NESG 20 and the challenge of Education,By Emeka Oparah

In reading up for this write-up, I took a tour of the website of the Federal Ministry of Education of Nigeria, to familiarize myself with what they do and how they do it. Three years ago, I had embarked on another kind of tour, this time to over 50 primary schools across the country in pursuit of my official duties as the head of the team responsible for social investments or what you may describe more glamorously as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Airtel Nigeria, one of the leading telecommunications service providers in the country. Both tours left me with preventable tears in my eyes, and I will explain why shortly.
The trip across the country was in pursuit of our commitment as an organization to contribute to the improvement of primary education, a core social investment principle of the Bharti-Airtel Group worldwide. I was meant to seek out public primary schools in rural communities, which we would adopt as part of giving back to the community. It turned out that literally all the public primary schools I visited were in eye-watering conditions and desperately crying for a facelift.
The tour of the website of the Ministry of education revealed, to my surprise, beautifully crafted vision and mission statements which, by my assessment, have mostly been observed in the breach. I was even more surprised by what the ministry listed as it mandates, which included the following:
• Formulate and coordinate a national policy on education
• Collect and collate data for purposes of Educational Planning and Financing.
• Prescribe and maintain uniform standards of education throughout the country.
• Control and monitor the quality of education in the country.
• Harmonize educational policies and procedures of all the States of the Federation through the instrumentality of the National Council on Education, and
• Effect co-operation in educational matters on an international scale.
Develop curricula and syllabuses at the national level.
When I juxtaposed the mandate with what has been happening in the education sector and my findings during the field trip, I could not but come to the unfortunate conclusion that it was high time a state of emergency was declared in the sector, even if to attract attention to the looming disaster and, therefore, attract help from concerned individuals and organizations. This is perhaps why the upcoming 20th Nigerian Economic Summit being organized by the eponymous Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) could not have been better timed.
The theme, which the NESG has chosen for this year’s summit-“Transforming Education through Partnerships for Global Competitiveness”-simply captures the very essence of what needs to be done and urgently too, if the future of Nigeria would be secured. Undoubtedly, education is the bedrock of national development not only because it equips the human resources with knowledge and skills but it also represents a production pipeline of future leaders. The situation in Nigeria today is dire from the policy-making through administration down to implementation perspectives.
The statistics of failure in the education sector is sobering as it is very frightening. Not a few people were shocked when the the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report (EAGMR) showed that Nigeria holds the world record of having the highest number of its young people out of school. Out of 57 million children out of school the world over, Nigeria had 10.5m leading other countries like Pakistan (5.1 million); Ethiopia (2.4million); India (2.3million); Philippines (1.5million); Cote D’Ivoire (1.2million); Burkina Faso (1million); Niger (1million); Kenya (1million); Yemen (0.9million); Mali (0.8million) and South Africa (0.7million). What is most disturbing is that this number reflected a consistent negative growth since 1999.
There are other somber statistics, some of which were published by the NESG in media announcement of the Summit:
• 44% of Nigerian students cannot read a complete sentence on the completion of their primary education.
• Over 70% of Nigerian candidates in the 2013 finals of the Secondary School exams conducted by the West African Examination Council (WAEC) failed.
• Only 1 in 3 applicants to tertiary institutions in Nigeria secure admission.
• World ranking for Quality of Mathematics and Science Education show Singapore as number 1 Finland 2nd, Belgium 3rd, Tunisia 31st, Cote d’Ivoire 60th, Ghana 62nd and Nigeria 117th out of the total of 148.
Nothing could be more depressing and alarming. It would be an understatement to say we have a crisis at hand. What is even more depressing is that the Education sector has generally been given the lion share of the Federal Government’s annual budget. Total budget from 1999 till 2013 is N35.133trillion with education taking N3.128 trillion or 8.28% of total budget. The lowest allocation was in 1999 (4.46%) while the highest was 2006 (10.43%). Indeed allocation to Education ranked highest (No. 1) in 11 of the 15 years (2000, 2003-2007, 2009-2013, while it came 2nd in 2001 and 2008, 3rd in 2002 and 6th in 1999. In addition to the statutory budgetary allocation, N412billion has been allocated to the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC). Why the education sector has declined so lamentably with such massive allocations, be they for capital or recurrent expenditure, is what the people of Nigeria need to know soon.
There are some existing recommended benchmarks for allocating budgets to education. The Dakar Framework recommended that at least 20% of the national budget or n5% of Gross National Product (GDP) should be spent on Education. In its 1996 report, Learning: The Treasure Within (Dellars, et al), UNESCO suggested that governments should invest at least 6% of their GDP in education. In 2002, Education for All set up the Fast Track Initiative which recommended that governments should spend 20% of their national budget on education. Also, the World Education Forum of 2002 recommends that governments should ensure that at least 7% of GDP is allocated to education within the first five years and 9% within ten years.
