8 April 2012

Nigeria: How Shall We Educate the Nation?


Last week I drew attention to this question of the loss of mission and the diminution of the enterprise of the Nigerian university. I pointed to the dire implications of "privatized" universities and university education, particularly in inadequate environments and limited structures, factors which lead to the production of ill-equipped, half-educated, and in fact dysfunctional university graduates.

The situation of the Nigerian university must cause us immediate pause to ask this question again, "how shall we educate the Nigerian?" I take this from a related question, "How shall we educate the African?" the title of an essay by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe published in 1934 in the Journal of the Royal African Society, but not certainly in restating what now seems to be quite obvious; the fact adumbrated in that essay, that there is no racial difference in mental capacity.

The premise of the Azikiwe article was to direct attention to the necessity of correcting a colonial policy on African education, and the opening up of the field to greater indigenous African participation and expansion. The end of colonialism, and the current era of postcolonial challenge, particularly in Nigeria, poses an entirely different set of problems and objectives in terms of workable education policies that should transform Africa, and in this particular case Nigeria, into a more highly productive and technically sufficient order.

What ought to be the critical principle in Nigerian education is generally to find that balance between qualitative and quantitative education, and of course between utility and aesthetics. What Nigeria needs is an overhaul of its policy framework on public education - at all levels, from early childhood education, to the primary, secondary and tertiary systems to reflect the critical mission of both social and industrial transformation.

Last week, Mr. Pius Anyim, Secretary to the Federal Government, announced at a fund-raising luncheon of the University of Jos, that the federal government was no longer in a position to fully fund the public universities. He prescribed for the universities a need to find private means of supplementing income.

The Secretary to the Federal Government's statement immediately drew a flurry of both criticism and re-interpretation. What does he mean, many Nigerians, have asked in their variousfora, by the government can no longer fund the universities? What a bloody shame for a country which pays gobs of money to indolent people to run one of the most expensive parliaments and executive offices in the world.

The universities ought to be the lifeblood of Nigeria's national life and Nigeria should look, particularly at Brazil, as an example of the ways a serious minded people invest in their universities and in its transformative capacities. Pius Anyim's comments was soon followed by another news report, last week, that the Federal government was intent now on overhauling the universities along the lines of the Anya Technical Committee report on Nigerian universities.

I hope the government will publish that report and a whitepaper also on the nature of its overhaul soon, but it ought to be clear, that any overhaul or reform that does not include the restructuring of the governance of the public universities to more democratic and transparent ends, the expansion of its infrastructure to meet contemporary global realities, and the activation of deeper levels of peer review and oversight will be quite meaningless.

From my own vantage point as a Professor in an American university (besides being a newspaper columnist, of course), and as a product of the two systems of education, I'll have to say that one of the greatest failures of the Nigerian public university system is its inability to change. The curricular remains the same; you have professors of English who have not read anything new in Nigerian, African, and other literature from other worlds, and who continue to recycle the same dated methods of paedagogy practiced since the 1970.

What you have in the humanities you have equally reflected in the Sciences, in engineering, in Law, in the social Sciences, and other fields - a desperate lack of innovation and a degrading of the pool of skills capable of conveying new ideas to a new generation. University administrations lack the kind of foresight and insight capable of matching the skills of their peers across the world. Vice-Chancellors were given extraordinary powers; faculty became mere appendages to a top-down system that began to overlook talent, collegiality, ideas, and productivity.

The environment for scholarship not only went to seeds; students became introduced to cultures of complacency and brutality. Faculty abused their power, demanding sex and money for grades; in their search for livelihood, they have become like Pope Leo X, avaricious distributors of academic benefices and indulgences, which has turned the Nigerian universities to the contemporary secular versions of the Avignon papacy under its own "Babylonian captivity."

Any reform that wishes to transform the Nigerian public universities into sites of serious knowledge-making, that will put them at par with the most serious-minded universities in the world, must begin a reassessment of the current capabilities of its faculties; have they published serious and respectable work in their fields? What have they published? Who has published them? Self-publication should not count.

But we must not only worry about productivity, we must worry equally about the ambience in which knowledge and inquiry is conducted. Are the students - particularly the vulnerable female students - protected from unwanted advances? Is there a culture of openness, freedom and mentorship that might permit the kind of open expression which liberates the universities from the clutches of intellectual tyranny?

Much of what I hear, from students of these universities in my various interviews with them, indicate the desire of a young generation to learn, and to be exposed like their peers everywhere else in the world, to new and exciting skills and insight. These are brilliant young Nigerians; intelligent, and capable, if only they are given the grounds, to launch their generation to the stars.

But they also point to the limitations of their experiences in the universities: the lack of serious educators; the lack of facilities; the insecurity; the decline of the structures and culture of intellection - and yes indeed - the University is where we make cultured people; not just book worms. But it does seem that this is not the mission of the Nigerian university system.

We must begin to go back to the original conception of the University: to give a highly talented group a highly advanced education. Education policy must liberate the universities from the narrowness of their current worldviews; and yes, they must continue to be funded - and yes well-funded too, if they should meet with their goals in their current aspiration to be counted amongst the best in the world.

Nigerian universities must recruit new people from far and wide, for indeed, great universities must have all of humanity represented in it - it is called diversity. It models nature itself. It is important to remunerate and give the appropriate tools to the university professor in Nigeria, but we must begin to demand from them also, the value of their work.

In the end, I think the federal government must place higher regulations on the currentlicenseesand a moratorium on further licenses to private universities. Nigeria must concentrate a great effort to strengthening its current pool of publicly funded universities, expand their mission, and permit them space for innovation.

What Nigeria needs seriously to do is to expand the Polytechnics to absorb more candidates into the critical technical and commercial fields, and keep the universities open to meritorious talent and to higher research in all the fields. But far above all, we must begin a conversation of what to do with all those who have acquired these unusable degrees from Nigerian universities.

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