A Voyage Into the Basics: Getting Our Education Right, By Oluwadele Bolutife
That our education is broken and requires an urgent fix is a grossly understated fact. Obviously, as it is today, there is no single problem we face as a nation and a people that the inputs and outputs of education can resolve. When we look at this frustrating reality, therefore, it becomes imperative that we take more than a cursory look at what is wrong with our education…
One of the critical ingredients of securing the present and the future of a people is the deliberate design of education to make it responsive to the immediate needs of the people and to innovate for the foreseeable future.
In Nigeria, as it is today, our current educational systems and contexts cannot achieve either of these. Do not get me wrong; an average educated Nigerian may have multiple degrees, which may neither be functional nor relevant to our needs. Although the educational needs of the nation may be the same, each ‘region’ has always had a different approach to and agenda on education. It is either we find a way to harmonise these differences, not through the quota system though, or we ‘unbundle’ the system to cater for the specific aspirations of each region. We should note that the term ‘region’ is being deliberately used here, first for the ease of analysis, and to give some historical perspective to why we are probably where we are today. If there is any aspect of these analyses people find uncomfortable, I will be more than willing to learn from superior arguments, backed up by incontrovertible evidence.
That our education is broken and requires an urgent fix is a grossly understated fact. Obviously, as it is today, there is no single problem we face as a nation and a people that the inputs and outputs of education can resolve. When we look at this frustrating reality, therefore, it becomes imperative that we take more than a cursory look at what is wrong with our education, as a necessary preliminary step to determining whether our teeming youthful population can become of any use to resolving our numerous, but not insurmountable problems, now and in the future. For instance, how much are we going to spend to fix our electricity that has become the shame of a country taunted as the Giant of Africa? How much contributions are our educational institutions able to make towards finding lasting solutions to a situation that we ought to have taken as a given? If we are to translate our collective certifications in all the fields of engineering, how many megawatts of electricity will this amount to? Yes, these questions may not just sound mundane but ridiculous, yet a sincere answer to them may give us an idea of how much those certificates are worth, beyond the paper on which they are written or the beautiful frames that adorned them.
Now let us go through some regional analysis.
The North has always been categorised as comprising educationally disadvantages states, and hence they are given uncompetitive advantages over the rest of the nation as some form of affirmative action. The initial ‘wisdom’ behind this categorisation was to enable them to catch up with the rest of the country. It is however an unfortunate but hard truth that that intention has only succeeded in dragging everyone down. The educational approach and inclination in the North are deliberately exclusive and strongly persuasive. There has never been any pretention that the North is interested in the mass education of her people. Education there was meant to be reserved and serve only a few, who must be persuaded and heavily incentivised to engage in this. And, if you ask me, this may be more for political gain than anything else. Take, for instance, that with a score of less than 100 out of 400 (less than 25 per cent), an average Northerner will secure admission into any programme of his/her choice in a tertiary institution in the country. The marks are further lower for females. The education persuasion is such that the parents bear no burden for the ‘chosen’ members of the ‘exclusive’ club who are canvassed with ‘opportunities’ for education. The government pays the stipends and provides for such students, as a of ‘encouraging’ them to go to school. Unknown to many perhaps, in its deliberateness, is that, except at the University of Jos, no Northern university is allowed to offer Philosophy as a discipline. Yes, there are some courses like the philosophy of history, philosophy of education, and philosophy of religion that are interjected here and there, however, to avoid the promotion of ‘critical thinking,’ a full-fledged Philosophy department or course of study was and may still be an aversion in Northern Nigeria. If this has changed, I will be glad to know and update my knowledge on it.
The few who followed the education pathway have consistently demonstrated the undeniable capability to innovate, once the environment is encouraging. Unfortunately, most public policies have been decided by those who were heavily ‘incentivised’ and do not see the need or urgency for innovation in the rapidly growing knowledge world of our time.
