The nation’s education system has acquired a new nomenclature. It is now known as the 1-6-3-3-4 as opposed to its former formula of 6-3-3-4, which a one-time military administrator described as six thousand three hundred and thirty-four. With the new formula, formal schooling now begins for Nigerian children at the age of five. While the former system surely needs a review, it is doubtful whether Professor Ruqayyat Rufai, education minister, consulted widely with the stakeholders in this sector before announcing the new system. Right now, especially in the urban areas, school life begins for many children at three. That demand has led to a boom in private schools. And these days, public schools in Lagos State run nursery sections for pupils from the age of three. The idea of dividing the secondary school into junior and senior sections was a laudable one at inception over two decades ago. The idea was that at the end of the third year in the junior section, students would by their performance either move on into technical schools or get promoted into senior secondary schools. But the dream was killed because the necessary political will to fund the programme was absent.
Today, the over one million students that sit for the West African School Certificate Examination every year are all planning to either go to the university or the polytechnic. This is in spite of the mass failure recorded by students in this examination year in, year out. Only about 33 per cent of those who sat for the examination last May/June recorded five credits and above and the education authorities celebrated the result because the percentage used to be lower. Yet the minimum number of credits needed to enter the university or polytechnic is five. Some tertiary institutions even agree that the five credits can be at two sittings.
Thus to qualify, many are the sharp practices that many students assisted by their parents and some school authorities engage in to secure the five credits. Special centres, where students are assisted to write their WASC examinations, used to be very popular. The fees are high and many parents go a-borrowing to enrol their children. These underhand dealings do not end there. The Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, UTME, administered by the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, JAMB is also not foolproof when it comes to sharp practices. At a time, it was alleged that you could buy a result without sitting for the examination, as long as you pay the right price. However, the JAMB authorities have not, like the ostrich, buried their heads in the sand, feigning ignorance of the challenges. Every year, they introduce new rules and guidelines to stay ahead of examination cheats.
This brings us to the current debate on whether the universities should stop the post-UTME tests being administered on applicants to these institutions. It is unfortunate that some members of the National Assembly are the ones championing the scrapping of these tests. The simple interpretation that can be given to this move is that our most distinguished lawmakers are ignorant of the rot in the nation’s education system. It is not surprising though when we remember that the credentials of many honourable members, including those in state legislatures, cannot stand the test of public scrutiny. To some of them, the end justifies the means. That is why not a few of these Houses of Assembly prepare lists every year of many unqualified applicants and send to heads of tertiary institutions canvassing admission for them. And yet we are amazed that many graduates of the nation’s universities are unemployable. We equally bemoan our fate when the brilliant ones among the graduates who apply for postgraduate studies abroad are not easily considered. Yet a time there was when graduates of Nigerian institutions were the toast of ivory league towers in Britain and the United States.
Thus far, what Rufai has done in the education sector with the new formula seems cosmetic. How far on the road to excellence can the change in nomenclature take the sector? In the weeks and months ahead, many are going to ask Rufai, what is in this formula? So many years of inadequate budgeting for the sector has reduced education at all levels to a shadow of its old glory. Today, the federal government-owned tertiary institutions are over 100, including the six new universities recently set up; at a time of constantly reducing allocations to existing ones. Some privately owned secondary schools in the country are better equipped than many universities.
What the nation needs in the sector is a breath of fresh air that will make learning conducive and promote excellence. Rather than the nation’s legislators asking the authorities of universities to abandon post-UTME tests, they should be encouraged to admit only students who are mentally and academically ready for academics. In the last few years, the university authorities have attested to the quality of students who participate in their one-year pre-degree programmes. The intensive one-year preparation is akin to the advanced level or higher school certificate programme of old. The education sector needs more of such programmes to rescue it from the doldrums to which it has sunk. If our legislators cannot contribute meaningful ideas in this direction, they should save us their breath. Here is a word for university administrators. They should be reasonable with what they charge for the conduct of post-UTME tests. If the mission is to raise standards, it should not be turned into a money-making venture.