For many parents and stakeholders in the education sector, the public notice by the National Examination Council (NECO) may well be the start of another unending controversy over who eventually makes it onto the final admission list, and from what region of the country.
Not that the whining is an unnecessary fuss by some losers who failed in their bid to secure a slot in the unity arrangements exactly. The griping has always been that the admission policy into those federal colleges is skewed in favour of the North even though the preliminary intent of the unity colleges is to foster unity among Nigeria's over 300 ethnic nationalities.
To keep the hope of getting on the admission list alive, the cut-off mark system requires candidates from states in the South-East and South-West to score significantly higher marks than their counterparts from the North, or those states dubbed educationally disadvantaged.
In other words, a pupil from the South seeking admission into any of the unity schools must score at least 140 points out of a possible 300 to stand a chance of securing admission. But a candidate from the North doesn't need to stress himself as such in order to be considered for admission.
The cut-off mark for a male pupil from Yobe State in the 2018/2019 session is two. It is four points for the male candidate from Zamfara while the male candidate from Taraba State only needs three points out of 300 to be a proud student of any of the federal government colleges he so chooses. But the minimum score is 139 for any male or female pupil from Anambra State nursing the hope of getting place in a unity college.
The full list of cut-off marks for the 36 states and FCT in the 2018 academic session will perplex any optimist in the unity arrangement actually. Abia 130; Adamawa 62; Akwa-Ibom 123; Anambra 139; Bauchi 35; Bayelsa 72; Benue 111; Borno 45; Cross River 97; Delta 131; Ebonyi 112; Edo 127; Ekiti 119; Enugu 134; Gombe 58; Imo 138; Jigawa 44; Kaduna 91; Kano 67; Katsina 60; Kebbi 9 (male) 20 (female); Kogi 119; Kwara 123; Lagos 133; Nasarawa 58; Niger 93; Ogun 131; Ondo 126; Osun 127; Oyo 127; Plateau 97; Rivers 118; Sokoto 9 (male) 13 (female); Taraba 3 (male) 11 (female); Yobe 2 (male) 27 (female); Zamfara 4 (male) 2 (female) and FCT Abuja 90.
Yet Sonny Echono, Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Education, likes to insist that the selection employed the national merit criteria of 60 per cent, with a cut-off score of 146 and above and equality of state of 30 per cent of the colleges' carrying capacity.
From the records, registrations for the 2018 Common Entrance Examinations indicates that a total of 71, 294 young minds sat for the examination, a little less than the 81,930 that sat for the same entrance examination in 2017.
Lagos State came top of the registration list with 24,465 candidates, same as in 2017, while the Federal Capital Territory came next with 7, 699 candidates and Rivers State with 4,810 candidates. Zamfara State, however, had 28 candidates; Kebbi registered 50 pupils, while Taraba had 95 candidates.
Yet, in the spirit of diversity than unity, there are only 12 Unity Schools in the entire South-East, 18 in the South-West and 16 in the South-South where more than 65 percent of candidates are said to have come from. North-East has 15 schools; North Central has 24 while North-West has a total of 18 federal government colleges.
As if that is not enough undue disadvantage yet, stakeholders have also questioned why candidates from the South do not get a slot in those northern unity colleges that do not get up to their carrying capacity.
No matter how much they try to explain the necessity of this wide disparity in cut-off marks and catchment areas, the rationale has always come out hollow and trite to a crowd of Nigerians.
Prof. AbdulRashid Garba, the Registrar, National Examination Council (NECO) during the National Common Entrance Examination (NCEE) in Abuja in 2015 said the score alone does not determine whether or not a child is admitted. The NECO boss told newsmen that in every state, ranking is done.
He argued: "If you want to admit 6,000 students in a state, for instance, then you rank from the score of the first person to where the score of the 6,000th person stops and that becomes the cut-off mark.
"Performances vary from state to state; you hear parents say I am from so-and-so state and my child scores high marks but was not admitted but another child from another state was admitted."
The release of another discriminatory admission cut-off mark by the Ministry of Education for the 2018/2019 admission into the unity schools forced the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, to pillory the Federal Ministry of Education for continuing in its discriminatory cut-off point in federal government colleges in Nigeria.
In a statement in April 2018, the group moaned that under the guise of educationally disadvantaged areas, some states are unduly favoured with very low cut-off marks while others have unacceptably high cut- off points.
The statement read: "For instance, whereas Abia State has 65 points for male and female, some states in the North have as low as seven points for female and 10 points for male. This cannot continue. And funny enough, when products of this unjust system graduate, the same so-called educationally disadvantaged specie will get jobs and preferential treatment before his 'advantaged' colleague.
"This is robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is the highest degree of in-built terror against some people in Nigeria and it must stop. It has got to stop. This favoritism must stop if we want to continue as one nation."
