Seriake Dickson Consolidating on Education Reforms

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Seriake Dickson

PERSPECTIVE

Besides establishing the Bayelsa Education Development Trust Fund (BYEDTF) as a structured, sustainable platform to anchor the state’s broad educational development strides and equip the youth with skills to face tomorrow’s challenges beyond petroleum exploitation, Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State is formally phasing out the bursary system of funding higher education and introducing the tertiary institutions loan board. Stanley Nkwazema reports

Firm and unwavering in the broad education vision he is pushing for the state, Governor Seriake Dickson is giving indigent students the opportunity to follow their dreams of accessing quality education in tertiary institutions by formally phasing out the bursary system of funding higher education and introducing the tertiary institutions loan board. The move is fashioned towards what obtains in the United Kingdom and US where every citizen, as a right, accesses the funds from the Students Loan Board over a period of time to pay school fees all through the course of study. The concerned individuals from the state are expected to repay the loan over a period of years, starting from when they are gainfully employed.

The programme will phase out the bursary system which has been in place since Dickson was elected into office about eight years ago. There is a caveat, however, that the student must sign an undertaking that he or she will repay the loan before he is allowed access to the funds. The system in practice in the UK/US is now being introduced for the first time to assist students pay their schools fees
Before he launched the loan scheme, the governor had, in an elaborate ceremony, presented over 10,000 textbooks to all the public schools in the state, a programme he has sustained over the years, but this was the third time he would present books to all the schools. This is besides the free board and feeding, provision of school uniforms in all the government schools.

Prior to when the Dickson-led government assumed office, it was an incontrovertible fact that private schools were booming, as all government institutions of learning were comatose. Teachers and students seldom attended classes. The remote areas were even worse, as school facilities were dilapidated and in certain cases uninhabitable. Indeed, there was neither supervision nor incentives like housing for workers who were from outside the region.

There was heavy rural-urban migration, yet salaries were being paid and since there was no proper supervision, the schools board became a dumping ground – filled with people yet no impact. Within that period, the rating of the state from 2007 to 2011 was an average of 30th position in the federation which may have caused the government of Dickson to focus on the three vital areas of – Infrastructure, Manpower and Educational quality.

Although heavily criticised as lacking in ideas by people who were more or less transactional in approach to very important elements of governance and transparency, no sooner had the Dickson-led government assumed office in 2012, than the governor in his inaugural speech declared a state of emergency in the education sector. Since that proclamation, the government has sponsored over 3,000 Bayelsans on various overseas scholarships, with free education at the primary and secondary levels.

While the scholarship was ongoing, the government made massive investments in educational infrastructure which has today resulted in the establishment of over 16 public boarding schools with the Ijaw National Academy (INA) as its flagship project. Collectively, the model boarding schools, first of its kind in the state, host over 15,000 students who are being trained from JSS1 – SS3 free of charge, which indeed was confirmed after a tour of the schools.

Clearly, sustaining the free education programme at the post-primary level requires funds. To meet this demand, the government established the Bayelsa State Education Trust Fund and equally inaugurated the Bayelsa State Educational Trust Fund Board to manage the scheme. The scheme backed by law, mandates every individual earning from the government, including contractors and IOCs to contribute a token monthly.

Compulsory Teachers training and upgrading programmes were established. In addition, all indigenes with degrees in education that were hiding in ministries and parastatals were fished out during the civil service reform programme which lasted through the second term of the administration and moved to teach and provide required services in the sector. Today, as a result of improved infrastructure and established teacher-supervision process (Clocking-in and out approach), Bayelsa State’s rating in examinations is now average of 6th position in the federation. This was a remarkable move from its fluctuation between 30 and 32.

The outgoing administration has also built two universities: the University of Africa Toru Orua and the Bayelsa Medical University. The Bayelsa State Polytechnic Aleibiri was also built, as well as Bayelsa State International Institute of Tourism, Bayelsa State Music and Cultural School, the Bayelsa State Sports Academy and the Bayelsa State Driving School.

For the foremost University in the state, the Niger Delta University, the administration built and dualised the road spanning from one end of the institution to the other. It alsoconstructed a Senate Building, 21 years after its establishment and accreditation of courses in the school, courtesy of the Dickson led restoration government.
The 2014 recession made the absolute funding of all the tertiary institutions in the state non-sustainable. Today, all the higher institutions in the state are operating a fee-paying model which is more sustainable. However, students and wards reacted as they preferred the free tertiary education model. In a move towards addressing this issue and to make tertiary education assessable to all Bayelsans, the government has established the Bayelsa State Higher Education Loans Scheme.

It could be recalled that peering through the dark racial fog that defined his era, Nobel Peace laureate and first elected president of democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela, observed that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This compelling insight has hugely guided Governor Dickson’s trajectory.

