Of Okorocha and his free education programme

Posted by Collins Ughalaa | 22 March 2017 | 2,861 times

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•Governor Okorocha.

On Monday, February 27, 2017 I read an interesting piece authored by Dr Alex Otti, former Managing Director of Diamond Bank Plc, in his Outside The Boxcolumn on the back page of ThisDay, captioned ‘Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense 2’. When I first looked up at the caption my mind travelled quickly to a line from one of the compositions of the late Afro-beat King, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, where he cautioned, Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense! In the wonderfully written article, I read something that has refused to leave my memory. That is:

In the latest edition of Times Higher Education Ranking, 2016, no Nigerian University made it to the top 981 universities in the world, quite unlike in 2015 when we featured at No. 600. That explains how fast the rest of the world is moving and or how fast Nigeria is moving in the wrong direction. In this same report for Africa, University of Ibadan that placed 11th in 2015 had dropped to the 14th position. Out of the best 15 universities in Africa, South African Universities took the first 6 positions, except the 4th position that went to Makerere University, Uganda. University of Ghana came 7th, while the University of Nairobi came 8th. Three Egyptian universities took the 9th to the 11th position, while two Moroccan universities placed 12th and 15th. In another report, the 2017 African University Ranking, which largely agreed with the Times ranking, only four Nigerian universities made it to the top 50 in Africa. These are Universities of Ibadan and Lagos, Obafemi Awolowo University (Ile-Ife) and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.”

The excerpt from Dr Otti struck my mind and reinforced what we knew already: that the fallen standard of education in the country took deeper dive under the current hands managing Nigeria. But that was not my final take. My final take was that the picture vividly painted by Otti touched on Imo State, where for close to six years now the state government under Governor Rochas Okorocha has been in free education. The essence of the free education mantra, we were told, was to enhance education and make it available to the people, so that the state, in the very near future, would boast of adequate manpower. But during the period of the government’s free education, the educational system in the state is almost dead. The only things you would see about education in the state are the continued claim of increment in enrolment figures and the uncompleted and ill-conceived 305 school buildings embarked upon by the state government more than five years ago. But in fact, what we have in education in Imo State is just the carcass of education. The soul is gone.

The schools in Imo State have not been rated positively by any ratings in six years. From occupying the lowest places in recent rankings to policy summersault, the state government has only sent out signals for the interment of education. Under Okorocha’s free education, and just like  Otti succinctly stated, all manners of ills take place: from the lecturers relegating hard work and excellence to the background to awarding marks to those that bought textbooks, those who paid either in cash or kind. Okorocha’s free education has proved to be the poison that killed education in the state. Just last week, a cousin of mine in Imo State University (IMSU) returned home and informed me that they paid N300 each for the test they had. He said there were more than 1,500 students for the test who paid N300. That would be N450,000 flying into the account of the lecturer for one test. And the students are in their foundational First Year.  The previous week, my cousin had demanded N2,000 for a textbook he said the lecturer insisted they must buy, otherwise they won’t write his test. My neighbours who attend same school tell me gory tales of gruesome lecturers who insist that no student would pass their courses if they didn’t pay a given sum. And once these conditions are met the students pass in high grades, albeit borrowed grades. But the problem is not in their grades. The problem lies in what Otti also pointed out.

In the immediate post-colonial era, someone with a First School Leaving Certificate, also known as “San Six”: a bastardised pronunciation of Standard Six certificate, could speak very well, write very well, knowing where to punctuate, add comas and full stops. That is hardly the case with holders of School Certificates and equivalents today, not to talk of First School Leaving Certificates. A lot of them can hardly make correct statements without grammatical and mechanical blunders. Some can’t even write their names. What do we expect when their teachers are as bad, teaching them nonsense? The Governor Oshiomole/Graduate Teacher episode presents a funny but interesting scenario.”

The candour in Dr Otti’s statement is further amplified in the experience I had with a young lady who was recommended by a friend of mine for a job at the Nigeria Spectator last year. The lady said she studied Masscom in IMSU, but she could not pass her job interview let alone write a good sentence. In the end, she said she could take any job, but alas, we didn’t have “any job” for her.

The reason for this shame in the educational system in Imo State (though not peculiar) was well identified by Otti, when he noted: “In teaching, just like most things in life, what you sow is what you reap. You cannot have a teacher who can’t read and expect his or her products to be able to read. The rigour that goes into the selection process and the minimum standards set for teachers have a lot to do with the quality of teachers we have. In the past, teaching was a very respectable and noble profession, attracting the best hands and brains. I am not too sure that the situation is the same today. In so many places in Nigeria, teaching has been left for those who could not find jobs elsewhere. A major reason for this is the competitiveness of both compensation and motivation. If we do not get these right, we may as well forget attracting the right quality of personnel to this otherwise important profession. After all, it is said that if you pay peanuts, you attract monkeys. It is also for survival reasons that a lot of terrible things happen between teachers and students, especially at the tertiary level. These days, you hear about ‘sorting’ by the higher education students. This shameful word, for those who have not encountered it, refers to buying of grades from teachers in cash and kind. You may be as scandalised, as I was a few years ago, when a university student explained it to me. Students actually pay teachers for grades and depending on how much the student is willing to pay, he could score A, B, or C. Female students whose teachers are male could ‘sort’ in kind. Here, the teacher sleeps with students in exchange for grades. That is the level of decay that has become the hallmark of our educational system. Those who went to school decades ago would agree that these kind of actions were abominable at that time.” 

