TEXT OF A LECTURE DELIVERED BY
GENERAL DR. YAKUBU GOWON, GCFR AT THE 2ND PERSONALITY LECTURE OF THE AFE BABALOLA UNIVERSITY, (ABUAD) ADO EKITI, EKITI STATE HELD ON FRIDAY, 21 JANUARY, 2011.

ALARMING DECLINE IN EDUCATION STANDARD IN NIGERIA: REVERSING IT AND MOVING FORWARD

PROTOCOL:

Introduction:
1.    I feel highly honoured to be here today, first, to associate with the vision of the founder of this institution, Aare Afe Babalola; secondly, to see firsthand the campus that so many people have spoken about so glowingly, not only in terms of the beauty of its physical structures but in the programme of work and studies and the constellation of first class brains that can compete anywhere in the world and, thirdly, to share experience on a specific subject matter – education – that has the capacity to advance or derail the Nigerian dream, depending on how it is handled.

What is in a name:
2.    What first struck me is the name of this University and its acronym, Afe Babalola University, abbreviated as ABUAD. On first impulse, I thought that Ahmadu Bello University – ABU – had relocated. Then it occurred to me that, for some reason, the Zaria-based school – unlike its other counterparts such as the University of Lagos (Unilag) or Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU/Great Ife) – had never made so much noise about its birthplace, as it were, otherwise it would have been ABUS (Samaru), Zaria (which, today, would easily have become confused with Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory). On deeper reflection, however, I recall Aare Afe Babalola as being passionate about a number of things, notably: his name, his love of education, his practice of the law and his home town, Ado Ekiti, though not necessarily in that order. Although a great poet did write that a rose, by whatever name it is called, smells just as nice, I think it is safe to say that Aare Afe Babalola prefers his own rose to be properly recognised as it is called: Afe Babalola, an illustrious son of Ado Ekiti. This being so, I believe that one need not be clairvoyant to say that ABUAD, with the imprint of the Aare,  could, therefore, not have been anything but ABUAD.

First and future Impressions:
3.    Although I have only taken a brief site tour of the campus, I can say without equivocation that my brief glimpse of the facilities, Staff and Students as I drove round this campus leaves me or anyone for that matter in no doubt that the setting of this University is ‘superlative’ and ‘impressive’, with nothing of its kind that I have seen so far in the country or anywhere else. It has grown and will grow bigger than the dream of its founder in years to come. Whilst it might be too early to judge, given the fact that ABUAD is just in its second year, it is safe to assume that graduates of this institution will be great, if not as great as the founder.

4.    Since I received the kind invitation of Aare Afe Babalola to be here for this event, I have sought to acquire as much information about the institution as was possible. Perhaps, what I have found to be quite instructive is the vision that drives the founding of ABUAD, that is, it is “set to lead education reform in Nigeria by example.” As you can see, there is a correlation between ABUAD’s vision and the thrust of this presentation.

The Decline in Nigeria’s Education:
5.    Over the years, much has been said and written about the problems of Nigeria’s educational system, which is not only on a downward spiral in terms of quality but has, in a mind-boggling manner, virtually become totally dysfunctional. Today, it has become increasingly difficult to match content with practice. The other day, I read a newspaper account of how a lawyer opted to set up a group of schools after he asked a junior in his chambers why an assignment was not executed . The senior was reportedly thrown completely off balance when his junior retorted that he ‘forgetted’. If the lawyer can ‘forgetted’, need we bother asking about the quality of legal counsel that the ‘learned’ fellow will dispense to his clients? The sum of what I am saying is that our system of education has become too suspect.

6.     The incident that I have just related is not too different from an experience and similar others that set me thinking about the sorry state of education in Nigeria. A couple of months back, I was at my alma mater, Barewa College, where the school Principal made a sad and sorry presentation of the school’s recent academic performance. I left the place an unhappy old student. The source of my displeasure was the school’s performance in the West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) in which, if I recall correctly now, only about 1.3% of the candidates that sat and wrote the examination met the minimum requirements (five credits, including English and Mathematics) for university placements. This is heart-breaking for a school that had always scored very high and highest percentage. Unhappily, this is not an isolated case. On the contrary, it is reflective of the woeful performance of our schools in public examinations, especially government controlled schools in the last five to ten years.

