WHEN the crafty student loan policy was signed into law by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, we said that it was a prelude to an increment in school fees. University of Lagos (UNILAG) fees got increased by 400% the other to about 190,000 naira and the same is about to be replicated across all federal universities in the country. The same exponential increment happened across Unity Schools during the week. It happened in University of Abuja (UNIABUJA) and Federal University, Lokoja (FULOKOJA) earlier in the year. All these happened the same week that the Tinubu government further increased fuel prices despite false promises that some market forces of darkness will bring down the prices after the last increment.
Commercialisation is now the chorus in every sector, including the sacred education sector. This dangerous shift towards viewing education also as a commodity rather than a fundamental human right is disheartening. A society that treats education as a business venture risks sacrificing its social values and moral compass for the pursuit of profit. This ongoing commodification compromises the true essence of education, which should be centred on nurturing critical thinking, creativity, and societal development.
In the education sector, the government has justified these increments as necessary for enhancing the quality of education, but the motive behind these increments are not only exploitative, it is also pregnant with potentially very grave consequences for the youth and the broader Nigerian population. Education is a critical tool for social mobility. The exorbitant fees will only place higher education further out of reach of the majority working poor and the less privileged.
A significant portion of the Nigerian population will be denied access to opportunities that could uplift them from poverty and empower them to contribute actively to society. But the pertinent question to ask is whether the education sector in Nigeria has been serving this fundamental purpose before now? Who has University Education helped in Nigeria, in recent years? – “Who school epp,” as this question is now posed, has therefore become a popular slang amongst students on their frustration and disillusionment with the education system.
Sadly, this is why a lot of students will rather drop out of school silently than join the struggle for free and/or affordable education, in response to these increments. They will rather say ‘school na scam‘ under their breath and go and start internet fraud to become professional scammers too, than ‘fight the government’. This is because they also do see the point in paying exorbitantly or fighting rigorously for something that has become irrelevant to them. I fought hard as a student activist back in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) in the last decade and I am not ready to lie to anyone that the fight against the powers-that-be is easy.
When these young people say ‘school na scam’, they say it out of disillusionment with their educational experience in their schools which is disconnected from the practical realities and challenges of the modern world they live in. ‘School na scam’ represents a collective cry by the youths for a more meaningful and purposeful approach to education in Nigeria. As the world evolves, with rapid advancements in technology and changing career landscapes, Nigerian students want an education sector that equips them with skills that are immediately applicable in the real world. They want a sensible reward for the time and money they spend on schooling. They don’t want to keep wasting their youths away waiting for ASUU strikes to end.
From the curriculum to the system of management of universities, students don’t see university education as a need anymore. They only see the need to get a certificate in philosophy, transport management, or geography that they might or might not need in the future before they go ahead to pursue careers as social media content creators, hype men, fashion designers, and celebrity chefs. Practical evidence of those doing away with university education (because there is nothing special that the university is offering again) and living a full life confirms for them that they might not need the irrelevant education obtainable in our universities anymore. We are increasingly seeing pieces of evidence of young people embracing non-traditional paths that offer creativity, flexibility, and the potential for success without necessarily holding a conventional university degree. So why should any young Nigerian fight against fee increments in their schools when they can just drop out and do the same?
The answer to that question will make it naturally hard to organise a fightback by the mass of students against any increment policy. Meanwhile, students are the major stakeholders who can fight back. The financial burden imposed on students, coupled with the complexities of coordinating collective action (which will cost the students time and money too), can make it challenging for a sharp response by students against fee increment policies. This is why we also need to start talking about what counts as quality education. We need to address that front of our struggles in the education sector, lest the establishment keep attacking our standard of living with chants of “quality education is expensive.”
The essence of education is being diluted, and that’s why most students find no reason to fight for such a watery system. Commercialised education will churn out graduates who are experts in standardised tests and rote memorisation, but quality education will focus on critical thinking, creativity, and the well-rounded development of youths. In commercialised education, even standardised tests and exams become useless because wherever you have commercialisation, there will always be a lowering of standards. It is like that in every sector. Market forces will only lower standards to maximise profit, because schools will face pressure to attract students and secure funding, and this will lead to compromises in academic standards. Education in Nigeria is at risk of becoming a product to be sold rather than a transformative journey of growth and enlightenment for the next generation of Nigerians.
But what determines quality education? Quality education is dependent on factors like faculty expertise, curriculum design, infrastructure, and institutional commitment to academic excellence, not how expensive the fees are. The funding to secure these factors of quality education can only be consistently guaranteed by public funding. This means that free education is the only guarantee of quality education.
Those claiming that expensive education means quality education should be asked why the state universities have had exorbitant fees than federal universities yet with poorer quality of education than federal universities. Why does UTME ask you to choose a federal university as the first choice with a higher cut-off before asking you to choose state universities as the second choice with a lower cut-off? Is that not a testimony to the relatively better quality of the federal universities despite their relatively lower fees?
This also raises critical questions about how these state universities utilise their increased financial resources and whether they are used to prioritise educational enhancement or the monies are siphoned by corrupt vice-chancellors. Private universities in Nigeria have not made any milestone academic achievement or invention that has developed Nigeria commensurate to the millions paid to those private universities by students and their parents.
A lot of people go with the misconception that public education (especially in federal universities) is very cheap in Nigeria. It is a lie. According to the U.S.News&World Report, UNILAG is the 14th-best University in Africa, while Mekelle University in Ethiopia) is the 11th best, ranking higher than UNILAG. UNILAG’s new fee is equivalent to 240 dollars in a country where the monthly minimum wage is 37 dollars. Yet, despite the fact that the official minimum wage in Ethiopia is 21 dollars, Mekelle charges Ethiopian students 18 dollars per year, lower than the monthly minimum wage. The minimum wage in Nigeria also only covers a small fraction of the population, and informal workers and millions of unemployed people live on far less than the minimum wage, so an increased minimum wage is not even enough reason to increase school fees. This wave of increments in Nigerian universities will only create a cycle where only the privileged few have access to education.
A global example of affordable education exists in the Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, as well as the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland) where education is mostly free and their level of development and contribution to knowledge across the globe. Nearly all youth in Nordic countries are enrolled in public schools. All levels of education in Nordic countries are tax-funded, making them tuition-free for citizens. Nordic countries are among the most developed countries in the world, with highly developed labour markets and economies. That’s another example that quality education does not have to be expensive.
If we have to pay for fuel, electricity, data, housing, and health, then what is the job of the government if education which is at the core of social development is also no longer a social responsibility? We seriously need a fundamental shift in our values, recalling the spirit behind those constitutional clauses that have made education a fundamental human right rather than a commodity. The government must invest more substantially in the education sector, to ensure access to quality education for everyone, regardless of economic background. Student loans cannot secure that access. Only free education can. We have national, continental, and international evidence to prove that.
Also, to make education relevant to more young people, curricular reform is imperative, moving away from rigid structures of education and standardised testing and examinations to holistic, student-centred learning. Education should be more about emphasising critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. This is what will prepare students for the challenges of the real world. This is the holistic approach that will nurture students who are not just academically competent but also socially aware and active participants in shaping a better Nigeria. It will have a ripple effect of securing future leaders who will not also wrongly claim that quality education has to be expensive.
Comrade Ibukun writes from Abuja, Nigeria and he can be contacted on 09167636201