Okorocha inherited fresh 5,000 teachers employed and deployed by his predecessor in the popular 10,000 jobs exercise. The ex-governor Ikedi Ohakim administration had identified deficiency in personnel as one of the major reasons for the fall in education sector. And to begin the process of revival in the sector, Ohakim considered that recruiting at least, 5,000 quality teachers through a stiff and meticulous process was a fine beginning point in the journey to reposition the education sector of the state. But once Okorocha took over the reins of power, he dismantled everything and reversed all the gains made by the Ohakim government. The 5,000 teachers were part of the 10,000 jobs beneficiaries sacked through Okorocha’s maiden broadcast in June 2011. Having sacked the workers in what was the beginning of orchestrated efforts to pull Ohakim down, the governor began his free education programme and preferred to import free school uniforms, desks, sandals, stockings, etc, while ignoring the fact that the schools needed quality teachers and good infrastructure. In some schools in Imo today, you won’t find more than four teachers. And where you find four teachers, their quality is very doubtful.

To worsen the situation, Okorocha embarked on what he called ‘Imo Youths Must Work.’ Through this scheme he got few teachers into the school system. But they were square pegs in round holes. Besides, the Imo Youths Must Work scheme has since been scrapped by the governor and only very few of the teachers were left. Otti also captured the outcome of the tumbu-tumbu. 

His words: “Since many educational institutions have opted to churn out ‘certificated illiterates’, a lot of organisations have devised ways to ensure they select only the best from the lot, to ensure a ‘contamination-free’ environment. They, therefore, organise stiff recruitment exercises and set up ‘finishing schools’ for retraining of the few manageable graduates prior to engaging them. Some oil companies have had to set up schools that their prospective recruits have to pass through before they are finally hired. In my previous life as CEO of a financial institution, I had to get personally involved in the recruitment of fresh graduates. I would make out time within an otherwise crowded schedule to have a final one-on-one interview with those who the stiff selection, training and retraining process had thrown up. It was such an expensive exercise, but I insisted and still insist it is very much worth it, given my belief that no organisation can be better than the quality of its people.”

Lack of consistency, clarity and proper planning has been the bane of education in Imo State in the last six years. Add this to the mother of them all, corruption, and you would see why we are where we are right now. Okorocha had thought that dolling out money to the pupils was the right motivation they needed to be enrolled in the schools for the free education programme. Not only did the cash incentive regime end abruptly, it was fraught with corruption. And, of course, haven thought that cash would serve as the right incentive to get the students in the system, the government lost ideas on what to do with the system once the students were enrolled.

You would think that the free education was meaningful and churning out productive results. Okorocha’s free education programme has been mere sloganeering, and slogans without concrete actions do not effect positive change. Recently, the state government withdrew non-indigenous students from the free education programme, citing high cost and lack of reciprocity from the states whose indigenes benefitted from the programme. But the governor did not realise that the withdrawing of  non-indigenous students from the programme was the first confirmation by the government that the programme had failed. If the state government expected that by having non-indigenous students benefit from the programme other state governments would adopt the programme in reciprocity to his “gestures”, it means that the programme was programmed to fail ab initio.   

For example, the biggest failure of the free education programme is that several courses which were formerly running smoothly in IMSU have lost accreditation. It is no longer news that medicine and surgery, law and other courses have lost accreditation. As such, IMSU does not have students studying law, medicine and surgery anymore, except those who are already stranded in the school. You can imagine the attendant consequences, both on the finances of the parents, time wasted and, of course, the state. A relation of mine who applied to study medicine/ surgery in IMSU was offered optometry instead, while another was offered agric-education. It pained me the more when I learnt recently that the Department of English has also lost accreditation because they did not have a functional library. This was after the students said they were taxed N5,000 each. As a result of this loss of accreditation, those who graduated from the departments cannot go for their NYSC programme. Tell me what the free education would mean when IMSU cannot boast of a functional library, if not that the programme is mere window-dressing and a waste of our time and resources.

The collapse of education on the shoulders of the free-education-governor is most unfortunate and regrettable. And looking at the rot we now have in the education system in Imo, it will take decades of committed leadership to recover.  

Collins Ughalaa writes from Owerri. He can be reached via collinsughalaa@gmail.com 

Source: News Express

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