The former Science and Technology Minister, Professor Turner Isoun was appointed BYEDTF board chairman where he drives the vision of the Governor Dickson’s administration in its quest for academic excellence and human capacity building. It is worth recalling that several years ago, Bayelsa State languished in the bottom half of states’ students’ performance chart in the West African Examination Council’s examination and other exams.

However, moving from the sad ‘laughing stock’ status and after investing heavily in the critical education sector – both in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, the state is now occupying an enviable 5th position in the latest chart released. The huge investment in the education sector is worth acknowledging and has changed the narrative by establishing the Ijaw National Academy in Kaiama and establishing model secondary schools in all the Local Government Areas in the state.

The Bayelsa State Education Development Trust Fund (BYEDTF) Board was established by Law in 2017. With a 14-member board composed of folks with broad knowledge and expertise in major fields of education, fund-raising, endowments, educational foundations, et cetera. The Fund will be used to drive academic excellence and human capacity building in the State and help prepare Bayelsans for a future without petroleum and beyond. The board of the Bayelsa Education Development Trust Fund has received the sum of one hundred million naira as take-off grant from the state government.

Interestingly, years ago, many doubted and questioned why the Bayelsa State House of Assembly would pass a bill establishing a new state-owned university when the existing Niger Delta University and other state-owned tertiary institutions could be further developed for optimal performance. Such a move was then thought to be irrelevant.

However, Governor Dickson in his usual unruffled and focused nature, calmed the storm and the fraying nerves by reassuring the citizens of the state that the University of Africa was being established to change the narrative of university education in the state and Nigeria, through a paradigm shift from a publicly funded university education to a Public-Private partnership, where the state contributes part of the funds and the private sector helps out with the other part. Now, skeptics are wiser.

While not feeling taken unawares with his appointment as the Amabassador of Education in the state, the former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan saluted the efforts of the Bayelsa State governor in educational development observing he has surpassed expectations and noting the governor’s decision to deploy the tool of education to the development and emancipation of the society was the right way to go. He further stressed the initiative and landmark achievements of the governor would outlive his two-term tenure, especially with BYEDTF.

According to Jonathan, incidentally a former teacher, “the efforts of the present administration was in line with his educational policy to wrest the Bayelsa child from the claws of illiteracy when he was governor in 2006”, noting that the “Education Development Trust would drastically change the story of Bayelsa as a state that was once listed among disadvantaged states.”

Jonathan said: “I appreciate what Governor Dickson is doing regarding education. We all know that the only way you liberate and uplift a people is through education. From where I started as a child, if I didn’t go to school nobody would have known me outside my village. But today, l am known all over the world because I was able to go to school. So, supporting education is key.”

Indeed, Dickson had on March 31, 2017, signed the Education Trust Fund Bill into law, which made it compulsory for different categories of workers, including contractors and civil servants in Bayelsa, to pay education levies.
In June 2017, he inaugurated a 14-member board of the education trust fund chaired by a former Minister of Science and Technology, Turner Isoun. The board went to work and in February 2018, presented its first annual report to the governor, declaring a receipt of about N800million out of which it spent N300million, leaving a balance of N500million.

According to Governor Dickson, “We have also drastically reduced the number of out-of-school children by 90 percent. Our model boarding schools, which today has over 10,000 students, mostly from poor indigent families on full government scholarships, is also one of the revolutions that has happened in that sector.”

While formally launching the trust fund in Yenagoa, Governor Dickson had appealed to Jonathan to use his influence to attract donations to the fund. On his part, Jonathan had while acknowledging that the investment in education was worthwhile explained that “Governor Dickson has done much higher than I projected in 2006 in terms of expansion of the education sector. Today, let me also thank Governor Dickson for this initiative because most problems we have in governance is not scarcity of good ideas but how will that endure?
His words: “By setting up a board established by law has made the Education Development Trust Fund endure beyond his eight years in office and that really has made me very happy and my foundation will continue to partner with this board.”

To Dickson, lack of education was at the root of instability, militancy and insurgency and urged multinational oil companies to emulate the Nigerian Army by adopting secondary schools already built by the state government while disclosing that the government had committed N80 billion to the development of educational infrastructure in Bayelsa besides salaries in pursuit of the vision to create access to education in the state. According to him, the state has 13 functional model secondary schools with about 10,000 Young Bayelsans enjoying free education in quality boarding secondary school.

The governor also called on the multinational oil firms and stakeholders in the private sector to support the Bayelsa State Tertiary Education Loan Board designed to create access to indigent students to acquire tertiary education in the state. The State under his leadership had committed Five percent of its IGR to fund the board while also constituting a board for landmark programme which had made it easy for prospective applicants to access the funds to pursue higher education in the state.

Chairman of the Education Development Trust Fund, Prof. Turner Isoun, also assured donors of the judicious use of the funds as the books of the board are open to external auditing. Isoun said the proceeds from the launch would be utilised for the provision of high quality and sustainable development of education.
With the sheer power of his actions, Governor Dickson has simply proved that there can be no better way of validating Mandela’s enduring insight that, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”