school students in Nigeria

The Nigerian education system has churned out skills and competences for many years without any significant change in development profile… It is time to rethink how skills and competences can become the basis of producing worthwhile citizens with the intrinsic patriotic desire to serve the nation. And this requires giving the adequate attention to the education sector and its capacity to drive change in Nigeria.


As a retired public servant, I have the good fortune of looking back to a few significant moments in my public life which I consider as cumulative experiences in my reform evolution. From the commencement of my public life till retirement, I came to see public life, especially for a reformer, as series of policy and implementation battles in which one wins some and loses some. One of those reform moments came between 1999 and 2002 when, as head of the Policy Division in the Federal Ministry of Education, I led a technical strategy team that started a round of Education Sector Analysis (ESA) in 1999. The ESA project was a critical response by Nigeria to the promptings of UNESCO et al, for a sector analysis that will provide an empirical basis for addressing the problems of education in Nigeria. Given the fundamental significance of education to the processes of economic growth, democracy and development on the globe, the sector analysis project was conceived with the twin mandate of (a) serving as a reform template that would guide the conception and reviews of national policies on education, and (b) also serving as the base document to instigate the production of any strategic plan for pushing the boundary of education forward in Nigeria.

In 2006, the Federal Ministry of Education published the condensed report of the Education Sector Analysis diagnosis. It was a damning report of the state of education in Nigeria, and no sector was spared—early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational/technical and tertiary education, including non-formal and special education. Several issues crosscut the entire sectors analysed. They include poverty, brain drain, community participation, employability, etc. On employability for instance, the report noted that “Available record and literature report that the quality of training that present day graduates receive is inadequate and that the performance of these graduates on the job is equally less than acceptable.”

There is no one who can reasonably doubt the significance of education as one of the key drivers of change anywhere in the world. For Herbert Spenser, “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” Education, in other words, speaks to the capacity a nation has to think, learn and act proactively especially on issues that border on the welfare and empowerment of the citizens. And this is especially so in Nigeria which is a state struggling with the pivotal harnessing of its human capital as a fundamental ingredient in national development. While the ESA is a critical diagnosis of the weakened capacity of education in Nigeria to rise up to its responsibility as a developing nation, it seems to me, in retrospect, that the report greatly underestimates the state of the education sector in Nigeria. Or, to put it in proper perspective: the inadequacies the ESA outlined all point at a distressing view of the state of education in Nigeria and pinpoints the reason why development action has failed so far to transform the lives of Nigerians.

We hear news almost on a daily basis of how Nigerians in Diaspora are chalking up one achievement or the other. One study, for example, shows that Nigerians constitute one of the most brilliant and most celebrated immigrant groups in the US. So, let us start with the brain drain issue. And it makes sense to make the point by simply looking at the development profile of countries, like Nigeria, that lose its human capital to other countries, and countries, like the United States (or any other state in Europe), which benefit from the brains drained away from Nigeria. Countries that immediately understand the significance of harnessing the inputs of its critical mass of individuals really have no problem turning these inputs into development dynamics. In such countries, higher education is serious business. It is submerged, transformed and energised in the crucible of competitive research that speaks to national and global issues like climate change, technological advancement, space research, food and nutrition, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and so on. Such countries also find primary and post-primary education the cradle for jumpstarting ideas and innovation that initiate mental capacities for later use. The STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education policy is a very good example here.

In Nigeria, curriculum issues are afflicted by half-hearted policy engagements that fail to unravel the depth of reality in Nigeria. Over the last few years, we have sat and watched several curriculum blunders—History was deleted from the course menu; many courses were merged without due considerations; many new courses were created without adequate teaching capacity to handle them. Students, teachers and school administrators go to bed one day and wake up the next to a confusing array of new programmes, as well as the disarticulation of the old ones. This calls into serious debate the role and responsibility of the National Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC), the body charged with the responsibility of implementing educational policies in Nigeria. NERDC needed, for instance, to be brought into the very heart of a deeper issue about curriculum. And this concerns the perception, even by scholars, of a seemingly incommensurable relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Such a perception is anti-developmental because it is conceived in terms of a disenabling dichotomy that drives an unfortunate wedge between what ought to have been the combined intersectional relationship between the capacities of both endeavours.