7.    The enormity of the problem at hand was succinctly captured by the recent announcement of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), the regional examination body, on the release of results of the 2010 November/December General Certificate of Education (GCE). A total of 310,077 candidates wrote the examinations. Out of this number, only 62,295 recorded five credits in their core subjects. The results of the May/June examinations were no better, as only 33,071 (25%) passed, out of 1,351,557. Candidates did not fare better in examinations conducted by the National Examinations Council (NECO) in which less than 250,000 candidates out of 1,113,177 passed the English Language examination.

8.    The above distressing statistics, which were culled from a Sunday Punch Editorial , and the first part of the subject matter of this discourse (Alarming Decline in the Standard of Education in Nigeria), I believe, capture the fears of parents, government and employers. The situation has not always been this bad. But things got progressively worse when societal values began to be eroded by crass materialism and public service became a launch pad for conspicuous consumption, as individuals helped themselves to the common wealth the way they would to food at a serve-yourself-dinner.

Cause for Concern – Teacher and Students:
9.    Wherever and whenever Nigerians discuss education, you can almost be certain that there would be many grounds of agreement, as such discussions will gravitate from the low quality of instruction imparted by today’s teachers who, unlike the ones we had in our days, are not too well-grounded in the art and science of their profession; to pupils whose basic worldviews have been corroded by warped social values and in an environment that is far from being conducive for learning. This, you will agree, is a major reason that a lot of our professionals today have what, at best, can be described as an artisan mentality: everything is all about money; we are long on promise and short on delivery. The sad part of it is that this mentality is nurtured from kindergarten schools, where available to tertiary institutions. The situation can be likened to the way an American soldier or any soldier would have described his tour of duty in Vietnam or any part of the globe: the unwilling, doing the needless for the ungrateful.

10.    But things have not always been this bad. Practically all of us here, at least those with grey hairs and genuine bald heads, not the young aerodynamic heads you see on our youth, speak of the ‘good old days’. Those were the days when neither the teacher nor the pupil was satisfied with anything less than 100% or high percentage of success in public or other examinations. Those were the days when students knew the meaning of hard work/studies or burning the midnight oil when and where allowed. Those were also the days when parents could not dare to think about purchasing question papers for their wards. Those really were days when schools could not contemplate becoming ‘special centres’ where all manner of malpractices are recorded in examination halls. Now, if we are agreed that the situation had not always been this bad, some of the logical questions to ask ourselves, as parents, students, officials of government or custodians of public morality, are: where did we go wrong? How did we allow our education to go that badly? We will need to undertake a historical excursion to situate the problem with a view to enunciating solutions that will help to reverse the downward slide in the quality of education in Nigeria.

Sharing Experience:
11.    As I said earlier, my presentation at this forum is going to be skewed more in favour of experience sharing than lecturing, for quite a number of you here seated have done more globally accepted research into the subject matter than I can hope to cover in a 45-minute discussion.

Some necessary Historical Background:
12.    When, for example, in the early 1970s my administration launched the Government Policy Control on Education and the taking over of schools and, later, the introduction of the Universal Primary Education (UPE) scheme in 1974, our overriding objective was to lay a sound foundation and fully and properly fund education at all levels, primary, secondary and tertiary, upon which we could build the future of our youth and, by extension, the future of our nation. Contrary to some reports at the time that no plans were made, plans were indeed put in place. The whole programme was meticulously planned and it dovetailed into the 3rd National Development Plan, 1975 – 80. But, yes, we had some initial challenges in respect of building infrastructures and equipping the new as well as the old schools. We also had the challenge of how to get the right quality and quantum of teachers to engender the success of the scheme. Both the States and the Federal Governments and later the Local Governments were committed in ensuring the provision and fulfilment of the programme, which was to be fully implemented in the National Development Plan, 1975 – 80.
13.    In respect of the provision of teachers, what we planned to do to overcome the odds was to fall back on the military concept of “Successful Instruction.” This is a six to eight-week programme during which one is taught how to teach any subject, e.g. military weapons, tactics or even academic subjects. Successful Instruction, in its basic form, is simply a methodology for teaching people how to teach. This was to be used as emergency or crash programme to produce short time teachers to teach at, at least, primary and secondary school levels. Meanwhile, the Federal Government was also establishing Teacher Training Colleges (TTC) to provide permanent teaching staff for the various schools and institutions.

