education has become both high politics and high national security interest. Acknowledging this reality beyond the age of imperialism in the last century, Charles Steinmetz, the Jewish scientist forced by persecution to flee Nazi Germany to Palestine, predicted that “there will come about an age of small and independent nations whose first line of defence will be knowledge.” That age is surely upon us in Nigeria. Fostering a more secure and stable country requires a new partnership model between government and those who believe in the idea of society founded on enlightenment. Few are as invested in this as those who have passed through and received sound education.
Around Nigeria, there are many schools with solid alumni networks. Barewa College in Katsina State is a well known example. The Unity Schools Old Students Association (USOSA), which federates the old students’ networks of 104 federal government colleges, including Kings and Queens Colleges, is another. In the SDGs, such alumni networks must renew their raison d’être beyond nostalgia for good, old times. This will be impossible if students are unable to learn safe from the spectre of abduction by insurgents or abuse by predatory teachers. Alumni can make schools more secure and accountable.