Education: There’s fire on the mountain.

“There’s fire on the mountain and nobody seems to be on the run There’s fire on the mountain top  and no one is a-running…
One day the river will overflow And there’ll be nowhere for us to go And we will run, run Wishing we had put out the fire

In this season of university closure and youth rudderlessness, the lyrics of superstar Asa’s hit track, “Fire on the mountain”, commend themselves to Nigerians. Some may say that there has always been fire on Nigeria’s Mountain, and they may have a point there. University closures have become  the new ‘normal’. In the past, university teachers have always embarked on endless strikes in pursuit of one demand or the other. On the surface, therefore, there is nothing special about the 2022 edition of an annual ritual. But wait… Let’s tarry awhile and put on our thinking caps.

There is fire on the mountain. What is alarming is not just the fire. The thing that truly frightens me is the way we all go about our daily businesses as if nothing was amiss. Our future leaders are being consigned to hopelessness as they roam the streets — and we are all either standing akimbo or shrugging as we cast a spiteful glance at the problem.

How do we expect our youths to become patriots when the country routinely treats them as outcasts? Compare the emoluments of a legislator in the national assembly with those of academics and you’ll know what kind of country we are running. The monthly take-home pay of Nigerian legislators was one of the closely guarded secrets in the land until 2018 when Senator Shehu Sani obeyed his conscience and disclosed that his monthly pay as a senator was N750,000 with sundry allowances for running costs totalling N13.5 million.
On top of that, a senator gets a “constituency project” of N200 million domiciled with a government agency to which a senator is advised to submit his preferred project of that value. The National Assembly budget does not have any expenditure subhead for “office running cost”. The N13.5 million monthly provision  is hidden under a separate subhead. All this is going on in a country where a university professor earns about N500,000 (about $714 in the black market) monthly.

Senator Shehi Sani

We treat academia with so much disdain because there is an anti-intellectual conspiracy among the ruling elite to consign anything that has to do with cerebral exertions to the backwaters. One requires a university degree as entry point into the officer cadre of the university but is not required to have even a secondary school certificate to become governor or president. The difference between Nigeria and many of the countries making positive waves in the world is that their affairs are managed by their brightest minds and their system adequately compensates teachers, researchers and innovators.
I have no doubt that the patriotic fervour I feel for my country today is founded on the generosity my country has shown me over the years. Many people in my generation openly confess that the 70s were their best years. They were tutored by some of the sharpest minds in various disciplines. Our universities were truly international melting pots. Foreign students competed for admission with our own, and we all shared the same top grade facilities. Foreign lecturers fell over each other to be given a place in the faculty. Speaking for myself, Great Ife was as good as Oxford or Harvard or Witwatersrand. We, the proud products, are evidence of that.

Over the years, the military began their anti-intellectual campaign by first taking over all regional universities and then proceeding to ride roughshod over them as if they were military academies. The ‘Ali-Must-Go’ crisis was a frontal attack by Nigerian students on the military’s attempt to reduce education to an elitist entitlement. The civilian inheritors of power are only continuing the mindless despoliation of the military. You would think that they would know better.

One of the main problems confronting developing societies is that the elite tend to throw money at problems instead of using their brains to think of solutions. Pray, what is the rocket science behind funding education in the universities? The first thing you hear is that Nigeria cannot afford to fund its universities because of the global economic meltdown. Balderdash! I invite you to please join me as we attempt to THINK out a solution.
There are too many areas of waste in the present structure of the federal government. By the way, our federal government is anything but federal. It is all but unitary except in name.

One of the gravy trains used to stockpile money in the name of education is the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund). This is an educational fund established with the mandate to administer the two per cent education tax imposed on profit-making taxable companies registered and doing business in Nigeria.
TETFund is charged with rehabilitating, developing and improving the quality of tertiary education in the country. Its beneficiaries include universities, colleges of education, polytechnics, monotechnics, federal and state ministries of education, commissions, state primary and secondary education boards. The list also includes staff training and development agencies, libraries, ICT, capacity building, sports, book development, research, vocational training, police and paramilitary agencies.

I recall that three years ago, when the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) carried out an audit of the operations of TETFund and found out that the “Fund does not have a comprehensive accounting and operational manual. Hence, there is insufficient guide for accounting and operations’ processes.” Also, following what it described as the uncooperative attitude of TETFund officials, NEITI said its audit team was “unable to verify the income received from the various sources by the agency, and unable to evaluate the utilisation of the funds.”
And how much was involved in the five years under consideration (2014-2019)? Within those five years, about N1 trillion accrued to TETFund. That is a lot of money in any currency!

I propose that we scrap TETFund. Imagine if, instead of using outfits such as TETFund to settle political IOUs, the funds are equally shared among all federal institutions. I also suggest that we pool 50 percent of monies accruing to the Petroleum Technology Development Fund for sharing among federal tertiary institutions for equipping their science laboratories. Without basic sciences, we can’t be talking about technology. We must therefore sow developmental seeds in science faculties by devoting a slice of the PTDF funds to them.
Whatever gap remains after the measures suggested above have been taken, should be calculated by each institution and sourced from modest fees to be charged to maintain high standards. I find it ridiculous that in some universities, students still pay the same N90 we paid for accommodation in the 70’s when the Naira had a higher value than the dollar! This is totally unrealistic.
If we intend to keep the standards high, we must ensure that every university has the wherewithal to compete favourably on the global stage, knowing, as we do, that education is a tool for social engineering. Nobody deserves to be left behind on account of humongous fees but everyone can chip in a fair contribution to keep the system afloat in our collective interest. For, as Chef Obafemi Awolowo famously warned, “The children of the poor you failed to train will never let your children have peace”.
If we mop up funds from many of the federal parastatals which only duplicate the responsibilities of existing ministries and agencies, we shall discover that funding education is not as difficult as it appears. We only need to set our minds to it.

In the same vein, monies accruing to the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) will be better managed if transferred directly to states and local governments. The opaque school feeding programme, too, needs to be tweaked. The more bureaucracies you create the more corruption would fester.
There are simply too many holes through which Nigeria’s commonwealth is being frittered away.
That is why there’s fire on the mountain now. We ignore this conflagration at our collective peril.


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