Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Who needs an education?

Although New York Times article doesn't focus specifically on the Nigerian higher education system, the similarities across African countries in this regard are striking...overpopulated classrooms, decrepit facilities, underpaid staff, jaded students, and so on. We know the scale of the problem but what can we start to do about it? What should we be demanding of our governors in order to revamp state universities? Is the way forward simply pumping $$ into private universities and maybe establishing systems of subsidizing tuition for those who can't afford it? What about soliciting foreign funding? What role can alumni of these universities play? Let's get talking people....

Intro from my African Studies Professor:

Of interest is a report on higher education in Africa...While the comparison with the past is somewhat misplaced (yes, a system designed to enable a very small African elite to reach higher education could allocate more resources per student, but that is not relevant to the current situation) and the critique of the World Bank and IMF is understated (they not only had other priorities but actively sought to reduce allocations to higher education), the overall presentation is informative. The consequences of the deterioration of higher education institutions in most African countries are likely to burden Africa for many years.


Africa's Storied Colleges, Jammed and Crumbling - Lydia Polgreen

DAKAR, Senegal, May 19 Thiany Dior usually rises before dawn, tiptoeing carefully among thin foam mats laid out on the floor as she leaves the cramped dormitory room she shares with half a dozen other women. It was built for two.

In the vast auditorium at the law school at Cheikh Anta Diop University, she secures a seat two rows from the front, two hours before class. If she sat too far back, she would not hear the professors lecture over the two tinny speakers, and would be more likely to join the 70 percent who fail their first- or second-year exams at the university.

Those who arrive later perch on cinderblocks in the aisles, or strain to hear from the gallery above. By the time class starts, 2,000 young bodies crowd the room in a muffled din of shuffling paper, throat clearing and jostling. Outside, dozens of students, early arrivals for the next class, mill about noisily.

I cannot say really we are all learning, but we are trying,said Ms. Dior. We are too many students.

Africas best universities, the grand institutions that educated a revolutionary generation of nation builders and statesmen, doctors and engineers, writers and intellectuals, are collapsing. It is partly a self-inflicted crisis of mismanagement and neglect, but it is also a result of international development policies that for decades have favored basic education over higher learning even as a population explosion propels more young people than ever toward the already strained institutions.

The decrepitude is forcing the best and brightest from countries across Africa to seek their education and fortunes abroad and depriving dozens of nations of the homegrown expertise that could lift millions out of poverty.

The Commission for Africa, said in a 2005 report that African universities were in a state of crisis and were failing to produce the professionals desperately needed to develop the poorest continent. Far from being a tool of social mobility, the repository of a nation's hopes for the future, Africa's universities have instead become warehouses for a generation of young people for whom society has little use and who can expect to be just as poor as their uneducated parents.

As a result, universities across Africa have become hotbeds of discontent, occupying a dangerous place at the intersection of politics and crime. In Ivory Coast, student union leaders played a large role in stirring up xenophobia that led to civil war. In Nigeria, elite schools have been overrun by violent criminal gangs. Those gangs have hired themselves out to politicians, contributing to the deterioration of the electoral process there.

In the early days, postcolonial Africa had few institutions as venerable and fully developed as its universities. The University of Ibadan in southwest Nigeria, the intellectual home of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka, was regarded in 1960 as one of the best universities in the British Commonwealth. Makerere University in Uganda was considered the Harvard of Africa, and it trained a whole generation of postcolonial leaders, including Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.

The disarray of Africas universities did not happen by chance. In the 1960s, universities were seen as the incubator of the vanguard that would drive development in the young nations of newly liberated Africa, and postcolonial governments spent lavishly on campuses, research facilities, scholarships and salaries for academics.

But corruption and mismanagement led to the economic collapses that swept much of Africa in the 1970s, and universities were among the first institutions to suffer. As idealistic postcolonial governments gave way to more cynical and authoritarian ones, universities, with their academic freedoms, democratic tendencies and elitist airs, became a nuisance.

When the World Bank and International Monetary Fund came to bail out African governments with their economic reforms a bitter cocktail that included currency devaluation, opening of markets and privatization higher education was usually low on the list of priorities. Fighting poverty required basic skills and literacy, not doctoral students. In the mid-1980s nearly a fifth of World Banks education spending worldwide went to higher education. A decade later, it had dwindled to just 7 percent.

Meanwhile, welcome money flooded into primary and secondary education. But it set up a time bomb: as more young people got a basic education, more wanted to go to college. In 1984, just half of Senegal's children went to primary school, but 20 years later more than 90 percent do.

And more of those children have gone on to high school: Africa has the world's highest growth rate of high school attendance...

Even those lucky enough to graduate will have difficulty finding a job in their struggling economies. As few as one third of African university graduates find work, according to the Association of African Universities.

