About a month ago, I came across this interview by the senator representing Kano Central, Senator Basheer Garba Mohammed. In the interview, he justified his introduction of a bill that seeks to ban public officials from sending their children abroad for schooling, and that will force them to make their children attend public schools, on the floor of the senate. He rightly said that Nigeria is losing billions of dollars, about $3bn to $4bn annually, according to estimates from the Central Bank of Nigeria, in school fees to foreign schools. He also claimed that if the children of public officials are in public schools in Nigeria, more attention will be paid to raising the quality of education in Nigeria from its current dismal state. Children of public officials will only go abroad for postgraduate education or if the course of study is not available in Nigeria. However, for public officials who nevertheless want their children studying abroad, they will have to pay a ‘special education tax’.
On the surface, the bill sounds like a wonderful idea that would help arrest the declining quality of education in the country. One cannot also fault the good intentions of Senator Mohammed in proposing the bill. Not only that, the bill is very likely to gain support of many Nigerians by exploiting the class war between public officials and the electorate. But will this policy really help in improving education?
I have always believed that if there were schools of excellent quality, Nigerian parents would prefer to send their children there than sending them abroad. The costs of sending a child abroad to study is not only measured financially, but emotionally too. There is the fear or apprehension of having your child in a foreign land, with an alien culture, all by himself or herself. There is also the fact of having to live with the thought that you might not see your child more than once per year, at best. It is not out of choice that these parents make the decisions to take them to foreign schools, but out of circumstances.
This bill by itself does not address those circumstances. Rather, it has provided many loopholes that can be easily exploited. For example, the idea of paying a ‘special education tax’ in order to permit public officials sending their kids to schools abroad is not enough to serve as a deterrent. As a matter of fact, it sounds like just a little bit extra cost to be added to their school fees and living expenses. In the end, the status quo remains.
Additionally, there is the little matter of enforcement: who is vested with the responsibility of making sure that these public officials’ children stay in Nigerian schools? What if the public officials use fronts to send the children abroad? If they have done it before when it comes to stealing funds, what stops them from doing so for their children’s education?
Obviously, it seems that this bill still leaves a lot to be desired. What then is the way out? In a nutshell, we have to start from challenging erroneous beliefs and misconceptions:
We have to start with challenging the misconception that education in Nigeria at all levels must be free and of world-class quality. There is no precedent for this anywhere in the world. I passionately believe in quality public education as a vehicle of lifting people en masse out of poverty; it helps open their minds and equips with tools to make lives better. Yet, I am rational enough to know that depending on government to provide that from primary to tertiary education only results in the status quo we have.
Another misconception we need to challenge is that of believing that every Nigerian must have higher education in order to make it in life. Once again, there is no data anywhere proving that higher numbers of citizens with higher education equals to higher standards of living and stronger economies. For example, the United States, which is the world’s largest economy, has only 40.4% of its citizens with associate degrees (2-year degrees equivalent to our diplomas)1and 30.44% of bachelor’s degrees2. This is not to say that higher education is not important, but excellent primary and secondary school education is far more important.
We need to agree on a minimum level of education every Nigerian child should have and work relentlessly to ensure that. I believe that minimum level should be secondary school education. Every Nigerian child must receive secondary school education of the highest quality possible, and this quality should not reflect in the pass rates of children at WAEC exams, but also in the kind of inputs that our higher institutions receive in terms of students.
This is not to say that governments in Nigeria should ignore higher education. They should definitely work to increase access to higher education by Nigerians, but that should not be at the expense of quality. As a matter of fact, improving the quality of education should come topmost, followed by the quantity of people receiving it. However, many state governments, especially those with some of lowest literacy and enrolment rates into primary and secondary schools are hell-bent on establishing their own universities rather than improving the access to and quality of their primary and secondary schools.
If we also want to stop the outflow of funds and young brains to foreign schools and countries, we also need to do a more far-reaching and total overhaul of our tertiary education of our tertiary education system. An overly simplistic bill such as this one falls far short of achieving that.
I really hope Senator Mohammed goes further than a cosmetic approach to solve a deep and quite complex problem.
1. The latest data I was able to find on the internet puts Russia as the country with the highest percentage of associate degree holders at 52%, followed by Canada at 44% and the USA at 40% http://www.huffingtonpost.com/blackberry/p.html?id=655393
2. 2011 statistics; http://www.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Educational_attainment_in_the_United_States