The Collapse of Public Education
By Kunle Sanyaolu
At long last, the Federal Government has admitted a collapse in the education sector. Minister of Education, Dr. Igwe Aja-Nwachukwu, speaking through the Permanent Secretary in the Education Ministry, Dr. Goke Adegoroye said the fortunes in the Nigerian education sector was dwindling; but that it was because only government has been addled with the responsibility of providing resources for public education and sole policy development, despite the limited resources. The admission of a collapsed public education sector is long overdue, not that it mattered. Nigerians have for long recognized it and reacted appropriately. Majority of the people have no choice, but to retain their patronage of the schools because they can't afford private schools. Many send their children to private schools in varying categories, based on what they can pay. Some citizens pay too much believing that quality of education is necessarily synonymous with the fees. People in the category of the minister and perhaps the Permanent Secretary take their children abroad - Britain and America, Europe and sometimes neighbouring African countries. Everyone appreciates that the only two legacies one can bequeath to the child is to give him good education. If this is not available in the public sector, then one seeks it in the private sector.
The state of our education sector is bad indeed. Student population soared in the past 20 or 30 years, the number of schools and the volume of infrastructure for education remained stagnant, sometimes shrinking due to rot and decay. In virtually all public educational institution, be they primary secondary or tertiary levels, the classes are overcrowded. Basic amenities are lacking and where they exist, have practically gone out of fashion. Amenities like laboratories and school libraries have become luxuries. There are no adequate recreational facilities. In the 70s and 80s, all government schools have large grounds for sporting and recreational facilities. In the late 80s and 90s, governments had considered it necessary to erect buildings on the field, in order to accommodate more students in classes. The practice systematically destroys recreation as an integral part of education. The collapse in education goes beyond amenities, to teachers' welfare, which over the years has also nosedived. They do get salaries in many states, but the question is how much? Can it take them home or meet their basic needs? No, being the answer, the teachers have consequently become demoralized, struggling perpetually to impact knowledge into children. Naturally however, their commitment has waned as they see themselves as sidelined in the scheme of sharing the national cake. They used to accept the statement that 'teachers reward is in heaven'. Now, they want their reward here on earth like other Nigerians. They cannot help being low in spirit because they watch helplessly as Nigerians in politics, and public offices rapidly climb the social and wealth ladder, leaving them in penury. Yet in terms of baking the national cake, teachers play perhaps the most major role, spending time on the children and teaching them new things. But when they demanded a token increase by way of Teachers Salary Scale, all the governments turned deaf ears on them and instead, preached Federalism that makes it impossible for their desire to be harmonized. They had to stay off classrooms for perhaps five weeks before some good Nigerians intervened and secured official approval of their demand.
The tertiary institutions are no better, as students' population far outweighs infrastructure like classes, hostels, libraries, laboratories, etc, all of which are overstretched in the process. It is a miracle that public schools are still producing brilliant and highly intelligent pupils in spite of the odds. But such pupils are getting fewer by the day, as they give way to pupils from private institutions many of which are better equipped. The minister is of the view that the responsibility of providing resources for public education has overwhelmed the government due to limited resources. He then called on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to join forces with government to resuscitate the sector. Newspaper reports may be too sketchy to reveal just how much the minister said or did not say. Nevertheless, Nigerians would like to know just what government's responsibility should be. Is it that resources are too limited to bear a more focused attention on public education? Or is government guilty of corruption in high places that has presented huge sums yearly budgeted for education to make meaningful impact? Surely, the rot in education did not start yesterday. Successive governments are to blame for being less than forthright in public spending. Initially, governments at sate or federal levels subjected education to intense politicking, particularly regarding whether or not free education was possible at all levels. One thing is clear however, and that is, in the 60s and 70s when free education at all levels held sway in Western Nigeria, the resources at the disposal of government was a lot more limited than what obtains now. Yet, government was more focused and better organized. The project ran smoothly and funding was not an issue. In that era, there were no private schools. All those desirous of education went to pubic schools. Government indeed embarked on measures to encourage child education. It is not too late for current officials to find out how the past governments did it. If anyone embarks on such investigation, he will find that there was much more transparency and accountability in government at the time. Corruption was almost a non-issue, and government accepted its due responsibility as such. All that it required from the citizens - the private sector was eve very limited in those days - is that they pay their taxes and perform other civic responsibilities. Government ran education, built schools, pay teachers and buy text books and exercise books for pupils. This responsibility did not preclude government from building good roads, aside of other acts of governance. The roads built in those days are 100 per cent better than those being built now. Government did not pass the buck to any other group. Indeed government ran the railways and it worked. In Lagos, perhaps on other towns, governments ran public transportation, and it worked perfectly. You could go to a bus-stop at Abule-Ijesha in Yaba, and expect to catch a bus to Race-Course within five minutes. All these did not happened in the stone age, but only a couple of decades or so back.
Dr. Aja-Nwachukwu and his colleagues at the Education ministry should inform Nigerians why they cannot make education work as it did in the past. The truth is that the crop of civil service, government, civil servants, as well as official policy makers in existence now are directly opposite in orientation to the ones of yesteryears. It is not a recent thing, certainly it didn't start with the regime of Aja-Nwachukwu or even the one before it. And most certainly, that orientation or attitude is not confined to the education sector alone. It permeates all sectors of government. The trend with governments in Nigeria now, particularly since the second coming of the Olusegun Obasanjo as President, is to seek to share responsibility with the private sector, in the name of privatization. The aviation sector is now practically run by private organizations. Government is seeking private partnership in running, even reinvigorating the railways. Governemnts want to concession roads construction to the private sector. During Obasanjo's tenure, there was attempts at privatizing the Federal government colleges aka Unity Schools. Now, government is calling the private sector to fund education. Again, the questions arising are many. What exactly is the role of government? Are there no basic responsibilities that are best performed by government and government alone? While no one is shutting out the idea of private sector contribution to education or other indices of government, what is government doing with education tax fund, in addition to yearly national and state budgets for education? Is the private sector not the major or sole contributors to the education tax? How much has been collected so far, and how has it been spent? Government should not shirk its basic duty of promoting the welfare, security and education of its citizens as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution under the fundamental objectives and Direct Principles of State Policy. The excuse that limited resources at government's disposal is causing the rot in education is untenable because resources will always be limited. They were more limited in the 60s and 70s when education and other governmental machinery worked. If we have 10 times the amount of resources we have now, resources will still be limited. Ultimately, government's task is to deploy these resources to optimum advantage, and to reduce or prevent waste through corruption, self-enrichment and mismanagement.
Dr. Aja-Nwachukwu should appreciate that the private sector is fulfilling some roles in education, by at least providing private school schemes that seek to raise the standard. The private schools guarantee a strict observance of the school calendar. They enable parents to plan ahead as they know when the schools resume for a term, vacate and resume for the next term. One may not be assured of that stability in public schools. Naturally, the stability in private schools comes at a huge cost, sometimes bordering on sheer exploitation of parents. But only government can address this, by taking pragmatic measures to improve and expand public schools, treat teachers well and thereby ensure stability. When this happens, many parents will feel no compulsion to send their children to private schools, unless they want something extra for their wards, and can pay for it.