Major challenges of before Nigeria’s new education minister

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Prof. Tahir Mamman

By Qosim Suleiman

The education minister may have to mandate all agencies under his watch, including universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education, to publish their income and expenditure at intervals so as to encourage transparency in the sector.

There is no doubt that Professor Tahir Mamman, the newly appointed education minister of Nigeria must have already known his most important tasks and how they would test his political leadership skill.

Mr. Mamman, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Professor and former Vice Chancellor of Baze University, Abuja was among the 45 ministers President Bola Tinubu swore in on Monday, 21 August 2023. Mamman will be assisted in the ministry by the Minister of State, Yusuf Sununu. And as both men resume work, events of the past few years have laid down some of their most pressing responsibilities.

From deteriorating facilities in schools, the wave of brain drain in tertiary institutions, poor welfare conditions for teachers and students, as well as formulating and overseeing the implementation of important education policies, the ministers will have little time before the seemingly existing calm turns into a storm, should they not ‘hit the ground running’.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question by observers of Nigeria’s tertiary institutions is: when would the workers embark on the next industrial action? This is because industrial actions in Nigerian universities, polytechnics and colleges of education appear to have become a ritual. The workers always bicker with the government on issues regarding the funding of their institutions and welfare.

The situation is worse in the universities where the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) constantly finds itself left only with the strike option in disputes with successive government administrations over issues of the poor welfare conditions of its members, poor funding of public universities, and the autonomy of the institutions. During ASUU’s last industrial action, which spanned eight months in 2022, the government invoked and stuck to its ‘No work, No pay’ policy, meaning that lecturers were not paid for the period that they were on strike.

Despite the interventions of prominent Nigerians and institutions, former President Muhammadu Buhari refused to pay the lecturers for the eight months and there is yet to be any indication that his successor, Mr Tinubu is likely to bend the rule. Meanwhile, the union’s demands have not been met to the satisfaction of its members, its president, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, said when it suspended the strike in October last year.

Other workers’ unions in the universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education also have unaddressed demands before the government. They include the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU), the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), and the Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA). Others include the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) and the Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU).

With the rising cost of living hastened by the removal of subsidy on petroleum products and the high cost of goods and services, it is only a matter of time before these unions join their counterparts in the health sector to table their matters before the government. When they do, Mr Mamman’s handling of their demands could determine how the sector would fare under his watch.

Another challenge facing Nigeria’s education sector is the decrepit facilities in schools. Despite an increase in year-on-year allocations to the education sector since 2016, stakeholders have continued to lament that the sector is underfunded and the facilities have remained dilapidated. The Secretary-General to COEASU, Lawan Bazza, insists that the facilities needed for Nigerian schools, from basic to tertiary level, are nonexistent. “The facilities are not there,” he said. “From Creche to Junior Secondary Schools, facilities are not there. Very few of them may have something. We don’t even have modern teaching facilities. For example, we have a whiteboard marker. I had to buy a marker because it was not available. It was not provided by school authorities.”

In 2013, a Need Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities, carried out by the federal government and representatives of ASUU among others, revealed that an estimated N1.3 trillion was required to revitalize and make Nigerian public universities globally competitive. But as of December 2021, despite continuous agitations and strikes by ASUU, the government only provided 19% of the sum. ASUU said the 19% paid was at a 2023 valuation, and that the current exchange rate in the country had raised the stake. These issues of revitalization  of funding would therefore be very significant in the attainment of sustainable development on the campuses.

Like the nation’s health sector, the education sector has also been hard-hit by the brain drain phenomenon. This is particularly worsened by an embargo on recruitment in academic institutions placed by the administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari. The embargo remains in force. In its attempt to keep and attract teachers to the basic education level, the administration approved a new salary structure and increased the retirement age of teachers by five years. “Brain drain in the academic sector is more than that of the health sector,” Mr Bazza said. “Maybe that of the academic sector is not well pronounced, but it is more in the education sector.”

There are currently no universally acceptable data on out-of-school children in Nigeria. The previous administration disagreed with the figures presented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) which put the figure at 20 million and 18 million respectively. The Nigerian government put the figure at 6.95 million.                      

ASUP National President Anderson Ezeibe said the minister has enormous work to do in reducing the number of out-of-school children in the country. He said: “The current issues at the basic education level border on the issue of out-of-school children in the country. The numbers are not going to get better with the worsening economic situation in the country. Indeed, he has a lot of work to do there.”

Nigerian tertiary institutions have continued to be rocked by financial, moral and academic corruption scandals, including sex-for-grade, contract scams, plagiarism and job and admission racketeering, among others. Last month, the Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Calabar, Cyril Ndifon, was suspended after a protest by Law students who accused him of sexually preying on female students. Mr Ndifon had previously been suspended by the university management over the same allegation but was reinstated under circumstances described as shady.

Cyril Ndifon

At least 18 university teachers were dismissed in 2021 for sexual harassment of female students. The ministers need to take strong actions to check the malaise that has become endemic in tertiary institutions across the country.

Nine years after the first mass abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014, a Safe School Initiative introduced by the Nigerian government is yet to fully take off. Following the 2014 incident in which 276 school girls were abducted in Chibok, Borno State, the federal government announced the initiative to protect students and teachers nationwide.

Since then, about 1,680 other students have been abducted from schools across Nigeria, according to Save the Children, a charity organisation. Some stakeholders have blamed the failure of the initiative on its organisation and operational system. For instance, many question the rationale behind the decision to domicile the initiative’s secretariat and its technical working committee at the Federal Ministry of Finance instead of the Ministry of Education. For effective operation, Mr Mamman may have to ensure the movement of the Safe School Secretariat and Technical Working Committee to his ministry.

The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), which publishes its weekly income, has been commended by many Nigerians for being perhaps the most transparent of agencies under the education ministry. The minister of education may have to mandate all agencies under his watch, including universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education, to publish their incomes and expenditure at regular intervals to encourage transparency in the sector.

In separate interviews with reporters, ASUP National President Anderson Ezeibe and COEASU General Secretary Lawan Bazza expressed optimism that Mr Mamman, being an educationist, will do a good job in handling the sector. “The new minister is eminently qualified to head the Federal Ministry of Education,” Mr Ezeibe said. “We see from his profile that he has significant experience at the highest level of tertiary education management.”

Anderson Ezeibe

Speaking on the tasks before the minister, Mr Ezeibe said it is important that the minister takes ‘verifiable steps’ to address the discrimination against the holders of the Higher National Diploma (HND) and its possible replacement with a Bachelor of Technology certificate.

“This will put the HND/BSc dichotomy issue to rest…while retaining the OND certification for skills and artisanal certification in the sector,” he said. Mr Ezeibe added that solutions to the challenges in the education sector require the various layers of stakeholders to commit to the restoration of proper values to the sector. He said: “At the tertiary level, issues bordering on sustainable funding, acceptable wage structure for staff, infrastructure deficit, violations of laws and extant regulations are all issues of urgent concern. Prudent management of scarce resources, appropriate and deserving wage structures, and improvement in funding, respect for laws, statutes and regulations are the path to restoration of the education sector to its lost glory.”

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