The future of Nigeria looks bright as it is predicted to be the first African nation to reach $1trillion in GDP by 2030. The continent’s most populous country with its biggest economy is blessed with abundant human resources. With a current population of approximately 200 million, of which over 60% are under the age of 25, the availability of a buoyant workforce cannot be questioned. More so, given the population of this age group is projected to exceed 250 million by 2050. It is important to realise that this projection is just over 30 years away. Children in primary school today will be in their mid-thirties by the time the nation has such a large population under the age of 25.

It is easy to assume that given this economic projected growth and available human resource the future of Nigeria’s next generation will indeed be bright; but will it?

Critical to the development of our nation’s economy is a workforce encompassing a range of vocational and technical skills that will cater for numerous industrial sectors, including the built environment, technology, manufacturing, engineering, creative arts, media, finance, etc. These skills are acquired in technical colleges, colleges of education, polytechnics and universities, but underpinning all these institutions is a basic level of literacy and numeracy delivered via primary schools. It has recently been reported that 8.7m Nigerian children are not being educated in primary school, the highest level of non-participation globally. Even more worrying is that about 25% of children aged between 7 to 14 years are child labourers (over 11m children). Reasons for such high levels of non-participation include several socio-economic factors and accessibility.

Today, the current number of public primary schools and teachers available for basic education remain inadequate for the eligible number of children. This is exacerbated by the poor facilities at these primary schools. Noting that in the next 30 years the number of pupils will double, the levels of infrastructure and resource to support such a population will put unprecedented pressure on the government to meet its Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme. The urgency for action has been highlighted in one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 4). The federal and state governments allocated only 7.5% (N1.32 trillion) of the 2018 budget for education, far below recommended UNESCO benchmark of 26% for developing countries. The majority of this funding will go to support the education ministries, teacher salaries and other recurrent expenditure, significantly affecting the ability to invest in new schools, facilities or improve current teaching practice. Whilst the budget allocation is complemented by an education tax, of which 30% is earmarked for primary schools, these low levels of investment barely offer the opportunity to sustain the current infrastructure. Irrespective of these low levels, is the Nigerian government getting good value for money? The answer may not be welcomed and I offer two examples of why this is not the case.

First, pupils at primary school have substantial amounts of their learning time lost because classroom time is spent on other activities or because teachers are absent. A World Bank survey of 435 private and public primary schools in Nigeria, covering 2968 teachers showed that a teacher is absent from class for approximately 25% of the scheduled teaching time, and actual teaching time is on average 33% less than timetabled. That would imply that in an average day where teaching time is approximately 4hrs and 45mins, pupils actually get just over three hours of teaching. This is clearly not value for money, costing the government hundreds of millions of Naira of unproductive time.

Second, the lost time in primary school is compounded by the quality of our teachers. The same survey on the knowledge of Nigerian primary school teachers showed that 50% of maths teachers could not achieve 80% or more on the test they assigned pupils in their classrooms. This is made even more appalling when the statistics show that 60% of maths teachers in grade-4 could not subtract double digits. The same poor teacher quality is noted in English language where only 26% of English teachers scored over 80% in tests of their grade-4 pupils. This begs the question, how can these teachers support the learning of pupils? The consequence of this is reflected in the numeracy and literacy levels in Nigeria at primary school, with only 20% of pupils that completed primary school being able to read a three-sentence passage fluently or with little help. It is well know that early learning deficits are magnified over time, so ultimately the consequence of poor teaching is a significant delay to the skills development of the workforce needed to drive the government’s economic ambitions.

The question that quickly comes to mind is: surely we can catch up with minimum standards of literacy and numeracy if we put our mind to it? A global comparative survey to evaluate education by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students (The Programme for International Student Assessment – PISA) recently published results that showed it would take Tunisia over 180 years to reach today’s international average level for maths and Brazil over 260 years to reach the average level for reading. It is very probable that the situation for Nigeria is no better.

Let us be clear, current levels of basic education at primary school are poor, non-participation is the highest globally, infrastructure and facilities are lacking, teacher quality is questionable and it will probably take us over 100 years to reach international average levels of literacy and numeracy. These facts, coupled with the doubling of the population of primary school level pupils in the next 30 years forms the nucleus of what I have described as a ticking ‘time bomb’. The ultimate consequences of inaction will just not be limited to social unrest, economic under-development, mass migration, radicalisation, and unprecedented levels of crime. We must think differently and act now.

