The Horizon By KAYODE KOMOLAFE
Today’s pondering over an aspect of moral decay in the society is partly inspired by a book by the Harvard political philosopher, Michael Sandel.
In the book, the scholar cautions America against drifting from operating a market economy into becoming a “market society.”
Professor Sandel’s book is entitled What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.
Sandel’s argument is richly supported with stories as evidence of a trend in which civic goods are being turned into commodities in the United States of America. The examples of marketisation of social life are legion; they range from hiring mercenaries to fight wars to paying organ donors. Parents pay children to study hard to have good grades.
Citizenship is sold to immigrants. Inmates are out-sourced to for-profit prisons. People are paid to be guinea pigs for testing highly risky drugs. Sandel’s observation is that sacred values are vanishing due to the application of market forces.
For the avoidance of doubt, Sandel is no socialist; the eminent scholar firmly believes in the supremacy of a free-market economy. But he doesn’t think you should turn the whole society itself into a huge market. The society is certainly more than a market. So, the book is far from being an American socialist manifesto.
However, what is instructive about Sandel’s work is that he is a convinced liberal honestly examining the role of market in a democratic society in which the moral fabric should not be eroded.
Sandel’s preoccupation in the book is to find answers to the pertinent questions facing the society: Is there anything money cannot buy? Should everything be up for sale? Is there any place for morality in managing an economy and on a larger scale organising the society?
Without being overtly prescriptive, Sandel is nudging America, the most developed capitalist economy, to draw a line between what can be bought and those things that should be beyond the realm of the market.
From the wide-ranging examples in the book, the logic could be distilled that certain public goods including environment, health, education and culture should not be subject to market forces wholesale. The values that should govern these civic goods are at variance with the logic of market. By the way, Sandel also thinks that market values should not be applied in matters of sex.
Specifically, Sandel warns against the “corrupting” effects of the commodification of education. The nexus between the reckless application of market forces and corruption would always become obvious. Sandel doesn’t claim to be a prophet; but his work seems prophetic in the context of the neo-liberal recklessness in America at a point.
Seven years after the publication of Sandel’s 2012 book, the criminal complaint alleged that bribes were paid by some wealthy Americans to secure places at some top universities for their children. Now, in theory college admissions in the United States are supposed to be based squarely on merit. But over time the rich have used money to skew the system in favour of their children.
In fact, an American journalist, Daniel Golden, has documented this very well in his book that won the Pulitzer Prize, The Price of Admission. According to Golden, in the “grubby secret of American higher education,” “the rich buy their underachieving children’s way into elite universities with massive , tax-deductible donations.” And this is done at the expense of more deserving candidates from the less-endowed homes.
In this game of pricing admission into some American universities, one prominent story is that of Mr. Williams Singer, a baseball coach turned a consultant in opening the “side door” into the university for the children of the rich. His name has featured in some admission “deals” into some top universities. And on March 12, 2019, Singer pleaded guilty to federal university admission racketeering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.
In fact, the affidavit on this conspiracy by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reveal incredible things. Between 2011 and 2018 some parents reportedly paid about $25 million as “bribes” to secure places for their children in top colleges and universities. Bribes were paid to examination administrators to allow a third party to assist in cheating in entrance examinations. A third party was hired to take classes in place of the actual students. Applications were falsified to secure admissions; there were reports of fraudulently obtained scores and grades in the examinations. And the nature and source of the bribes were, of course, disguised.
The foregoing is relevant to the reforms taking place at the Nigeria’s Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) for some reasons.
First, it is necessary to demystify the problem that JAMB is tackling at present. It is nothing peculiar to Nigeria or Africa as some Afropessimists are wont to say. That’s the essence of telling the American sordid story in some details.
Secondly, the corruption being fought in the admission process has systemic roots. It is a corollary of turning education into just another commodity. The social virus that JAMB is combatting should be expected as the fruits of a system in which the education sector has been turned into a huge market. Market logic often permits cheating, under-hand tactics and making “smart moves” to get the “deals done.” Don’t forget that “primitive accumulation” was part of the origin of what the neo-liberals call “free enterprise.”
