Awo Symposium:

Educational Decay: Lessons from Awo

Prof. Ayo Olukotun

At 2016 Awo Birthday Commemorative Symposium

The hallmark of Chief Obafemi Awolowo's seminal interventions in the educational sector, are: A bold and innovative vision, careful and diligent planning, a husbanding of resources to attain carefully stated objectives as well as follow through capacity. For example, before the budget debate of February 1952, Awo, as mentioned in his autobiography had set forth in a ministerial statement, the basis on which then budget estimates were to be scrutinized. To quote him:

In our body of the estimates we have been guided by three principles, which I very earnestly commend for the consideration of this house. The first principle is that, save in the case of those departments which cater for the educational, economic, health, and social needs of the people, there should be no increase in establishment, except in so far as such increase is due to either re-organization which makes for re-distribution of a member of staff into the three Regions , or to the inclusion of Lagos in the West Region. I do not pretend, Mr. President that this particular principle is fool-proof; but it's a good working basis. The second principle is that wherever practicable, increase in establishment should be governed by the policy of Nigerianisation. And the third Principle is that as far as possible expenditure on services which tend to welfare and health and the education of the people should be increased at the expense of any expenditure that does not answer to the same test.

Through the backdoor of national conversation about government policies with respect to restricting forex allocation for the payment of tuition fees abroad for Nigerian students the decay in our educational sector, has sneaked back to national attention. The Guardian , while lamenting on Tuesday “the criminal neglect and gradual decay of education which forced the exodus of students whose parents can afford it”, puts the capital flight through overseas tuition fees at $2 billion in recent years. That is another way of saying that part of what afflicts the national currency and pushes up the demand for foreign exchange is the expanding number of Nigerian students, mainly undergraduates studying in overseas countries.

Let me put this in context by admitting that the Chinese, South Koreans, and other Asian countries do, as part of official policy train their students in the United States, and Europe, especially in high-technology disciplines. This is both a part of globalization and a reflection of the aspirations of developmental states which prioritize human capital development to give the up and coming generation the best education available anywhere in the world. In the Nigerian example however, only a trickle of Nigerian students abroad are sponsored by either the federal or state governments. The increasing concentration of Nigerian students on overseas campuses speaks to the private efforts of privileged Nigerian parents to give their wards sound education in the face of the educational decay at home.

Those whose who are unable to afford destinations like the United States, settle for South Africa, Cyprus, Ghana, and so on. Unsurprisingly, there have been reported sensational cases of substandard overseas institutions, well packaged and advertised, fleecing Nigerian parents. As a matter of fact, the Nigerian market has become a veritable educational gold mine for institutions of varying standards and reputation across the globe. In this unseemly rush, necessitated by the dysfunction and disrepair in our educational system, we are fast losing the concept of Nigerian education, by which I mean a system of instruction centered on Nigeria, its culture, history, eco-science, and developmental problems. And so, between the Scylla of Nigerian students expensively trained abroad, who know much more about Western countries than they know about their country and the Charybdis of Nigerian students trained in increasingly substandard settings which place the attainment of certificates over real education; the country has been poorly served.

Here, there is a convergence of inappropriateness between the globally approved, but culturally skewed education of Nigerian students abroad and the more desirable but inefficient training of Nigerian students in our sub optimal institutions. I may have overstated the case, especially in cases where the capacity to think independently and to critique approved curricula are part of the educational menu, but these are few and far between. Do we need to be reminded that for three decades now, our experts have been warning about the degraded quality of Nigerian education? Who doesn't remember that Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka sought in the late 1980s to bring the problem home by suggesting that the universities had need to be first dismantled and thereafter be rebuilt? Speaking a few years later, at the Second Obafemi Awolowo Foundation Dialogue, devoted to Nigeria and education, Professor Ade Ajayi suggested that we should declare five years emergency in the educational sector in order to put in place, a rescue operation. In his words: “During the emergency period, the emphasis should be on rebuilding, raising quality before seeking to extend access, but making what exists available to all on merit and without discrimination. It is only when we revamp education to the level that we can say we have a credible system that we can then expand it, and try to assure the right to education to everyone”.

That informed suggestion was given in the early 1990s and two or so years, after the Presidential Commission on Education, chaired by Mr. Grey Longe was made public. Thereafter, we had another Presidential Commission on Education headed by Etsu Nupe, as well as several others including most recently, under the Jonathan administration, a Presidential Task Team on Education chaired by Professor Emeritus, Pai Obanya. Recently, I listened to Obanya at a seminar where he narrated his frustrations regarding how so much work and determination which his committee summoned came to nothing as their report was discarded or ignored.

Matters were not always this distressing. The early Nigerian Leaders such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo not only spoke passionately about the value of sound education, but built policies around it. As Premier of the Western Region, Awo ran a social welfare state in which health and education were cardinal priorities. In a recent paper, Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo Dosunmu, Executive Director of the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation recalled the March 1955 budget speech of Awo, in which the sage said: “Of our total expenditure of 12.45 million pounds not less than 82.6% is devoted to services and projects which directly cater for health, education, prosperity and general welfare of our people. Of this high percentage, 27.8% goes to education, 10.7% to medical services, and 5.4% to agriculture”. As known, other regional governments quickly followed the example of the west in order to lay down a solid basis for human capital development. In a nutshell, the bane of our educational system is that we have expanded dramatically, without careful planning and by reversing the budgetary priorities of the independence generation leaders who understood that good education as well as the opening up of access cost a lot of money. Take a look at what we have allocated to education in the last five years, and see how far short in percentages they are of the Awolowo era.

Additionally, we have the paradox of an over directed, over managed educational system, which nonetheless remains ineffective, and operates well below global standards. At the federal level, there is a riot of management institutions, which include; National Universities Commission, National Board for Technical Education, National Commission for Colleges of Education, Universal Basic Education Commission, National Commission for Nomadic Education, National Commission for Adult Education Mass Literacy and Non-Formal Education, and Nigerian Educational Research Development Council and several more. It is difficult to see the logic of this administrative obesity in a federal system which aims for cost effectiveness, rather than the multiplication of bureaucratic functions. If we must reduce the flight of capital arising from ever growing number of Nigerian students studying abroad, then, we must return to the wisdom of the founding fathers which had the foresight to plan for good education, and to devote substantial resources to accomplishing it. It should be of interest that several years, before the Asian countries developed the developmental states, with which they ascended to world class stature, the Nigerian founding fathers ran similar states that mainstreamed sound education and human capital development. Can we borrow a leaf from their example?

To renovate the educational sector currently in shambles, we must as various conferences have noted, carry out incisive upgrades in the quality of teachers, the learning environment, the school curriculum, and develop a learning culture centered on innovative and up to date technologies. The time to begin is now.


© Obafemi Awolowo Foundation. All rights reserved. 2012.
Designed by Livingprojects Limited