In July 2018, Randolph Iwo Oruene Brown, representing Degema/Bonny Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, challenged the House Committee on Basic Education and Services to investigate the varied cut-off marks for admission into unity schools in northern states, consequent upon the decision of the NCEEB Board to peg 65 percent cut-off mark for students from South-East, while it reduced that of Zamfara State in the North-West to 14 percent and 12 percent for male and female respectively.
The lawmaker worried that if the trend was not reversed by the board, the examination body would lose its credibility. But more important, the lawmaker told the House that the uneven cut-off marks will erode standards in the unity school admission process and further jeopardise the nation's already bastardised educational system.
"I am worried that some students have to meet a cut-off mark of 65 percent from Abia State and in Zamfara, the males have cut-off mark of 14 percent while their female counterparts have 12 percent cut-off marks. This portends danger and discrimination as one expects them to end up in the same university and to study the same course," he stated.
In 2013, Olisa Agbakoba, human rights lawyer and former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), in a suit numbered FHC/L/CS/1358/2013, against the Attorney General of the Federation and the Federal Ministry of Education, at a Federal High Court in Lagos challenged the inequality in admission processes into federal government colleges.
The human rights lawyer had stated in his supporting application that since the inception of the unity schools, the Federal Government has maintained great disparity in admission requirements for candidates wishing to be admitted into them.
He noted, in particular, that the Federal Government prescribes different cut-off marks for different states based on candidates' gender and state of origin.
Based on the foregoing, Agbakoba prayed the court for among other things: 1) A declaration that the administrative acts of the Federal Government and Education Minister, which prescribe and apply different cut-off marks for candidates seeking admission into Federal Government colleges based on gender, ethnicity, states of origin are discriminatory; 2) An order directing the Minister and Federal Government to apply uniform admission requirements, especially cut-off marks to all candidates seeking admission in Federal Government colleges; 3) An order of perpetual injunction restraining the minister and Federal Government from further acts of discrimination.
In its judgment of November 17, 2014, the court declared that the application of different cut-off marks based on the states of origin and gender violates the candidates' fundamental rights to freedom from discrimination as guaranteed by Section 42(1) of 1999 Constitution in Chapter 4, section 42, which relates to the right to freedom from discrimination.
Justice John Tsoho, therefore, ordered the federal government and the minister of education to apply uniform cut-off marks to all candidates seeking admission into Federal Government colleges, irrespective of their states of origin. And by that order, the court abolished outright discriminatory admission policy into the unity schools.
Some five years after the unflattering verdict, the Federal Government and the education minister have yet to adhere to the court ruling. The government has not deemed it fit to direct the minister to comply and the latter has not made any attempt to present a memo to the Federal Government on the need to obey the court's order.
This is a sad reminder that the observation of the rule of law can be discriminatory in Nigeria, depending on the interest and actors affected.
Of course, disgruntled parents and stakeholders in the education sector have continued to argue that where the rule of law exists indeed, both the Federal Government and the minister of education would have no choice but to abide by the court ruling.
On whether the term "Unity Schools" have served its purpose of achieving integration among the diverse ethnic groups in the society, Agbakoba said that the first set of unity schools in the country, had striven to achieve a measure of unity among the diverse ethnic groups.
He, however, noted with disappointment, that the infiltration of discrimination among Nigerians is now responsible for polarising citizens along ethnic lines.
For many stakeholders in the education sector, the spin-offs of a refusal to rethink the unity schools admission policy are dire. For one, diminishing interest from the public is setting in gradually. So it didn't come as a shocker recently when the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, expressed government's concerns over the dwindling enrolment of candidates for the NCEE, for admission into unity schools.
Recently, the minister was scandalised that 71,294 candidates registered for the 2018 examination as against the 80,421 that sat for the examination in 2017. But the declining interest of parents in the country's Federal Government colleges did not just start with the 2018 miserable enrolment.
The figures for 2018 and 2017 pale in significance when placed side by side with registration for 2016 during which 89,231 candidates sat for the examination and 87,000 for 2015.
Although far more than the 25,000 cumulative carrying capacity of the entire unity schools across the country, still it is huge enough reason to suspect a situation in which, for instance, the 28 candidates that wrote the NCEE from Zamfara State would be offered admission, even when some of them fail the examination.
It could not have been otherwise really. Stakeholders have all along wondered why parents should continue to jostle unnecessarily for a space in unity schools as was the case, where for years on end, the 104 colleges did not post any pace-setting academic records, especially if those who gain admission to the schools continue to flunk the minimum academic requirements and capacity to proceed to a tertiary institution.
And the argument has always been that, if the students could not make it to tertiary institutions after their six years sojourn in the unity colleges, how then will they be able to create the desired ethnic unification impact that impelled the establishment of the unity schools in the first place?
The litany of concerns is not exactly limp after all. In 2016, four federal government colleges did not produce a single candidate that scored five credits, including the compulsory English Language and Mathematics needed to gain admission into a tertiary institution.
