When I was in university, not so very long ago, LASU was in a tussle with UNIBEN and Ambrose Alli Univeristy, Ekpoma to be declared the paramount hotbed of secret cultism in Nigerian universities. It was always only a butchering or slaying and a riot away from closure. The school has been closed again in recent times, but the protests that led to the closure happened because the Lagos State government had attempted to increase annual fees from about N25,000 (about $150) to about N350,000 (about $2100). On the 7th of August 2014, the Governor of Lagos State, announced that there would no longer be an increase of any sort (previous suggestions of 60%, then 30% increases had also been rebuffed) and that the N25,000 fees would stand.
The Governor’s reversal was seen as a victory for people power, with various references again being made to the supposed lessons from the Ekiti elections and the consequences of elitist governance. The thrust of the arguments in support of modestly priced tertiary education is that the less privileged in society should not be priced out of education. Those in favour of increased fees argue that quality education is pricey and that a $600 dollar education (i.e. over a 4-year course) is not going to build a country of industrialists and reformers. And there would be some merit on both sides but I would side more with those who favour a realistic cost being attached to education. I would also agree that government should subsidise education but not up to tertiary.
Many people cite the Norwegian example in the argument for free education into post-graduate studies, even. After all, we are both endowed with vast mineral wealth. This is a false equivalence however, as Norway has only 5 million people against its proven crude deposits of 5,366,000,000 BBL, compared to Nigeria’s 170 million people against its proven deposits of 37,200,000,000 BBL (data here). Per capita, Norway is 5 times richer in oil than we are. And they don’t even spend the wealth the way we do, but that’s a story for another time. Let’s stick with education.
Everyday, when talking about Nigerian university graduates, recruiters churn out the words “half-baked”, “unemployable”, “incoherent”, etc, and there’s a reason for this. Many Nigerian graduates (they’re in the minority, let’s be honest) do not fall into these categories but I’m convinced it’s more to do with the schools they went to before university. People with decent primary and secondary education are more likely to be the outliers that will thrive in spite of the university they go to. It may sound elitist but (if you were not one yourself), you probably remember that classmate at uni (or three, or five or twenty), who struggled not only with grammar, but also with grasping every material concept your lecturers tried to teach. People who would throw a tantrum if they could not record the lecturer verbatim. People who had not learnt how to learn.
What evidence do I have in support of this theory? Well, if you speak to any of these “good” Nigerian graduates who, after being educated up to their first degrees in Nigeria, go abroad for graduate studies, the overwhelming majority of them will tell you that it was hard to adjust initially. You think you know how to research an issue properly, until you find out that what qualifies as research in the best of our universities here is nothing but rank plagiarism abroad. Very few of us that are trained in Nigeria understand that it is a very broad and far-reaching concept.
Plagiarism aside, how many university lecturers here tolerate dissenting views, even where those views are backed by verifiable facts/data? Chances are, if you do not regurgitate what your lecturer dictated to you or printed in the handout he forced you to buy, you won’t excel in his course. Rubbish, you say? Law school students doing the Bar Part I course (for foreign-trained lawyers) always complain about the learning methods at the law school. “Learning”, even in law school, is sitting through hours of note dictation. As we all know and have seen, note-dictation means you only need to find a diligent classmate with good handwriting, to photocopy his notes when it’s time to cram, 3 weeks before exams.
I went to a secondary school where we had a woodwork shop, with saws and drills and chisels and mallets and did all the experiments in the chemistry, biology and physics textbooks. ALL. It was a complete shock to my system during GCE (which I took after SSCE), that there were “Theory of Practical” exams for the sciences and that this was what the great majority of Nigerian secondary school students prepared for.
Jumping from N25,000 to N350,000 was something of a quantum leap, to be honest, but the penultimate proposal of 30% hikes in the fees was more than reasonable, in my opinion. If you are a parent and have young children that you are educating in private nursery and primary school, you are no doubt paying many multiples of N25,000 per term. I would argue that the effects on the child(ren) are evident – their vocabulary is expanding much faster than yours or your parents’ did, they’re dealing with much more advanced concepts than you were at their age and, in fact, the system of teaching is vastly changed from when you were a child yourself.
We need to move away from this “XYZ Governor enjoyed free education but wants to deprive today’s youth” argument, for many reasons. The first is that it is a lie. If you go back to our primary and secondary school literature books, the narratives showed villages putting money together to send children to school. Many people were the beneficiaries of some sort of grant or scholarship and had to drop out if things got tough back home.
The second is that the annual N90 my mother paid to attend UI in the 70s was worth much more than the same N90 I was charged in the 90s. That sort of system is not sustainable. After all, that was when meals (via meal tickets/vouchers) cost 20kobo or something. The cheapest meal in my first year was around N50.
It is this free system that ensures that the best of our brains are lured away by more competitive salaries and opportunities to contribute to the body of knowledge. It is this free system that ensures that there has been no major scientific or engineering breakthrough (of the kind that can withstand the robust and rigorous scrutiny of international peers) in any of our universities. It is this free system that makes the Ghanaian educational system more attractive to Nigerian parents who can’t afford the US-Europe route. This same free everything is why we don’t have technicians and artisans with proper skills. We import tailors, bricklayers and masons from other countries in West Africa (where they pay for this skills training) if we want proper cuts or straight walls.
A 1300% rise in fees will always be hard to defend and was probably not wise, especially, as many have pointed out, in an election year. We have to ask ourselves however, why there are so many graduates who cannot find work years after NYSC. Why are there so many graduates who are forced to switch careers (often downwards) only a few years after graduation? Why do recruiters always lament a skills gap? Most importantly, with Vision 20 20:20 in mind, what are the world’s top economies doing differently from us? Have a look at the chart below, in connection with the World’s Top 100 universities, for 2013:
Is it a coincidence that these are firmly amongst the world’s most developed countries? How many of them offer free or heavily subsidised tertiary education? Do we reasonably think that our way -the Nigerian way – is better?
We’ve reverted to the status quo ante on the fees and this probably means not much is going to change in the system. For what it’s worth, I believe that the entire benefit of free or subsidized education should be directed at basic education, to bring up our base literacy levels and learning aptitudes. Thereafter, fees for degrees need to be realistically priced, to upgrade facilities and attract the intellectual and administrative talent needed to transform our tertiary learning centres. If we look around us, the real cost of bad education is all too evident.