Paths to Nigeria’s Education Reform

Adamu Adamu

Bolaji Abdullahi

Everyone knows that Nigeria’s education system is in dire need of reform. A few efforts have been promoted in recent years at both the national and state levels. But these are largely business as usual interventions that focus mainly on inputs rather than the systemic issues that have accelerated the decay and hindered improvements. Because most of the interventions tend to prefer spending money, mostly on procurements; they end up delivering perverse incentives that stifle or derail change. Hence, we have witnessed sundry actions which, merely mimics reform by appearing to be doing something while passing off inputs and processes as achievements.

Reform in the education sector must be anchored on a vision of society and the theory of change that drives that vision at various levels. What kind of society do we want to build? What kind of competencies or skills do we need in order to achieve the society of our vision? At the moment, there seems to be too much lack of clarity or incentives among policy elite at the highest level about what needs to be done and what it takes to bring about the kind of change that is necessary for real progress to happen.

I outline below TEN key issues and ideas that are pertinent in any effort to reform the education sector in Nigeria.

The problem of education is not in education: The major factors that have led to the decline of Nigeria’s public education system are largely exogenous to the education sector itself. They are mostly governance and service delivery issues. The challenge therefore is how to build systems that can deliver the best possible learning outcomes. The architecture of education in our country belongs to a different era of governance and different demographic, social and economic circumstances. It therefore needs to be comprehensively redesigned.

Schooling is not same as learning: Schooling does not automatically translate to learning, just as jumping in a pool does not mean swimming. Nigeria is reported to have about 13 million children out of school. While this is regarded as the highest number of out-of-school children in the world, it is only a small fraction of the number of children who are in school, but are not getting education. If we are able to bring those 13 million children to school today, the world will clap for Nigeria. But in terms of real achievement, this means nothing if we are not able to guarantee that every child who has attended a school in Nigeria actually gets an education commensurate to presumed learning or curriculum experience.

Too many of our education institutions are not about education at all: Education institutions do serve purposes that are not about education at all. This, perhaps, is the biggest obstacle to any reform. They exist to provide jobs, to boost local businesses, to award contracts and hand out sundry patronage, to create all kinds of values and benefits for people. This is how they justify their existence. They go through the motion of teaching and learning but in reality, education is merely a pretext. Any attempt at reforms will therefore be strongly resisted by the patronage network, including more often than not, parents and the local community, whose children’s education is at stake. Any reform initiative must therefore be able to manoeuvre around entrenched vested interests or be willing to take them on.

“A Hippo is not designed to cross the desert”: A machine designed to produce iron sheets cannot be used to produce plastic bags without undergoing a major reconfiguration. Many of our education support institutions and agencies need to be reconfigured for the purposes of current and emerging challenges. The Federal Ministry of Education has about the highest number of agencies and parastatals. How many of them are still fit for purpose; and how many would need to be re-configured or streamlined in the light of current and emerging challenges. As example, the Universal Basic Education Commission was established in 1999. Twenty-One years after, it is important to review some of the underlying assumptions that informed the establishment of the Commission, what has been learnt over two decades and what reforms need to happen in that institution itself.

Local Government autonomy and basic education: At the moment, local government’s control of basic education is merely nominal. However, greater autonomy to local governments could see them play more active or even dominant role in the delivery of basic education. The big challenge is that we may then end up placing the most important level of education in the hands of the weakest tier of government. While the core principle of basic education reform is more decentralisation and local control; institutional capacity at that level remains a major threat factor. How then do we reconcile the desire for Local Government autonomy and local control with the need to enforce quality assurance standards and maintain vertical accountability to national and state-level educational objectives?

Funding is not just about more money: Nigeria underfunds education. But more money is not as important as what money is being spent on; who does the spending and; the point in the ecosystem where the spending is done. The key principle is efficiency, and the key principle in efficiency is to place resources closest to the point where results is expected. What are those factors that best determine learning outcomes? Are the most important factors attracting the most funding? Who determines how these funds are allocated? Who does the actual spending? What are the systems of accountability, across both the vertical and the horizontal lines?

University education is expensive and cannot be free: The only level of education that must be free and universal is the one that is compulsory, which is basic education. Yet, Nigeria is perhaps the only country where parents pay more for nursery/primary schools than they pay for university education. The promise of free higher education is fallacy. Money must follow students. A very important challenge here is to design systems that support indigent but talented students who need university education for career progression. The promise of free university education has created a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. The institutions are not sufficiently funded; the students are not getting the quality they need to function in the market-place and; the government is over-burdened, funding the management and administration of the institutions rather than education itself.

The Missing Middle: We need to create other pathways to acquiring market-relevant skills at a level below the universities or polytechnics. The absence of these alternative pathways has left everyone with no other options but the university or a polytechnic. Yet, majority of the skills that our economy demands; the kind of jobs that the so-called growth-drivers generate, do not require university or college degrees. Past approaches at developing vocational and technical education are fundamentally faulty. What we need is a coherent, industry-driven vocational and technical education system. The role of government is to develop the framework for a National Qualifications Standards (NQS). Government does not need to set up new technical colleges. This would only open up new lines of recurrent expenditure that is not sustainable. Developing a NQS will, among other things, help to address the poor articulation of qualifications and actual skills needed in a workplace, while also facilitating the integration into the formal system, a large number of our population who have acquired their skills informally or who have dropped out school at any stage, thereby creating incentives for life-long learning.

It is difficult, but it can be done: In the orchard of education reform, there is no low hanging fruit. It is like the mythical Chinese bamboo, which takes years of persistent watering and nurturing before it germinates. The disequilibrium that reform creates would also take some years to settle, because it requires a whole range of behaviour adjustments. But it can be done. Brazil participated in PISA (Programme for International Students Assessments) for the first time in 2000. It recorded the worst results of all countries that participated that year. However, by 2009 when it participated again, it gained 52 points; the most progress by any country within a 10-year period. The Brazil experience should motivate us.

Not a minister’s job: Education reform is politically contentious. It therefore requires a high level of political authorisation. It is also complex, and requires different tiers and levels of government, as well as numerous agencies, and organisations pulling in the same direction. The National Assembly, the State Governments, the Local Governments, the States House of Assembly, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Economic Planning, the Ministry of Labour and Productivity; in fact, the entire country have important roles to play. Therefore, it is only the President of Nigeria that has the coercive strength and the convening power to forge the kind of consensus and collaboration that is required to initiate and sustain the reform envisaged. It has to be his vision and he has to be able to communicate this vision as clearly as possible. This is without prejudice to what State Governors are able to do, and they can do a lot. But ultimately, it has to be the President’s memo.

Abdullahi is a former Minister of Youth and Sports