The major challenge before NERDC is simple: How can STEM not only be established and firmly rooted in Nigeria’s curriculum reality, but also be transformed into STEAMSS through the incorporation of the humanities and the social sciences? Within the Nigerian educational reality, STEAMSS (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics and the social sciences) becomes a composite educational package that can propel Nigeria’s growth curve beyond our collective imagination. And this development could be forced also into the entire employability issue arising from the endless offloading of unemployable graduates into a glutted unemployment market. An average graduate in the Nigerian higher education system is half-baked. Kudos must be given to the General Studies Programme in Nigerian universities for redeeming the situation a bit, and making education as rounded as possible. But then, employability must be taken holistically as emerging from a trajectory of functional and stable educational system. Nigeria’s educational system began with the 6-5-4 framework. In 1982, it became the 6-3-3-4. In 2009, the system changed again to 9-3-4. And now, there is a proposal for another 1-6-3-3-4. What do you have when incessant changes to ill-considered policies merge with endemic infrastructural deficit in educational institutions? Simple: Unemployment multiplied by unemployability! A student can only become functional through a functional educational system that is proactive and foresighted.

The solution to the debilitation of Nigeria’s education sector must first be perceived as multifocal. Hence, there cannot be a one-size-fits. The issues are just too complicated to admit one panacea. And then this diagnosis must be followed by the recognition of the need for an all-round reform blueprint. The blueprint for reforming the education sector must be beautiful in its comprehensiveness and thorough in its specificity. Such a blueprint must be calibrated through the injection of the critical wisdom of all stakeholders in the education sector—government MDAs, non-state actors, parents associations, teachers’ unions, private sector organisations, civil society, educationists and educational managers, etc. Thus, rather than the usual discrete, and often contradictory, efforts that attend deep-seated challenges in the education sector, there is a need for a focused and concerted understanding of what ails Nigeria’s educational philosophy and education system. To succeed, therefore, such a reform must first be grounded on an institutional understanding of the decline in educational standard. Education, it seems to me, is the most critical development institution in Nigeria, and the most critical driver of change. Hence, an institutional reassessment of Nigeria’s education sector must commence with the reform of the institutions of education at various levels—policy institutions like the federal and state ministries of education, NERDC, NUC, UBEC, etc.; several educational organisations like STAN (Science Teachers Association of Nigeria); educational policies like the universal basic education; and so on.

We must not underestimate the significant role of the government, at both the state and federal levels, and the critical responsibility the government has to deploy political commitment and action to making any reform succeed. Political will is a singular success factor in any reform management. Once a government signals interest in any reform endeavour, it already has a 50 percent chance of success. For example, the education sector reform requires the bridging of a huge financial gap that incapacitates many reform initiatives. Carefully managed and monitored funding and reform administration are essential in the revitalisation of the education sector. Like we hinted earlier, higher education plays a powerful role in development calculation for economic growth. The issue of autonomy for Nigerian universities, for example, has the advantage of depoliticising the governance and governing structures of these institutions in order to make them more responsive to innovation and the research need underlying national development. Universities are development centres, but Nigerian universities have truly lost that status. Integrating Nigerian universities into the global knowledge dynamics means rethinking their enabling mandates. This becomes urgent because there are now high-grade R&D research institutes that are not subsumed by national interest or national development but are ardently attracting critical talents, skills and competences.

The Nigerian education sector is bereft of an intrinsic capacity to generate the joy of learning. Education, by its very nature, is a passionate quest whose end is an enlarged sensibility with the capacity to be open-minded, reflective and democratic. The challenge of reforming the education sector does not lie only in generating a large mass of human capital possessing only skills and competences. On the contrary, such a critical mass of individuals must be committed citizens who understand the imperatives of democracy and the urgency of development. The Nigerian education system has churned out skills and competences for many years without any significant change in development profile (simply because the skills have either been drained or are unemployable). It is time to rethink how skills and competences can become the basis of producing worthwhile citizens with the intrinsic patriotic desire to serve the nation. And this requires giving the adequate attention to the education sector and its capacity to drive change in Nigeria.

Tunji Olaopa is Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP); Email: tolaopa2003@gmail.com, tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng