There is a small group of young people I am part of here in Lagos who support and mentor each other as we try to make something of ourselves without a 9 to 5 job. We call ourselves entrepreneurs to feel better about our struggle to scale our various small businesses and live like the responsible adults we are supposed to be. Whenever we meet to whine and moan about Nigeria, we generally end up moaning in unison about one thing in particular – staffing.
Before going further, I must clarify that this is not a “Nigerian youths are ignorant, lazy and entitled” article. The performance of young Nigerians in more supportive environments clearly shows that the problem is not with the aptitude or intelligence of Nigerian graduates as individuals. Nevertheless, there is a problem. Across our mix of professional services and creative endeavours, the common recurring complaint in our merry little group is that the general quality of entry-level labour one can get in Nigeria is dire.
We frequently trade stories about dealing with basic comprehension and literacy issues, attitude and cultural mindset problems, ethical problems like plagiarism, and lack of initiative. One and all, we agree that Nigerian universities and polytechnics woefully fail to provide students with even the most basic skills to make them employable or competitive in the world they graduate into.
Nigerian higher education is ripe for disruption
The problem of pitifully low-quality higher education does not affect graduates and their employment prospects alone. As the world moves further away from the 20th Century natural resource extraction model into an economy of ideas, the economic performance of a country will have an even higher correlation to the productivity of its workforce. Currently, our already abysmal productivity per capital is inflated by oil exports. When that is no longer a thing, all we will have is the knowledge and enterprise of our population to create value that the rest of the world will want to pay for.
What that means is that if we do not find a way to overhaul tertiary education in Nigeria, whether we will have an economy in future will be decided by what comes out of the EKSUs, BUK’s, Uniports and Ambrose Alli’s of this world. These and our other under-resourced, unproductive and poorly managed higher institutions will somehow have to mold the talent to power a 21st Century knowledge economy to compete with Kenya, India , China, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil…
And we all know what kind of track record they have in fostering innovation and developing ideas.
Between 2007 and 2008, I spent a year at Igbinedion University in Okada, Edo State, where I had a firsthand taste of the Nigerian university experience. My insistence on using a laptop in class and recording lectures with the webcam, in lieu of handwritten notes, got me into a fair bit of trouble. In the year 2007, in a country that already had cheap computers, nationwide ATM coverage and wireless internet service, I was still supposed to use a pen and notebook to jot down Mr. Lecturer’s dictations word for word. During exams, I was then supposed to regurgitate said ramblings word for word. Or else.
Through no achievement of my own, I was able to leave and find my way to an actual university offering a world class program outside Nigeria. Most Nigerians are not so lucky. There are Computer Science students who are forced to learn outdated programming languages like FORTRAN with a pen and paper for four whole years. Upon graduation, they are awarded a degree that should mean that they can “code.” In reality, they then have to start all over again with their “real” education on Udacity and Coursera . Meanwhile, at the same time, their contemporaries in Asia and Europe are already accepting offers from Silicon Valley and pitching their startup ideas to investors.
As a matter of economic priority and selfish individual interest therefore, it is time to do something about Nigeria’s horrendous higher education. If we maintain the status quo, we might as well start learning how to drink crude oil in preparation for a world where we offer no value to anyone outside West Africa. The government cannot be part of the solution because as usual, it will either show complete disinterest or put forward a plan that will take decades to implement. And then fail to implement it anyway.
This leaves it to the private sector to save Nigerian students.
Private sector-led university, not private university
As I alluded to earlier, even expensive private universities function as slightly more efficient replicas of their state-owned cousins. They also have an emphasis on learning by rote, systemic suppression of ideas and an over-the-top deification of hierarchy and authority. Worse still, most private universities in Nigeria are run by religious organisations, each with their unique agenda, be it turning a profit, forbidding students from eating meat, creating a restrictive secondary school boarding house atmosphere, and especially trying to stop adults from having sex with each other for some reason.
In some cases, graduates of these institutions turn out even less prepared than their publicly educated counterparts because in addition to being just as technically inept, they are also emotionally underdeveloped after years of being trapped in sterile, Bible-thumping echo chambers.
Rather than churches and rich individuals, the proposed network of new tertiary institutions that will save Nigeria’s economic future will be 100 percent funded by endowments from industry consortiums, family offices and HNIs. They also will be operated by transparent industry boards on a not-for-profit basis. Rather than wasting their considerable annual CSR spends on donating computers and mosquito nets that will only be resold on the black market,organisations in every major industry will donate to an endowment fund to build field-specific universities or technical colleges training students at the same level as their peers around the world.
Admission will be strictly merit-based, using an entry test modeled on the American SAT standard. Fees will be charged based on individual student financial assessments and capped at $1,500 per session, with scholarships, grants and research funding available where applicable. A guiding principle of all institutions within this network will be to avoid any cultural baggage associated with university in Nigerian including cultism, sexual harassment, rape, religious extremism and antisocial behaviour. The resultant pool of fit-for-purpose graduates will not only plug the significant labour gap, but help these industries transition alongside Nigeria’s post-oil economy.
The telecoms and IT industry, for example, will have a STEM-focused university offering world-class Web/App Development and Engineering programs. Their focus will be completely rational and data-driven, which means that their core KPI is to benchmark students to global IT standards – possibly even awarding degrees or certifications from international institutions. The syllabi will filter out whatever does not contribute toward the goal of graduating individuals whoare ready for the present and future world of work.
Needless to say, such institutions will be fully secular and irreligious. Students will be free to leave campus to attend religious gatherings, but “campus fellowships” and other overtly religious group activities will be strictly prohibited on campus. Students will also be encouraged to practise the art of expression and develop their ideas, creativity and critical thinking. In so doing, they will come out equipped with both the technical skills and the more important social skills to live fulfilling lives in the 21st century world.
This dream may of course never end up as more than a Business Day column, but it is not illegal to dream. Not yet.