Proposed scrapping of examination agency raises dust

There’s been a national outcry in Nigeria over a government proposal to scrap the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, or JAMB, which administers entrance exams for all of the country’s tertiary institutions.

Nigeria’s federal government recently published the findings of a panel on the proposed restructuring of public service organisations, including in the education sector. One of the recommendations, which has opened a floodgate of controversy, was to abolish JAMB.

The government, meanwhile, has maintained a studied silence while deliberating on a final decision.

Several months ago President Goodluck Jonathan set up an audit committee led by Steve Oronsaye, a retired civil servant, to look into the plethora of federal public organisations with a view to streamlining them.

Credible sources said the government was worried that a bloated 80% of its revenues was used to pay salaries, with the remaining paltry sum going to capital projects.

Moreover, the accelerated privatisation of government companies – especially in the telecommunications, iron and steel industries, and recently in the power sector – had further reduced revenue for government’s coffers.

The private sector and its expanding revenue base had become more attractive as a future source of employment, while increased computerisation in the public sector was likely to result in staff cuts, with a view to preserving the dwindling funds available to government.

A senior civil servant, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “The oil boom has gone, never to return. Now the government wants to scrap some agencies whose roles and responsibilities overlap, retrenching some workers in the process.”

The findings and recommendations of the Oronsaye Committee have become a political hot potato, with the presidency deliberately publishing the list of public organisations recommended for the scrapheap, including JAMB.

The publication of the list was apparently to gauge public reaction.

Regarding the abolition of JAMB, government sources said that to reduce costs, it was felt that universities, polytechnics and colleges of education should be allowed to conduct their own entrance examinations.

State officials said that JAMB made use of the staff of tertiary institutions every year to conduct the current entrance examination. Thus, each of these higher institutions clearly had the human resources to admit qualified students. Recently, institutions were permitted to conduct similar tests, called Post-JAMB.

Not everyone is against JAMB’s closure, however. “In the 1960s, each tertiary institution organised its own entrance examination. This method worked. This huge and expensive bureaucracy called JAMB is not efficient,” said one vice-chancellor.

Conversely, appearing before Nigeria’s Senate committee on education, Professor Dibu Ojerinde, the JAMB registrar, vehemently opposed the scrapping of the agency, saying the new system would cost more for candidates seeking admission to institutions. He believed Nigerians should all write the same entrance examination to university.

Yomi Otubela, chair of the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools, said JAMB had lived up to its responsibilities since its inception 30 years ago, and should be allowed to continue.

“The National Assembly should also step into this matter. If we need to reduce the cost of governance, we have to check corruption, rather than make JAMB a scapegoat,” he said. “We are also against the plan to terminate other parastatals, because this move will compound unemployment in the country.”

The threatened loss of jobs also motivated organised labour in the education sector to campaign against JAMB’s abolition.

The Non-academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria threatened court action against the government if JAMB were scrapped. Samuel Azaba, a NASU official, warned that closing JAMB would increase unemployment by another 2,000 people.

“It will breed mediocrity, nepotism, ethnicity and religious sentiments in tertiary institutions, because their individual examinations and attendant admission processes will be fraught with questionable and discriminatory practices,” he said.

Azaba criticised the government’s ability to satisfy the yearnings of Nigerians for more access to higher education. He said that about 1.7 million candidates sought admission to tertiary institutions annually, yet only 600,000 were accepted.

He suggested that the government increase funding for the sector, to absorb more students and increase the pace of development.

“The state is not even spending the 26% of our annual budget on education as recommended by UNESCO. And yet somebody is advocating the abolition of JAMB,” he said.

While the debates rage, Nyesom Wike, the federal minister of state for education, told the Senate that the government had not yet arrived at a decision to scrap JAMB.

Supporting him, Uche Chukwumerije, chair of the Senate committee on education, blamed what he called mischief-makers for rushing to the press with unfounded rumours. “The law setting up JAMB is still very much in place and intact,” he said.