Our people say that an unmarried man of twenty who builds a mansion and invites the traditional ruler and the entire community to celebrate the fact that he now has a home will attract this unvoiced remark from most of his guests: “Ah, this young man will yet learn that it takes more than brickwork to make a home” In more contemporary parlance, the point being made is that there is a fundamental difference between investment in physical infrastructure and investment in human capital development.
The building of classrooms, for instance, does not automatically translate into investment in education. Classrooms, brand new desks, smart boards, and computers fall under learning infrastructure. Teachers are the “factory workers” in every human capital development factory or industry called a school. That is why the quality of teachers, the depth of teaching, the quality of the curriculum, etc. are the real issues. Thus, I invite President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and his government to pay close attention to the short-, medium-, and long-term impacts of every new policy. Also not to be forgotten is the question of the sustainability of policies and programmes. The important thing is for the government not to equate a record of expenditure or its goodwill as shown in its actions and pronouncements with evidence of a positive impact on citizen welfare.
These sentiments expressed above were responsible for a piece that appeared on this page after the last Executive Council meeting of President Buhari during his first tenure, years ago. The government then pulled off a cabinet decision that was hailed on several fronts as a landmark achievement. Yet it only represented the symptom of a deep national crisis that had overtaken elite consciousness on governance issues in Nigeria. The concerns raised in the article in question then are even more pertinent today, as a warning for the new government not to follow the beaten, wrong path in the same regard. The article, titled Objection, Mr. President’, had this to say:
“There is an objection in principle here to any action or policy initiative of the government, the President, or his proxies that may not serve wider, long-term national interests. In this regard, Mr. President may wish to draw attention to some matters of state to which one may be justified in raising some mild objections. The decision of the Federal Executive Council to spend the sum of N4.7 billion on the construction of seven model schools in the six geopolitical zones of the country is ill advised.
The federal government can choose one Unity School from each of the geo-political zones and upgrade it to a Model School, or school of reference of some sort, instead of starting fresh school projects.
A simple costs-benefits analysis shows that N4.7 billion will go a very long way in rescuing the over one hundred now-decrepit and derelict Unity Schools in the country and increasing their carrying capacity. The old student associations and the parents of the current students who are now maintaining and sustaining these schools in the critical areas of infrastructure and learning environment should be relieved of a burden that a distant Federal Ministry of Education, a consummate cabal with impressive credentials that no minister of education can easily see through or dislodge, claims to be handling but is not.
To build new model schools, you must award building contracts to “reliable” contractors. Construction of the schools will probably take two years or more, followed by the provision of state-of-the-art amenities, which essentially boils down to a series of procurement contracts. The seven model schools will not make any impact whatsoever on human capital development or contribute to the growth of education, one way or another, in Nigeria in the next five years. But upgrading some Unity schools will do just that within the same timeframe. So, the proposed new schools will be nothing but a major capital project, resting on the mistaken assumption that the provision of learning infrastructure is the same thing as sustainable investment in education.
We should not be content to celebrate cash evidence of massive government investment in education when, in fact, the name of the Nigerian child is being taken in vain by contractors and government jobbers. Who builds model schools without simultaneously training model teachers? Should part of this freshly budgeted sum of N4.7 billion not perhaps go into strengthening the National Teachers Institute (NTI), the Teachers Registration Council (TRC), and probably reinvigorating the academic content and quality of various faculties of education nationwide? Do our teacher-producing facilities not need specialised short courses on contemporary teaching and learning paradigms and much more?
The school system is like a factory,” producing human capital for the nation. It needs “factory workers”, as well as facilities and the physical infrastructure housing all activities. Investment that focuses on factory machinery and the premises of our education industry is not the best approach to improving the quality of citizens (or “products”) we turn out. It is not enough for an investor to procure and install fine “machinery.” The equipment will not translate to quality products, or even any products at all, unless there are also competent people to handle them. A man who builds a bakery to the best global standards, complete with a service and marketing template that even the Jews would envy, but who fails to train bakers and install efficient and effective management has invested in folly. He will have impressive installed capacity but pitiable capacity utilisation. Incompetent staff will quickly destroy the unfamiliar equipment and ruin everything.
