Proposal for Tertiary Education in Nigeria by @amasonic #opesays
A few weeks back, I posted a status on Facebook relating the poor quality of education to the cheapness of it. Quite expectedly, it generated a heated debate whether education in Nigeria should be kept at its current subsidized level or have its subsidies removed, and also what could be done to improve its quality. Unfortunately, I could not explain my idea and opinion in full because of the restriction that Facebook imposes on comments, that they must be less than 1000 words. However, I promised to write it out in full and email it to all interested persons, in the hope that it will make us engage in constructive debates on how we can improve the Nigerian educational system to the betterment of our younger ones and our children, and that Nigeria may benefit:The Nigerian educational system is in shambles at all levels: an estimated 12 million children of school age are out of schools, teacher-student and school-student population ratios are very imbalanced, only about a quarter of candidates for university placement exams get admissions, and worst of all, the quality of our public schools and even some private ones is so poor that it led former President Olusegun Obasanjo to declare ‘that Nigerian graduates are half-baked’. But the focus of this write-up is not to dwell on the problems, but possible solutions. I am going to narrow the focus of my proposal to the tertiary educational system: colleges of education and agriculture, monotechnics and polytechnics, and universities. We have about 110 universities, 90 polytechnics/monotechnics and 120 colleges of education and agriculture (my estimates); yet there are still not enough places to all qualified students and the quality is very low. What is the way out? Eliminate the disparity between universities, polytechnics/monotechnics and colleges of education/agriculture: Universities are empowered to award degrees, polytechnics/monotechnics award diplomas while colleges of education/agriculture award certificates. However, these are supposed to be proof of education, not the education itself. What I mean is that rather going to tertiary institutions to obtain higher education, we now go there to obtain degrees, diplomas or certificates. Consequently, a disproportionate number of students struggle to gain admission into universities, and having polytechnics/monotechnics and colleges of education/agriculture as a back-up plan. This is despite the fact that there are many polytechnics that offer a quality of education that can compete with those of many universities. Polytechnics such as Yaba College of Technology, Lagos; Kaduna Polytechnic, Kaduna and Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu are first-grade schools that can give many universities a run for their money. But candidates will rather apply first to universities, even those whose quality of programs is less than these aforementioned schools before these schools because it is all about the degrees. Additionally, the civil services have not helped issues by limiting the career potentials of non-degree holders within the services. Eliminate the disparity. Let every tertiary institution be able to award a degree, diploma or certificate in a field depending on the strength of the programme and as accredited by the accreditation/professional body. This will make the pressure on universities to lessen, even if slightly. Also, it will encourage other tertiary institutions besides the universities to continually upgrade their standards since they will be in direct competition with the universities. Students will also be encouraged to apply to schools based on the quality of their academic programmes in the fields they are intending to study, rather than the qualification at the end. They will start going to tertiary institutions to obtain higher education, and not a degree, diploma or certificate.
A lot of people have countered this suggestion by saying that universities,polytechnics/monotechnics and colleges of education/agriculture have different focuses. That is quite true. Polytechnics and monotechnics focus on technical skills more than universities do. But giving all schools powers to award degrees does not make them deviate from their original focus. Polytechnics that start to award degrees will still have their strengths in certain areas, same as universities already do. For example, the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, a federally-owned university of technology offers academic programmes in all fields save for the arts. However, it is exceptional in engineering and environmental sciences. The same could be said for the University of Ibadan, which is exceptional in Medicine, Arts and Law as compared to Engineering. Other tertiary institutions that have degree- awarding powers will have their strengths in their original focuses. So we can expect to see a Yabatech that is particularly strong in giving students technical experience or a KadPoly that has exceptional engineering programmes with practical experiences. We can take our cue from the British system that made this transition and schools such as Coventry Polytechnic became University of Coventry and Worcester Polytechnic became University of Warwickshire, degree-awarding schools but with their original focus unchanged. Or better yet, American schools who give their certification (Bachelors’ or Associate) based on the accreditation given. A school such as Harvard University, as Ivy League as it is, is not known for Engineering; but rather for Medicine, Social Sciences and Law. Ditto for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this is not the natural first choice for an MBA, but rather, for a degree in an engineering field. What happened is the specialization: each school picks its niche and focuses on it.
Accreditation by Professional Bodies: Let the accreditation of tertiary education programs be done primarily by the professional bodies. Already, this is in place, but I believe more power should be given to the professional bodies. For example, law programs should be accredited by the Council of Legal Education; pharmacy by the Pharmacists’ Society of Nigeria and so on. This is because the professional bodies are more in tune with the type of knowledge required in the field and responds to changes in industry trends and demands quicker than either the National Universities Commission (NUC), National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) and the National Council for Colleges of Education (NCCE). Also, they will be the ones to award a school the powers to award degrees, diplomas or certificates based on the quality of their programmes. Lastly, they are less likely to be influenced politically as they are not government-owned, and they guard the quality and integrity of their professions more jealously. Merge NUC, NBTE and NCCE into one body: That is right! Merge them. If the first two suggestions are implemented, there will be no need for us to have these three bodies existing separately. I believe they should be merged into a Unified Tertiary Education Council, with the mandate of accrediting schools and issuing licenses for starting up. Also, they will be in charge of disbursing grants and funds to government-owned schools and assessing standard of facilities and environments.
