Sidney Hook, an American philosopher of the Pragmatist school, once contended that “the teacher is the heart of the educational system”. If this is so, shouldn’t nations desirous of developing high-quality human resources strive to attract and retain the best brains in the teaching profession? The answer, in my opinion, is that they should. For, as Lee Iacocca, the American automobile executive who spearheaded the development of Ford Mustang and Pinto cars while at the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s, once quipped, “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less.”
Some countries of the world are already walking this path. In an article “Raising Teacher Quality around the World”, Vivien Stewart, senior adviser (education) and former vice president at Asia Society, reckons that “as countries face the challenges of a global knowledge economy that requires them to develop higher levels of knowledge and new capacities in their students, they are focusing intently on ways to attract high-quality candidates into the teaching profession”.
“High-performing countries build their human resource systems by putting the energy upfront; they concentrate on attracting, preparing, and supporting good teachers and nurturing teacher leadership talent,” she writes.
Finland and Singapore are at the forefront of this drive. While in Finland teaching has become a highly sought-after career – in fact, the number one choice of Finland’s best and brightest students – Singapore selects prospective teachers from the top one-third of its secondary school class. In these countries, “strong academics are essential, along with a commitment to the profession and to serving the nation’s diverse students”. In Finland (and Singapore and South Korea), 100 percent of teachers are from the “top third”.
This can be replicated in Nigeria – across all levels of education. Indeed, available evidence suggests that this was once the practice in Nigerian universities, where top-of-the-class graduates were offered automatic employment as graduate assistants, from where they proceeded to earn further degrees and grew through the ranks. But not anymore.
Obadiah Mailafia, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, in a recent article “What do the Nigerian people want?”, writes: “During our time it was the most brilliant minds who remained to teach in the universities. The average ones went into banking and the oil industry. When the universities were brought to their knees by the semi-literate military junta, the best minds fled abroad while a good number went into banking and the oil and gas sector. Ominously, the plodders became the professors. It is a dangerous development. These were the kind of people who felt nothing about selling grades and handouts and pestering young female students for sex in exchange of grades. Throughout my years as an undergraduate of Ahmadu Bello University, such a thing was never ever heard of. The system collapsed after our time and the citadels of learning became, sadly, an open cesspool of cultism, whoredom and violence. Today, some of those who call themselves ‘graduates’ cannot pass the most basic of international literacy tests.”
But the rot goes even deeper. A pilot ICPC/NUC University System Study and Review (USSR) of corruption in the university system in 2012 identified a series of infractions including admissions racketeering, misapplication and embezzlement of funds, sale of examination questions, inducement to manipulate awards of degrees, direct cheating during examinations, deliberate delays in the release of results, victimisation of students by officials, lack of commitment to work by lecturers, and above all, sexual harassment and exploitation of students by lecturers.
However, the country may be on the path to getting it right if the recently announced National Youth Service Corps policy of deploying Nigerian graduates with First Class degrees to tertiary institutions as lecturers is properly implemented.
At a two-day pre-mobilisation workshop for the 2015 Batch ‘B’ NYSC programme in Kaduna recently, the NYSC director-general, Johnson Olawumi, announced that in order to properly mobilise the right manpower to boost the education sector, “All corps members who graduated with First Class honours, Distinction degrees and Diplomas will be posted to tertiary institutions for effective utilisation of their manpower. The posting policy of the scheme is being vigorously implemented for the achievement of the desired impact. I, therefore, appeal to the authorities of all tertiary institutions of learning to reciprocate this gesture by accepting and offering them permanent appointments after service.”
This policy will not clean up the whole mess in the tertiary education system, no doubt – partly because First Class graduates are not necessarily saints, and partly because the issues go beyond just quality of teachers – it is nonetheless a first necessary step in a journey of many thousand miles. Let’s first get the right quality of teachers. Our institutions of higher learning are today replete with accidental lecturers – some of whose only recommendation is that they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone – while some of our best brains on whom the responsibility of raising a sound generation should naturally fall are wasting their brains in sometimes unimaginable jobs and places. Same goes for other levels of education.
It needs to be stressed that building a high-quality teacher workforce does not happen by accident; it requires deliberate policy choices. Nigeria must therefore look to Finland, Singapore, and perhaps South Korea, for the best examples. No doubt, in a multi-sectoral economy where education has to compete with other sectors for talent, attracting the best brains to the teaching profession is not enough; efforts must be made to retain them. Of course, those efforts will come at extra cost. And why not? As Bob Talbert has let us know, “Good teachers are costly, but bad teachers cost more.”