by Ijeoma Nwogwugwu
As long as Nigeria continues to produce half-baked students from our primary and secondary schools, the quality of its workforce will be substandard, irrespective of the number of degrees it has acquired.
Nigeria and Pakistan have a lot of similarities. Both countries have large populations – Nigeria, an estimated 167 million people, while Pakistan is estimated to have 180 million people; both have economies of roughly the same size – Nigeria has a nominal GDP of $289.9 billion (2013 estimate), while Pakistan has a nominal GDP of $230.5 billion; both are classified as middle income economies and have been identified as the Next Eleven (N-11). The N-11 comprising Bangladesh, Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam have been tipped by Goldman Sachs investment bank and its former Chief Economist Jim O’Neill as having the potential of becoming, along with the BRICs (or BRICS if South Africa is added), the world’s largest economies in the 21st century.
In other areas, both countries have diverse ethnic nationalities and regional languages, but use English as their official language. Nigeria and Pakistan are also largely hierarchical societies, with an emphasis on local cultural etiquettes. Both countries also have large Muslim populations but with a slight divergence. While 97 per cent of Pakistanis are Muslim and is the second largest Muslim-majority country in world, about 47 per cent of Nigerians are Muslim and has the sixth largest adherents of the Islamic faith in the world.
My interest in both countries has been spurred by a citizen of Pakistan Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old schoolgirl who has been advocating for the rights to education for girls since the age of 11. I first became conscious of this brave young girl early in 2012 when I watched documentaries on her activism on the BBC and CNN. As I watched her – she was 14 at the time – I marvelled at her eloquence and keen sense of understanding as she made a case for girls’ rights to education in the Swat Valley, a border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban had banned girls them from going to school.
Horrifically, her activism and the global attention that it drew made her the target of the dreaded Taliban militia. A few months after watching the documentaries, Malala was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen. The attempt on Malala’s life and her miraculous recovery has catapulted her to the kind of global prominence that we mere mortals could only dream of. She has spoken at the United Nations, has garnered several accolades and awards, two weeks ago, was the favourite to win the Nobel Peace Prize, until the awards committee decided otherwise, and last week was the special guest of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. In all this time, she has comported herself magnificently and spoken with a precociousness that is rare for a girl her age from any part of the world.
But what I found most fascinating about that this young girl from the town of Mingora in the Swat District of Pakistan was that she able to survive because of first, the delicate surgery to remove the bullet lodged in her head and stop the swelling in her brain was carried out by surgeons in a military hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, before she was airlifted to the UK for further treatment. The second being, this girl, Malala, had already attained an education long before the attempt on her life. It is at these two particular junctures that the divergence between Pakistan and Nigeria, both Third World developing countries, becomes very stark.
Since Malala’s recovery and reemergence on the global stage, I have wondered whether a young girl under similar circumstances would have been afforded the same medical attention in Nigeria as Malala before she was flown to the UK. Does Nigeria have the same kind of health care facilities and medical personnel as Pakistan, with the capacity to undertake a life-saving surgery on the brain?
More importantly, that a girl who grew up, was once made a refugee, and was educated in a remote, war-torn region that the Taliban had made a stronghold, was still able to get an education that was qualitative and has given her the confidence to interact with a global audience, is inspiring. How many young girls and boys who have attended schools in remote Nigerian villages can boast of the same quality of education? How many of them can represent us on the global stage and make us swell with pride with the same kind of diction and intelligence that Malala has projected? Sadly, very, very few.
It is telling that Pakistan, which has so many similarities with Nigeria and also has a militant insurgency that puts it on the back foot, is still able to provide decent health care services and qualitative education to its citizens. Mind you, this young girl Malala is still of secondary school age. She has not even attained a university education. Yet she has displayed the capacity to put millions of Nigerian graduates with their two, three and four degrees in the shade.
It is for this reason I have often argued, whenever the topic of education comes up, that a proper, broad-based education is attained at the foundation level; that is, at the elementary and secondary school level. It is also for the same reason most countries, Nigeria and Pakistan inclusive, offer free basic education, because that is when actual literacy is attained. In contrast, a university education only offers specialisation, skills and qualifications in isolated disciplines.
Indeed, in other parts of the world, where a premium is placed on basic education, it is assumed that by the time an individual is applying for a university degree programme, that person is able to read and write coherently, can assimilate and think critically about the written word, and is numerically literate. Unfortunately, all three attributes are glaringly missing in Nigeria simply because the quality of education at the foundation level is abysmally flawed.
A review of the information found on the website of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), shows that the commission was set up by the federal government as a reform programme aimed at providing greater access to, and ensuring the quality of basic education throughout Nigeria. The UBE programme objectives include: ensuring uninterrupted access to nine-year formal education by providing free and compulsory basic education for every child of school age. The emphasis is on six years of primary education and three years of junior secondary school (JSS) education; reducing the school drop out rate; and the acquisition of literacy, numeracy, life skills and values for lifelong education and useful living.
The website further provides data on primary and JSS school enrolment by state up to 2012 and national summary basic education data up to 2009, but is bereft of information on teacher profession development for the training of teachers in all states of the federation, is silent on the number of children that are of school age but are out of school, and has no information on the teacher to student ratio in the states. It is also silent on tools and implements available in schools, and the enforcement of quality assurance in the 36 states of the federation and Abuja.
While UBEC might have played a role in universal access to education at the foundation level, it is uncertain that the commission has laid much emphasis on the quality of education offered Nigerian pupils. In recognition of the importance of basic education, UBEC is one of the few government agencies enshrined in the constitution and is accorded a first line charge on the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Still Nigeria continues to churn out semi-literates and illiterates who go on to universities and eventually call themselves graduates.
It is apparent that a total overhaul of the education system, especially at the foundation level, is long overdue. Contrary to the argument put forward by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that 26 per cent of the federal budget should be assigned to tertiary institutions, I am of the view that the 26 per cent should go to primary and secondary schools. (The UN prescribes that countries should assign 26 per cent of their budgets to the education sector.) If only they can muster the political will to introduce school fees, universities can actually fend for themselves and improve on the delivery of qualitative graduate and post-graduate education. Primary and secondary education, on the other hand, which must be free, must be given greater attention in any country desirous of a literate population.
As long as Nigeria continues to produce half-baked students from our primary and secondary schools, the quality of its workforce will be substandard, irrespective of the number of degrees it has acquired. A substandard workforce has its attendant costs, as employers would have to spend more resources training entry-level employees assumed to have been educated in the first instance. In addition, a substandard workforce means that the output by its personnel would also be substandard, requiring employers to pay more for expatriate personnel for jobs that could have been handled by Nigerians.
The lesson to be gleaned from Malala and Pakistan is Nigeria still has a long way to go. All countries marching towards development lay considerable emphasis on developing their human capital resources. Where it is deemphasised, it becomes evident in the quality of the leadership, the quality of the workforce, the quality of public discourse, the technological strides a country makes, and its ability to pull its citizens out of the poverty trap. It is a vicious cycle from which Nigeria must extricate itself. A way out is through a well-rounded, qualitative education.
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