What’s the solution?

Some have argued that the abolition of teacher training colleges has in some way contributed to the rapid decline in the quality of primary school education. In any event, what must be explored is further training and support for current teachers with the National Certificate of Education. Clearly the Nigerian regulatory institutions covering primary education, at both Federal and State level, have failed in their ability to deliver value for the government’s investment in education. The recent action by a state governor that resulted in suspension of over 20,000 of its primary school teachers is a clear call on the nation’s education regulatory institutions to wake up to the crisis.

What role do regulatory institutions play in support of the pedagogic development of teachers? The introduction of recertification will encourage professional development but only if it is supported by new regulation. The platitudes of authorities and institutions involved with basic education in Nigeria will not offer a focused approach to addressing these problems. It is time for a new regulatory framework and governance for primary school education with policies that address the poor quality of teaching, wastage of public funds by the poor attendance and most importantly a real commitment to the next generation of Nigerians by measuring and evidencing improvements to the basic standards of literacy and numeracy.

Whilst the focus of primary school education has been on literacy and numeracy, digital skills are going to be fundamental in the future global economy. Yes, economically Nigeria needs to develop self-subsistence, basic infrastructure (power, water, housing, etc.) and so on, but without a digitally skilled workforce for the future, it will be subservient to a digitally developed global world. Taking a strategic decision to make digital skills a national basic requirement, starting at primary schools, will certainly ensure its future workforce will play a part in the digital global economy of the future.

The stark reality today is that Nigeria cannot reach average primary school levels of literacy and numeracy within the next 100 years, and given we will need to cater for twice as many pupils in the next 30 years, innovative thinking is required. This is where I believe technology can play a major role. It has been shown that it is possible to have a step change in development without the need to go through what is considered ‘normal’ evolution; I make reference to the step change from telephones to mobile telecommunications in Nigeria and China’s leapfrogging of bank checks and cards, going from cash to cashless (mobile) forms of exchange. The latter has caused a disruptive effect in the western economies. Nigerian banks have moved transactions onto mobile platforms; so could such a step change be explored in the nation’s education system to support basic skill levels? Is this an avenue to accelerate improvements in literacy and numeracy levels while also developing and fostering digital skills? I propose investment and development of mobile solutions that complement classroom lessons, reaching every pupil and providing learning support that is world-leading, tailored to specific learning requirements and universally accessible. Such a system is not a substitute for the teacher but complements the teacher’s work. In 2017, UNESCO published its findings following a project in four African countries, including Nigeria, which explored the use of mobile technology to enhance the capacities of primary school English language teachers. The outcome was encouraging and certainly a step forward in exploring the use of mobile solutions to improve teaching of basic skill levels.

My last point is the most obvious: an increase in investment in education. Current levels of investment are inadequate for the population of primary school children. Noting that this will double in the next 30 years, Nigeria needs to start building the infrastructure to cater for this expansion. Similarly, it must create the pipeline of future teachers while ensuring significant improvements in the levels of literacy, numeracy, and digital skills. Perhaps it is time to think seriously about increasing the education tax, alongside improving administration of its collection with further scrutiny on the return for investment. The government should revisit its value of the teaching profession, giving them the status that is commensurate with their contribution to society. There are several ways in which the government can drive an increase in teacher numbers, foster improvements in retention and quality, one of which may be to offer incentives (tax cuts, etc.) and a review of teacher salaries, noting the Ghanaian government recently increased teacher salaries by 11%. Similarly, teacher attendance may be quickly addressed by relating payment of salaries to a minimum threshold of attendance. The call for more investment and funding is easier said than done given the strain on the nation’s finance for security, infrastructure, agriculture, health, etc. However, the cost of not increasing investment, which will ultimately result in social unrest, political instability and economic ruin, is far short of the future costs that will be required to undo the catastrophic consequences of this ticking ‘time bomb’, an unstoppable explosion of social unrest.

I will end with my Nigerian version of an apt Chinese quote from the 7th Century BC (Kuan Chung), “If your plan is for one year, sell oil. If your plan is for ten years, build a refinery. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate your children.”

•Professor Mba, a Fellow, Nigerian Academy of Science, is the Pro Vice-Chancellor, De Montfort University, UK.