Governments and donors in some countries are starting to spend more on higher education...

Fatou Kiné Camara, a law professor, said she felt the frustration of her students as she struggled to teach a class of thousands. When the students cannot hear her over the loudspeaker, they hurl vulgar insults, a taboo in a society that prides itself on decorum and respect for elders.

They are angry, and I cannot blame them, she said. The country has nothing to offer them, and their education is worthless. It doesnt prepare them for anything.

Attempts to reduce the student population by admitting fewer students are seen as political suicide, student unions play a big role in elections, and the countrys leaders are fearful of widespread discontent among the educated youth. Senegal has created new universities in provincial capitals like Saint Louis, but few students want to attend them because they are new and untested, and the government has not forced the issue.

They fear us because we are the young, and the future belongs to us,said Babacar Sohkna, a student union leader. But where is our future? We are just waiting here for poverty.

New York Times correspondent Lydia Polgreen is the winner of the George Polk Award for foreign reporting.


The Pseudo-Independent said...

Nice flash on your index page. Nice.

Now let me go read the article. Ill be back.


Our institutions of higher learning have fallen into such disrepair and disrepute. It is sad to see especially because less than 20 years ago, I remember having a student from Trinidad & Tobego come to Lagos to begin studies at a University there. That was then.

Here in the states, there are a lot of very well educated African (especially Nigerian) professors teaching (particularly at historically Black colleges), but they could not teach at home for fear of violence and lack of pay and facilities.

One good note, though. Apparently, the Financial Times recently ranked Lagos Business School in the top 50 for executive education. It is one of maybe 5 African institutions on the list. The others are in SA. Nigerians need to support LBS ( and hope that it stays in the rankings, moves up a couple of spots and inspires other educational institutions to 'up their game'.

I unfortunately do not think that we can wait for the government to improve our institutions of higher learning, so that will have to be something that goes the way of privatisation as well. What that will spell for the future, only God knows, so I will not speculate.

Bitchy said...

In the Naij documentary I saw last month, and in the one on Fela and Femi Kuti (Suffering and Smiling), I remember marvelling at how well spoken common Nigerians in their 30s and early 40s were. I'm not referring to their accents, but to their grammar, and the words they used, like "discombobulated" (lol) etc. But I've seen CVs from recent university graduates in the last few years, and you could be forgiven for thinking they were written by 9 yr olds! The bitter cycle is really getting outta hand. I can only imagine the frustration that comes from sweating your way through university (what with strikes, cults etc) and then finding on the other side that (a) jobs are scarce, and (b) that you don't even have the basic skills (i.e. good command of the English language) for the few jobs available! Is it any wonder the Yahoo Yahoo 419 phenomenon has spiralled outta control?

Kome said...

It is articles like this that make me believe there is a way to make a difference. I am surprised no one has yet said that we (Afrobeat readers) should be the ones that have the most power to influence the direction and push for a higher quality of education in our country.

We have all attended or are currently attending higher level education insitutions around the world and who better than to take the step towards creating quality insitutions.

I believe that by not doing anything we are doing ourselves and our country a diservice, who do we except to step in and take the reigns? - foreigners? the governement?

Why should the government be responsible for something like this when we all know through first hand experience the benefits of having a degree and using that to work at a prestigous firm or going on to further education?!

I propose that we all begin to brainstorm ways in which we can through our own hands take the level of education in Nigeria to new heights and thus encourage and help those less fortunate than us

Misan said...

you're right on the money Kome, we need to start thinking about what we can do, be it through the public sector or the private sector. i somehow feel the private sector is doing its thing to address the situation, with the setting up of private unis. however, i feel that there is a huge class of pp not being addressed i.e. those who can't afford private higher education, in which case, it is important to address the public university system, which is quite difficult to do without the government. we can donate lab equipment and books for starters but at the end of the day, with the bureaucracy/unaccountability involved in the public sector, how would we track the use of these items...we would need support from the administration itself, be it via the ministry of education, or some other body that's directly in charge of keeping the admins of these unis accountable.

I honestly think one avenue that hasn't been tapped into adequately (or at all) is alumni support. in the States for example, alumni contributions are what most unis depend on to cover their students undergraduate needs. our federal and even some of the onlder state unis have a wealth of alumni resources they could tap into, but no such system has been introduced. Is that sth we as recent graduates from schools OVERSEAS can influence? i don't think so.

The most common option is to set up scholarship funds to send nigerian students to unis abroad, but as we know that doesn't address the problem.

I can't help it but think about solutions on a broad (public sector-oriented scale) but i believe the problem is so huge that it needs HUGE solutions, hence why i struggle to think of what we as Afro Beat members can start to do to solve the problem on a smaller scale. More ideas welcome.

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