One of the richest men in the world and a very good friend of Nigeria, Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, at a recent meeting of the National Economic Council last week, revived an old debate about funding and investments in the social sector, notably, Nigeria’s investments in education and health care. The issue he raised was about balancing investments in physical infrastructure and human development so as to achieve optimum societal development.
Gates stated that “the Nigerian government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan identifies investing in the people as one of three strategic objectives. But the execution priorities don’t fully reflect people’s needs, prioritising physical capital over human capital. People without roads, ports and factories can’t flourish. And roads, ports and factories without skilled workers to build and manage them can’t sustain an economy.” This postulation is not new, but the person who raised it is what has given it a new impetus for consideration. Again, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has described education as follows: “Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights. As an empowerment right, education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalised adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to fully participate in their communities”.
Over the years, Nigeria has underinvested in education and therefore not accorded it the primacy it deserves in developmental planning. We have situations where students learn in extremely unconducive environments, cramped into classes that have exceeded their carrying capacity; under very hot weather without fans or air-conditioning systems. In some instances, basic learning tools like chairs and desks are not available to the extent that students and pupils stand while taking lectures. Universities, polytechnics and colleges of education have libraries that are poorly stocked with outdated books. Public secondary and primary schools hardly have libraries. Laboratories belong to the class of luxuries and are hardly available across the strands of education, from the primary to the university. Where they are available, they do not have the latest equipment for modern demonstration of research. Hostels in institutions of higher learning do not qualify as adequate housing and can hardly provide the comfort and dignity required for indepth intellectual work.
In this state of affairs, the political and economic elites voted with their feet and refused to send their children to public schools. Thus, Nigeria spends a lot of foreign exchange for the payment of school fees of students across Europe, America and Asia. Of late, the elites have started sending their children and wards to schools in other African countries. The estimate is in billions of dollars. For those who cannot afford foreign currency denominated school fees, they opt for private schools within Nigeria, leaving public schools as the arena for mainly students from poor economic backgrounds. But, how can education grow when its supervisors and key policymakers do not have their children in the system? Are these policymakers Nigerian education stakeholders? What would be their interest in reforming the system? The answers to these posers are obvious as they account for the state of education in the country. Again, despite the universal, compulsory and free basic education programme, over 10 million Nigerian children who are of school age are out of school creating a virtual army of Nigerians who cannot participate and contribute meaningfully to the modern economy and the dialogue of democracy.
Furthermore, the curriculum of the public schools are outdated and have no functional links with industry, agriculture, technology, etc. and their value chains. Thus, the country has developed a certification process that graduates students who are neither very numerate nor literate but also lack vocational and life skills to enable them function well and contribute to society. It has therefore become imperative to ensure that funding is geared towards policy positions that will make education functional, acceptable and adaptable to Nigeria’s developmental challenges.
The allocation to education in the 2018 federal budget proposals pending before the National Assembly points in the direction of this underinvestment. The total amount proposed for the education sector in 2018 is N605.795bn (including the vote of the Universal Basic Education scheme) broken down as recurrent expenditures (N544.070billion) 89.81 per cent and capital expenditures (N61.725bn) 10.19 per cent. The first point of departure is that this amount will be insufficient to meet the demands of the sector. It constitutes a paltry 7.03 per cent of the overall vote; 17.39 per cent, 0.86 per cent and 2.34 per cent of overall personnel vote, overhead and capital votes respectively. Considering Nigeria’s youth population and its present state of underdevelopment, large investments in education are imperative to prepare the leaders of tomorrow and to develop skills, competencies and capacities to compete in a technological world. The education vote is not even up to half of the 26 per cent recommendation of UNESCO and the allocation is below the sub-Saharan Africa average. In 2014, Benin, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Malawi voted 22.23 per cent, 19.37 per cent, 17.08 per cent and 16.33 per cent of their budgets respectively to education. Again in 2015, the same countries voted 17.48 per cent, 18.03 per cent, 16.47 per cent and 21.55 per cent of their budgets respectively to education.
Again, when the vote to education over the years is reviewed, it appears that we are simply content with paying salaries of workers in the sector and thereafter provide little or nothing for capital expenditure. However, it is pertinent to state that the personnel expenditure of universities is bloated as the institutions are overstaffed and their personnel expenditure needs to be cut down. The Needs Assessment of Nigerian Universities Report 2012 showed the trend of a preponderance of non-academic staff with little or no contribution to make to the system. Therefore, a thorough audit of the personnel of universities should be embarked upon by the Federal Ministry of Education and any savings should be channelled towards capital expenditure.
In 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, capital expenditures for education were 16.28 per cent, 10.35 per cent, 4.87 per cent, 7.38 per cent, 12.45 per cent and 10.19 per cent of the education vote respectively. And this is for an infrastructure-starved education environment. Even the little that is voted for capital expenditure seems to be applied in a way and manner that fails the test of optimum value derivation. In the 2018 proposal, the 35 federal universities and 104 unity schools got N5.380bn and N14.124bn capital votes respectively. How can secondary schools named Federal Unity Schools get almost the same capital votes as universities? The secondary schools got N135.81m each while universities got N153.72m each. Again, what is the link between personnel and overhead votes? How can we explain that universities with personnel expenditure of N242.835bn got an overhead vote of N4.450bn while Unity Schools with a personnel vote of N19.991bn got overhead votes of N14.969bn? The total capital vote of Colleges of Education, Polytechnics and Universities is N9.18billion being14.87 per cent of the overall sectoral capital vote while the Federal Ministry of Education headquarters got N22.705bn which is 36.79 per cent of overall sectoral capital vote.Thus, even the little that comes to the sector is not properly channelled.
Against the background of the foregoing, Bill Gates merely gave us a wake-up call and a reminder of the things that are self-evident. We need to heed the call.