BY MOTUNRAYO JOEL
Former Commissioner of Education in Lagos State, Prof. Olakunle Lawal, tells MOTUNRAYO JOEL that many private universities employ lecturers that fall below standard
With Nigerian universities locked for the past five weeks because of the Academic Staff Union of Universities’ strike, how can such action be prevented in the future?
The first issue that has to be addressed is the issue of commitment on the part of every party involved. ASUU is very committed to improving education in Nigeria. At the same time, it should be noted that some of the approaches taken by the union are discomforting.
The commitment of ASUU is not in doubt; it’s the commitment of the bureaucrats that handle routine educational matters in government that is in question. Once the issue of commitment is sorted out, we can be sure that everything else will fall in line. This leads to the issue of the challenge which public universities face-the growing tendency for top level administration officials to establish private universities. For that reason, one would have expected that there should be a response by the government to improve on the funding of our public universities but unfortunately, the reverse is the case. The Federal Government should be able to sign an agreement and implement it. It all boils down to commitment on the part of the government.
Can we blame the nation’s education structure for the frequent strike in the sector?
We cannot solely blame the structure because it has never changed from the time when it produced great results. It’s now that people are trying to introduce practicality into education. But we should know that university education is not about practicality. It’s about the development of high level manpower for the economy. What we now have is slight modification which does not affect the input of education at the higher institution level. In fact the danger is that we have too many private universities for Nigeria’s level of development. We have so many of these private universities having teachers who are far below standard. The structure is not to blame; the teachers and non-teaching infrastructure trigger strike actions.
Do you think the government has too many roles to handle in the education sector?
Yes the government is munching, trying to force everything down its throat. Look at what is happening in secondary education; the Federal Government has no business with secondary education. The best that can be done is to give out Federal Government colleges to the states to manage. The challenge that the Federal Government has is the divisional policies that infiltrate government policies. For example, former President Olusegun Obasanjo tried to hands off the management of secondary schools and teachers were against his move because it was assumed that they will be fired. In my view, when the Federal Government hands over its colleges, there should be the relocation of human assets in which all these teachers will be absorbed into the state government and those with additional qualification will be posted back to the ministry. Once the government does this, it has enough time to handle core issues. Its role should be limited to curricula development at the secondary school level. Those are two areas that the Federal Government should concentrate on. Bodies such as the Universal Basic Education should be scrapped. It is a very big pipeline for fraud. In 2004/2005, UBEC was awarding contracts to supply plastic chairs to all primary schools. That was a ridiculous action when it should have concentrated on research and development in education. This goes to show that there are too many bureaucracies. Once the interest of the Federal Government is whittled down from primary school and secondary school level, then it can naturally concentrate on tertiary education.
Apart from UBEC, which other educational agencies do you consider irrelevant to the system?
UBEC has no business existing, it is a big bureaucracy. Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board is another one to be scrapped. All these bodies are not performing. National Universities Commission was established as a yardstick for measuring standard in other universities. But now, the NUC has expanded its goals beyond its borders. There are just too many bureaucracies. And the idea of restructuring has to do with role defining. There should be definition of roles, goals and missions for each of these agencies. If we can properly settle this area, then we can talk of the appropriately skilled manpower to be put in place. There are too many dead wood organisations that should be scrapped in the sector.
Do you think that the nation’s falling education standard should be addressed at the primary level or between the secondary and tertiary level?
I don’t know what people mean when they say that our education standard has fallen. The standard is still there but the quality of the people that are in charge of auditing our education appears to be weak. I read a lot of essays from my students and I’m so surprised at the kind of grammar they write. It’s unbelievable. So it has to do with the developmental process and how they entered the university which obviously was through the examination conducted by JAMB. Once these students pass JAMB, the problem escalates.
The truth is that we should return the university system back to the days of concessional exams. Let us scrap JAMB, once this is done, universities can then manage their own internal examinations. Individual interests should not matter once national interest is at stake.
What did you do differently during your tenure as Lagos State commissioner for education?
The first thing I did was to organise the rebuilding of all public schools in the state, which was my idea. Then, there was the problem of school buildings collapsing, killing children and spreading across the state. In one of the meetings, I decided we should do something about it. This then led to the establishment of the Special Committee on the Rehabilitation of Public Schools in Lagos. I also implemented the Teaching Service Reform law. This was because teachers who had spent over 30 years in service could only be appointed as directors, I found this unfair. So it was a tug of war between the commissioner and bureaucrats. Former Lagos State Governor Bola Tinubu then set up a committee made up of myself, the special adviser of education, attorney general and head of service to look into the issue. At the end, I presented a memo which contained the enactment of the Teaching Service Reform law. Lagos State was then restructured into six educational districts and what we did was to appoint an experienced teacher as the tutor general/permanent secretary. The idea was to set up a body that would reward teachers who were putting in their best. By the time I left the Ministry of Education, at least six states had come to understudy how I did it and they introduced the idea in their states.
We also made frantic efforts to return discipline to our schools through the code of conduct which was signed by teachers, students and parents. For example, if a student was late for a number of hours, there is a punishment which the principal can institute immediately. Before the code of conduct was designed, the principal could not do anything. We also established new schools across the state. There was also an improvement in the funding of Lagos State University. I was the commissioner who recommended and got the approval to divide the money that we normally accrued to LASU on a monthly basis from the money we accrued to the Lagos State College of Medicine.
What were the challenges that you faced?
I tried to deal with unlicensed private schools and what I got in return was court cases. These schools took me to court. Another challenge was the introduction of lifelong sex education. We had several cases of pupils getting pregnant. So I partnered with a non-governmental organisation to introduce sex education in public schools. Then, the Catholic churches, Ansar-Ud-Deen Society and so many religious organisations took offence. I also battled with in-house corruption.
Is education in Lagos State where it should be now?
Education in Lagos is far better than most states in the country, but the challenge of increasing population is affecting the state. The population is expanding, but facilities are not expanding. The state is badly congested.
People complain that education in Lagos is expensive compared to other states. Is this true?
Then, they should move back to their states of origin. People should be ready to pay. If you want to come to Lagos go ahead, but you must be ready to pay.
Shouldn’t education be completely free up to tertiary level?
It should be free; the debate has always been on as to what should be the actual cost of education. But as you know, it’s a very sensitive matter that I don’t wish to dwell on. I didn’t pay any fee in the university. However, I think the government should review the cost of tertiary education.
It seems the scholarship that helped many Nigerians get quality education abroad no longer exists. Why is this so?
The truth is that the scholarship matter is based on who you know. I have no apology for that. But those who are very good can get scholarship. However, the challenge of scholarship is the result of dwindling resources caused by corruption, and it has affected the award of scholarships today.