Minister of Education Dr Sam Egwu deserves commendation for the roadmap for the Nigerian education sector, which he presented recently to the National Stakeholders' Forum. No one doubts that the country's education sector is in a sorry state, and deserves urgent fixing. The quality of education has declined so much that many of the graduates produced by the nation's tertiary institutions are simply unemployable. Teachers' morale is also at an all-time low, and like most civil servants, they have to moonlight in order to survive. The sector remains grossly under-funded and basic school necessities like laboratories and well-equipped libraries are simply not there. Lecturers in universities and other tertiary institutions are routinely accused of corruption and such unprofessional conducts like trading sex and money for marks. Dr Egwu's education roadmap is therefore timely.
There are four components of this roadmap: Access and Equity, Quality Assurance, Technical and Vocational Education and Training and Funding. The document outlines improvement and turn-around strategies for each of the sub sectors of education namely basic, post-basic and tertiary. It acknowledges it was not the first serious attempt to reform the sector but that the elephant in the room with past efforts has been with implementation. For this, the roadmap rightly places a lot of emphasis on implementation.
While unveiling the plan the Minister was quoted as saying that the "process of charting the roadmap began with a comprehensive review of previous efforts undertaken by past administrations in order to learn from themâ¦ I believe in building upon what is already in place without reinventing the wheel. Let me take this opportunity to commend the efforts of my predecessors as we found extensive documentation of all their hard work and efforts." (This Day, March 31 2009).
It is very refreshing to see a Minister depart from the usual tendency to demonise one's predecessor in office. We are much more used to a Minister or Governor announcing his or her arrival in office with a concomitant dismantling of the programmes initiated by his or her predecessor. Too often the incumbent acts as if his or her reputation would be enhanced only by undermining the reputation and programmes of his/her predecessor in office. When was the last time we heard a government official say a positive thing about his or her predecessor?
Despite the apparent deliberateness with which the roadmap was formulated, and its departure from the âpull-down-my-predecessor' syndrome, the roadmap faces a number of big hurdles â some from its design and others from environmental factors.
One, at the level of vision, the roadmap seems to divorce the problems in the education sector from the general problems of underdevelopment. Some of the problems it correctly identified with the sector such as funding, access and quality are in fact symptoms of an underdeveloped economy, not the underlying causes of the problems with the education sector. It is unlikely that the reform will succeed in isolation of the other sectors of the economy to which the education sector is linked. How for instance can quality be improved if wage levels in the sector are insufficient for the educators to live on such that moonlighting is generally accepted as a necessary supplement? Or how can you create enthusiasm among pupils if they necessarily have to spend most of their time outside school helping out with the family's petty trading? How can you encourage effective learning and studentship in tertiary institutions if there are armies of unemployed and underemployed graduates roaming the streets, forlorn, and uninspiring to any one?
Two, at the level of design, the roadmap plans to use a ârepresentative' sample of schools and institutions across the country as demonstration projects. The assumption here is that what works in the representative sample will also work in similar schools and institutions across the country. Unfortunately this assumption could be erroneous because of the likely biases in the selection of the samples, including the need to âreflect the federal character'. This is likely to be compounded by problems posed by the differences in social, class, cultural, spatial and historical access to education among the different geographical areas of the country. Will the performance of samples from say Ikoyi, Lagos, and highbrow areas in say Abuja be representative of the likely performance of schools, say in remote rural areas of the country?
Three, while presenting the roadmap, the Minister was also quoted as saying: "I have proposed reinstating an assessment at the end of the sixth year so as not to pass students on who have not mastered the requisite basic skills at the primary level."
According to him, the total dependence on continuous assessment to promote pupils "is not helping us. It only helps to produce more illiterates." The Minister's stance on this unfortunately appears to be a retrogressive step that could end up undermining some of the objectives of the roadmap. Obviously if examinations were to be a good way of producing excellence, then the quality of our higher education, where examination is more of a way of life, wouldn't be in such a parlous state. The world is increasingly moving away from the era where children are made to repeat classes because they failed examinations or judged too harshly by examinations. Continuous assessment ensures that children's various abilities are encouraged rather than condemned and that they are allowed to develop according to their various rhythms without being made to feel inferior to their faster-paced age mates.
Four, omitted in the reform is the unnecessarily long number of years spent in pursuing some degree and diploma programmes in Nigeria. Why should it take six years to produce a law graduate and five years to produce an engineering graduate in Nigeria while it takes only three years or less to produce similar graduates in most other countries? What is the sub-text here? That Nigerians are slow learners? Unfortunately in an increasingly competitive international labour market where age is a big issue, Nigerian graduates are being unnecessarily disadvantaged. The roadmap should in fact have considered the introduction of conversion programmes as we have in many countries. In the UK for instance, a non-graduate in law who wants to become a lawyer can opt to do a one year conversion programme in law and will be deemed to have satisfied the academic stage of legal training if he successfully completes such a programme. In Nigeria such a graduate will be required to spend another four to five years.
Given the above therefore, while the roadmap is a bold step, what the country perhaps needs is a re-invention of its education system.