Opinion: Birthing tomorrow’s human capital problem, today

by Tunji Ajibade

 The extent of decay she saw must have been one of the reasons Ezekwesili called her stay at the education ministry her “toughest assignment.” She also saw, “for the first time that we had been completely reversing all our gains.” She meant the gains in academic achievements of the 1960s, 1970s and also the 80s.

Education. That was what she spoke about lately. Obiageli Ezekwesili. Former “Madam Due Process” of the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit in the Presidency. Former Minister of Solid Minerals. Former Minister of Education. She gave an interview on television not long ago, and she spoke on numerous issues. An answer she gave, linking the nation’s education to its human capital challenges was a knock-out, and it’s the focus of this piece. For what she had enumerated should set the thoughtful thinking, and make him ask: Aren’t some people earning salaries, while they pretend to administer education in Nigeria?

A sound mind is worth hearing. Ezekwesili’s insight into the nation’s education sector illuminates the mind, otherwise some government officials would continue to pretend they administer education, while skirting obvious fundamental issues. What Nigerians see at the moment is that education administrators make a noise after every bad outing in external examination. Then they doze off, waiting for the next examination disaster to happen, after which they call for education summits. One wonders how a sector that needs so much dynamism, energy and fresh ideas gets stuck as it is. Ezekwesili was the education minister between 2006 and 2007, she saw what still remains the problem till date – mass failure in examinations, university graduates who can’t express themselves in the English language they purportedly learnt with for more than a decade; a reason the Director-General of the National Youth Service Corps, Brig. Gen. Nnamdi Okorie- Affia, threatened, days back, to report to regulatory authorities universities that deploy such graduates (whom employers reject as unfit) to participate in its scheme. Unfortunately, the regulatory authorities he has in mind are a part of the problem. Under their nostrils, universities run unaccredited courses, and get away with them. A matter for another day. Time to note how Ezekwesili linked education to Nigeria’s human capital challenges.

“It’s pretty emotional to talk about the development of our human capital.” That was how the woman popularly called Oby had started talking about education in her interview. Her first sentence to a question about the nation’s human capital that she had called Nigeria’s foremost asset. Do you think Nigeria is poised to develop its human capital?, she had been asked. She didn’t think the nation is poised to do anything of such, not with the manner the system is run currently. And it’s because she knows education is central to human capital development, and as Minister, she had seen the negatively progressive pattern in the nation’s education. She had called for necessary data that time, one way to see the cause of mass failure in external examinations. For instance, she saw that a disproportionate amount of funds was going to Unity Schools. As part of her solution to the education financing problem, she had made efforts to correct the imbalance. Voices were raised. An immediate past administration that didn’t know what it wanted for the nation’s education sided with the voices. One has reasons to think those who insisted that a larger percentage of what goes to education ministry should continue to serve a few Unity School pupils and their elite principals and teachers, have motives other than the good of the nation. There’s something in it for a government official who fights to retain what is not sustainable. Serious nations don’t forge ahead with what is not sustainable. And Nigerians know that half of the resources channelled to schoolchildren don’t get to them, anyway. Officials are caught selling textbooks that government procured. A corrupt system so perfected that the headmistress of a village school wouldn’t want it broadcast in her name that she never took delivery of textbooks government paid billions of naira to procure. Yet, summits follow summits on education in Abuja, rather than applying “rude and radical” solution to a festering problem which Ezekwesili affirmed was needed.

The extent of decay she saw must have been one of the reasons Ezekwesili called her stay at the education ministry her “toughest assignment.” She also saw, “for the first time that we had been completely reversing all our gains.” She meant the gains in academic achievements of the 1960s, 1970s and also the 80s. She had looked at all the key indicators that would reveal the state of education sector, and declared that it “terrible.” And till date, “nothing has changed,” she said. In a record of performance of Nigerian students in the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination over a 10-year period, she observed that Nigeria went from the level of 67 percentage of passes with five credits including English and Mathematics, to something in the neighbourhood of 26 per cent. “So almost 74 per cent of our children have been failing year in year out, and it really didn’t mean anything.” She meant it hadn’t meant anything to the education administrators that had preceded her in office, others who succeeded her, all of whom see the fundamental rot in the system, but lack the guts to attack it.

Her reason for taking radical steps that had upset many at the time she was in office cannot be excised from a global economy that she said is a matter of competitiveness. The quality of the human capital of any nation is core to that country’s competitiveness. “And so if our children, the bulk of our children are failing regional examination, how are we going to compete with the rest of the world?”, she had asked. She therefore categorised the education sector that she met between 2006 and 2007 as dysfunctional. But she hadn’t seen the problems and bowed. As she stated, “We went ahead to begin to propose a number of solutions that looked at the issue of education governance, education financing, the role of technology in education, looked at the issue of quality, instructional materials, looked at the issue of teacher quality, looked at curriculum, looked at entrepreneurship.”  Issues of physical facilities for education, gender issues, and equity in education were not left out. All the solutions proposed have remained on the shelves in the education ministry ever since. So she had asked a question: “Now, what manner of policy inconsistency will make a country not to build on the solutions that it has?”

The question is for those who run education at the moment, and a Federal Government that wants to administer education from Abuja, engaging in policy inconsistency, appointing administrators who have neither a clue of the problems nor the drive to surgically attend to them. There is something dull, uninspiring, and reactive in the manner education is administered in the country. With policies lacking in drive to ensure that education foundation is properly laid at the most basic levels, with state governments paying unqualified school teachers but, for all sorts of funny reasons, won’t recruit qualified teachers from any other parts of the country and offer them needed incentives, tomorrow will yet carry the scars of what the nation births today.  For it’s obvious that the country is toying with the same human capital, now decaying, that Ezekwesili was worried about.

Lack of discipline among the pupils of secondary schools, for instance, had been the focus of a major conference called in 1978 at the then Durbar Hotel, Lagos. Among the 13 recommendations, attention was on matters that had spurred disinterest in learning such as inadequate laboratory equipment, teacher qualification, furniture and much more. At the time, another conference was called on the same subject in 1998, recommendations made 20 years earlier were yet to be implemented. Other recommendations were made in 1998, but the situation remains the same. Where no administrator seems ready to ignore controversies and do what is needed to turn this sector around, the question arises: What hope does the leadership have of avoiding human capital challenges that wait to harass the nation tomorrow? More stakeholders’ meetings and education summits, the type that is the currency, amount to a waste of time. For the problems of education in Nigeria have been long identified, the solutions known. Let this laughable merry-go-round engaged in by education officials in Abuja stop.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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