You have pretty much answered the next question, which refers to your quote in the Punch newspaper some years ago where you said that 60% of Nigerian university students have no business being there. Do you still stand by this statement and what exactly did you mean by it?
es, I stand by that statement. I see that a lot of our students who are in the university would, given the choice, have preferred to be somewhere else. If their parents were not pushing them and if basic education was not free, especially at the public level, a lot of students wouldn’t be here.
And those who take degrees, spending taxpayers money in public universities to take degrees and then end up throwing the degrees away to do other things, they would have thought twice about wasting several years of their lives doing something that they don’t want or need. The degree would also become more respected as people have often complained that universities are producing poor graduates. Yes, they will continue to produce poor graduates, as long as everybody thinks that the fashionable thing is to go to university. Not because they want to learn, but because everybody else is there. So, those are some of the things we need to change. And of course, we have those who fully deserve a university education too.
Okay, turning to the recent policy by the United Kingdom’s government to recruit teachers from Nigeria, how do you think it will affect the Nigerian educational sector?
Well, just like you asking me, how will the “Japa” syndrome, generally going on affect? It will affect.
We will lose people. We will lose many people. Obviously, as they leave for the United Kingdom, there will be vacancies. But I always say this, and some people don’t agree with me, that this is a very resilient country. It’s not that we will not miss those who go, but there are people here to replace everybody who goes away.
There are thousands here who are ready and willing to take their place. And I think those who are going away, it is their bill of right to go and to go anywhere they please. But I also find some difficulty with those who go away having been funded through university by taxpayers money, and they don’t remember that they have to pay something back before going.
And I’m speaking specifically about doctors. Most of the doctors who go through federal institutions pay next to nothing to get medical degrees, and yet they leave here without paying back. While people should leave when they want to leave, I do think that a structure or system should be put in place that those who leave without having served the taxpayers who paid their fees through school, should be made to refund the money spent on them before leaving.
This is my personal opinion and I hold very strongly to this opinion. The same thing applies to teachers, to those who pass through public institutions, who have been funded by taxpayers, to also remember that when they leave, that someone paid their fees here and someone sent them to school here, and that either they pay back that money before going or they arrange for the money to be paid back. Once this is done, anybody is free to leave and the system will continue to regenerate itself and continue to produce new teachers, new doctors and all of those. This is my opinion.
What can the Federal government and state governments do in the immediate to stem the tide of the expected exodus?
Nothing. Nothing. People are attracted to places where life will be better.
So you can’t stop them. You can’t blame anybody who wants to go. Perhaps the easiest way, the easiest answer would be for government to improve staff welfare and to improve working conditions. But, you know, those things, as it appears to us now, seem to be far fetched.
I don’t see this current government changing and turning all of this around to encourage people to want to stay. People will keep going. Gradually, the governments, these and successive governments should begin to improve service conditions, welfare, work opportunities.
These are things that will take a long time to achieve. In the interim, my thinking is that you can’t even stop anybody who wants to go. That’s the truth about that. But again, like I said, those who have been funded through university by taxpayers should refund the money so we can train more of their kind here.
And it also tells you that the standard of education here may not be as bad as some of us are portraying it. Because if the standard was so bad, those who are looking for them abroad, will not be doing so. It still means that there is something those people leaving have to offer. There’s still some merit in the system from which those people are coming. Even if all of us agree that system can be improved and should be improved.
Well, you pretty much answered the next question, which was what is the long term solution?
Yes, the long term solution is to improve the quality largely through better funding and a change of attitude in those who operate the systems themselves.
Not just funding. If you throw money into a corrupt system, it becomes a cesspool of more corruption. So, not just funding. It’s also a matter of ensuring that those who run those systems are men of integrity, who are able to use the money, the resources and the funding judiciously.
And then, of course, the people also have to believe in the system. I think a lot of negative thinking, negative talking from Nigerians about Nigeria itself is a problem.
For years, Africans who can afford to pursue their education abroad have done so. But to your knowledge, are there African countries which have an educational sector comparable with those we talk about in Europe and the North American countries?
Good question. I’ve been to virtually all African countries. I’ve been involved in teaching, research, assessing, examining students in Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and I tell you, it’s unfortunate that we rate our own system poorer than any of those.
