By Dr Aondoakaa Asambe
Nigeria’s exponential growth in population and abysmal corruption has placed immense pressure on the country’s resources and on already overstretched public service and infrastructure. Benue State is not an exception as can be witnessed by the recent economic hardship manifesting in different forms. This does not in any way eluded the fact that education remains the bedrock of every developed society.
It is a common saying that education is the best legacy that parents can bequeath to their children. Indeed, education is seen as the surest path to a country’s development.
Public education is an education that is predominantly funded by public means through a national or subnational government, as opposed to private education. The public school system therefore offers opportunity to the masses of this country to have access to affordable education in line with the national policy on education. It is the duty of the government to use the available resources of this country to the development of every citizen. The resources belong to nobody!
The future of this country and indeed Benue state depends on the quality of education afforded it citizens particularly the younger generations who constitutes “leaders of tomorrow.” It is imperative that education should be government’s priority.
The above background therefore forms the basis of my query of the Gov. Ortom led administration policy decisions as they affect the educational sector particularly the secondary and University education in the state.
Recently, Benue State government announces two major decisions that in my thinking are inimical to the growth of public education in the state. These include:
1. The return of grant aided secondary schools to proprietors.
2. Astronomical hike in conditional charges by the State owned university.
Government policy decisions as regard the above is not in tandem with the realities on ground and therefore makes the decisions unacceptable and unjustifiable.
In the past particularly the 70’s to the early 90’s in Nigeria and indeed Benue State, public schools were more popular because they imbibed discipline, had good teachers and good facilities. They were attended by students irrespective of their social class and socio-economic background in the society. One of the benefits of early exposure of students to others from different socio-economic background is that it teaches them how to get along with people. Public education in those days avails children of parents from different economic strata the opportunity to attend same schools, play and learn together. This was quite helpful as children of the rich get acquainted with some of the hardship experienced by those who were from very poor homes. This early experience helped them also to have a balanced perspective of life. There were situations where some rich parents would take up the training of the friends of their children when their poor parents were unable to continue to lend support to their children.
Funding of public schools was good at that time, salaries were relatively good and were paid as and when due, but as the mid 90’s approached the public schools could no longer handle the number of students turned in for enrolment due to adverse constraints on the number of public schools available, and learning facilities such as desk and chairs, library books, mathematics boards, laboratory equipment, and so on especially in the rural areas. These were the reasons that informed the decision of the previous governments in Benue state and indeed Nigeria to grant aid proprietary institutions especially primary and secondary education to make them public schools so as to ensure equal, affordable and indeed quality education for all citizens.
Today, public schools (primary and secondary) are a shadow of what they used to be. There is lack of discipline, epileptic payment of salaries, lack of qualified teachers and teaching facilities, and lack of adequate funding. The situation in public universities is not much different. This is given credence to private schools as been better today.
In Benue, records available show that there are over 236 grant aided schools as against 60 government schools. It is expected that a major decision like the one just taken by the state government to return all grant aided schools to their proprietors should be a well guided decision putting into account all the issues raised above. For now, there is no tangible effort towards the provision of public schools to communities that lacks one. Without adequate plan to provide all Benue communities with equal, affordable and quality education and to put in check the dwindling prestige of the public education by providing commensurate educational facilities to all Benue communities that for now lacks public education in line with the national policy on education constitutes an affront to the laid down rules governing the educational sector and will be an infringement on the federal government strategy to fight illiteracy and extend educational opportunity to all children in the country.
This decision of the government on grant aided secondary schools implies, government will be pulling out all it staff from the 236 grant aided schools and redeploy them to just 60 government owned schools. How wise is this decision considering the ratio of the population of the state to the number of government owned secondary schools in the state and the social contract the government had with the people of providing quality and affordable education to all? Can 60 schools guarantee the rising Benue population the desired education for all as enshrined in the national policy on education? These and many more other questions are demanding answers.
The effects of these is overstaffing of the 60 government schools, inadequate number of schools for children of the poor to access and afford, and the denial of basic secondary education to most poor children considering that there are not adequate arrangement to guarantee the communities that had only grant aided schools access to affordable education. This will further recruit more criminals in our society as those that are denied access to affordable education will definitely resort to various forms of criminal activities to earn a living. For it is said that an idol mind is the devils workshop.
Funding is perhaps the greatest bane in the public education sector. Most public primary and secondary schools in Benue State are in a pitiable condition. Unfortunately, all government officials and administrators who are currently in charge of public affairs attended public schools. Incidentally, they are the proprietors of most private schools. They tend to deny our public schools funding and cornered monies meant for their funding to their private schools. I must appreciate and commend the present government commitment to pull out the primary education sector out of this rot.