Reduce the barriers to the establishment of private schools: Admittedly, the demand for more tertiary institutions is very high. Since about 75% of candidates sitting for JAMB do not end up getting admissions due to lack of places, this fact becomes evident. This is not counting the millions of young men and women that lack the opportunity to take school placement tests, and for whom we should continue exploring avenues to bring them in. Government cannot afford to shoulder this weight alone. We need more private tertiary institutions. However, we need to reduce prohibitive fees such as the high cost of obtaining licenses (about N200 million in the case of universities), not to mention facilities, and focus starting conditions on facilities and quality of staff. This is because at present, only extremely wealthy individuals or organisations (non-governmental and faith-based) can afford to set up schools. They then end up transferring costs to students in the form of fees and levies. Education is supposed to be a not-for-profit enterprise. But when they are made to spend so much in starting up, that ideal could be defeated. Additionally, when the license fees are reduced, we could see community school springing up, and organizations will be more motivated to open schools. The more the schools, the better.
Make JAMB a testing body only: I believe it is about time we reformed the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board. When it was founded, it was charged with conducting exams for admissions into universities, giving out admissions and matriculating students. However, as the numbers of candidates and schools have grown exponentially, the responsibilities seem to have grown beyond them. JAMB now gives admissions to students without consideration to the capacity of the school, contributing to overcrowded schools and overstretched facilities. I suggest that JAMB should just be in charge of conducting placement tests, American SAT-style. Schools should be given the sole powers to make admissions based on the results of these tests and their own set parameters. This will also enable placement tests to be taken more than once a year. Since advances in technology have made it possible that test results to be out within a week, there is no reason that these tests should be taken once in a year. After all, no two public schools run the same academic calendar. Thus said, if a student takes the test in April with the aim for admission in June and is unsuccessful, he/she should be able to take another one in, say, August, and apply to another school that is admitting students in October. Also, this will make JAMB to discard their quota system of admissions which has restricted students to the schools they can apply to and placed merit below parameters such as ‘state of origin’. Now I know what you are thinking: can one gain admission meritoriously if JAMB has its admission-giving powers taken away, considering the amount of politics that take place at our various schools ads regards admission? Look at my next suggestion:Grant tertiary institutions full autonomy: This is one crucial policy suggestion that has the capacity to create the most ripple effect, and at the same, is quite hard to swallow. Autonomy means the universities will have the powers to fix their own calendars, chart their own directions and most of all, set tuition fees which most times, is the controversial part. Nigerian educational system is subsidized at all levels: from primaryeducation up to the tertiary level. However, the government cannot shoulder the costs of education up to that level and still give it world-class quality. This is even if the UNESCO recommended 26% budgetary allocation is given only to tertiary education system. Tertiary education the world over is expensive. Nigeria by being an exception has had to make a costly compromise for its cheapness: low quality. A lot of people have misconstrued this struggle to be merely about remunerations of teaching staff, but it is far more beyond that. In the global village we now live in, we are no longer just competing for jobs and opportunities with our classmates. We are also competing with the talent from China, USA, Ghana and every other place imaginable. Hence, we need to have education that is at par with them, at the least. This means excellent facilities, not overcrowded classrooms; functioning laboratories and workshops, not dilapidated and non-working ones; emphasis on research and development, not copy-and-paste work; a highly-motivated teaching faculty in a conducive environment, not lecturers that work for just the pay. At the level of subsidy we enjoy today, this dream is but a mirage, because like I said earlier, government is cash-strapped to be able to provide this sort of environment and still afford to pay teaching staff competitively. Now this is what causes brain drain. When brain drain happens, it does not occur at the secondary or primary school levels. It occurs at the tertiary level. One of the parameters for being promoted to the rank of a professor is that you should have 15 papers published in international academic journals. This means that your papers must be based on academic research. Now, imagine a lecturer in a pure science discipline such as physics or chemistry, in an ill-equipped lab or without research funding, struggling to create something worthy of publication in an international journal in physics or chemistry, against his peers halfway across the world with these resources at their disposal. Also, a professor is entitled to attend one international conference and one local conference in his field as sponsored by his institution. This rarely happens. This is just to show you that the struggle is beyond their pay. Working conditions matter as well. I have heard stories of associate professors in Nigeria leaving to take up teaching jobs at the rank of Lecturer , due to way better working conditions in their new schools.
