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Education has become transactional and a box-ticking exercise in Nigeria – Alutu

UZOCHUKWU ALUTU is an Economist, Public Finance, Development and Policy Analyst with more than 8 years of experience assisting governments in Nigeria to strengthen governance systems in evidence-informed ways. He spoke with PETER IMOUOKHOME on Nigeria’s commemoration of the International Day of Education and how the Nigerian educational system can be transformed to compete with global standards.

The International Day of Education was commemorated globally last month (January). When you think about the Nigerian educational system what comes to your mind?

When I think about the educational sector in Nigeria today, one thing that comes to my mind is the quantity over quality puzzle. Nigeria is known to be one of the countries in the world with the highest number of PhDs. A lot of people finish school and immediately want to get a master’s and/or PhD depending on whether or not they are able to get meaningful employment. Some also go for these advanced learning opportunities in order to compete better for the higher quality jobs which is very limited in Nigeria. Nigeria being the most populated country in Africa and one of the most populated in the world, means that we have a high labour supply that has become excess due to the shortage of opportunities. The implication is that there are a lot more qualified people than there are jobs available for them to take on and this obviously tells a lot about the labour market and why the educational and skills development system in Nigeria is very important.

I started with quantity over quality puzzle because an understanding of how it plays out will give you a clue as to why the problems persist. A high demand for education especially at tertiary levels (the out-of-school children in Nigeria as reported by UNICEF is still over 10 million) gives governments the impression that what they simply need to do is build more universities/schools. While having more education installations is not a bad thing, it only addresses the output side of the education sector performance and not the outcomes, which are more critical for actual development, and sustained productivity of the economy. We know it could be easier and more likely for a typical politician to contract the building of a school that for him/her to pursue critical reforms like improving the teaching quality and learning ability of students in schools. The former presents more opportunities for rent-seeking than the latter. Kickbacks can be retained from the award of contracts for building new structures for learning but not so much from reforms that improve learning outcomes in schools, thereby making such reforms less attractive and this is the case in many developing countries.

What is the most fundamental phase of education that needs to be reformed?

I think the most fundamental part of education is the formative years. What happens in those years goes a long way to determine how kids grow, how their minds work and how they impact their world. What sort of curriculum are youngsters exposed to? Do we realize that the world is already into its fourth industrial revolution? Different forms of technological advancements are taking place. Different forms of technological advancements are taking place. People are traveling more to space than ever and many new techniques are emerging. The future is now for education but how much of an urgency is this for Nigerian governments and policy actors as we edge closer to the next election? What sort of skills are they already being taught? Do these include – financial literacy, robotics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, 3D painting and various form of creative arts, internet of things, biotechnology etc.?

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The future is now for education but how much of an urgency is this for Nigerian governments and policy actors as we edge closer to the next election?

This should be the emphasis when we are looking at the quality of education. I was looking at a blog post that quoted WEF data showing how poorly Nigeria ranks with regards to the quality of the education system. That is not surprising because you can see a clear gap between what is being delivered in the schools and what a lot of graduates end up having to do later in life. A lot of people find that what they were taught in school doesn’t really contribute significantly to the work that they do for those who employed them. A lot of people have to re-skill themselves by re-learning and un-learning certain things. Some have to travel out to complement their local trainings in order to compete better. However, this is just about 5% of the educated that are fortunate to get that exposure and are now aware of the gaps in their earlier training. What happens to the rest of the 95% who cannot afford to go abroad and be tutored and come back with a better understanding of certain concepts and how they can be better applied practically to solving real-life problems. What happens to the young man in Otuoke (Bayelsa State) or the young lady in Jibia (Katsina State) Otuoke that has not seen a computer but has natural intelligence required to do great things and is willing to learn?

What is the solution to the challenges that the Nigerian educational system faces and how can it rank better in terms of what obtains in the developed world?

We cannot afford to give everybody a scholarship and say go abroad and get these skills and just like we are protecting our currency, we also need to protect our education system. We can’t afford for everyone to migrate. It is not possible even if the resources are available for everyone. Therefore, there is no other way than to look inwards and solve our indigenous problems in indigenous ways. The legal framework upon which the educational system stands today does not allow for some of these technical changes to materialize within the shortest possible time so, if you are thinking of solutions, you need to think of smarter alternatives.

