This admission by a captain of Nigerian industry confirms the essential suspicion about the quality of education in Africa’s second largest economy. Tangentially, it gestures towards the problems of massive unemployment, brain-drain and manpower shortages that continue to cripple domestic efforts to achieve rapidly sustainable growth. For qualified youths looking for a job, it also explains the prolonged and intensive pre-recruitment tests that Nigerian corporate houses insist on before hiring local talent.
Western education first came to Nigeria with missionaries in the middle of the 19th Century, who set up the country’s first schools. By the time Nigerians declared independence from colonial rule in 1960, there were three distinct education systems in operation: indigenous community training and apprenticeship in rural areas, schools of Islamic learning and finally formal education provided by European-influenced institutions. Although pressure on the formal education system remained intense in the years following, the collapse of global oil prices in the early ’80s forced huge reductions in government spending on education. The outcome was a gradual degradation at all levels of learning, from primary schools to universities, and a corresponding fall in literacy and employment rates. According to a 2005 report, the overall literacy rate had fallen from almost 72% in 1991 to 64% at the end of the last century2. More disturbing facts were put forward by the Employment and Growth Study launched by the Nigerian government and the World Bank’s International Development Agency in 2008. According to this study, unemployment levels remained unfazed between 1999 and 2006 despite a 7% growth of the non-oil economy in the same period3. Moreover, while job opportunities grew corresponding with the labour force, youth unemployment actually showed substantial increase. The report notes accordingly that “Nigeria’s growth performance has not responded to the employment aspirations of its population as a whole”. Despite considerable initiatives in the fields of education and employment generation, one out of five Nigerian adults continues to be unemployed according to some estimates, and only every tenth university graduate ever manages to get a job.
The findings are revelatory in the context of Abuja’s frantic efforts to prioritise educational restructuring as a tool for economic competitiveness. It is also a sad commentary on the efficacy of well-intended but probably token policy initiatives – like the compulsory entrepreneurship training programme for all college graduates ordered by former president O Obsanjo.
While the relative merits of such measures can be debated endlessly, the focus on enterprise is hardly in question. Emerging out of a turbulent economic and political history at the beginning of the new millennium, the civilian leadership in Nigeria was grasped with the formidable challenge of reversing decades of economic stagnation and negative growth trends. Abuja’s answer to accelerated development was vigorous enterprise promotion in the SME space. The government simultaneously embarked on an enthusiastic reforms programme aimed at correcting basic macroeconomic imbalances, eradicating poverty and raising average living standards. To further consolidate national ambitions, it signed the UN Millennial Declaration of 2000 for universal human rights and formally adopted targets to establish Nigeria as one of the top 20 world economies by 2020. With its abundance of natural and human resources, Nigeria is primed to drive an enterprise revolution that will deliver explosive growth and sufficiently diversify the economy beyond its traditional obsession with oil and gas. Education is critical to this scheme of things because of its direct link to productivity, and because the extent of Nigeria’s economic growth is fundamentally dependent on the skills of its workforce.
The following are some of the biggest problems facing Nigerian education:
1. Inadequate infrastructure, manpower and equipment across all levels of education, from primary to tertiary.
2. Under-funding from government, which continues to shrivel resources and stunt growth in the sector.
3. Restrained private participation and almost exclusive dependence on government aid.
4. Issues of responsibility and control due to overlapping federal, state and local government jurisdiction.
5. Insufficient use of information and communication technologies, modern equipment and innovative methods of teaching.
6. Reliance on expatriate faculty in higher educational institutes due to lack of local manpower.
7. Absence of curricula relevant to national manpower requirements and human development goals.
Advisory commissions set up by colonial governments in the early 20th Century were among the first to report basic deficiencies in educational systems across Africa. They noted that the quality of education provided in the continent was singularly detached from the needs and aspiration of local populations. Sadly, that continues to be the problem in Nigeria at least, where the government has been hard put to revamp the education system in line with the MDG and 2020 goals. Because of the time-bound nature of these programmes, Nigeria needs to deliver fast on several counts.
* The government must design broad strategies to revive and develop the education system in tune with socio-economic realities and the country’s long-term growth targets.
* Investment in education has to be substantially enhanced; expenditure models need to be reworked to allow for universal basic education together with effective vocational training.
* A substantial portion of the investment must go for infrastructure development and training and orientation programmes for teachers at all levels.
* Radical transformation of higher education must be achieved with the aim of providing socially relevant skills to unemployed youths in both rural and urban regions.
* Development of sound tertiary institutions to provide quality skills education and training to internationally acceptable standards is vital.
* Government must create conditions for increased participation by the private sector and civil-society organisations in educational reform and execution.
* Effective monitoring and supervision of budgetary allowances in education must be made a priority to ensure accountable utilisation of resources.
In August this year, the present government under President UM Yar’Adua announced that it would declare a state of emergency against unemployment and joblessness by extensively using IT systems and operations to train unemployed Nigerians. Although the assurance of rapid improvement in the employment scenario is spirited, whether Abuja approaches the challenge holistically remains to be seen. The long-term economic growth of this nation of 148 billion people is effectively tied to the skills of its manpower. The question before Nigeria is whether it adequately recognises education as the key to expanding economic opportunities.