What is our education minister still doing in office?

306 views | Olabisi Deji-Folutile | December 17, 2020

In a rare admission of incompetence, Nigeria’s Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu, a few days ago gave a damning report on the quality of graduates produced by the country’s higher institutions. According to the minister, many of these graduates can neither read nor write.

The minister spoke in Yola, the Adamawa State capital, during the inauguration of some completed school projects in the state.  Represented by the Director of Tertiary Education in the Federal Ministry of Education, Hajia Rakiya Gambo Iliyasu, the minister reportedly said: “Some graduates of tertiary institutions across the country cannot read or write applications.” He further asserted that some students and even graduates have been found to be unable to write one full sentence without multiple corrections needing to be made.

Initially, I thought the minister was quoted out of context since he wasn’t physically present at the Yola event, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. But having waited for days without the minister refuting what was credited to him, I became convinced that he really meant what he said. I know some people might say the minister was merely stating the obvious, hence no big deal about his statement. While I wouldn’t want to dwell on whether the minister’s submissions are right or wrong, I would like to make it clear that it is almost impossible for any Nigerian graduate that truly gained admission to a higher institution by merit not to be able to read or write.

Now, we need some definitions of terms here. By merit, I mean candidates that sat and passed their WASSCE and UTME without cheating or engaging in any form of exam malpractices. In addition, merit also means candidates who successfully competed with others to get placement in Nigeria’s competitive higher institutions, not candidates that got in through quota system or any other compromised means of admitting hitherto unqualified candidates.  And competitive institutions refer to institutions that are highly patronised by candidates and not universities in regions that candidates are not willing to go and which eventually admit just any candidate to fill spaces.

The plain truth is that the hurdles that admission seekers face in a bid to enter credible public institutions in this country are not things that just any dullard can scale through. Gaining admission especially to a public university in this country is a war. It is usually a case of the survival of the fittest. That is why I find it difficult to randomly condemn the quality of our graduates without thinking of the impact of such sweeping generalisation on many hardworking and brilliant ones who practically fought their way into becoming who they are today. Besides, while I am conscious of the existence of some crops of candidates that rely on magic centres for the purchase of their WASSCE or UTME results, which eventually give them a chance to be in some higher institutions, I would rather blame the system that makes it so easy for these candidates to get away with this anomaly.  I would rather blame a system that allows such a huge number of obviously incompetent students not only gain admission, but scale through the higher institution system without being expelled on the grounds of poor academic performance.  I mean who graded their scores? How were their scripts assessed and who were their lecturers? How thorough is the system that produced them?

For me, these are systemic issues that should ordinarily attract the urgent attention of a minister of education with a view to stemming the trend. Unfortunately, here is a minister whose statements make it seem he’s not really in tune with reality. As far as the minister is concerned, the solution to the problem of graduates not being able to read or write lies in the hands of teachers, students and stakeholders. Is it that teachers who aid cheating will on their own stop it or the students themselves will decide not to engage in exam malpractice again?

According to him, “students and teachers should sit up and face their tasks squarely to reverse the situation.  All stakeholders in the education sector should sit up to ensure that this decline is bridged within the shortest time possible.” The impression one gets from this kind of statement is that the minister does not see himself as having any specific role to play in halting the so-called rot in our nation’s education sector. So, what is the essence of having a minister in charge of education if students, teachers and stakeholders are the ones saddled with the responsibilities of righting the wrongs in the system? Little wonder, the minister has not deemed it fit to utter a word days after over 300 schoolboys from Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, Katsina State were abducted by gunmen. A total of 330 school kids are declared missing and a minister of education is deadly silent on such a monumental tragedy.  That is scandalous!

Who does the minister think he is entertaining by telling us that many Nigerian graduates cannot read or write a single paragraph? As a minister in charge of education in a country experiencing such a rot, what has he done or what is he doing to reverse the trend.  It is not enough for our leaders to just rehash the problems, they should be held accountable for the responsibilities bestowed on them. Political office is a public trust- our leaders should be made to give account of their stewardship from time to time. We have a minister of education that has remained cool and calm despite a nine-month-old strike by the academic staff in the nation’s federal universities. The same minister is telling us that some or many Nigerian graduates can’t read or write. He isn’t talking about students that are being short-changed by the government’s lackadaisical attitude; he is talking about the so-called graduates that aren’t employable?  How can they when government and people at the helms of affairs of the education sector fail them every day?

I have watched events in our nation’s education sector for quite a while and sincerely I have not seen a minister of education as calm as Adamu in the midst of so much chaos in recent times.    I can’t remember the last time that our honourable minister offered a word of appeal to the Academic Staff Union of Universities to call off its strike-which by the way has been on for a whole academic session now.  Rather, the minister appears to be more active in selection processes of vice chancellors such that different unions on campuses now petition him anyhow and outcomes of most selection processed are cancelled based on petitions no matter how flimsy such may appear to be.

If Adamu has come to such a grim conclusion about the products of Nigeria’s higher institutions, as education minister, he should be seen to be working towards effecting positive changes in the system. Agreed the minister cannot solve all the problems in the sector but at least he can pick an area of interest and deal with that. By so doing, Nigerians can easily feel his input.  As it is, no one can pinpoint the specific area that our honourable minister is focusing his attention upon.

Some of us are tired of being told that our graduates are unemployable. We want to hear things that are being done to improve on the quality of education in Nigeria.  We need policymakers that can come up with sound ideas on how to address our problems. For a start, we need to start creating a very strong foundation for the Nigerian child. We seem to easily relate to how important a foundation is to a building but we ignore its importance when talking about building human beings.   What strong foundations are we building in our education system?  People don’t learn how to write or speak as adults. They do that as kids.  As a matter of fact, research has shown that the first five years of a child’s life is critical to what he/she becomes in life.  A study has shown that investment in early childhood education returns 13% compared with investing in educational programmes later in life. So, if the minister is serious about tackling the problem of graduates that can’t read and write, he should start focusing on early learning foundation now.

It is an insult to the collective intelligence of Nigerians for a minister to put our problems right in front of our eyes and at the same time wash his hands off them especially when such minister enjoys the full perks of his office.  While other countries are thinking of how to expand access to quality education for their people in order to unlock their full potential   thereby building better societies, we are here shutting schools down because bandits are taking over the land.

Insecurity has made schooling especially in the North very unattractive.  Unfortunately, this is a region that carries the highest burden of out-of-school children in the country. This is a very serious issue that should be of greater concern to the minister. He should stop being just an armchair critic.

Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the editor-in-chief of franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email bisideji@yahoo.co.uk

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