Call to ban politicians from sending children to study abroad

As the strike by Nigeria’s university lecturers under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) enters its 186th day on 18 August 2022, stakeholders in the university education sector are intensifying calls for a law to bar political office holders from sending their children to foreign universities.

There is an insinuation by many Nigerians that the federal government has not been able to end the prolonged ASUU strike because the majority of government officials’ children attend foreign universities, and, as a result, they are not bothered about the fate of students in public universities.

Stakeholders believe that if there was a law that either stops or regulates foreign education for public officials’ children, it would propel the government to hastily attend to issues confronting public university education.

“It is something that needs to be done to save the face of public university education in Nigeria,” Professor Michael Ajisafe, a former vice-chancellor of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, told University World News.

Bill introduced in 2018

Higher education stakeholders have a friend in Sergius Ogun, a lawmaker at Nigeria’s lower parliament, called the House of Representatives, who has been at the frontline of the campaign.

In March 2022, a few weeks after universities were shut down, Ogun introduced a bill before the lower parliament to prohibit public officials from sending their children and wards to universities abroad, unless the minister of education approves it.

Ogun’s bill was entitled, ‘A Bill for an Act to Regulate International Studies for Wards and Children of Nigerian Public Officers, to Strengthen Indigenous Institutions, Provide Efficient Educational Services for National Development; and for Related Matters’.

The legislator drew a nexus between the poor state of public tertiary education in Nigeria and the thirst for foreign schools, arguing that the bill has the capacity to address the problem of underfunding of higher education.

“This bill is proposed against the background of fallen standards in our educational system and the need to bring the sector up to speed with global best standards. Unfortunately, as a result of the inability of the government to provide quality education for its public educational institutions, Nigerians have resorted to private schools and foreign schools for their education,” Ogun was quoted as saying in a report by local newspaper The Punch.

“The United Kingdom, the United States of America, Ukraine, Ghana, Malaysia, Egypt and South Africa, just to mention a few, have become choice destinations for Nigerians in search of quality education.

“The trouble with this is that most of those who patronise privately owned educational institutions or those who travel abroad to study are children and wards of Nigerian public officers. These are the officers who should take responsibility for building our public institutions,” he said.

However, the bill was rejected by parliament, with opponents citing the proposal would infringe on the rights of those seeking foreign education for their children.

Others argued that not all government officials sponsor their children’s foreign education with public funds.

That would be the second time Ogun’s bill was rejected. The legislator proposed a similar bill in 2018, but it was also met with stiff opposition by the majority of the legislators.

‘Why bill must be revived’

The infamous ASUU strike that has crippled academic activities in public universities across Nigeria has inspired solidarity protests from several non-academic unions, including by the Nigeria Labour Congress and the National Union of Electricity Employees.

While workers in the aviation and banking industries have also promised to embark on solidarity protests, Kingdom Tombra, the chairman of ASUU at Niger Delta University, Bayelsa State, has asked for the revival of the bill to stop government officials’ children from enrolling in foreign universities.

“This struggle is ... against the ruling class and we are very committed to it. If the rich and poor go to the same university or institution, I don’t think the strike will occur again,” Tombra said.

“If their children school here, they will show total support for the university system and the tertiary institutions in Nigeria,” he added.

Omolade Akinsanya, a professor of educational management at Tai Solarin University of Education, Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, has a more radical view on the proposed law.

“It’s not only political office holders; no Nigerian should send their children to foreign schools. If you investigated, you would find out that most private universities are owned by politicians,” she said.

“They should stop establishing private universities. They want to completely kill public university education in Nigeria just as they did to public primary and secondary education,” she told University World News.

According to her, there was once a time when public primary and secondary schools were providing sound education: “Many notable figures in society were products of these schools. But things changed when licences were issued to private primary and secondary schools. The politicians are doing the same thing to higher education.”

Akinsanya remarked that most universities Nigerians attend abroad are public, hence she pondered why the country’s public university education is being neglected by politicians.

"If those countries had not made their public university education appealing, would they be sending their children there? Hence, both political office holders and private Nigerians should stop sending their children for schooling abroad and let us build our own system to work. It is such a pity that the Nigerian government has bastardised public university education,” she said.

Any hope on the horizon?

On 19 July, President Muhammadu Buhari directed the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, to resolve the ASUU strike within two weeks.

Almost a month after the presidential order, the strike has continued, after several negotiations between the union and the minister ended in a deadlock.

The strike happened after what ASUU described as the failure of the federal government to honour a set of agreements reached between the two bodies as far back as 2009.

Parts of the union’s demands are increased funding for the revitalisation of public universities, university autonomy and payment of earned academic allowances and promotion arrears.

Also on the list of ASUU’s demands is the adoption of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) over the government’s preferred Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). ASUU faulted the IPPIS as anti-university autonomy.

Hassan Soweto, the national coordinator of Education Rights Campaign, a rights group based in Lagos, expressed strong pessimism that any law would change government officials’ minds from sending their children abroad for education.

“There are a thousand laws that Nigerian politicians break every day, so it makes me pessimistic that the law to bar political office holders from sending their children abroad would make any difference,” he said.

Soweto explained that the refusal by successive governments to adequately fund public education “is a product of an ideological consensus by the ruling class to make education available only within the reach of the few rich”.

“The consensus is to invest capital and make profit. In a country of over 200 million people, the tertiary education sector is seen as an important goldmine area and, so all of the government’s efforts over the years are geared towards destroying the public universities and other tertiary institutions to make them available for privatisation,” he said.

“They want to drive Nigerians to a state of hysteria such as they did to the power sector. Before 2013, when Nigeria’s power sector was privatised, it was woefully run to the extent that Nigerians were given the reason why the sector should be privatised.

“It is the same thing they are doing to the university sector so that, ultimately, the public universities would be given up for sale and Nigerians would have no reason to oppose the action, seeing already the woe that has befallen these universities,” Soweto said.

The education activist said that, for Nigeria’s public university education to work, “we must sweep away this current elitist system and embrace socialism, whereby the wealth of the country is evenly distributed among the rich and the poor”.