Investment in teacher education and knowledge upgrades, upscaling of learning outcomes, and other measures that would impact the quality of products in our schools are the issues here. The expenditure of most states of the federation on education over the last twenty years of our democracy shows huge budgetary allocations to education, but at the same time, we also show a precipitous decline in educational standards and learning outcomes. Some states with very high records of expenditure for classroom rehabilitation, the supply of desks, books, etc. also have the worst teacher training, school enrollment, and retention records. Check the investment of the federal and state governments in the training of teachers, the provision of teaching aids, and more in the last 20 years. So, let us pull the blinkers off our eyes and get real.
Let us recall that the introduction of the 3-3-3-6 secondary school template was predicated on the expectation that the products of our secondary schools would be eligible for some form of employment, based on a “technical” education of sorts. Introductory Technology (Intro-Tech) came on board as a subject in our secondary schools because of this. Impressive machinery and other infrastructure for teaching the subject were also quickly imported (procurement contract). Some of the “Jakande Schools” in Lagos, with their low walls, had to build new halls for safe storage of the equipment. But there were practically no teachers for the new subject anywhere. So, while we cheerfully planned for a revolutionary national human capital development outing and procured the equipment for it, while we celebrated the expected outcomes with a very sound education policy, many schools could not even install the equipment, to say nothing of using it.
The equipment procured and given to schools all over Nigeria for that revolution is nowhere to be found today. The products of that revolution are also nowhere to be found today. Worse still, there is no impact on national development, technological evolution, or unemployment.
It is against the background of the foregoing that one feels constrained to say, Objection, Mr. President, to the proposed Model Schools.” Increase the number and quality of teachers, expand the carrying capacity of the existing schools, provide the necessary contemporary teaching aids, and ensure the security of lives and property for the students, teachers, and contiguous communities. The nation is yet to recover from the debilitating impact of the brand-new universities of questionable authenticity established by the Jonathan administration. A record of expenditure is not evidence of impact.”
With the above from an article that was essentially a protest against wasteful and misguided expenditure, it is again saying, here and now, that the current government must not allow itself to fall into the unfortunate trap of just rolling out records of money spent and what it was spent on. We saw enough of that in the last eight years. Tucano aircraft and sundry rumoured arms and ammunition procurements were celebrated while bandits and terrorists overran the land.
Two years before the federal government initiative under reference, the government of Kebbi State had done more or less the same thing. This was our commendation on that back then: “A few weeks ago, the government of Kebbi State approved the sum of N4.5 billion for the construction and renovation of schools. Other reports suggest that the state government is going to build brand new schools in every local government in the state. To the extent that the reports about this matter remain undeniable in the media, the question to ask is this: Aren’t there other ways in which the state government can spend N4.5 billion and make better mileage in education? But more questions will follow. Speaking further on the construction and rehabilitation works, the Executive Secretary, Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) of the state, Hassan Umar, was quoted as having said: “We have already started the process. We have contract specifications and have told contractors to do quality work. We have guidelines on the execution of the projects.”
Continuing, the article had this to say: “The state government (and most other state governments in the country) may wish to answer the following questions: (1) How many candidates have enrolled for SSCE and related examinations in the last 10 years, and why? (4) Can you say, in all good conscience, that less than seventy percent of your state’s education budget of the last 20 years has not been more procurement contracts? And (3) Has there been an improvement in enrolment, retention, and education outcomes since the return of democracy?
In sum, President Tinubu must keep a sharp lookout for shadows that are threatening to present themselves as substance. Whether it concerns palliatives, the State of Emergency on Food Security, etc. The economic meteriologists are saying, “Watch out for clear air turbulence”.