PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari’s 2016 budget presentation to the National Assembly was a setting for him to lure Nigerian students to the study of science and technology at tertiary institutions without paying fees. He extended the same gesture to those wishing to take degrees in education in order to address the chronic shortfall in qualified teachers in schools. No doubt, this is a sign of his government’s desire to reverse the trend of dwindling interest in these critical areas of knowledge.
Nigeria’s path to prosperity lies in our capacity to develop exportable products. But Nigeria’s economy is grossly undermined by our indifference to technological development. A majority of the teeming graduates that join the labour market annually have no industry-tailored or entrepreneurial skills. Thus, they roam the streets in search of non-existent white-collar jobs. This was why 526,650 job seekers applied in the Nigeria Immigration Service recruitment scam of 2014 that led to the death of 18 persons in stadia stampedes across the country. Only 4,556 vacancies were on offer.
In today’s world driven by knowledge, emphasis is on science, technology and innovation to solve man’s pressing problems. Breakthroughs in these empirical fields have brought wealth to nations in Europe, the United States and Asia; and also improved living standards of the people. Todd Thibodeaux, CEO, Computing Technology Industry Association, says, “The tech industry accounts for 7.1 per cent of the overall US Gross Domestic Product and 11.4 per cent of the US total private sector payroll.” Clearly, Nigeria is missing out on this score.
No country has achieved a breakthrough in this area with just a presidential declaration. It is a function of a solid educational structure, national aspiration and massive investment. Education, most people agree, has collapsed in Nigeria, forcing youths whose parents could afford the cost to move in droves to the United Kingdom, the US and Canada in search of functional education. Some who cannot afford these Western countries opt for Ghana and South Africa. The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, said last week that over $600 million was released for the payment of school fees of our students studying abroad in 2015.
In the past, policies geared towards erecting the foundation for technological education had floundered. Technical colleges that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s were either abandoned and overgrown with weeds or converted to liberal colleges by our short-sighted political leaders. The 60:40 admission ratio to universities in favour of the sciences over the arts, which has never worked, and the collapse of the 6-3-3-4 system of education are further evidence of how Nigeria has been trifling with technical education. A critical evaluation of how the country sauntered despite these earlier initiatives should be the ideal starting point for Buhari.
The foundation for science, technology and innovation culture is laid at the lower rungs of the educational ladder. Unfortunately, this does not exist here. Across the country, primary school pupils sit on the bare floor to receive lessons, while others study under tree shades. Many of their teachers are not better than the taught. At the secondary level, the situation is not better either. At a time, technical equipment imported for the implementation of the 6-3-3-4 system was abandoned at Lagos ports for years. Presently, many secondary schools lack science and mathematics teachers. With poor rudimentary knowledge in these subjects, furthering technology education becomes a mirage.
The situation is further complicated by the conditions of our universities. Routinely, students and teachers go on strike over lack of basic infrastructure for learning – inadequate classrooms, no water and electricity, dry laboratories, non-existent science workshops, and out-dated libraries. University administrators with scant regard for academic excellence admit students more than the carrying capacities of their institutions, just as they compete with politicians to abuse funds voted for the running of their schools. Research simply does not exist in most of our universities.
With the economy in icy headwinds, a new education system that focuses on the acquisition of knowledge that underpins production of goods has become imperative. The N483.6 billion lion’s share for education in the 2016 budget proposal is a step in the right direction, but not enough. Buhari’s pronouncements too are frighteningly vague. Moving ahead requires structural changes, not mere budgetary allocations. Every other development agenda should take a queue from a robust education structure. Therefore, the mess in the sector calls for a declaration of a state of emergency.
It is said that prosperous countries are those that have the knowledge to make a larger variety of more complex products in a sustainable manner. Based on this, other countries have successfully revolutionised their education, especially in STI. Nigeria has to learn from them. Looking backwards in order to step forward sure-footedly has become unavoidable. The Federal Government, under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, got UNESCO in 2004 to empanel an STI advisory body with the task of reviewing investment in science, industry, innovation and performance of government, academics, science and technological institutions. The body, which also comprised UNIDO and UNCTAD, was required to develop a funding template, upgrade capacity for our scientists and review STI in the light of global changes. At a donor conference in 2006 to fund the programme, the government pledged $5 billion. Regrettably, this was just on paper. This has to be rejuvenated.
Evidence abroad shows that quality basic and secondary education can trigger technological revolution, typified by the ingenuity of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs –the oracle of Apple computers – and Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook genius. Zuckerberg dropped out from Harvard University while studying psychology, and devoted all his energy to his first love – computer programming. His Facebook in 2015 was worth $300 billion in market capitalisation to top General Electric.
All it takes is school-based reform for quality and relevance. Transition to a more knowledge-based economy should be anchored on competency-based and demand-driven technical and vocational education and training. If European countries now copy Germany’s technical education model that focuses on industry needs –which underpins its economy, the biggest on the continent – Nigeria too can do the same. The invention of a software application by Chinedu Echeruo, a Nigerian who schooled at King’s College, Lagos, now based in the US, which Apple bought for $1 billion in 2015, illustrates the point that innovation is not the exclusive preserve of the West.
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