A N2tn Proposal to Save Education in Nigeria

Nigeria is broke. Government has declared so. It is struggling to meet its domestic obligations. Part of these obligations includes education. Amid this struggle, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has embarked on strike since February 2022. No one knows when the strike would be called off. The Nigerian officials have maintained the no-money stance. Since Nigeria runs free education from primary to tertiary level where money goes in and only comes out in form of knowledge (which we hardly use), the problem is far from being resolved. Even if the federal government manages to cough out money for ASUU now, it may not be able to do so in the foreseeable future.

Many solutions have been proffered on how to salvage the situation. They appear to have the propensity to defeat government’s educational policy. The reality is that Nigeria’s financial profile is not strong enough to support free education at all levels. Yet, free education is the way to go because not doing so will deny many Nigerian children access to education. As a developing nation, we cannot afford not to do it. We need as many educated people as possible for development and continued survival of our nation.

In other climes, where education is either free or highly subsidised, people pay for it through taxes. But our tax net is also too small to support this free education system. Nigerians often cite America or Europe where schools are more equipped than what we have here. The reality is people’s taxes make it happen in those places. In Nigeria, according to Joint Tax Board, only 10,006,304 Nigerians pay tax. That is 5% of Nigerians carrying the burden of 200m people. Whereas, in the United States where we often cite, of the 332,403,650 Americans, 144.3m of them pay tax. That is 43.4% of Americans carrying the burden of 332,403,650.

In the United Kingdom of 67.44m people, 31m pay tax. That is 46.2% of people carrying the burden of their compatriots. Nigeria is 5%. These realities don’t compare. Nigerians still compare anyway. The question is what is the best way to fund free education in Nigeria? To start with, if poverty is the question for free education, what is the answer?

Nigeria should not deny any Nigerian access to free education by charging astronomical fees. That has always been ASUU’s argument and that of poor parents. Rather, government should introduce Post-Schooling Tax where any adult Nigerian who have acquired free education through the public schools either primary, secondary or tertiary, and who are now working either in Nigeria or abroad, and below the age of 60, are mandated to pay a token back to the system annually so the free education system can continue. We should not be ashamed to put this in place. If 40 million Nigerians who attended public schools are captured and they are made to pay N50,000 annually, that will inject N2 trillion into the system every year.

That will not only ensure and expand access to free education; it will ensure quality education is provided. By so doing, government will not deny any Nigerian child access to free, qualitative education. Having such a system in place will ensure that citizens who have been educated for free will return the favour when they begin to work and make money.

My generation went to University of Lagos (Unilag) paying N35 per session between 1999 and 2004. Except in the final year when the fee was raised to N3,500. Hostel accommodation was N90 per bed space. Even now, students only pay N15,000 in Unilag per session. Some generations of Nigerians had their free education with subsidised meal. An attempt to increase the cost of the meal from N1.50 to N2.00 per day led to the famous “Ali Must Go” riots of 1978.

In private universities, the average school fee in private universities is N500,000 per session. The big ones even charge more than this. Pan Atlantic University (PAU) charges close to N3m per session. Babcock University charges close to N800,000, same for Covenant, Bells and Landmark Universities. These fees ensure that those private universities are run properly and seamlessly. It is not only that governments at state and federal levels give free education that allows a boy like me from a poor home to attend Unilag by paying N35 they also give scholarships for various postgraduate training locally and internationally.

Many Nigerians benefit from this regularly and are schooling in the best universities around the world. Yes, it is the right of every Nigerian to enjoy such a privilege, but due to the current economic realities, some people may even add corruption to the realities, such privilege is under threat. It therefore makes sense that if Nigeria has been good to you by rescuing you from the claws of illiteracy, you should reciprocate by paying a token back to keep the system going for the generations of Nigerians yet unborn.

If we look back in history, that was the thinking of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his cabinet members. History teaches us that free formal education has come a long way in Nigeria. The journey has been documented by experts and scholars. But the origin, practice and model follow stages of the country’s transition from amalgamation, colonization and independence. The independence of Nigeria led to its modification. Olalekan (2018), in his scholarly work, reminds us that the missionaries brought formal education to Nigeria. That era preceded the amalgamation. The colonialists consolidated the efforts of the missionaries till independence.

However, the purpose of education also followed objectives of the drivers. Abernethy (1952), cited by Olalekan, submits that for the missionaries, the purpose was to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the Colonialists, it was to produce low-cadre civil servants like clerks, junior technicians in public works and wole wole (sanitary inspectors) among others.