14.    To meet the enormous manpower required to make UPE a success, we started by employing at high cost foreign teachers from most English speaking countries. Still, this was not sufficient. The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme had just started and we could use them for teaching in secondary schools. I had planned to introduce and employ school certificate or Higher School Certificate (HSC)/A’ Level to the scheme. They were to go through the Successful Instruction model and, by being intellectually and morally equipped, should be able to adequately impart knowledge to younger ones at the primary or elementary levels. The carrot that I had planned to dangle before them and parents was the attraction to complement their service and effort with a grant of a scholarship to do higher education after which they can fully participate in the NYSC scheme. At full implementation, this programme would have cost only a fraction of the capital required to hire and import foreign teachers from all over the world, especially from the Commonwealth. In addition, there would have been enough teachers to meet the growing demand of the expanding UPE scheme. We were determined to maintain the highest standard of education at all levels such that there would have been no need to send our children overseas for education as the standard of education in the country would have been raised, maintained and monitored to acceptable international level.

Some early attempt to right the wrongs:
15.    As aforementioned, my government in the early ‘70s after the Civil War had gigantic plans for development – the 2nd and 3rd National Development Plans. Thus, in order to achieve the lofty goals in the field of education, as referred to earlier and national development, we embarked on a gigantic 3rd National Development Plan, which was geared towards laying the foundation for Nigeria’s industrial take off. Education was one of our major assignments. Unfortunately, these dreams were shattered with the change of government in 1975 that, sadly, abandoned the Plan. I believe you know the end of the story. The non-implementation of that Development Plan stunted Nigeria’s development and progress and created a number of the problems that we have and still haunt us in Nigeria today, notably education; power production and supply; transportation; roads, rail and ports development and manufacturing, among others.

16.    In the circumstance, it was the educational system, as part of national life that paid a heavy price of this act of misjudgement. In times past, for choice of school – apart from the academic reputation of the school – the quality of an institution’s physical environment was a major selection criterion by parents. Today, few, if any, of our public or some private schools can boast of good infrastructure. Today, the hitherto popular Government Colleges are so decrepit that few parents will consider them when thinking of enrolment for their wards. Today, the quality of instruction in most of our public schools is well below par in a lot of instances. Some private schools fair just a shade better. Teaching is handled by bad teachers or tutors who seem not to be qualified and who are not knowledgeable. The teachers are also too poorly paid and motivated that they have no option but to become emergency businessmen and women. They want their rewards here on earth, now, now; not wait until they are in heaven. Worse, successive administrations have played bad politics with various policies that have not really advanced the cause of education. The problem is further compounded by poor funding of education with the result that strikes by various unions in the educational sector have literally crippled the system. Where is the spirit of commitment and loyalty to their charge, nation and humanity? The irony of it all is that the decimation of the educational system appeared to have been more deliberate than it is circumstantial, for the ultimate beneficiaries of the decay appeared to be public officers who either can afford to send their children abroad to receive quality education or are able to float private educational institutions to take advantage of the situation by making money out of it. In either or both of these instances, the masses were the ultimate losers as quality education was priced out of their reach.

Societal Indifference:
17.    Society has not helped much either. The celebration of mediocrity has become a major disincentive for the development of the spirit of enquiry and creative disruption that engender growth.  The result is that a rich ignoramus is seen as a ‘messiah’ whilst a hard working professor is hardly recognised because all he can only give is ‘intellectual and moral support’, not cash. The universities are not excused from this rot as many, in the quest for funding, have made it possible for several unqualified and inappropriate people to pay for or buy as many honorary doctorate degrees as catch their fancy.

18.    Parents, too, share in the blame for the declining standard of education in the country. It is a notorious fact that a good number of parents undermine the contribution of the few good teachers that exist when they purchase question papers for their wards in the guise of ensuring that these children are not ‘disadvantaged’ in public examinations. Whatever happened to the notion of hard work and good name being better than riches?

19.    Naturally, the products of the warped system are not up to scratch in so many important ways. These products are the ones that make our hearts bleed and the ones that cause far too much distrust of Nigerian certifications.

