The Academic Staff Union of Universities has been on strike for weeks now. It has been about three months and there seems no definitive end in sight. It is a sad state of affairs for students who have to sit at home waiting for the strike to be called off so that they can return to school, finish their programmes and move on to the next phase of their lives. On the other hand, I understand completely where ASUU is coming from. It is difficult to give your best when, as a lecturer, you neither have the infrastructure nor the resources.
Growing up, education was very important in my family. My grandmother used to say that if you stuck with education then you did not have to depend on anyone for your breakfast, lunch or dinner. For my grandfather, it was important to educate his daughters as well as his sons because to him, an education was all that he had to give them, and for his daughters, he wanted them independent and education was the key. They were both ridiculed for wasting their money on their daughters, but that was not of concern to them.
My grandparents had six children, two sons and four daughters. Luckily for them they had the options of mission schools, but it was still a struggle that they willingly took on. This covered primary and secondary education. Tertiary education was another story. The first daughter attended Teacher Training College and taught for some years so that she could contribute to the family purse. A few years later, the second daughter responded to a training advert in Lagos and became part of the first set of female air traffic controllers in Nigeria. The first son was a gifted organist and that gave him some sort of income as a student at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. It worked out that there was a big enough gap between the first three and the last three, so that my grandparents had some reprieve. Those were different times – my mom and her sister were able to get good-paying vacation jobs to contribute to their upkeep. In the end, all is well that ends well. They produced two doctorate holders (the last two daughters – my mother and her younger sister).
I am a proud product of a Universal Primary Education Model Primary School in Port Harcourt (UPE Borokiri). That is my foundation. The UPE was a great idea but in its second coming during the Obasanjo regime in the 1970s, it became fraught with challenges that had not been considered in the planning stages. Although enrolment of primary school students massively increased, existing infrastructure was inadequate, the quality of teachers began to drop, and of course, we cannot exclude the effects of corruption and the military years.
For tertiary education, I went to the United States of America. Tertiary education in America is expensive, but there are options. The most affordable being the community colleges that offer associate’s degrees (some offer bachelor’s degrees). For state schools your fees are lower if you are a resident of the state. And then there are the Ivy League, top tier schools where you pay an arm and a leg. My education was funded through a merit scholarship, a student loan, and work-study.
Aside: this just made me realise that in all the schools I attended and had to work, the first-year students had to work in a kitchen. As a Form 1 student at Federal Government Girls’ College, Abuloma, we washed the plates after lunch and dinner. It was disgusting, but I appreciate the opportunity for bonding and teamwork. As a first-year student at Mount Holyoke College, my work-study job was in the kitchen, again, washing dishes. The only job that freshmen could have was in the kitchen, most likely doing the dishes. There was a roster and we were responsible for getting the dishes done after every meal time, and in time for the next meal time. Luckily for me, the loan agreement for international students at my school was that if you still had outstanding payments and your loan would be cancelled if you returned to your home country and stayed for at least four years.
Forgive the digression. The point that I am trying to make, and I do not have a popular position on this, is that people must pay more for tertiary education in Nigeria. I may be naïve in my thinking but I believe that the introduction of the Bank Verification Number, the National Identification Number and other technological advances present an opportunity for financial institutions to develop student loan products for students in tertiary institutions.
At the University of Ghana, fees range between the equivalent of N112, 500 and N187, 500, depending on the faculty. This is for regular students. Regular students are those whose brains are so hot that their tuition is subsidized by the government. Full fee-paying students pay between N285, 000 and N487, 500. Foreign students (including Nigerians) pay in US dollars, starting at about $5,000.Government focuses its resources on primary and secondary education and subsidizes tuition for tertiary education based on merit. I cannot emphasise the importance of a strong foundation. It is the funnel through which your lecturers have to pass. No matter what level of education a person has attained, you can spot when the foundation is weak.
In Nigeria, at two of the top universities in the country, students do not pay more than N60, 000 and for some, that includes accommodation. I am no expert in education policy, but I do not believe that this is viable. The trend in many countries now is to move away from free tertiary education, and provide bursaries based on merit. Tuition fees have become a political issue particularly in our state universities. In some states, tuition fees are as low as N5, 000 and any attempt to increase the fees will be met by stiff resistance from students. No government wants to raise fees, yet they will not allocate adequate funding to education. Feeding students is great but under what conditions are they learning? How qualified are their teachers? What equipment do they have to teach their subjects? Those in the sciences probably have more of a challenge than others, but all have shared difficulty.
Government needs to do more, but students must also accept that you get what you pay for.
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