Read also: Experts blame teaching quality, funding for decline in education sector

I recall the Twitter ban episode and what comes to mind is how that could have been used as an opportunity for bolstering the educational system in Nigeria. A smarter government could have translated the entire twitter ban and the attention they got from Twitter – owing to our significantly young population and the number of subscribers on the platform from Nigeria – to work for the youth and their development. The narrative would have been Twitter, Facebook etc. you guys have advanced very rapidly in the use of artificial intelligence big data, machine learning, and similar forms of technology, is it possible for us to form a partnership for the creation of tech learning hubs in various parts of Nigeria? You guys could bring in some of your experts and ‘gig’ economy gurus to tutor, guide and co-create with some of our young minds in school. That could have been a better deal in addition to having them register in Nigeria and comply with local tax obligations, amongst others.

The result would be that we are through these big tech companies, investing in our young graduates who are still idle and our younger population still in school. They can, in agreement with their parents give some time during the summer to learn new skills, develop new apps, create new tech solutions, and before you know it we could be generating the next Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk the world is waiting for. The individual net worth of some of these top innovators is even bigger than the revenue of Nigeria as a whole or even sometimes our annual budget. This just tells you how important it is for a country to invest in the productivity of its citizens and why I consider education is so critical and a topic of priority topic in the conversations leading up to the 2023 elections.

What more needs to be done in order to improve the situation at the tertiary level?

Now, this is beyond the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities – ASUU going on strike for not being paid. Sometimes, we also need to ask ourselves, even these lecturers, are they well trained enough to give the best to the students. The answer is often No. The focus unfortunately is on welfare more often than on improving the learning outcomes of these students.

You cannot blame the lecturers though because they do not get the leverage to have exchange visits – to go to schools abroad and also learn the methods and appreciate the culture. A lot of the time, what we end up seeing is that the lecturers print handouts and write books that have not been peer-reviewed or vetted properly and sell these to make ends meet. So, unfortunately, education becomes very transactional and a box-ticking exercise rather than a functional service. A lecturer shows up in class because he/she does not want to rank low or be queried and not necessarily because he/she is passionate about the transformational process of his/her teaching on the students.

There are however very good Nigerian lecturers who have despite the inadequacies of the system put in a lot of personal efforts to change things as much as they can or they could. A lot of the time these lecturers do not extend their stay in the system either because the system naturally selects them for early retirement or they voluntarily leave to take more-attractive offers.

A re-evaluation of the philosophy of tertiary education in Nigeria – its core values and an agreement on minimum standards – will be important in addition to welfare conversations in order to retain the best minds in the system.

What advice do you have for the Nigerian government to increase the quality of education in Nigeria?

We are not in good times (constrained fiscal space) now to even recommend an increase in educational spending. Yet still, politicians are more likely to have a greater appetite for building more schools, buying more school furniture, and doing transactional activities with the available budget than investing in improving the outcomes of the sector in terms of teacher quality, the functionality of the learning, and application of the learning by these students.

Only a few states like Kaduna have come close to re-jigging the education system by focusing on key indicators of education outcomes like teacher quality. Some of these reforms do not require many resources to implement but they are not as attractive as building structures. Most of them only require some level of standardization and enforcement. Another important aspect is the regulation of the activities of private sector players in the education sector. It is important to ensure that they are well-aligned with the general education mandate and philosophy. With limited resources, our approach should be to find alternative means of financing in addition to what the government is able to provide. This financing can go directly to the creation of tech learning hubs or training institutes that could provide useful learning opportunities that complement the learning acquired through formal education curricula. Interested private-sector players could partner by identifying bright minds and investing in them to develop new start-ups or as employees. This will increase the overall level of productivity in the country as more people will be able to contribute to various aspects of the economy in ways that further diversify the economy and improve general output and welfare in the economy. There could also be a policy dialogue on education to draw out more ideas and solutions to the issues.

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