When the regions were created, the situation changed and western region led the change. Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s government introduced free primary education. The minister of education at the time, Professor Stephen Oluwole Awokoya, put together and implemented the blueprint. He had argued before the House that free education is a “necessary catalyst for local production of goods, the development and acquiesce to modern science and technology and upliftment of the minds and souls of Africans.” It started officially in 1952. For the first time since Nigeria’s creation, education moved beyond the selfish agenda of the missionaries and the colonialists.

The scholarly works of Oni (2006), Taiwo (1980) and Fafunwa (1974), cited by Olalekan (2018), record that 391,859 children turned up for registration into primary 1 in 6,274 schools across the region when it was introduced. Within four years, the number of children that were enjoying free primary education tripled. But the financial obligation also increased. From £2.2m in 1954, it rose to £5.4m in 1955. By 1957/58 academic year, the recurrent expenditure on education alone in the region rose to £7,884,110. The amount covered personal emolument, other charges, special expenditure and grants in aid.

The concept and practice of free education became a national policy in 1976 when the former Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, launched the Universal Basic Education Scheme in all the 19 states of Nigeria. This made education free and universal in Nigeria. Free education has remained so till date at all levels.

It has also enjoyed a constitutional backing. The 1999 Constitution specifically provides for free education. In Chapter II, Section 18, the Constitution says government shall ensure free, compulsory and universal primary education; free secondary education; free university education and free adult literacy programme. To what end would government ensure access to free education at all levels? To eradicate illiteracy.

As the Western Region example has shown, free education requires huge budgetary allocation from governments both at state and federal levels, which many Nigerians cannot afford. True, both federal and state governments’ budget money to cover free education annually, but they appear not enough to provide the education of our dream. It is obvious that free education was telling on the government. That is why private individuals and organisations are constantly licensed to provide education for Nigerians. We now have private primary, secondary schools and tertiary institutions.

According to NUC, there are 111 private universities in Nigeria as of today to compliment the efforts of federal and state governments in providing university education, although only about 70 are functional with Vice Chancellors in place. In the same manner, there are also many polytechnics across the country. In addition to the old universities, federal and state governments still continue to establish universities. As of the last count, there were 43 functional federal universities although 49 have been licensed while state governments have 57 universities.

As mentioned earlier, private universities charge far more than what an average Nigerian family can afford. The federal and state universities cannot charge what the private universities are charging. If they do, the idea of free education at the tertiary level will be defeated. Millions of Nigerians live below the poverty line. According to the 2022 report by World Bank, as many as 4 in 10 Nigerians live below the even the national poverty line. That is 40%. Perhaps, the Western Region understood that as important as education is to the development of the region, asking people to pay will discourage and defeat such call.

This is the case with the Eastern region where, when the NCNC introduced its own free education in 1957, it was unable to provide the needed finance, classrooms and other necessary educational equipment. It failed in its first two years. That led the Eastern Government to change the programme to cover only the first two years (Oni, 2008). So government was right and still right to give Nigerians free education, especially those from poor homes in order not only to eradicate illiteracy but also for personal development and nation building.

The Post-Schooling Tax that I am proposing here will be allocated to primary, secondary and tertiary schools as follows: 25% for primary, 25% for secondary and 50% for tertiary. A payer will specify the state where he/she went to primary and secondary schools and the university/polytechnic. With N50,000 per annum, for someone who attended public primary school, public secondary school and public tertiary institution, his/her primary school will get N12,500, secondary school will get N12,500 and the tertiary institution will get N25,000.

If it is only primary school such individual attended, he or she will only pay N12,500 and it will go to the state where his/she did primary school. This is regardless of when the individual attended the public school or schools. So long as the person has not attained the age of 60 and is employed/self-employed, he or she will pay. BVN will be used to enroll Nigerians into the net and monitor them. Money due to public primary and secondary schools will be paid into the individual states where payers went to school.

That of tertiary institutions will go to the owners – either states or federal government. Dedicated account will be created for this purpose. If Nigeria is able to capture 40m Nigerians in that net, that will give two trillion Naira per annum. This means both federal and states will have N1trn available for each of them every year. That is ‘bye bye’ to ASUU or ASUP strike as well as strike in the Colleges of Education.

As more and more people are captured, the money will be available to run our primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. The legal framework will then be worked out to protect the fund at all costs from anyone or any government or politician. In Nigeria, we know anywhere money is, things will happen there. If politicians don’t “smell it”, government will “borrow” it, or civil servants will embezzle it, or rats will eat it or snakes will swallow it, etc. To avoid this, we all have to monitor how the money is disbursed and spent. ASUU, NUT, ASUP and Colleges of Education Staff Union will join forces with respected religious and traditional rulers to form the committee to monitor the money and its disbursement to ensure that all our public schools are rebuilt and equipped to offer free quality education to the Nigerian children. Where necessary, new schools will be built. All these will not be difficult once this money is available to spend annually. I so submit.