Public officials and other privileged Nigerians now send their children to private schools in the country or outside the country. This is viewed by the less privileged as a deliberate ploy to kill public education in Nigeria so that their private schools will attract more patronage. Interestingly, the numbers of private (primary, secondary and universities) schools have continued to increase astronomically with accompanying exorbitant fees.
My query of the recent hike in conditional charges at the State owned university is not farfetched. It is pertinent to note that the hike of well over 400% in all conditional charges is not just ill-timed but has defiled every modicum of rationality considering the fact that government itself is battling with the issue of non-payment of workers’ salaries that is running into several months now. One should expect that a responsible and responsive government would not have considered any form of increment in a situation we have presently placed ourselves in where all the nooks and crannies of this country are experiencing the bite in economic hardship.
Various forms of defences are concocted to back and support the increment among which include the raising of funds to secure accreditation for some of the programmes in the university. One is prompted to ask: Is it then the responsibility of prospective students to secure accreditation for their intending institutions? Have these people forgotten that based on the educational policy document, government is to fund teaching and research for all undergraduate programmes in public universities? The national policy document forbid public universities from raising funds from undergraduate programmes. They are encouraged to raise funds via sub-degree and postgraduate programmes. So, why the heavy and unreasonable conditional charges?
History has it that the state university ASUU and management in are in a habit of arm twisting every new government allow them increase the so called conditional charges. It happens recently (2010) or so where they coerced the government of Dr Gabriel Suswam to allow the review of these conditional charges upward in order to raise funds to supplement the subvention and facilitate payment of some earned allowances owed university staff. It is on record today that these conditional charges were reviewed but the earned allowances are still been laid claims to with threat of strike by these same university staff. All these actions always end up in allegations of either misappropriation or outright embezzlement without government/governing council taking appropriate action to reprimand the culprits. This makes it even more difficult on moral grounds to dare convince parents to pay additional fees.
Recently, a visitation panel headed by Prof. Zachary’s Gundu who is now the chairman of council to the state university in its report indicted the management of the University for misappropriating over 7 billion naira of monies generated in the university through fees and conditional charges for three academic sessions. The report further indicted the management staff of collecting their annual housing allowances as monthly allowance. The university by that report has not come out to either put record straight if they were wrongly accused or out rightly deny the allegation.
Seven billion naira is enough amounts to have secured accreditation and paid the earned allowances owed member of the university staff. In spite of all these, these people still have the effrontery to demand for increment on conditional charges when they are yet to account for the previous ones. Where then is the public confidence that these people be trusted with this onerous task of handling public monies again?
On a more serious note, we expect the Governor of Benue state who is also the visitor to the university to have treated the issue of accreditation to university as an emergency if he had believed the cock and bull stories been peddled by the members of the university community. I expected the Governor to have persuaded all the elected and appointed officials in his government to sacrifice a certain percentage of their monthly earnings to help the university out of this quagmire. This would have conveniently solved the problem without necessarily inflicting more hardship on Benue people. I have suggested this out a compassionate believe that no matter how cachectic cattle are, it is said to be bigger than a goat. The public official making such sacrifice is not too big of sacrifice to have demanded from public official. After all, what are leaders for?
We are in a pitiable situation in Benue today considering the fact that our sources of income in Benue comes predominantly from civil servants and peasant farmers. Unfortunately, salaries are owed and Fulani’s (herdsmen) have taken over our farmlands. We expect government to reason with its citizens that monies will be difficult to come by. Having failed us on this front, one is tempted to ask rhetorically that where did the government and management of the university expect parents to raise funds to make up the fee?
While the school owners are capitalising on the fact that public schools systems has been totally destroyed by government and administrators of those schools, they are quick to exploit the parents who either in the past have had access to the treasury of the state and enriched themselves or by fate have been privileged to have more resources at their disposal. What therefore happens to the children of people who by fate are not as privileged and parents whose children are entitled to equal education under the law with the children of the rich? Unfortunately, these children will grow up together to compete later in life for the same opportunities of life.
If caution is not exercised, the children of the poor who are in the majority and who have been denied right opportunity and affordable education today will definitely rise up against the children of these privileged ones and deny them peace someday. The future the so-called rich think they are securing for their children will not be secured at all.
It is worthy to note that a society that does not manage its educational sector properly like ours is incubating ILLITERACY, MEDIOCRITY, POVERTY AND CHAOS that will be hatched in a no distance future and the boomerang effect will be unimaginable. The privileged be warned!