A forward-looking people would have harnessed the great exploits and engineering capacity displayed during the avoidable Nigerian civil war between 1967 and 1970. Quiet unfortunate, this has not been the case. Driven by the needs to survive the trauma of that era, Easterners, especially those of the Igbo extraction, choose the pathway of commerce and consequently developed the most inclusive trading internship ever found anywhere in the whole world. With the emphasis on short benefits and the ascendancy of wealth creation, the educational system almost became ‘exclusive’ as well. Only that there was no deliberate formal state policy on that. With that development, fewer and fewer Easterners considered education as the primary means of overcoming generational poverty. The few who chose the path of learning were required to score as much as three times the scores of their northern counterparts. With the frustration that they may be writing the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examinations five or more times, even when their scores were more than double those of the other guys, this further drove many of them away from continuing in the path of educational advancement. Of course, with no state policy, no persuasion, and no incentive, many people simply drifted away and looked in the direction of commerce-based careers. Yet, because commerce only creates short term benefits, many never became active ‘economic players.’ Worse still, most of what they trade-in are not even locally produced. The few who followed the education pathway have consistently demonstrated the undeniable capability to innovate, once the environment is encouraging. Unfortunately, most public policies have been decided by those who were heavily ‘incentivised’ and do not see the need or urgency for innovation in the rapidly growing knowledge world of our time.
With the deliberate policy orchestrated by the defunct Action Group, education became the natural and proven route to overcoming generational poverty among Westerners. And, with access to free primary education, parents naturally took over the burden of educating their wards to give them better lives and secure themselves in old age as well. Most of the schools were either built by missionaries, through communal efforts, and a few of these by governments. There used to be two distinguishable educational routes, even if complimentary, which were the general studies and professional studies. Until, perhaps, my generation, most Ekiti people were found in the general studies category, which was mainly responsible for the ‘flaunted’ description that there was a professor in nearly every Ekiti family. Other Yorubas moved rapidly into the area of professional studies, including disciplines such as Law, Accounting, all forms of engineering, and geology, while many Ekitis became eminent professors mainly in the liberal Arts. The gaps have seemingly been bridged now. Again, with the unitary system actively playing uncanny roles in the educational sector, Westerners are gradually losing their hold – if they haven’t already – in taking the educational route as means of escaping generational poverty. The decision on education amongst the Yorubas is made at the family level, unlike in the other regions, with it happening in the North at governmental leve, and the East at the individual level, respectively. I am learning that many Westerner parents are now no longer mindful of their wards going the short-cut routes.
A well planned and thoroughly implemented educational strategy, with a problem-solving curricula, is what we need as a nation to get us out of the woods. It should not be exclusive; it may be persuasive but not pampering; and it should be based on merit and not favour.
With all these misalignments, the overall educational system has become what it should not have been. From viewing certificate as mere meal tickets, it has degenerated so much that I cannot even find the appropriate words to describe it.
What is the way forward then?
With the tiny star amidst the dark clouds, the innovation achieved by the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile-Ife is the template we may look more critically into. What they did in developing their electricity and cutting off from the national grid signposts the sort of education that society needs. With more student involvement in such a project, engineering students would be able to develop modular designs, utilising renewable energy templates to provide the ultimate solution to our electricity challenges. The problem will not be solved simply by signing mouthwatering contracts (certainly with the embedded kickbacks) with Siemens and other established giants but in harnessing the capacity of our students in a similitude of functional and problem-solving curricula. The OAU should expand whatever they have developed and extend the gesture to their immediate community, even if to only one local government, as part of their corporate social responsibility.
A well planned and thoroughly implemented educational strategy, with a problem-solving curricula, is what we need as a nation to get us out of the woods. It should not be exclusive; it may be persuasive but not pampering; and it should be based on merit and not favour. In Yorubaland, when you are identified as not being inclined to education, you are advised to learn a trade as an artisan, with technical school and trade tests route available for you to learn some fundamental business issues. Why force people to school and thereby encouraging mediocrity in the process? It is only the right education, in terms of equal accessibility and a functional curriculum that can bail us out. Also, our schools should stimulate us to critical thinking and not stifle us out of it for mere pollical expediencies.
Once again, it is your village boy, #JustThinkingAloud.
Oluwadele L. Bolutife, a chartered accountant and a public policy and administration scholar, writes from Canada.