From his very first day at school, the Nigerian student realizes just how important first position is. The person who recites ABCs the best wins the teacher's favour, and the best math student becomes head boy. The struggle to get into the higher institution is soon overtaken by the fight to graduate with a first class degree or a second class upper. Just when these 'outstanding' grades do nothing to stand them out in the world of work, many graduates troop to Post-graduate schools within and outside the country for the added advantage.
However, if last year's Dangote situation where 6 PhD holders and 704 Masters Degree holders applied to be truck drivers at the Dangote group is anything to go by, then one is left to ponder on the continued craze for higher certificates.
In the quest for answers, who better to ask than Nigerians pursuing post graduate programmes? "The Nigerian situation is operation 'show your certificate' and many jobs seekers are playing along," said Tunde Adejumo, an executive in a manufacturing industry who is pursuing a Masters degree in Public Administration.
"It is common knowledge now that the first degree has been lowered to the status of the secondary school certificate," he said, "bachelors' degree holders are turning out in their numbers, so we that are already in the labour market have to do something to stand out."
Gozie Phillip is another post graduate student who feels that he must protect his job by staying in academic shape; an Estate Surveyor pursing a Masters degree in Facility Management, he said: "I'm doing my Masters degree to upgrade myself at my place of work. I have a BSc., but so do the new employees at my place of work. It will seem as if we are on the same level, and that could be quite threatening to my employment status."
Adding, he said: "When I'm done with my Masters degree, I'd be qualified to get a better paying job. That is just the way our society it, the more the degrees, the better the opportunities. In some aspects, what I'm learning is somewhat relevant to my job, but it is the certificate that is more important to me." Esther Elueme, an M.Sc. student of Mass Communication represents the view of millions of Nigerian graduates that getting a Masters degree will improve her chances of getting a job.
"Considering the economic situation in the country right now where you have massive unemployment statistics, one sees having a Masters Degree as a strategic step towards getting a job. Most jobs that I've tried applying to online have as their requirements a masters degree as an added advantage. It seems like they are telling you that if you don't have that added qualification, you will most likely not be shortlisted for an interview or chosen for the job. I think a time is coming when perhaps more than Masters degree will be the minimum qualification for getting a good job. The trend is just to get as many degrees as possible."
According to Prof. Charles Ogbulogo, the Dean of the school of post graduate studies Covenant University, "the reason for seeker a post graduate degree should not just be job placement. It should be about expanding the frontiers of knowledge and research. During the first degree the emphasis is on how familiar students are with the structure of knowledge in an area, during the Masters degree, we focus on how familiar students are with trends and literature in the field, and the Doctorate programme is the time to make your own contribution to learning. It is just a pity that the typical Nigerian sees a higher degree as a meal ticket.
With seemingly better job opportunities for people with higher degrees outside the country, it is fast becoming a cliché for Nigerian analysts to scream 'brain-drain', but for the thousands of educated elites who find the greener pastures they seek outside the country, it is a 'smart move.'
The importance of higher certificates seems to be important to already educated Nigerians home and abroad as according to a recent report by the Houston Chronicle,immigrants have the highest levels of education in Houston and in the United States of America in general, surpassing whites and Asians, according to a Census data bolstered by an analysis of 13 annual Houston-area surveys, the reports.
According to a 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, 17 per cent of all Nigerians in the US hold a Master's degree, four per cent hold a doctorate and 37 per cent have a bachelor's degree. In comparison, eight per cent of the white population in the U.S. hold a Master's degrees, one per cent hold a doctorate and 19 per cent have a bachelor's degrees.
Nkechi Udoh, who is pursuing a Masters degree in Sociology says that this is her second Masters degree. Her words: "I'm doing this primarily because I want to go into the academics, and then also for the usual reason. Everybody needs better paying conditions, so if earning more degrees will provide that, why not? The way everybody is going now, there is so much emphasis on paper qualifications in our country and everyone is rushing to get post graduate degree because that is what employers are looking for.
It is a sad situation for our society because what happens is that everybody goes to get a post graduate degree whether they want to or not all because employers are asking. A lot of people are now going to get additional degrees regardless of their interests, and it is sad because their interests are what they will excel at in the long run. A lot of interests are jettisoned just for paper qualifications because one has to survive. "
Getting "as many degrees as possible" might not be the answer to the 23.9% unemployment rate that this country is faced with. However, coupled with this tragedy is the imbalance in the education sector with 24 million children attending primary school, 6.5 million at the secondary level and only 2.4 million at the tertiary level. While experts, with good reason of course, are calling for the expansion of the tertiary education system, one must not fail to ask: "If their graduate cohorts are jobless or are fighting for semi skilled jobs, what then is the need for certificates to gather dust?