When it comes to the issue of paying real value for our education, I have met a lot of people who have argued that government MUST keep our schools free. After all, our parents’ generation did not have to pay fees. They obviously forget that there are way more students in the tertiary education system than there was then; that rate of inflation must be factored in and that the government is broke compared to then. Some have made the more logical argument that paying fees will deny indigent students the opportunity to a higher education. I am not going to deny the fact that not everybody will be able to pay tuition fees. Now, I am not asking that subsidies be removed wholly, but the level of subsidies should be reduced. Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) who is also a proprietor of a private university bearing his name estimated that the cost of producing a world- class graduate was about N2million annually. In my school, we pay about N18, 000 yearly. This is a 99.1% subsidy. Now, multiply that by 7,000 students. And get the numbers for every tertiary institution in this country and you will see that the difference being shouldered by the government is pretty huge. Unless we find a way to reduce the cost burden on the government, we will continue to end up with an educational system that doesn’t leave us much better than before we went through it. One thing that can be implemented is that government subsidizes it to some extent, say 75%. Additionally, the school can provide some sort of scholarship scheme where no student ends up paying 100% of the tuition. Every student qualifies for some discount, in one way or the other. The level of discount depends on the parameters met by the student, whether academic or otherwise. This will help in freeing up funds that the government can plough into primary and secondary education. I believe that unless this is done, we will continue with the status quo, where public basic education is in shambles. This is very essential as the public education system is the best vehicle to deliver education en masse. However, in this country, we have allowed it to collapse, hence effectively depriving millions of children of access to qualitative education, limiting their ability to excel intellectually in life.
Educational psychologists have proven that the intelligence quotient (IQ) does not go up after the age of 12, meaning that basic education is actually the most important level of education. But we would not be able to meet our obligations at that level, for among many reasons, spreading resources too thin. A well-functioning basic education system will develop the IQ of students and help them find their personal strengths, be it academic, technical, sporting or artistic. It is from here that they then chose to hone their abilities at the tertiary level and learn to turn it into a value-adding career that will be fulfilling for them and beneficial to the society. Admittedly, the number of students in tertiary institutions might likely fall should the cost go up. However, it is up to us to make a choice: a system that can accommodate everybody but lacks quality to give students the necessary skills to make use of and create opportunities; or a system that doesn’t accommodate as many students as when it was free, but it is the pride of a nation and the hope of young people. For me, I choose the second option knowing for a fact that a people properly educated are always value-adding, and in so doing, will create opportunities for others to benefit. Additionally, combined with my earlier suggestions of reducing barriers to setting up private tertiary schools, there will be many more schools springing up. Quality should supersede quantity anytime.
Another upside to full autonomy is that there will be intense competition among schools. As with almost any government-run endeavour, the lack of competition has made schools to be nonchalant about results. Admissions and jobs are given based on sentiments and connections rather than merit; there is emphasis on catchment area and geopolitical balancing instead of creating a level-playing field where a student can apply and study in any school. A system where schools are graded on the quality of graduates they produce and the strength of their academic programs, especially by employers, will lead to competition, which in the end will benefit the entire society. Students will not just be trying to obtain their degree in any school, but in the school with the best academic programme in that field. Government should restructure their funding for public schools: As I said earlier, my advocating for full autonomy doesn’t mean that government should completely hands-off funding tertiary education. Government should continue to give grants to schools. There should be a minimum level of grants that each school should be entitled to receive, and based on some certain parameters, schools can receive more. Alternatively, besides every school receiving the minimum amount of public funds, government could create an ‘Ivy League’ system, where certain schools receive more funding than the others; something like the Centres of Excellence system that was done among University Teaching Hospitals during the administration of President Obasanjo. These schools could include first-generation universities such as University of Ibadan; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria University, University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife; selected specialised schools such as Federal University of Technology, Owerri; Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi; Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, Warri; Kaduna Polytechnic, Kaduna; Yaba College of Technology, Lagos and the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu.
There should be a review in the way research is supported: The Federal Government has a network of research institutes, ranging from those on forest crops to cereals to industrial research. These research institutes are under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and that of Science and Technology. Their mandate is to take out direct research in the fields they are involved in. One way for the Federal Government to encourage research is to reorganise the research institutes to be responsible for coordinating public research funding in their fields. For example, National Institute for Forest Research (NIFOR) in Benin City which is responsible for research into forest crops such as oil palm, will then be responsible for coordinating all public research funding into oil palm, whether done directly or indirectly. That means, an agronomist in the University of Maiduguri doing research into desert-resistant oil palm species, for instance, will then apply to the Institute for funding, rather than his university. That way, research funding is better disbursed to a greater effect.
I admit that these ideas are very rough in outline, and they need polishing. The purpose of writing this lengthy proposal is that it stimulates discussion on how we can make our tertiary education better. I encourage that you share this with as many people as you wish to. Every idea is invaluable. I look forward to receiving feedback. Thanks for your valued time and attention.
Mark Amaza April, 2011
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