On the average, Nigeria budgets less than 50% (10%) of the recommended 20% of National Budget to Education. Also, we have seen a cumulative average of less than 2% of GDP budgeted since 1999, which is less than 40% of the 5% of GDP. So, even if these allocations clearly fall short of international standards, they demonstrate government’s intention to give Education the requisite attention. Whether the government’s intention ends up being what it is, just an intention, is open to debate, but the state of education in the country surely tells an unpalatable story.
There is no gainsaying the fact that leadership has been one of the key factors militating against the development of education. Corollary to this is the outmoded Strategic Policy Direction, which powers the sector. The Public-Private Partnerships, which the NESG is apparently canvassing, going by the theme of the Summit seems to be the way to go, if Nigerians are serious about the future of education and indeed the future of our future leaders. The Ministry of Education, under Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, initiated the PPP strategy, which was childishly marred by a needless controversy over the purported proposed sale of Unity Schools.
Regardless of what the recommendations of the NESG Summit on Education might be, the Adopt-a-School Model, which Ezekwesili strongly proposed and promoted, should be adopted as the way forward for public primary education at least. Primary education is the bedrock of early child education, which has been completely decimated with decrepit school buildings, demotivated teacher and short-changed children. The percentage of children whose parents are able to send to private primary schools are less than 5% of the children of school age, and even so, these private schools do not seem adequate in terms of quality to bridge the yawning gap of future talents.
Bharti-Airtel, the 4th largest mobile telecommunications company in the world espouses a social investment initiative which is based on the Adopt-a-School Model. In India, Airtel has over 300 Primary Schools, which it adopted over the past 10 years. The underlying principle of this intervention is that once the foundation of a child’s development is weak or poor, the future is in jeopardy. In Nigeria, Airtel has four schools. The company piloted the initiative with the adoption of Oremeji Primary School, Ajegunle, Lagos, where, hitherto, the kids studied under a tree and used the broken walls of the dilapidated classroom block as blackboard. When it rained the school dismissed or squatted in neighboring school during exams.
Airtel Nigeria adopted the school, relocated the kids to a contiguous school, and in three months built an ultra-modern six classroom block complete with modern toilets for the pupils and teachers, water borehole, white boards, desks, uniforms, school bags, textbooks and exercise books. Employees of the company, as part of the Airtel Employees Volunteer Scheme donated a library to the school. Of course, the model also included refresher training for the teachers as well as biannual health checks for both the pupils and teachers. This model has been replicated in Imo, Ogun State and Cross River States. This model comes highly recommended to other corporate organizations in Nigeria. Imagine if every one of these successful businesses adopt two primary schools each!
The challenge of education is well and truly beyond Primary Education. The decay, or degeneration, if you like, has permeated through the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The twin challenge of funding and management (governance) needs to be thoroughly discussed so a new course can be charted. As a matter of fact, a school of thought believes that governance is the greater of the two challenges. To this end, a powerful searchlight must be beamed at how (and on what) the budgetary allocations have been spent over the past 15 years. Misapplication of funds is demonstrably worse than poor funding because it creates a perception that something is being done, when indeed nothing is being done.
Also, the role of the private sector, NGOs, religious organizations and private individuals need to be re-examined and reflected in creating the way forward. This is in addition to co-opting these groups, by law, into a strong partnership so that the fallen standards of education can be recovered and the future of education secured. The Education Tax Fund needs to be investigated as well to be sure the proceeds of that great idea has not been frittered away into private pockets and unrelated projects. You never know with the recalcitrant hydra-headed corruption ravaging the public service.
This is where the outcome of the 20th Nigerian Economic Summit will come in handy. Of course, education is on the concurrent list, so every tier of government must join the effort to battle the frightening scourge ravaging the education system. Thankfully, the NESG is hosting a session with the governors. It will be nice to hear them discuss what they think and what they have done (and are doing) beyond the rhetoric of political campaigns promises. The role of the Local governments should also be brought to some scrutiny. Meanwhile, according to the NESG, “between 2007 and 2010, the number of Nigerian students enrolled in foreign universities rose by 71% from 22,712 to 38, 851. The cost to the country is estimated at N1.5 trillion annually. These students can be educated in Nigeria.” Indeed, they can be educated in Nigeria, but the situation could get even worse if nothing is done urgently to reverse the trend.
Oparah is Vice President, Corporate Communications and CSR, Airtel Nigeria. He wrote this piece ahead of the NESG Summit on Education

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