Government increases higher education budget

Nigeria’s government has allocated 10.7% of this year’s total budget to education, up from 8.7% last year. The recent six-month strike by academics in public universities is seen as largely responsible for the phenomenal hike – the first time that the central government has summoned up the political courage to provide such high funding for the education sector.

The university community has commended the government. People are convinced that if the improved financial resources for education are judiciously managed, the decay in public university infrastructure may be gradually addressed.

Teachers and students are however still canvassing the government to attain the 26% of state budgets for education recommended by UNESCO.

When Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the finance minister, presented the budget to the National Assembly, universities were surprised by the prominent position accorded to education.

The reason for having doubted the government’s commitment was based on its failure in previous years to integrate into annual budgets the financing of the 2008 memorandum of understanding signed with the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU.

It was the absence of funds to implement the agreement that led to industrial action by academics and closure of public universities for six months.

According to reliable sources, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, in his preview assessment of the budget at the Federal Executive Council before its presentation to parliament, insisted that the education sector be accorded an increase of 15%.

Kelechi Ewuzie, education correspondent for the authoritative newspaper Business Day, wrote in article that the 2014 budget proposal for education was nearly US$3 billion, or 10.7% of the total national budget.

He said education stakeholders believed that this 15% increase over the previous year was commendable and were convinced the extra funding could bring relief to the troubled sector. It was the first time, Ewuzie added, that education “tops the national budget”.

Positive responses

Professor Adolphus Toby, head of the department of banking and finance at Rivers State University of Science and Technology in Port Harcourt – Nigeria’s oil city – commented that the 15% rise was an indication that Jonathan’s administration was willing to tackle the rot in public universities, a sector that had not been given adequate priority by past governments.

“I hope that with this increase in the budget and proper management of these resources, the education sector will begin to operate better,” he declared, and called on regional and local governments to emulate the central government’s efforts.

Professor Peter Okebukola, former executive secretary of the National Universities Commission and a science and information technology professor at Lagos State University, also supported the proposed education budget, which he described as heart-warming.

He believes that the current government recognises the power of education in addressing many of Nigeria’s current challenges and unlocking its natural resources. It is often said that education will not solve all of society’s ills – but without education, no solution is possible.

“Through quality education, the challenges facing Nigeria related to youth unemployment, crime and insurgency, will be severely reduced,” Okebukola said.

“We should, however, note that if our investment in education is not sustained at a high level over the next decades, the 2014 performance will be a flash in the pan. We will fail to reap the dividends of such high investment.”

Turning to specific benefits of the budget as it affects universities, Okebukola observed that the increase was in addition to the annual US$1.2 billion infrastructure funds promised by the government to public institutions under the December 2013 deal that ended the strike.

Professor Tolu Odugbemi, vice-chancellor of Ondo State University of Science and Technology, also lauded the increase. “If we look at global trends in the education sector, there is progression in the use of ICT, the construction of well equipped laboratories and the creation of conducive classrooms to facilitate learning in its ramifications.

“Many universities in our country do not have those requirements. The budget must address these vital issues,” Odugbemi said.

Yinka Gbadebo, president of the National Association of Nigerian Students, said: “The government has indeed realised the need to invest more in education in a bid to foster overall economic growth.”

But a member of the national executive committee of the ASUU, who did not want to be named, called for caution in appraising the increased budget. Talking a walk down memory lane, he recalled that in election years it was difficult for the government to focus on implementing the budget – especially the portion affecting the university sector.

“We have put in place strategies to ensure that election fever among the ruling elite does not derail the implementation of the budget. If politicians fail to fulfil their promise to universities, we shall mobilise our members against them,” he warned.

The unionist acknowledged the fact that for the first time since Nigeria gained independence in 1960, education had topped the nation’s budget – but also warned that for Nigerians and the country to be relevant in the 21st century, propelled by the knowledge economy, at least 26% of the annual budget should be invested in education as recommended by UNESCO.