The poor funding of public education by government has indirectly created a boom in this class-based education market. Neither the state nor the elite outside power seems to be conscious of the dangerous social consequences of this divide being created in the education sector for the future. Among the elite, quality education is perceived as a commodity purchasable by those who can afford it.
Education in private universities is advertised on television the way luxury cars or choice wines are advertised. Market values are applied to debase and defile what should be a socially sacred ground for producing skilled manpower and leaders for the society. In discussing education in the social sphere , all that is left is the material calculus in determining the purpose of education.
Even the original university idea is lost in the polluted conversation. A former president once remarked that whoever went to the university to read philosophy, sociology or mass communication had “wasted his life.” According to this “theorist of education,” a parent should send his child to the university to read computer engineering for fulfilment in life. Perhaps unknown to this president with a limited view of the purpose of university education, some of the bright minds in the digital world actually have backgrounds in the humanities.
In the context of the education sector as a huge market, it should not be surprising that apart from the open legitimate market of the rich paying for quality education, a black market of getting places in the university is also growing by the side.
It is this black market that JAMB is combatting.
Nigeria is becoming a place where everything – values, spirituality, norms, – is up for sale. So why should anyone be perturbed that parents actually pay criminals to help their children cheat in the process of securing admission into the university?
The anti-corruption fight in JAMB ably led by the Registrar, Professor Ishaq Oloyede, is at the core of the reforms that have defined the institution in the last few years.
Under Oloyede’s leadership, the organisation has remitted the revenues generated in billions as fees to the government treasury even though JAMB is not primarily a revenue-generating body. This is the aspect of the Oloyede signature on JAMB that has attracted the greatest public attention. Again, we are here talking about money. Before Oloyede, no remittance of that magnitude had been reported by JAMB. The JAMB example becomes even more conspicuous when viewed against the background of a fiscal landscape in which the budgets of some revenue-generating agencies do not form part of the annual budgets passed by the National Assembly.
Technology has also been creatively applied to enhance the operations of JAMB. A lot of technical hurdles are being scaled for JAMB to deliver efficiently on its mandate.
When JAMB processed the admission of the first set of candidates who sought university education 42 years ago, the board was dealing with the forms filled by a few thousands who applied to be admitted into the 13 universities that existed at the time.
Only a few days ago, JAMB reported that over 2.1 million had registered for the 2020 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations (UTME) and the Direct Entry. Doubtless, this poses a huge logistical challenge even with the advantage of technology which was not available in 1978. Incidentally, 1978 was also the year Nigerian students protested gallantly against the moves to commoditise education by the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo.
So, it could be said that JAMB is still a work in progress.
However, beyond the logistical issues of conducting examinations that would determine the admission of candidates into the universities, the moral battle that Oloyede is waging deserves a special attention.
In this necessary battle, Oloyede needs the support and encouragement of men and women of goodwill.
The other day he told a gathering the story of of the son of a university professor manipulating the system to secure admission. Worse still, the parent aided and abetted the boy in the process. On another occasion, Oloyede narrated the story of how the head of another agency, worried about the future of the country, broke down in tears as the various crimes of candidates were reviewed at a meeting.
An admission black market is being developed by those employing technology to manipulate JAMB’s system as a service to desperate admission-seekers patronising them. A whole industry of admission – related crimes is emerging. It’s a big battle to stop the criminals.
The essence of Oloyede’s battle is that admission into the university should be based on merit. Admission should not be another item for which to shop in the Nigerian education market. The “smart guys” are bent on buying admission in the black market at the expense of the honest ones who are more deserving of places. In other words, admission should not be priced. To do so would amount to corruption.
It would, of course, require going to the systemic roots to permanently tackle the problem.
Beyond applying the law, the moral efforts directed at orientating the youth in particular are also important.
Incidentally that was what the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ibrahim Magu, seemed to be focusing upon the other day by leading youths in a walk against corruption in some cities.
Doubtless, public officers in the mould of Oloyede are few in the system . But, in a way, they provide the basis for the optimism that all is not lost in fighting for the future of Nigeria.
“The corruption being fought in the admission process has systemic roots. It is a corollary of turning education into just another commodity”