In recent news, one Northern state after another has made public intentions to build local universities. Borno State Government restated its commitment to implementing the policy of the immediate past government; Bauchi State Government also announced plans to build a state university; while Kano State Government is planning to build a second state university, after its State University of Science and Technology, even when it was yet to have all its courses accredited. This is in addition to new universities in the region such as those of Taraba and Yobe States. This news gives me more than a little discomfort.
My bone of contention with these plans is not that we do not need more universities, but these governments are misplacing priorities when it comes to matters of education. To start with, the literacy rate in the North is very dismal, not to mention those who have been educated at the basic primary and secondary levels of education. This was made clear in a special report of the Daily Trust Newspapers of 15th October this year. It did a survey of the effectiveness of the Universal Basic Education Scheme started by the Obasanjo administration in 1999. The scheme was designed to provide compulsory, free education up to Junior Secondary levels, to be funded by both the Federal and State Governments. The FG keeps 2% of the Consolidated Revenue Fund into the scheme and allocates money to the states when the states contribute its matching amounts.
However, the newspaper’s investigation found out that most of the states never made their matching grants, denying themselves access to the funds; and in states where they had been given the grants, the education sector is still pathetic. For example, in my state, Borno, only 13% of 15 and 16-year olds can read and write, while 72% of school-age children have never been within the four walls of a classroom; statistics so grim that even the governor admitted he was too embarrassed to state them publicly. Bauchi State has an attendance rate of only 42% among school-age kids. In the midst of this situation, one would expect that common sense would prevail over our governments and develop the basic educational facilities rather than embarking on building universities.
Basic education is the most important level of education because it gives the foundation upon which tertiary education can grow. As much as our tertiary education is in tatters, we still see quite a number of graduates who exhibit brilliance and add value to society and economy. The difference between these value-adding graduates and the others is the educational foundation they received. That is because that is when their intelligence quotient was developed, not to mention invaluable reading and writing skills. But when we abandon primary and secondary schools and focus exclusively on tertiary education, we end up worsening the situation rather than making it better.
I know some readers would object to my views and insist the governments are on the right path, because we need more degree-holders. This much is not in doubt. But let us consider that even developed societies like the United States have only 33% of its population with first degrees. As much as they keep expanding opportunities for their citizens to access tertiary education, they do not misplace the priority of basic education, something we lack in the North in both quantity and quality. Dilapidated schools with kids having classes under trees are still commonplace, and that is even where that is available.
It is a pity that in our politics, being credited with founding a university carries way more points than building/renovating primary and secondary schools, improving curricula or recruiting qualified teachers. Let us not just aspire to have graduates where their degree certificates are not worth the paper they are printed on. Building a quality educational system should be a bottom-up approach. Our focus should for now, be on building more primary and secondary schools and making sure that the minimum every kid should have is a secondary education, and not just one in name, but one that will also have weight in quality. Our policy direction for tertiary education should be in strengthening existing tertiary education and only building new ones when doing so would not choke the basic education system of funds and attention.
Until we do that, the sight of able-bodied young men without quality education, or even any at all; unable to do the most basic of rudimentary things required for modern life; idle and ready fodder for use in crises by mischievous elements of our society would continue to assault us.