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Debating quality of education in Nigeria

Recently, Nigerians received an added item to the normal diet of herders/farmers crises, politics, political manoeuvrings and the build up to the 2019 elections. Quality of education is now being debated. The Minister of State for Education, Professor Anthony Anwuka fired the first salvo. He observed that there is an obvious decline in quality, especially among university graduates. He proposed an additional year of post graduation internship to improve quality. For him, the extra year after graduation by lawyers in Law School, and the year of houseman ship by doctors accounts for more solid standing of graduates of the two professions. He suggested that an extra year should be introduced for all graduates and even proposed the Lagos Business School as an institution where the extra year could be spent. He was silent on the absorptive capacity of the LBS; the quality of that institution was implied. The Minister did not seem to appreciate that the one year in Law School focuses more on procedures (filing cases, court procedures, etc) for legal practice and does not have much academic content. Relatedly, the year of houseman ship for new doctors is de facto apprenticeship tutelage as further reminder of the origins of Medical Education as trade. 

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In the third week in May, the debate climbed a few notches up in Veritas University Abuja where an array of Professors gathered to discuss Education, including its changing quality. The list of speakers  included the Vice Chancellor of University of Abuja, Professor Michael Adikwu; Professor Mike Kwannashe, the host Vice Chancellor and others from the Ahmadu Bello University and elsewhere. The former proposed a robust post graduate programme which will percolate top-down to the lower levels as a solution; the latter suggested a more holistic approach. There were several perspectives about the nature of education on offer, including the position of Paulo Friere, (in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed,) that for education to be meaningful and relevant to people’s circumstances, it must overcome the ‘’banking system’’ (where ideas are deposed by teachers and can be withdrawn in examinations) and become some form of conscientization. Education in Nigeria, especially at the Primary and Secondary levels, seem stuck in the old banking tradition. The Veritas Conference was not short of suggestions about how quality could be improved but exactly how it can be done was not immediately clear.

The problem of education, including its declining quality and extent to which it addresses the challenges of Nigeria such as meeting its labour force requirements and the extent of incorporation of modern technologies such as ICT in the curriculum, is not new.  Those in positions to employ might have received some shock that some graduate applicants can hardly write, neither are they fluent in the English language-which, by the way, is the language of instruction. It is in this sense that a more holistic approach to quality deserves attention; after all, a problem diagnosed is a problem half solved.

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Most of the problem with quality commences at the Primary School. It is no longer news that public Primary schools in many States are closed for most of the school year due, mostly, to non-payment of salaries. There is therefore little teaching and learning for most of the year and yet, the pupils are promoted to the next class regardless. I have had an encounter with an angry parent who complained that the daughter had completed Primary School but could neither read, speak nor write in English. To drive home his point, he provided pen and paper and challenged the daughter to write her name. She simply took to her heels rather than face the embarrassment. I have also seen a Primary School leaver who could hardly write the alphabet, his capital letter F faced the other way, a mistake, I understand, is common in nursery 1. There you have it, the chap’s level of understanding of the alphabet is many years in arrears. Secondary Schools have to live with the defects unless, of course, there is some rescue along the line.

Public Secondary education is not much better. Here too, there is frequent closure because of irregular payment of salaries. There are also the well known dilapidated buildings, blown off roofs and even classrooms under the trees-obviously not conducive for teaching and learning. Some teaching goes on except that in many circumstances, there is little commitment. In most of the public schools there is poor writing culture. Besides copying notes, Secondary Students these days are rarely asked to write compositions. In addition, many have problems speaking English. When the Chibok girls’ abduction broke, it came to light that students who were about to take the School Certificate examination could hardly speak English. When some were freed and were received by   President Buhari, an Al-Jazera reporter rode in the same bus with them from Abuja back to Chibok. She was frustrated that none could speak sufficient English to narrate her days in captivity.  There is no reason to suspect that Chibok is a special case. So, when do Secondary School graduates begin to speak English? 

This same quality of Secondary School graduates proceed to the tertiary institutions. Many are able to do so through the emergence of what has become known as ‘’miracle centre’’ where anyone who takes the school leaving certificate examination is guaranteed a pass with good grades. This is actually well known and has compelled many tertiary institutions to begin some screening. There are stories that many of the top scorers in WAEC examinations could not write. It is not that the Holy Ghost descended on them during the WAEC examination, they are products of miracle centres-of which there are several!

While many Public Schools are shut, normal teaching and learning continue in Private schools. Indeed, many of the pupils there seem well taught. As I drove out of Makurdi some two years ago, I listened to a children’s programme hosted by Junior Secondary School student-all in impeccable English. Only recently I was mesmerized when a four year girl was talking about earthquakes and other types of natural disasters-obviously learnt in her Nursery School. As part of this year’s children’s day celebration may TV station offered children the opportunity to anchor programmes. How many of these children are from Public Schools? There is no running away from class dimension in education in Nigeria. The unfortunate conclusion is that the poor quality keeps the poor who cannot afford private schools or lesson teachers keeps the poor in their place  –and thus making poverty (and low quality education)hereditary. 

Some who find their way to tertiary institutions get caught in the screening process, those who escape have no foundation to cope in tertiary institutions. As any tertiary education teacher will affirm, many of the students do not seem to follow classroom discussions. Many cannot express themselves in English; writing is an equally big problem.

The decline in the quality of education seems to confront one from every direction. When broadcast journalists do a vox pop(uli) on radio and television, the English spoken by random passers-by interviewed does not portray us well an English speaking country-compared, say to Ghana or Kenya. Many highly placed Nigerians, in the expression of the youth, often ‘’shoot’’ when they speak. A former Minister was fond of the expression, ‘’we can be able’’ in virtually every public outing. I have also heard ‘’My names are’’ from the hallow chambers of National Assembly.

The poor quality is being recycled through tertiary institutions. How some of them are able to graduate must be reckoned as the eighth wonder of the world.  Many, especially the private institutions, Colleges of Education, Polytechnics and even Universities have decrepit facilities and very sparse equipment. The competence of staff is suspect, never mind that they seem to scale through accreditation exercises. Only recently, the National Universities Commissioned announced there are 58 illegal Universities-obviously producing graduates-in Nigeria. The truth is that the NUC has consistently published the names of all Universities and year founded-Federal, State and Private as well as the Illegal ones in its weekly Monday Bulletin. Even the Federal and State Universities have problems such as congested classrooms, poorly equipped laboratories, inadequate number of teachers which adversely affect teaching and learning.

So, the quality issue is a systemic one about which one extra year in Lagos Business School or anywhere else will do little.  But ensuring that Primary and Secondary Schools are well run-full teaching in an atmosphere conducive to teaching and learning, will make the difference. Nigeria has done it before-graduates up to early 1980s had substance and could stand their own anytime anywhere. Those who went abroad had no problem coping with their classes. Today, many foreign universities subject Nigerian graduates to aptitude tests and in the process screen many out. We look forward to how the Minister will match strident comments with action in rescuing low quality of Education system in Nigeria; it all boils down to another test for the change agenda.

Professor Alubo is on sabbatical leave in Federal University Lafia

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