Even in the silly season, the revelation by the Federal Minister of Education, Sam Egwu that about N22.6 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) money lies unutilized in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is mind boggling.
It is well known that the nation's universities have failed dismally to rank amongst the top 50 in rankings of top universities in Africa. The embarrassing ratings constitute a damaging indictment and expose the rot into which the nation's tertiary institutions have sunk. Time was, if we may be allowed to indulge in nostalgia, when the opposite was the case. Three to four decades ago, some Nigerian universities actually led the pack in the region, and were widely admired.
We should, however, not retreat into self-pity and despair, and the question is, what is to be done? What is not to be done is to place ETF funds in the vault of the CBN when they are urgently needed to rebuild our tertiary institutions. The funds available to the ETF will always constitute just a drop in the ocean of needs. Therefore it is akin to a criminal abdication of responsibility to underutilize them. That monies allocated for the development of various schools and institutions have accumulated over three years suggests a terrible dysfunction.
The scenario is dismal. Those yet to access the fund include 25 out of 57 universities, 24 out of 50 polytechnics, 14 out of 60 colleges of education and 11 of 61 monotechnics. The funds are not piddling either. For example, the university of Abuja is yet to access N232.25 million, Lagos State University - N222 million, Delta State University - N207 million, and so the dreary list goes on. Dr. Egwu has blamed most of the problems confronting the educational sector on lack of political will and inadequate funding. In making all the right noises, he has urged those lagging behind to rise up to the challenges. There is need, however, to dig deeper and go beyond the mouthing of good intentions.
It is worrying that the institutions, or at least some of them, have been claiming that the conditions attached to ETF financing are too stringent. This is utterly untenable and is a reflection that our tertiary institutions are not immune from the Nigerian disease. Public funds must be disbursed with great care, and in compliance with due process. In addition it is perfectly in order to ask for funds accessed in the past to be rigorously accounted for and retired. There must a managerial malfunction in the internal control systems of our institutions for there to be 'excess funds' and lack of accountability. It is obvious that the old bugbear of corruption has raised its ugly head in this matter.
Amidst their glaring inadequacies, it is apparent that the institutions clearly have a lackadaisical attitude towards refurbishing their dilapidated infrastructures and achieving often stated goals. On his part, the Minister of Education should stop playing to the gallery. An enquiry should be conducted into the capital votes and finances of the tertiary institutions. Questions must be answered in relation to the strength of the internal (financial) controls of the institutions; there is also need to know about the overall depth of managerial capacity required to utilize and administer the fund. A monitoring and appraisal team or system should be set up to help those institutions lagging behind, to access the fund.
The absence of governing councils, or the government's tardiness in constituting them for institutions, must have been debilitating to some in their efforts to access ETF financing. Besides, it has allowed some heads of institutions to act as military-type sole administrators. A recurrence of this must be blocked.
That such huge funds have remained unutilized in a system crying for urgent improvements is regrettable and unedifying. It indicates that the nation is not taking the acquisition of skills and knowledge seriously. This is unacceptable in a globalised world founded on a knowledge-based economy in which the continuous acquisition and upgrading of skills decides who is ahead. Our tertiary institutions are woefully underfunded, and something has to be done to substantially increase the level of funding. However, the atmosphere for this will not be created until the present self-defeating lackadaisical attitude of tertiary institution managers is corrected.