New Nigerian government aims to confront education challenges

Nigeria derives 70% of its government revenue from crude oil sales and so the collapse of world oil prices over the past year is a significant challenge – especially when coupled with ongoing national security concerns. Yet with a rapidly expanding middle class, and total tertiary enrolment projected to double by 2024, the country remains a key emerging market for international education.

The landscape in 2015

In 2015, Nigeria’s universities could admit only about 520,000 of the 1,735,720 students that sat for the country’s national entrance exam, the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination or UTME. One of the country’s most popular institutions, the University of Ilorin, admitted only 12,000 of the 105,000 candidates that applied for 2014/15.

These figures starkly illustrate why Nigerian youth who have the means often leave the country in search of education. In fact, UNESCO reports that more than 50,000 studied abroad in 2012.

Most of these students choose the UK and the US. Nigerian student enrolment in the latter destination has increased more than 25% in the past five years, with 7,921 Nigerians studying in America in 2013/14. Other top destinations for Nigerian students include Ghana, Malaysia, Canada, and South Africa. (ICEF Monitor has reported on Nigerian mobility previously, including a comprehensive market overview with best practices for education marketers, and those earlier items are recommended for readers who would like additional background on this important market.)

In order to address the problem of too-few university places at home, last year Nigeria’s National Universities Commission (NUC) announced the creation of nine private universities. The news was welcomed in some quarters, however critics pointed out that some existing institutions of higher education were sub-standard, with at least eight under investigation, and one – the Free University of Nigeria – deemed by authorities to be illegal.

Professor Michael Adikwu, Vice Chancellor of the University of Abuja, explained in a June 2015 interview with the website Daily Trust that adding universities without addressing issues of quality in existing schools is likely to exacerbate rather than solve problems.

After a strong showing in the March 2015 national election, newly sworn-in President Muhammadu Buhari has vowed to improve instructor competence. As he stated recently in his election manifesto, “The era of one student type will give way to an all-learner type for our children and young people, as well as adults who want to return to the classroom to sharpen their skills, competencies, and sensibilities. This re-engineering of our education will be followed with a clearly thought-out and vigorous national inspection programme.”

Budget woes

Budget pressures, however, could yet be an obstacle to education reform. As of March 2015, price declines on the international oil market had sapped 28% of the national revenue. This would already have put President Buhari in the position of needing to reconsider budget priorities, but just a month after taking office his administration received another blow when transition committee chair Ahmed Joda revealed that the previous administration had left the country US$35.2 billion in debt.

Dealing with issues left by outgoing politicians is a recurring theme in Nigeria. The National Assembly, during a June session that took place on the last day of its tenure, hurried 46 last-minute bills through the legislature. Among those was a previously defeated amendment to the Tertiary Education Trust Fund Act that the country’s Independent Service Delivery Monitoring Group (ISDMG) has urged the President to reject.

The amendment seeks to revise the government’s definition of tertiary education. Institutions that qualify as tertiary under new guidelines would be eligible to receive funds from the trust. However, institutions such as colleges of Arabic and Islamic legal studies might find themselves excluded, a prospect that has triggered strong protests from the provosts of those schools. President Buhari, who hasn’t yet been in office for a full quarter, hasn’t indicated whether he will sign the amendment.

The education agenda

When President Buhari was on the campaign trail, among his many promises was to use up to 20% of the national budget for education, ensure a greater proportion of expenditure on universities, review the Universal Basic Education Act, and emphasise educational quality. He also said he would crack down on academic and credential fraud.

Other plans include establishing six or more new universities of science and technology with satellite campuses around the country. These universities would be equipped with new technologies in order to “attract and encourage small and medium-scale [technology] enterprises.” President Buhari also wants to establish technical colleges and vocational centres in each of the country’s 36 states, and establish several special needs education centres.

The President has also indicated his determination to maintain the National Universities Commission, Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, and other supervisory bodies; pursue non-discrimination policies at universities and polytechnics; enable private institutions of higher learning access to research funds and programmes that serve the national good; and push for private-sector participation in all levels of education.

This is an ambitious list indeed, and public scepticism about political promises is always simmering in Nigeria. Another challenge for the education sector resides in the northeast of the country, where the extremist group Boko Haram is based, and where last year they kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. President Buhari has made education a top priority, but has stated flatly that in the face of security issues it must come second.

Despite this, the President has brought one education-related proposal to the forefront. He says he will remove fuel subsidies that reduce the price of petrol for Nigerian drivers, and use the resulting savings on schools. Public resistance to the plan is high, however, because many Nigerians consider low gas prices one of the practical benefits of living in an oil-producing country.

A short honeymoon

Newly elected officials can expect to enjoy a honeymoon period, and in President Buhari’s favour is the fact that his election marked the first non-violent transfer of power since the country’s independence in 1960. An online monitoring site, the Buharimeter, lists 13 education promises. The scorecard on each of those currently reads “Not Rated” because the new administration has not been in office long enough to be properly judged.

But Nigerians will expect results soon. The President’s campaign slogan was a single word: “Change.” It was a promise to transform all of Nigerian society. How that promise will play out in the country’s education system remains to be seen.



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