Rebranding or reforming education: A commentary on Buhari’s June 12 address

President Muhammadu Buhari addressing the nation to mark the 2020 Democracy Day on 12th June, 2020

By Chima Osuji

Twenty-one years of uninterrupted democratic dispensation in Nigeria is something worth celebrating. This is particularly true against the background of the recurrent blows dealt to Nigeria’s democratic culture by thirty cumulative years of military interference in governance. While other sectors such as telecoms, banking, housing, agriculture, oil, and gas, etc. seem to have gained commendable levels of government attention on the development chart, the education sector, on the other hand, widely acknowledged as the foundation of any society, wallows in neglect and decay.

We appear to have seen a lot of movement but no progress in the grand scheme of things as far as education is concerned. Let’s put things into perspective.

First, unlike the other sectors mentioned above, the public education sector is not primarily driven by profit or private sector innovation, except for a few of our ‘Ivy League’ private schools. The incentive to do better and to create value in the education value chain is therefore mostly left in the hands of poorly motivated, poorly trained, and poorly remunerated government administrators and civil servants.

Secondly, in terms of coherence and efficiency, our education sector is yet to evolve into a “system” where the entire system will be working in harmony to produce results that are greater than the sum of its different parts. Think of the digestive system or the circulatory system for instance. The different organs and channels of these highly evolved systems work so efficiently and effectively that we hardly ever notice that they are working except in the rare case of an illness or breakdown. Rather, what we have in education in Nigeria appears to be a number of poorly run schools and educational institutions that hardly speak to each other let alone plan together and work together.

In sum, we don’t yet have an education “system”. But we can do a whole lot better with what we have.

Back to the present, the President’s speech on Democracy Day, June 12, 2020, was very highly anticipated by many Nigerians—myself included—who were searching for solutions and hope to rise above the current challenges brought about by the pandemic. The number one challenge in education right now is how to bridge the gap of schools shutdown by reaching millions of students and schoolchildren in their homes and communities with relevant lessons, books, resources, and educational tools. Education cannot wait! So it does not take a soothsayer to figure out that Nigerians were expecting some good news from Mr. President on this situation on Democracy Day.

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In his Democracy Day address to the nation, Mr. President announced that the government had launched an initiative called Better Education Service Delivery for All (BESDA) in 17 states of the federation, in addition to establishing six federal science and technical colleges, and the ongoing deliberations to implement a nationwide teacher training program.

President Buhari restated the government’s commitment to expanding access to quality education as well as enforcing the first nine years of compulsory, free, basic education for Nigerian children. The entire statement of the government on education was contained in two short paragraphs. There was no mention of how the government plans to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic for the education nor any indication of when schools will resume.

The BESDA initiative is a World Bank-assisted project worth $611 million which was approved on June 20, 2017. Funding for the project will end by October 31, 2022. BESDA is therefore nothing new; it is an education funding facility with a five-year lifetime and the first three years have elapsed. Just like the Universal Basic Education objectives, BESDA aspires to, “increase equitable access for out-of-school children, improve literacy in focus states and strengthen accountability for results in basic education in Nigeria.”

Having similar objectives with the Universal Basic Education Commission (as domesticated at the state and local governments levels) and the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education, BESDA, it is not difficult to see an attempt to find something noteworthy to say in the address.

Is BESDA truly transformative? Can it address the clear and present need of our education sector which is how to bridge the gap of schools shutdown by reaching millions of students and schoolchildren with educational resources and lessons?

The enactment of the Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Act 2004 which birthed the UBEC, was the first major commitment made by the government to expand access to quality education as well as curb the rate of illiteracy in the country since the 4th Republic. The core mission of the UBEC Program can be summarised as follows:

  • Ensure unfettered access to free and compulsory nine years of formal basic education for children of school-going age;
  • Reduce drastically the incidence of dropping out from the formal school system through improved relevance, quality and quality; and
  • Ensure the acquisition of appropriate levels of literacy, numeracy, communicative and life skills as well as the ethical, moral, and civic values needed for laying a solid foundation for lifelong learning. (World Bank, 2017)
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Similarly, the four-year Ministerial Strategic Plan (2016-2019) adopted by the Federal Ministry of Education evolves around three key themes, i.e. “access, quality, and systems strengthening,” of which the menace posed by Nigeria’s out-of-school children is a top priority. Sadly, the objectives of the UBEC program are far from being realized.

Available statistics are just as alarming as they were from the outset if not worse. The challenges plaguing Nigeria’s education sector are a recurring decimal.  For instance, one in three children does not complete primary school; 27.2 percent of children between six and 11 years do not attend school; 25.8 percent of children between 12 and 17 years have no access to education; and only 35.6 percent of children aged three to five years attend preschool (UNICEF Fact Sheet, 2019). The above figures translate to an estimated 10.5 million out-of-school children in the country.

As against the global recommendation by UNESCO that governments should allocate between 15 percent and 20 percent of their annual budgets to education, the revised 2020 budget of Nigeria allocates the sum of N605.8 billion to the education sector, representing 7.04 percent below the global standard. Worse still, statutory transfers to UBEC have been slashed significantly from N111.7 billion to N51.1 billion. It is important to note that the entire N605.8 billion allocated to the education sector is meant to cater to capital and recurrent expenditure for 28 parastatals, 37 federal universities, 21 federal colleges of education and 104 federal unity schools, plus the sum of N20 billion set aside as additional support to universities.

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Reforming and transforming education lies not in rebranding or renaming a problem but in thinking and doing things differently. How can we achieve this?

I believe that the most effective game-changer in education will be a shift in consciousness and values and prioritizing education as the most important sector of our national life and economy. The most fundamental level of reform in any sector is the level of shifting our individual and collective mindsets. This includes students, teachers, parents, government officials, the private sector, organizations, and all citizens. It is possible to take deliberate steps to enable such a shift in consciousness. Change must come from within and we must appreciate fully the cross-sectoral benefits of education to a nation.

If we have the right mindset and attitude toward education, we will plan and invest deliberately in it, we will insist on transparent and accountable measures to protect our investments, we will stop paying lip service to the needs of the sector and make informed, proactive, concrete and measurable steps to respond adequately. If we uphold the right attitude and disposition toward education, we will take the welfare of teachers seriously.

If we demonstrate discipline and enforce measures, monies meant for the education of our children will not be misappropriated or embezzled, we will prosecute and punish corrupt officials to dissuade others from misappropriation and embezzlement. With the right mentality, our character will change positively and our actions will be influenced by morality and probity. With the right education and opportunities, we will build better resistance to the indoctrinating programs of insurgent, terrorist, and extremist groups.

By implication, the age-long ASUU/FG crisis will be a thing of the past. The same will also apply to other academic and non-academic unions of educational institutions in Nigeria. That way, we can better focus on acquiring the critical capacity, technology, and innovation needed to reposition the education sector in Nigeria. If we do all these, Nigeria will cease to be the headquarters of out-of-school children in the world.

Chima Osuji writes from Lagos

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