Need to Return to Basics:
20.    Since we cannot fold our arms in expectation of the fact that something will be done someday by someone to correct these ills, I believe it is time we all resolved to do the needful, returned to basics and ensured full commitment to raising the standard of education in Nigeria.

21.     Over the years, I have clearly enunciated my position on the declining quality of education at different conferences and workshops. I maintain that we cannot talk of declining quality of education without examining the foundation upon which our tertiary educational system is built. First, we need to know that consistently inconsistent educational policies have caused a great deal of confusion in our educational system. At some point, there was a policy on just Primary Education, followed by Universal Primary Education (UPE). At another time, everyone started talking of Universal Basic Education (UBE). Now, I hear talks of an attempt to once more review the policy. If we examine all the education concepts or policies closely, we will observe that the difference(s) is/are largely semantic.

22.    What is certain, however, is that education is basic to everything in life, not Haram! An individual’s worldview is directly proportional to the quality of that individual’s education. Let us be careful here: I speak of total, all-round education, not literacy, which is simply the ability to read and write.

How to manage Tertiary Education: Share responsibility.
23.    There is need for us to be especially careful in the way education at the tertiary level is managed. This is because it is at this level that the spirit of enquiry is fully fired. Bad education at this level will not help to produce the men and women that are needed to lead Nigeria and the world! Bad education, without argument, will hamper national development. ‘Sex for marks’ will destroy the moral fabrics of our nation. Cultism will destroy the very basis of academic freedom, creative rebellion and independent thoughts. ‘Group Think’ and cultism cannot make us advance as a nation. Selling handouts and engaging in other trading activities should no longer be the norm on our campuses. For these to happen, our teachers must be morally and professionally qualified and they must be well motivated. In addition, character and academics must continually be the benchmark of good education and certification.

24.    There is something that we, however, must understand: we must first get our politics right. When we get our politics right, we will get our educational and other policies right. In this regard, the system must be encouraged to help itself. The Federal Government must provide timely financial assistance to improve public primary education and at other levels. Government must provide good infrastructure that make good education possible. We must encourage and ensure the upgrade of all public schools which the bulk of our children attend and not allow our public education system to go to ruins.

Necessary Elements of Character and Learning:
25.    Now, the time has also come for our educational institutions to pay serious attention to the key elements necessary for the award of a certificate: learning and character. Anyone found to be deficient in either or both of these parameters should be made to remedy such deficiencies before they are released to the world. Our graduates must not only pass through school; school must also pass through them. With character and learning comes good education because academic institutions are some form of finishing schools for producing true ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’. In order to achieve this goal, however, institutions and authorities must be careful not to kill the creativity of our young adults; they must be given ample opportunity to exhibit creative disruption. Government, too, must play its role by enunciating and implementing educational policies that will aid the development of our country. Government must provide adequate funding of institutions. Government must also ensure that infrastructural facilities do not decay before they are re-furbished.

Private Schools and Education:
26.    The realisation that government alone cannot solve the problems in our educational system has, in part, accounted for the proliferation of private educational institutions at all levels. But the reason for the establishment of private schools must not be the creation of ‘super’ schools for the children of the wealthy. But, to be fair to many of the private schools, theirs is to provide high standard of education for children that their parents can afford it. However, my advice to them is that we must not price education beyond the reach of the people that education should benefit in the long run. We also should discourage schools that delight in foisting foreign cultures on our youth whilst forsaking our traditional values. To use the lingo of our young people, we can graft the part of our culture that is ‘hip’ into that of the West whilst dumping elements of Western culture that are completely ‘razz’. This kind of cross-breeding will go a long way to produce culturally stable individuals whose diverse world view becomes accommodating of different shades of opinions that they may not necessarily agree with. Where reason prevails, force or raw emotionalism takes flight.

Building a sound Foundation:
27.    We must get back to the training and recruiting of good, committed teachers for our educational institutions right from the primary school level. Once we get the foundation right, we can readily and easily build upon it at other higher levels. One way by which we can get the foundation right is to re-examine the proliferation of examining bodies with a view to standardising them. This way, the suspicion that attends Nigerian certification will be replaced with trust and acceptability. Remember, only some years back, any student from secondary school or university is easily accepted and admitted to most foreign institutions. But a few years back, our students have had to start sitting and passing various tests and examinations before being accepted in foreign institutions.