Adamu likes to insist that it is the business of state governments, parents, heads of schools and relevant interest groups to take steps to remedy the situation. But the minister may need to answer the critical question on the lips of every concerned Nigerian: how would there be outstanding performance when merit is the least of the considerations in the admission process? Or more appropriate, the minister must first show to Nigerians, the unity that binds ethnic nationalities together with unity schools in the country.
Criticism against the policy also stems from the fact that it discriminates based on gender, subtly suggesting that one gender is incapable of matching the intellectual ability of the other.
Precursors to the 'Unity Schools' of today were the King's College and Queen's College established in 1909 and 1927 respectively, by the British when Nigeria was still a colony.
Three new ones were established in Warri, Sokoto and Enugu in 1966. It was during the administration of General Yakubu Gowon in 1973 that a decision was taken to spread the idea by establishing unity schools in all the 12 states that existed then.
After the brutal Civil War, Nigerian rulers felt a need to bond the disparate ethnic groups so the next set of unity schools were established in the North, South, West and East.
The 30 per cent admitted on merit can gain admission into the colleges of their choice, irrespective of their states of origin if they excel well above the cut-off mark of their states.
The state quota criterion requires the colleges to select 30 per cent of their candidates from each state of the federation; while the environment criterion is reserved for candidates from the host state/community of the college. The 10 per cent criterion is based on exigencies.
However years of neglect soon led to the enthronement of mediocrity, as merit, which used to dictate admissions took the back seat. This progressed into official policy that allows for pupils from some states to get into the schools with his two measly points.
The admission criterion that mandates admission from every state is an exception rather than the norm. Parents favour unity schools nearby to enrol their children and this led to a situation where in some schools especially in southern parts of Nigeria admission quotas are over-subscribed and some states have high numbers of unused slots.
Many people have expressed discontent over this situation and it continues to generate heated debates year in, year out.
In 2013, Nigeria's lower legislative chamber, the House of Representatives, investigated the discriminatory cut-off marks for admissions into Federal Government Colleges (FGCs) to ascertain if truly some states are actually educationally disadvantaged.
Afam Ogene, who represented Anambra State in the House then during a plenary told his colleagues that to gain admission into the unity schools, the cut-off mark system requires candidates from South-East, South-West states to score significantly higher marks than their counterparts from the North or those states tagged "educationally-less-developed states (ELDS) in the NCEE conducted by NECO.
However this move did not gain much traction as several people both in the National Assembly and outside say the disparity is exaggerated. Administrators in some unity schools say only a negligible number of students are admitted from educationally less developed states. But others differ.
For Prof. Ngozi Osarenren, the disparity in the admission criteria between the south and their northern counterparts showed that government is merely paying lip service to qualitative education.
Osarenren who is the Head of Department of Educational Foundation, University of Lagos (UNILAG) maintained that if the students regardless of their states were given sound knowledge, they would effectively compete among themselves.
She insisted that the admission policy has only succeeded in sowing a seed of discord between parents and children from the two regions.
"Every child must be treated well, if you admit a child with a lower score, how would such a child compete equally with others? The disparity in the admission criteria to the 104 unity schools in the country showed that the government is merely paying lip service to qualitative education. If the students are adequately prepared, they can compete effectively with their counterparts from other states. Since education is on the concurrent list, government at the states and federal levels should take the sector as a priority. They must invest in human capital development, which is key to economic growth.
"Facilities and infrastructure should be put in place to ensure that our children get the best. If two friends from two different states scored 25 and 100 and the one with the lower mark is offered admission, what do you think has been done to the psyche of the other child? Psychologically, such a child would believe we are not equal.
A parent who has a child in one of the unity schools in the south, Mrs Aderonke Adejumo said the policy was gradually 'killing' the education sector and must be stopped in the interest of our future.
She lamented that the policy has a lot to do with the federal character principle, which has never done the country any good. "It is already destroying the sector. With the lower mark for northern students, how many of them are excelling? The problem is not just about lowering standard; they don't have the intellectual know-how to run this course. It is really depriving brilliant students from the south the opportunity to achieve their goal. Let every student regardless of state be on the same pedestal and compete equally."
Adejumo called on northern governors to pay greater attention to the Almajiri schools created by former President Goodluck Jonathan to build quality education in the region.
On his part, an educationist, Nelson Ayodele who described the disparity as "too wide" said government must do something to enhance the IQ level of children from the northern states.
Ayodele, the Chief Executive Officer of Standard Mandate International (SMI) also canvassed the deployment of special teachers to the region to give the children extra tutorials.
"Why would a child with the same brain be disadvantaged over another? It could be as a result of the environment and system they pass through. Why is education so backward in the north? Why are children from the northern region not learning well?"
In Nigeria, lowering standards and compromising excellence have not improved the educational system nor will a policy that deliberately promotes mediocrity, education experts, who are more concerned about quality than quantity, warn.