I am aware that by the time this article is published, I will most probably be inundated with emails asking me to clarify my position. So I will do my best to do so from the onset.
In the Western world, a university degree has long been the prerequisite for gaining middle class status. Indeed, in the United States, for example, the affluence of baby boomers and their children was correlated to getting a degree and an office job, which in many African countries today remains the norm.
President Barack Obama has called higher education “an economic imperative” as statistically, those who graduate with a university degree make several times more than those who graduate with a school certificate for example and this is true in many countries.
However, in Nigeria, over the years, qualifications have become a mere symbol and having a degree in many parts of Africa does not necessarily mean that one has gotten an education. Students are presented with paper qualifications at the end of their courses but remain bereft of even the most basic skills one would need to work and survive in an ever-competitive and global work place.
So, this raises the question: What then is the point of a university degree? We need to rethink the point and purpose of many of our tertiary institutions which churn out half baked alumni with often zero chances of ever getting an entry level job, let alone progressing to much else.
I remember how much Dr Goodluck Jonathan’s commitment to opening a university in every state of the federation was celebrated at the time by those who the point of a real education eludes, and who also do not understand that quality beats quantity any day. Half the universities in Nigeria today are not viable institutions: the teaching one receives at many universities would not pass as a secondary school course in other climes. Yes, the truth hurts and we must be willing to acknowledge painful truths so that we can empower young Nigerians to grow and achieve.
But how can they when most exams in Nigeria are not based on testing students’ ability to analyse or discuss but on their capacity to retain lengthy information, like any computer or robot could? Furthermore, the states many universities are located in are barely viable themselves, unable to pay salaries, creating little wealth and development, adding even less value. It is more important, in Nigeria, to pay public officers salaries than to develop and empower those who elect them.
In France, for instance, to reduce the cost of governance in several regions, their governments and administrators will be merged into larger, singular bodies which will not stop government from reaching the people, or from delivering on the quality of life citizens deserve.
On the opposite end I fear we in Nigeria will not stop creating states and universities until there is one state per ethnic group and one university per street corner!
Having more universities looks good on paper, but in a country where education is already so poorly funded, we would do well to consolidate the few functioning universities we have rather than encouraging the ad hoc creation of new and unfortunately irrelevant ones. But let’s get back to the contentious issue of who should attend said universities.
The truth is that with so many young people in university, the value of degrees is lessened, grades are inflated and trades are understated. In many industrialised nations (e.g. the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, etc.) barely a quarter, or 25% of the population goes to university as more and more people learn a trade.
In good African fashion, I must admit my brief surprise when a plumber in the UK complained to me about his mortgage. The idea of a plumber in Nigeria being able to afford a mortgage isn’t something many can unfortunately contemplate. Learning a trade in Nigeria is hardly the preferred option, no matter one’s social class as there is little dignity of labour in our country. So, every year the Nigerian Law School produces thousands of lawyers the economy and the society does not need.
More than half of the class of 2013 is still searching for a job and every new batch simply adds itself to the melee and one finds 30-year-olds who have never held down a job. I am not calling for universities to become elite enclaves which only the rich can either afford or aspire to. However, I am indeed asking that vocational training and skills acquisition becomes a real agenda for government (beyond Jonathan’s simplistic purchase of stoves for women).
A young person’s potential is realisable in so many different ways and if our education were more practical, less theoretical, the high failure rates in some of our universities would be lessened, as some students would realise their calling or aptitude is perhaps more suited towards learning a trade. Why does Nigeria import deep sea divers in the oil and gas industry therefore helping Asian experts make huge salaries when Nigerians could be trained for that purpose?
There are huge and undiscovered job and entrepreneurship opportunities if government would create not just an enabling environment but prepare students from secondary school to understand what the world requires of them in terms of values, attitudes and skills.
One last point I would like to make is about parents: studies show that many cognitive and non-cognitive skills are hereditary. The children of successful, affluent parents are almost predestined (I don’t often like or use the word as I believe the power of human agency supersedes any inevitability) to do well. So we must rescue parents of school-age children in disadvantaged regions as their own understanding of education also determines their children’s success.
Even some rich Nigerians would rather push their daughters to get married than get an MBA but that’s a topic for another day perhaps. Ideally, we should want every Nigerian to go to university but given the few jobs available in the sectors Nigerians typically study for , it might not be such a wise investment or public policy to pursue.
We need more realism and less utopia in our public discourse so we can find work for those already out of school and create a society where paper qualifications are not the beginning and the end of a better life.
Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir
Wanted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, for years, Omar Al Bashir yet again, evaded the international justice system as many in the African Union and Nigeria, believe the ICC witch hunts African leaders. I wonder if the child soldiers and destitute Sudanese Al Bashir has used and sacrificed would be of the same opinion. It is always so difficult in Africa for us to strongly, in one voice, condemn wrong doing: we view every criticism as an attack, especially when there is clear evidence of immoral, unacceptable actions. Take the Nigerian Army’s response to Amnesty International’s claims of unspeakable violence wrought upon innocent civilians. Those who have nothing to hide do not fear investigation. Africans are refugees in their own countries, dying on the Mediterranean in their quest for decent lives, yet, we in the pages of newspapers, in our private conversations, defend these callous leaders.
Buhari and oil subsidy
Many reports say the President is about to remove subsidy and commentators ask why Nigerians support this now and resisted it under Jonathan. The answer for me is simple: many did not trust the former administration to use the savings adequately. But if rumours of free education and social services under this new government are anything to go by, it is no wonder Nigerians do not seem ready to fight government on this.
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