BY CHRIS OKOTIE
The strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU and their counterparts in the polytechnics have raised new questions about the failing health of our academic institutions.
Meanwhile, while his house was burning, our honourable Minister of State for Education, Mr Nyesom Wike went to his home state of Rivers, as Aso Rock’s field commander in the war between his boss, President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Rotimi Amaechi over the 2015 presidential election politics.
Recently, the Minister of Education, Prof Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufai announced that the cut-off marks for admission into Nigerian universities is now 180, down from a possible maximum 400.
Cut off marks for admission into polytechnics and Colleges of Education were equally reduced to 150 to complete the official downgrading of admission benchmarks into our tertiary institutions by the federal government because of the mass failure of admission seekers to meet the previous cut-off mark of 200.
A parallel development is taking place in the Unity Schools. That one is too nonsensical to be given a mention; it is so sad that we are playing politics with education at a time when education should be shaping our politics.
What a shame! Our education system is the latest casualty of President Goodluck Jonathan’s comatose Transformation Agenda, which has left in its trail failed or ill-conceived projects. Some of those projects exist only in the media with nothing on ground to show for all the hype.
It is unbelievable that a government that has a considerable number of intellectuals in its governance organs could take such a retrogressive action in a sector as crucial as education, which ought to be the driving force behind any genuine plan to transform the economy.
Calculative subjects like mathematics and the hard science remain a nightmare for our students who traditionally prefer the humanities and religious studies in our meal-ticket education system. Our dysfunctional education system continues to produce graduates that can hardly write simple essays or letters of application when engaging corporate head hunters.
The fact that President Jonathan himself is a Ph.d holder makes one wonder why an intellectual of his calibre should be presiding over this new assault on our educational system.
That ignoble feat was not even attempted by our past military dictators who were supposed to value the mighty gun more than the pen. This is a sad turning point for our embattled nation which in the glorious past produced a Nobel Prize winner, acclaimed world class writers, scientists and renowned academics in different fields under an education system bequeathed on this country by the British colonial masters.
Instead of dealing with the rot by overhauling the education sector, this government is lowering the bar to further aggravate a bad situation. The PDP administration is now officially endorsing mediocrity as a national policy. Since education is the bedrock of development, this open embrace of poor standards would rub off on the other sectors.
Such bandwagon effect is to be expected because talent, hard work and pursuit of excellence, which are the virtues that engender genuine transformation of society, are no longer valued in our country. Corrupt leadership is behind the haemorrhaging of our value system, which has resulted in the collapse of our cultural and moral ethos.
How Mr. Jonathan intends to transform Nigeria into an industrialised nation in record time with his second-rate graduates and academics, who can’t hold their own in a fiercely competitive global economy is a magic we are anxiously waiting to see.
Lowering of admission requirements into tertiary institutions for whatever reasons should not have happened under the watch of the Committee of Vice Chancellors if that body is alive to its responsibilities, especially at a time when budgetary allocation to education is yet to reach the 26 percent recommended by UNESCO.
Poor funding of education by successive governments has led to the systematic degeneration of infrastructure within the system and the collapse that emptied our universities of quality lecturers who are daily seeking greener pastures in other countries.
Many of our academics can be found working in research institutions abroad or teaching in universities and other institutions of higher learning.
This brain drain was caused by lack of grants for research at home, and outdated facilities in our institutions of higher learning in addition to poor welfare package for the academic staff, menace of cultism, frequent strikes that elongate academic calendar to the extent that some students spend seven to ten years for a course of study that should not take more than four or five years.
For the same reasons, wealthy parents now send their wards to top Ivy League institutions abroad, including neighbouring Ghana which used to envy our universities in the past before they lost their pristine glory to neglect, caused by a succession of visionless leaders.
Sadly, these leaders still control the reins of government. That is why our situation is moving from bad to worse. Education is the key beneficiary of the ICT revolution. Learning has gone digital worldwide except in Nigeria and a few failing states around the world.
Our schools are still not part of the computer age as only a few are equipped with modern laboratories and sophisticated research facilities. That is why learning with tears has become the order of the day. There are places in this country where classes are conducted under trees, and in dilapidated buildings.
Some schools have no writing desks; pupils are forced to bring chairs from home otherwise they’d sit on the floor.
By now the target of one computer per student should have been attained, not just in the universities, but at all levels of education. This is the age when information and knowledge are dispended daily through a ubiquitous three screen process: television, GSM phone and computers; laptops, iPods and other sophisticated devices. Communication is now channelled through this three-screen process.
Therefore, for learning to be effective, computer education must be an integral part of the curriculum in our institutions of learning. But our schools are still trapped in the blackboard era when students protested regularly over exorbitant fees in government schools, and were huddled together in decrepit hostels because of maladministration in academic governance.
As well as addressing the grievances of the striking lecturers in respect of an earlier agreement reached on welfare issues, the federal government must shift the paradigm in our education system to make it relevant to our developmental needs. In this regard, universal computer coverage for our schools, colleges and universities, must be a key component of a Transformation Agenda for our educational system.
We need white-collar as much as blue-collar workers to run a modern, knowledge-based economy in the 21st century. There must be a balanced mix of the hard sciences with the humanities in our school curricula to produce the required workforce that would drive our economy.
This is why we must have qualified teachers especially in the calculative subjects to sustain the quality of education required to compete with the emerging economies in the production of cutting-edge technology. We can’t get there if we do not upgrade our institutions of learning and make their products serve our developmental objectives in practical ways.
Our graduate engineers should be the ones building our bridges and skyscrapers, not foreign contractors. We should aim to evolve indigenous technology, and stop pursuing an illusionary goal of transfer of technology. No nation will transfer its best technology to a potential competitor.
We need to rethink our strategies and reorder our priorities if we hope to keep pace with the trans-national confluence of the developmental wave of change sweeping across the world. Need I say that education is at the centre of this change!
•Rev. Chris Okotie, a pastor- politician, wrote from Lagos. Follow on twitter @Revchrisokotie.