Sylvester Momoh Onoja is a former Commissioner for Education in Kogi State and the first northerner to serve as principal at the King’s College, Lagos. In this interview, he expressed concerns over the falling standard of education in Nigeria. He believes that if politicisation of the system is stopped, the country will return to its glory days.Martins Ifijeh brings excerpts:
What is your assessment of the status of education in Nigeria?
We have witnessed a steady decline and politicisation of education in Nigeria. Education has been politicised. The most competent people are not appointed to manage the sector. Only the most accepted are the ones accepted. The quality of graduates at all levels has been most despicable. Professorship has been watered down. Those who were senior lecturers have become professors. Professors have become a chieftaincy title. The only thing that most of them professes is actually ignorance. Some of them have become vice-chancellors. How can you have 68 private universities when you cannot have 68 per cent passing basic certificate examinations? Who are those in the universities? Who are those teaching there? In Nigeria’s education sector, quality is suffering at the expense of quantity. It is saddening to note that there are actually universities in the neighbouring African countries that were built only for Nigeria. There is one in Benin Republic where Nigerians go to obtain degrees within six months. We have another in Niger Republic where they go for nursing.
What are the obvious effects?
The effects are already showing, which is why we talk about our graduates not being employable. How many of the so-called graduates of Nigerian universities can be employed? How are we competing in the world? We are now supposed to be preparing children to be citizens of the world. Even on this count, how are they performing outside? How many lawyers, doctors and other professionals are worth their salt? How many police stations can you go and find a desk officer who is able to take your statement effectively? How many people can read and write in this country? You go to schools there are no teachers and a lot of the students are passing exams with excellent grades. Examination malpractices are on the high in Nigeria now because even the teachers in the classrooms do not know the answer to the questions they set. They hire mercenaries to come and tell them.
Are we on the path to recovery at all?
In education the effects are in the long-term. The people who know are still around. But unfortunately they are being replaced by people who don’t know. Worse still malpractices have made a 360 degrees turn in Nigeria and those who benefited from it have become lecturers now. Those who do not know are teaching those who should know. So you can only imagine where that leads us as a country.
The emergence of private schools in Nigeria has been viewed differently by various people. In Nigeria now, if a tomato seller is not selling well in the market he or she will go and establish a school. Character is developed in schools from what brings people together. Many of the schools around do not have basic recreation facilities that would enable them to be developed to better human beings. How do you know if a child is a bully when he is not interacting with others? Today schools are established strictly for money making. The classrooms are designed to seclude the students from interacting with each other. They have air conditioners and the toilets are enclosed. So they hardly mingle with each other. How are you going to determine how a child behaves among others in that kind of environment? Extra curricula activities are no longer done in schools. You go to school for five years and you do not have time to interact with your students. There are no playing fields in schools. The children belong to Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona. They only play their football now on the television. How can a child develop good character with this kind of trends?
How has the poor status of basic education in Nigeria affected the quality of those who transit to higher schools?
If you don’t get it right at the basic level, there is nothing you can do. That is why it is called basic. Even the character aspects are being abandoned. We now have private schools that guarantee A’s. They will also now arrange that the child passes UTME and then arrange that they go into another private university and come out as empty as they went in. Some become PhD holders. I have three definitions of categories of PhDs in Nigeria. One, there are those who worked for it and came out as Doctors of Philosophy. There are those who are sent to school, they passed through school, they were not prepared for life. They passed and when they come out of school into the society they are poor. Nigerian society does not like the poor. So they are harassed and depressed. So our education system is turning out the Poor, the Harassed and the Depressed (PHD). The other category of PhDs are victims of the lowered standards of teacher training and the polytechnic education. Who are those who go to these schools? Before they go into the polytechnic, they already have PHDs. So they go in with one or two credits put together. They are the category of those who Pass High school with Difficulty (PHD).
There seems to be a higher number of Nigerians seeking university admissions however, learning at that stage has become even more difficult. Why is it so?
There are no lecturers; no facilities to assist learning. There are so many distractions. It is difficult to study under the condition that our universities currently exist in.
But we also hear of academic exploits and excellent feats by Nigerian students?
One private university churned out a number of first class graduates in one graduation ceremony that is far more than whatever number the University of Ibadan, one of Nigeria’s pioneer universities of over 50 years has churned out for its entire duration of existence. How do you justify that? The education system is simply in bad shape.
Does ASUU have a good reason for going on strike?
ASUU has an excellent reason for going on strike. However, history has shown that such good intentions have always left the students worse off because immediately after the strike is called off, they go straight into exams and whatever they agitated for are not put in place. So they continue to churn out poor breeds of graduates who only would have done everything possible to pass exams. If they go on strike and make sure that the students are there to get the benefit of what they agitated for, then that makes sense. But what we have is a situation whereby you just push out thousands to graduate after a strike is suspended. You lower standards.
How relevant are Nigerian universities to the society?
The only aim of most Nigerian universities is how to make money. The university or education as it were, is designed to prepare those who go through it for life and earn a living. That is why your degree certificate is given on the basis of character and learning. The Nigerian education system is not teaching them how to earn a living or even live because the values are gone. The westerners have gotten their education right. Corruption is behind all that we have seen.
Which do you think is the best model of education for Nigeria?
First of all, let those who know be allowed to run education. We should be able to specialise. Education ministry should be run like health, justice and others where the professionals are usually at the helm of affairs. It takes political courage for anybody to say that the minister of education must be an educationist. How do you bring an accountant to be the minister of education? Basic education is the key. Something is wrong with our basic education. Until we get that right, we will never get anything right. There is lack of continuity. One minister every two to four years will not help the growth of education in Nigeria. There is nothing wrong with the 6-3-3-4 system of education. Only that those who have the knowledge on how to run it are not there. It may have been given another name; it still remains what it is and the best model for our education. They say there is no money for education. The money you use for Hajj, the airports where no plane goes to, the monies used for building new government houses and other irrelevant projects are monies that could be used to turn-around the education sector.