By Omole Ibukun
Secretary, Education Rights Campaign (ERC), Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile-Ife.
Against the band-wagon of the background laid by the Student leaders who have taken to the airwaves to applaud the 2016 budgetary allocation for the education sector, the allocation still remains lower than that of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. These previous budgets were not also proportionate to the needs of the sector in those years, as none of them exceeded eleven percent, against the 26 percent bench-mark recommendation of the United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for developing countries. For a recommendation that, reportedly, countries like Ivory Coast and Senegal have met and gone beyond, it is most appalling that the most populated country, the biggest economy and the largest exporter of crude-oil in Africa is still yet to meet it.
From N306.3bn in 2011, to N400.15bn in 2012, to N426.53bn in 2013, to N493bn in 2014, to 492bn in 2015, to N369bn in 2016, Nigeria’s most important sector remains underfunded. While this budget is for the federal level alone, it is still less than adequate for the essential development needed in this sector. At this crucial time in our history, the education allocation remains the lowest since 2011, in terms of amount. The years in between (with their ‘higher’ allocations) witnessed fee hikes in almost all Federal tertiary institutions in Nigeria and the ensuing resistance of students to these increments led to shutdown of some schools. Year 2013 especially, was characterized with ASUU’s strike (which lasted for about six months) to demand for better funding for universities and their unpaid allowances which they earned and deserved. Even after those years, our tertiary institutions still have empty laboratories, absence of residential and lecture halls, poor living conditions, poor security and healthcare for students. In fact, May to September, 2015 alone featured the death of at least four undergraduates due to the lassitude of health workers many of whom are overworked and absence of facilities.
With over ten million out-of-school children, Nigeria needs to expend this fund on 40 federal universities, 21 federal polytechnics, 22 federal colleges of education and 104 unity colleges, summing up to 187 institutions. One would then be prompted to ask how soon the whole of the education sector will get its change.
At the same time, the federal government has a proposal in the budget to employ and train 500, 000 graduates as teachers. Given the alarming teacher: student ratio in the country, one cannot but welcome this initiative. Actually for a long time now, the Education Rights Campaign (ERC), the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) and many other organizations have been calling for radical actions to be taken to tackle the manpower deficit in the secondary and primary levels of education. However given the way the initiative is couched and the capitalist character of the Buhari government, even this policy raises more questions than answers. For instance, given the shortage in physical infrastructures like classrooms, laboratories, libraries and even staff rooms in public primary and secondary schools across the country today, exactly what plans does the government have to provide all of the essential facilities that this 500, 000 teachers require to work? Secondly, is this going to be permanent employment based on civil service rules and good condition of service or is it going to be modeled after the slave labour scheme now popular in APC-states of Osun and Oyo states where graduates are made to do menial tasks for monthly pittance?
While the excuse of corruption during the last administration in the sector have been given for the past inefficient and unaccountable expenses – in an attempt to cover the underfunding up, this administration is yet to place on trial or convict any past corrupt University officials since over seven months of its inception. This prevails under a climate where the probing of Vice-chancellors is being proposed by Students, for example in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU).
It is more aggravating that the present government and its representatives keep chorusing the IGR drive with every opportunity they get, in an attempt to drown out the voice of Nigerian students demanding free education. This is being perpetrated under a climate of exorbitant fees as education is being priced out of the reach of the children of workers and poor. For example, the University of Lagos (Nigeria’s second best) charges its fresh students above N55,000 and OAU charges close to N100,000, in a country where the N18,000 minimum wage is under the attack of non-payment, payment of half salaries and threats of reduction. These school fees, which are the basic IGR, have not led to any improvement in quality over time. This is why a university at the heart of the country like UNIABUJA, still continues to lag in quality of education. In fact, this university that suffered de-accreditation of an engineering course some years ago has halted admission into her law faculty over issues around accreditation of the law programme.
Consequent of these backward policies, Nigeria’s best university has a backward position in Africa’s ranking, let alone world ranking. The best university in Africa, the University of Capetown, is based in South-Africa; a country with four of its universities within the best five in Africa and seven of its universities within the best ten in Africa, while Egyptian universities occupy the remaining three positions. As ground-breaking as South Africa’s statistics might sound, their government had to reverse a fee-increment policy recently after students took to the streets in the #FEEMUSTFALL campaign. Their demands also touched on better living conditions and better quality of education, even though their government has reportedly met the 26 percent UNESCO recommendation. This proves that Nigeria’s target has to go beyond the South African example, if we are going to make any difference. More than this however, the example of South Africa also shows that on the basis of capitalism and the prevailing undemocratic running of schools, even if Nigeria is able to allocate 26 percent of its budget to education, it would not automatically lead to fundamental improvement in quality or ensure affordable education. This is why the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) calls for provision of free and functional education at all levels and democratic running of schools and academic institutions by elected representatives of student and staff unions. Together with this, ERC activists are also involved in campaigns and struggles for the building of a socialist alternative to capitalism.
With the aim of revival of the economy, Nigeria needs to fund the education sector to provide human capital to develop other sectors of the economy. How can Nigeria become one of the best 20 economies in the world by 2020, if her best university for five years running is the 25th in Africa and the 2004th in the world? (Webometrics statistics, Jan. 2016). Education has to be free, accessible and quality to revive the economy. Trained hands are needed in the power sector, works sector, the ICT sector, etc, if Nigeria will survive this economic mess. However, on the basis of capitalism it will be impossible to achieve this goal.
The solution to the mass illiteracy in Nigeria is not in the market-oriented approach with which capitalist and neo-liberal policy-makers proffer solutions. It is not in the privatization or commercialization of the sector. It is in the policies of free, quality and functional public education at all levels. Meanwhile, these kinds of policies can only thrive under a workers and poor people’s government where the economy is publicly owned and democratically managed and where the rights of students and staff to form independent democratic unions are respected and the affairs of the institutions are managed by elected representatives of all stake-holders of such institutions.
Nigerian students must not leave the banner of these demands in the hand of students’ unions and National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) bureaucrats who do not only bureaucratize unions that are supposed to be democratic, but also use their offices as opportunities to lobby and propagandize for heartless politicians in exchange for money. While striving to reclaim NANS, students and activists must therefore organize independent platforms to defend their interest and also democratize their unions out of the hands of political jobbers. This is in order to use it as a platform around which the anti-commercialization campaign that calls for adequate funding and democratic control of education sector can be built. It is only by doing this, that the interference of political office holders, management of institutions, and cultist groups will stop infringing on the independence and the virility of Student Unionism.