28.    Although public schools have become worse with the passing of time, all tiers of government must work at reversing the trend so that they are able to close the gap between public and private schools. Whilst a number of private schools are doing so well, we need to encourage them to do more in terms of developing curricula that match needs rather than create a new class of elite who are far too distant from the reality on ground in society. We also need to encourage their proprietors not to price education out of the reach of the majority of people they are meant to serve.

Tertiary Education:
29.    At the tertiary level, we must control the development of higher learning so that these institutions focus on producing good, qualified graduates who are fit to produce excellent body of work that can help develop the country.  Governments at all tiers must properly fund education and all schools must be well-equipped to deliver international standard of education in their respective domains. Our children have potentials. The truth of this assertion is supported by the feats they achieve when matched with their peers from across the world. The Nigerian school system produced Phillip Emegweali (who attended Christ the King College, Onitsha) before he went on to greater things in the world of computer technology. The Nigerian school system produced Tosin Otitoju (a product of Queen’s College, Lagos) before she broke records by the day in Engineering in America’s top-notch universities. The system also produced Jelani Aliyu, I believe, an old boy of Federal Government College, Sokoto before he became a star at General Motors. What of our many renowned doctors, engineers and professionals sportsmen and women? The list is long and covers the old, young and emerging generations.

30.    Whilst it is good and desirable to have options in the school system, we need to apply wisdom in the proliferation of institutions, especially at the tertiary level. Just as it is true that the public education system is largely impacted negatively by government neglect, it is equally true that private institutions also turn out bad products. Much as I try not to be shocked by the quality of some of the graduates that cross my path, I must confess that each day holds its surprises. I receive correspondence that numb the heart and I am daily shocked by atrocious presentations. This, in part, is because the proliferation of institutions has reduced the quality of instructors. A major after effect of uncontrolled proliferation could be gleaned from the problems that nearly caused the collapse of the banking system where people were quickly promoted to their highest level of performance and, sadly in many cases, of incompetence. The same thing is happening in the education system, given the rate at which universities are mushrooming. The time has come, therefore, for all approving authorities, especially the National Universities Commission (NUC) to be more circumspect in granting approvals for the establishment of institutions of higher learning. Institutions, to qualify for accreditation, must meet the highest standard of expectation and excellence right from the start. This, of course, leads me to your premier university, ABUAD.

Summary and Conclusion:
31.    Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen of Afe Babalola University, I will like to end this address by restating the obvious fact that Nigeria has abundant potentials to be great. I also need to reiterate that education is a good platform to launch the rebirth of our dear nation. It is in this regard that one must applaud the vision of Aare Afe Babalola, a man who, literally, saw ‘hell’ in his quest for the proverbial Golden Fleece. What he has done is to use his God-given talent and his opportunities as well as wealth to sow into the lives of so many people, especially in his home town, so as to demonstrate the teaching methodology of ‘each one, teach one’. Today, thanks to Afe Babalola, many financially disadvantaged individuals have overcome poverty. Today, thanks to Afe Babalola, several brilliant lawyers who would ordinarily have had tough struggles with exiting the ‘charge and bail’ class have passed through Emmanuel Chambers and risen to the highest levels of the legal profession. Today, thanks, again, to Afe Babalola, ABUAD is here to make a difference in Nigeria’s education system. Today, Afe Babalola has literally created an ocean with the raindrops that God deposited on his rooftop. We must thank God for his life and pray that his name and works live after him as well as remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.

32.    Staff and students here, you are the agents to help immortalise this rare breed Nigerian icon! Well done for what you have done here. I have come, I have seen and I have been conquered with admiration. I endorse all the encomiums showered on you and this university by so many eminent persons past and present. God bless you, Aare Afe Babalola. God bless your family. God bless the ABUAD family – The Vice Chancellor, staff and students. God bless Nigeria and help to make her greater.

33.    I thank you all for the opportunity to deliver this 2nd ABUAD Personality Lecture. You have been a good audience; I thank you all for listening.

General Dr. Yakubu Gowon, GCFR
Owolabi Hall, AfeBabalola University (ABUAD)
Ado Ekiti, Ekiti State
21 January, 2011

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