My knowledge of those systems is that the Nigerian system, at least a few universities in Nigeria, are comparable to any of the best in Africa, if not better. And indeed comparable to many of the universities in other places such as in Europe.
I must always use this as an example. Here, at the Institute of African Studies, University of Lagos, we receive Fellowship visitors all the time. Visiting Fellows from Pakistan, from India and even from America. And by the time they have spent six, seven months with us and are about to leave, they ask us this question. “Why do your students come to our country to school, when you have a university like this?” This university is a lot better than many of the universities in Europe, Africa and elsewhere. But of course, there is a tendency for us to think that the grass is greener elsewhere. And when the so called foreign fellows, scholars, professors visit the University of Lagos, they look around, they see the quality of staff, the quality of facilities we have here.
They cannot help but wonder why we say such things about our own country, our own universities, why Nigeria themselves say such things about them. Because it’s incredible. The standard we have here and in a few other universities in Nigeria, compares with any of the best on this continent.
And I think one of the problems still boils down to that same fact of people coming to the university without paying fees. Because if you want to maintain structures and systems and facilities without people paying for it, this is what you get. And that is not the situation in many of the other African countries that I have been to where people pay fees. Students pay fees and students maintain facilities through their contribution to the system. So we must make partakers of our educational system contribute to it. Otherwise we will continue to have the situation we have now. And I think that, yes, there are very good universities in Africa.
But I think that ranking the top universities in Nigeria below any of those is a very wrong thing to do. They compare favorably, if not better.
Even if some African countries have an ambition of nurturing their educational system to rival those of developed nations, can this be achieved only by mimicking the system of the developed world? Or do we believe or do you believe a whole grown system can achieve this goal and serve Africa better?
Well, I think universities are the same everywhere. The word university means universal sources of knowledge, bringing people from the universe together under one roof, one situation or condition. So, I think universities will still continue to run the same pattern. It is the curriculum that universities run that should be different from one country, one university to the other. And this is what each university should look at. Its area of strength and the needs of the society and then fashion its curriculum to meet those needs.
And that is what we are not doing enough. We need to do a lot more. But in terms of the universality of knowledge, universities are homes and places of knowledge production, autochthonous knowledge production, indigenous knowledge production, that can be applicable at the universal level.
And this is what we are not doing enough here. We need to do a lot more of producing knowledge here from our own environment and our own reality, that would be useful to other people in their own environment and in their own reality. And that, we need to do more.
Okay sir. And that brings us to the last question. With the obvious negative consequences that the aforementioned UK policy portends, do you see any positives for the educational sectors of the Beneficiary countries? Afterall, it is said that every dark cloud has a silver lining.
Well, there will be remittances. There will be an increase in remittances, and that is also useful to help us develop ailing areas of our own national life. And of course, some of them will eventually return with new ways and methods of teaching and of doing things, which can be a positive thing.
And if this is applied to our own schools, maybe it will help, if they will not be antagonistic to our own structures and systems. And I also know that there’s nothing wrong with people moving from one country to the other, moving from one place to the other, carrying knowledge from here to there and there to here.
That is what the world is all about. What is wrong is for people to take these people without thinking of how to replenish those that are leaving, and that is what we need to address. But beyond that, I think ultimately it could be beneficial to us that quite a number of people are leaving.
And in terms of remittances and in terms of the fact that some, like I said, will return, it also opens up new opportunities, new possibilities for those who are leaving, those who are going away.
In any case, the Nigerian population is very high and it’s a way of reducing our population. On a lighter mood, when people say Nigerians are “Japaing” and going away, I say to them, I went to Osodi yesterday and I didn’t notice anybody was missing.
The truth is that yes, a lot of people are leaving, but yet, we won’t still notice it here. This is a blessed country that has been mismanaged over the years. This is a blessed country. Ordinarily, with the number of doctors that have left, this should lead to a total close down. But we have this extraordinary capacity to keep regenerating, keep producing and becoming a factory of doctors and lawyers. So, it’s not such a particularly bad thing. But then we should create an environment for those who wish to stay to be able to achieve the best they can. And that’s what is still lacking.